Wednesday, December 06, 2006
NOTE TO THE RV INDUSTRY: CHANGE OR GO OUT OF BUSINESS
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
On the day he signed the papers taking over his company, John Wisolek remembers his pride turning to bewilderment when his attorney advised him to find something else to build.
According to a report in the Elkhart Truth, the van conversion business had been the mainstay of Chariot Vans Inc., reaching a company record in 1997 of 4,800 custom vans built. But two years later, when Wisolek bought controlling interest in the company, consumers had abandoned vans and were well into their courtship of SUVs.
Looking to home and seeing he would eventually need to pay college tuition for his three young daughters, Wisolek, who had spent nearly 20 years at Chariot before he bought it, realized his attorney was right.
Fortunately the company, founded in 1982, had a good reputation, a young work force and sturdy production facilities, so Wisolek sought out the advice of his mentor and former Chariot owner Dan George. The elder businessman suggested a switch to building the staple of the local economy – recreational vehicles.
"We're just kind of carving out our little niche," Wisolek said.
The Truth reported that Chariot starts with a Freightliner chassis and builds a hulking motorcoach. It measures 45 feet bumper to bumper but still, said Denny Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing, "handles like a sportscar." Retail price ranges from $350,000 to $450,000 per unit.
"We're trying to be leading edge," Peterson said. "We don't want to be copying what everyone else is doing. We try to set our own standards and develop and grow from that."
The company started production in May 2006 and, to date, has built about 10 units. Orders for more have come in and dealers have signed up to carry the Chariot brand. The company plans to prototype more models of the motorcoach and eventually ramp up production to three units a week.
Typically the customer for such an RV, Peterson said, has been drag racers because the motorcoach has enough horsepower to tow a trailer loaded with the racing car and pit tools. However, the former national sales director at Royale Coach sees the vehicle as having a broader appeal, possibly with the "RV guy wanting something a little different."
The change from vans to RVs meant the employees had to switch from building luxury vehicles to building residential dwellings, said Dave Rogers, one of Chariot's production workers. The Chariot motorcoaches have full kitchens, baths, bedrooms and living rooms with residential cabinets and refrigerators, washers and dryers, king-sized beds, plush sofas and cedar-lined closets.
Rogers said learning to build RVs was difficult, but he is "actually quite thankful" his employer moved into another market rather than stop operations and close.
About five years ago, Chariot entered the hauler truck market. Willie Floyd, operations manager for Chariot's truck division, brought experience in designing and installing aluminum beds onto the back of the medium-duty trucks. Carrying a price tag between $75,000 to $125,000, the trucks are especially popular among equestrians, boaters and racers.
"All I ever did was build stuff out of metal," Floyd said while helping his crew build the truck's flatbed.
Chariot also customizes the interior of the truck's cab by installing comfortable seats, wood console and even a Global Positioning System.
The Truth reported that since changing focus, Chariot has expanded its payroll from 35 employees to 50. It has three facilities in operation and plans to start production in a fourth sometime in the spring. For the new manufacturing line, Wisolek expects to hire more workers.
New products, new markets and new customers are part of Chariot's goal to survive. Indeed, the framed picture hanging in Peterson's office displays the word that could be the company's motto: Change.
WILL FEMA EVER CHANGE?
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
One year after Katrina, the government is still squandering tens of millions of dollars in wasted disaster aid, including $17 million in bogus rental payments to people who had already received free trailers and apartments, federal investigators said Wednesday (Dec. 6).
The Associated Press reported that in addition the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recovered less than 1% of the $1 billion it wasted on fraudulent hurricane assistance after the August 2005 storm, highlighting a need for stronger controls the next time a major hurricane strikes.
The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)) paints a picture of an agency still struggling — at substantial taxpayer expense — to find the balance between distributing quick aid to those in need while guarding against substantial abuse.
Last week, a federal judge in Washington ordered the Bush administration to resume housing payments for thousands of people displaced by Katrina, criticizing FEMA for a convoluted application process. FEMA is appealing that ruling.
The GAO audit found that numerous aid applicants received duplicate rental aid, with FEMA in one case providing free apartments to 10 people in Plano, Texas, while sending them $46,000 to cover out-of-pocket housing expenses.
Another $20 million was wasted on thousands of individuals who claimed the same property damage from both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA also paid at least $3 million to more than 500 ineligible foreign students in the stricken Gulf Coast, the report said.
"Ineffective preventive controls have resulted in substantial fraudulent and improper payments," said GAO investigator Gregory Kutz. "The additional examples of potentially fraudulent and improper payments in our testimony today show that our estimate of $1 billion in improper and/or fraudulent payments is likely understated."
Responding to the audit, FEMA spokesman Pat Philbin said the agency has sought to eliminate waste in the past year by upgrading the registration process to prevent duplicate payments and strengthening the process for verifying names and addresses.
"FEMA continues to focus our rebuilding efforts to greatly improve our reliability, accuracy and response in providing aid to disaster victims," Philbin said. "The agency will consider and evaluate any new findings that can assist in improving our processes and procedures."
Among the audit's findings:
• Fraud detection is inadequate. Even though GAO found at least $1 billion in disaster aid waste, FEMA has identified about $290 million in improper payments and recouped just $7 million.
• Control procedures remain weak. FEMA was unable to locate dozens of laptops, printers and other items that federal employees purchased with government-issued credit cards for Katrina disaster work. In one case, FEMA purchased 20 flat-bottom boats, but could not find two of them and lacked titles to any of them.
THEY ARE FINALLY CALLING THEMSELVES AQUA-HOT!
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Vehicle Systems Inc., Fort Lupton, Col., recently announced a corporate name change to Aqua-Hot Systems Inc., designed to “leverage the strength of the Aqua-Hot name and draw upon its significant brand recognition.”
In a press release, the company noted there had been no change in ownership and the move was part of “an overall corporate identity strategy.”
The Aqua-Hot system was introduced in 1989, providing “hydronic heating” to the diesel motorhome market. The company currently produces a variety of hydronic systems, which use hot water for heating.
Along with the name change, the company has adopted a new corporate logo. In addition, all systems will carry the Aqua-hot name and be produced with a white powder-coat finish.
The new logo and product lines were introduced during last week’s National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky. The new company name will be implemented Dec. 18 and new heating systems will go into production in mid-December.