If you had told Tom Hanagan in 1999 that he would own not one, but two truck camper manufacturing companies in 2007, he might of thought you were nuts. Now in 2007, Tom would be the first to tell you that owning Four Wheel and Six-Pac Campers is his dream job. How did this happen? And why? Well, that’s a story better told by the man himself.
TCM: How did you get into the RV business?
Tom: After leaving the service in 1971, I went back to finish my education at UC Davis. I followed a path to veterinary school and took pre-med courses. I also hedged my bet and took food science and animal management classes. When veterinary school didn’t work out for me, I went to work for food production companies including Carnation. Then my wife and I started a carpet cleaning business and ran that company for fourteen years. The whole time I wanted to get back into manufacturing. So in 2000, we sold the carpet cleaning business and I took a year to develop a landscape lighting manufacturing company. When I realized that the idea was not going to work well, I started looking for a business to acquire. That’s when Four Wheel Campers came to my attention. It was a perfect fit for my background in manufacturing. This is my dream job, what I worked my whole life towards. I get to make a product that people enjoy.
TCM: Had you been camping or RVing before buying Four Wheel Campers?
Tom: I’ve been going camping, mostly tent camping, since I was a small child. In 1969, I came back from my first cruise in Vietnam and my parents had bought a tent trailer. Later they bought a travel trailer and I enjoyed that during infrequent visits. But I always tent camped. In the summer of 1963, I took my senior trip with three other guys exploring then American west. We traveled for a whole summer and it was the experience of a lifetime.
TCM: How about truck campers?
Tom: I hadn’t been in a truck camper until we purchased Four Wheel Campers. Now my wife and I take what ever truck camper is available and go camping. We don’t have our own camper per say. We just take a demo unit or one off the show room. Our favorite place to camp is Napa Valley in California. It has a fabulous state park in an idyllic setting with a stream bed and red woods. It’s called Napa Bothe and it’s a historic site. You’d never know you were so close to the vineyards.
TCM: How did your experience in Vietnam shape your outlook on life?
Tom: There’s a lot more guys out there that had it a lot tougher than I did, and deserve a lot more credit. The military was good for me. It gave me a better sense of responsibility and discipline. We should all feel fortunate to be alive. There are two things that are particularly important to me in life. One is waking up every morning. The other is to wake up and see. Vision is an incredible privilege. We just had a fellow purchase a Four Wheel Camper who’s blind. His wife does the driving. It was a very rewarding experience.
TCM: How did you come to own both Four Wheel and Six-Pac Campers?
Tom: We were approached in September of 2002 by the owner of Six-Pac to acquire the company. They were in dire straights and were closing their doors. Six-Pac has always been the natural alternative to Four Wheel Campers. The Four Wheel concept is light-weight, durable, and minimalist. Six-Pac’s concept was the same thing but with hard-wall designs. So we acquired the company.
TCM: What’s the history behind Four Wheel Campers?
Tom: Four Wheel Campers started in 1972 by a brilliant fellow named Dave Rowe. He is still manufacturing RV products on the east coast. He came up with the lift system and the basic construction ideas. In the 1980’s, he sold the company to Jack Billings. Jack kept the company alive for a number of years and then sold it to Ben Burnett. Ben owned the company for five years, built up the sales, and then sold the company to us.
TCM: Why not just have one company with pop-up and hard-side products?
Tom: Each company has it’s own identity and niche. Now we have the benefit of experience from both companies. We have two factories and are readying a new Four Wheel production line in Riverside. That’s a big challenge. The beauty of this challenge is that we get to tap into the experience of the Six-Pac production folks to build Four Wheel Campers. They’re talented, well seasoned, and have thirty years of experience. We are very fortunate. We’re also working on product improvements at both factories that will really benefit our customers. I can’t tell you exactly what we’re going to be doing, but basically we’re working on a stronger, more weatherproof camper exterior.
TCM: Talk to us about the unique nature of Four Wheel Campers. What’s the sales pitch?
Tom: Four Wheel Campers are super light, very compact, and durable for off road use. And they go on ½ ton trucks. Our base camper is 700 to 800 pounds. With all options it’s 1,150 pounds. Our flexible frame also makes the camper have a very low impact on vehicle drive-ability.
TCM: Who buys a Four Wheel Camper?
Tom: It’s amazing. This is so fascinating. I’ve read some of your other interviews when you ask what the most enjoyable part of their job is. The two really fun parts of my job are building campers and working with people from incredibly different spectrums. This company started thirty-five years ago selling to hunters and fisherman. Now the baby boomers have the means and they have a diverse set of interests. We sell lots of campers to outdoor photographers, naturalists, retirees, surfers, divers, and just plain people. It’s so fun. We sell to Pulitzer winning photographers and to world-class surfers. We just delivered a camper to the #10 surfer in the world. We’re actually getting more and more exposure in the surfing business. The people who buy Four Wheel Campers want to enjoy the outdoors with minimal impact on their travel.
TCM: How about Six-Pac? You make hard-side campers, but they seem very different than other campers in the marketplace.
Tom: It’s apples and oranges. Other companies make very nice products; they’re just different and have different markets and users. Folks who buy Four Wheel or Six-Pac products want a more utilitarian and minimalist method of camping. They specifically don’t want the other products because they’re too heavy or have things they don’t need. They want something simple and light. The fact that our campers are economical is a bonus.
TCM: So you feel you have a niche market all to yourself?
Tom: In a lot of ways we do. Outfitter makes a similar and very good product, but it’s bigger and heavier and has more amenities than ours. I met the owner of Outfitter at Ogallala last summer. He was a great guy and really impressed me.
TCM: Is simplicity a key feature of your campers?
Tom: It’s really a gut feeling, either people like simplicity or they don’t. People often come to us having looked at the other brands and tell us that they were offering more than what they were looking for. Others come to us and say that our products don’t offer enough and go buy another brand of camper, which is great. The goal is a well-built camper that the customer is happy with.
TCM: What would a fully loaded Six-Pac D850, your most expensive camper, cost?
TCM: What’s the average cost of a Six-Pac out the door?
Tom: They average around $14,000.
TCM: What’s the high and the average price for a Four Wheel Camper?
Tom: The high is $15,000 and the average is $12,500.
TCM: Which model of Four Wheel Camper is your best seller and why?
Tom: That’s easy. Our biggest seller is short bed Hawk.
TCM: And for Six-Pac?
Tom: Definitely the D650.
TCM: Talk to us about your aluminum Flex-Frame and other build qualities.
Tom: Four Wheel Campers use an all aluminum frame construction to make the campers stronger and lighter weight. There is no particleboard in the camper. We use mahogany, oak, and poplar. Our floors are marine quality Douglass Fur plywood. We don’t cut any corners. We use top quality components, which really makes a difference. And our warranty is five years on the frame, five years on the canvas, and a year or better of everything else.
TCM: Anything unique about how Six-Pacs are built?
Tom: Six-Pacs are built with kiln dry Douglass Fur. It’s lighter, stronger, and more expensive than other framing lumber. We use mahogany and plywood. We also use shear panel construction.
TCM: Why wood instead of aluminum?
Tom: This has been the method of construction at Six-Pac since 1967 when the company was founded. The company was started by a cabinetmaker who had some very good ideas on construction. You’ll see Six-Pac campers from the 1970’s down in Baja, Mexico. That’s a huge testimonial to the quality of our campers. Sometimes the owners of those campers will come to the factory for repairs or refurbishing. It’s a good learning experience to see the older units.
TCM: The Six-Pac T100S looks like a special camper. A hard side camper on a Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, or Chevy S-10? Is this for real?
Tom: It’s a fabulous camper built for mini-trucks. In particular, it’s built for short bed mini-trucks. It’s a simple old-school design and people love it. It’s not self-contained which means it doesn’t have a bathroom or shower. It does have a porta potty.
TCM: The other real stand out is the Delux 650 which is self-contained short-bed hard-side camper. Talk to us about this model.
Tom: The D650 is built for short bed ½ ton trucks. It has an 82” footprint; therefore it’s easy to pull a trailer with it. That’s the beauty of the D650. It’s self contained, lighter, and designed for a true ½ ton short bed truck. It opens many horizons.
TCM: What does it weigh?
Tom: You’re looking at 1,895 pounds dry.
TCM: Do you need any suspension modifications?
Tom: Yes, you need an upgrade with helper springs or airbags.
TCM: Other than selling through three Apache Camping Centers in the Northwest, you only sell factory direct. What’s the thinking there?
Tom: Factory direct has worked well for Four Wheel because of the unique nature of the product. It allows us to have control of our product and to keep in close contact with our customers and get better feedback. Before we acquired the company, Six-Pac had a dealer network that was not treated well. So we decided to go factory direct to stabilize the product and the company’s reputation. We now have a few dealers that we stay in close contact with.
TCM: What are you bringing out to the Truck Camper Show in Ogallala this summer?
Tom: We’re bringing two of each brand. For Four Wheel, we’re bringing the Hawk and Eagle. For Six-Pac, we’re bringing the D650 and the T100S.
TCM: What’s your vision for the future of Four Wheel Campers and Six-Pac Campers?
Tom: My vision is to build an ever better product that addresses the needs of our customers. And I’d also like to have higher production rates. The demand is there. We can’t supply the demand we have. That’s why we’re starting a new line in Riverside.
TCM: Is there anything you would like to add to your interview that I didn’t ask you about?
Tom: In a nutshell, we use the best parts and components we can find to build the most reliable, lightest, easiest to use, durable off road camper on the market today – which is why Four Wheel Campers are found all over the world and in the most remote locations. We love making campers, and enjoy the huge variety of people and applications for our product. This is undoubtedly the best job I could ever imagine. I’m incredibly fortunate to be here doing what I’m doing, and working with a great bunch of people at both factories.