Forty years ago, James Epp got a phone call that changed his life. Here is James Epp on Fraserway RV, Adventurer LP, and a phone call that started it all.
James Epp and his entrepreneurial family have built a RV empire with Fraserway RV and Adventurer LP. It’s difficult to imagine that both companies started with just five employees and a small camper manufacturer in 1969. How did this happen? And where is James taking Adventurer LP now that the company has crossed the border into the United States? We talked with James last week and got his story.
TCM: Tell us about your father, Erdman Epp. How did he get started in the RV business?
James: At the age of forty-nine years, my father had been a general manger for a co-op store in western Canada for twenty-two years. Then he found himself looking for work and purchased a camper and canopy manufacturing operation with about five employees. The year was 1969.
I still remember the phone in my ear when dad told me that he had bought a company, Fraserway Camper Manufacturing. I was fourteen years old and very excited. I wasn’t sure what a canopy was, but I had a fair idea about campers. The building was 5,000 square feet and the property had a house in the back where my family moved to and lived.
TCM: What did your dad start you doing?
James: Sweeping the floor and taking out the garbage. Plus, our family was often the final finishing team getting the product ready the evening before a delivery to the customer. It was work, but always exciting.
As a family we lived from camper sale to camper sale. I remember often dad having to explain to the bank that he didn’t have enough funds to meet payroll, but in the next few days he would have a camper delivery and then he would get back within his credit line. We all bought into the company situation and understood that we needed to work hard.
TCM: Sounds like your father had a profound impact on you during those years.
James: Yes, my dad had a big impact on me. To him, money was the second side of the business. He wanted to build a company with good business ethics. Nothing made him happier than a satisfied customer. That’s what I saw him striving for.
My relationship with my father was very much a working relationship because he worked six days a week. When we saw him, we were generally working with him. Some days were challenging because we were both strong personalities. It was very important to him that we worked together as a family; extremely important.
TCM: If you were fourteen when your father bought the company, how did you balance work and school?
James: I spent my summer breaks and holidays working for the company full-time and then worked twenty-hours a week during school. The first summer I was counting inventory and being the go-for. I would go for this and go for that. I did whatever they needed me to do to help.
TCM: Twenty hours a week and school? What about your social life?
James: I was not always the greatest friend. The guys would be out playing baseball as guys in their teens like to do after work. I might show up at 8:00pm when I was supposed to be there at 6:30pm. There was never enough time at work and we would often stay to get things done.
TCM: How did you move up from sweeping floors?
James: For years, I was on the assembly line and gradually took on more responsibilities. I progressed to bolting on tie-downs and jacks and installing windows. Then hanging sheet metal. As my experience grew, I enjoyed it even more. At that time I worked with my younger brother, Chris. I’m sure he could tell you stories about some of my less gracious times with him.
In the mid-1970s, I got into into purchasing. Through the 1970’s, I was involved at every aspect at Adventurer. It was always about how well it could be done, and how efficiently. There was was never a dull moment.
TCM: At what point did you take over the company?
James: In 1980 our family purchased another company, Trav-L-Mate Industries, that had gone into receivership. Trav-L-Mate later purchased Okanagan and then merged. Originally, I was going to move up and run Trav-L-Mate, but dad said that he appreciated the job I was doing at Fraserway Camper Manufacturing and was happy for me to continue managing that company. Dad and my brother Chris took on running Trav-L-Mate. At that point we were still manufacturing and selling retail out the front door.
Then in 1983, dad made me an offer to purchase the company. It was September of 1983 and I was twenty-nine years old. When I took over operations, we had twenty-five employees.
TCM: What did it feel like to then own the company?
James: You know, there was a great feeling that I owned my own business, but I don’t recall doing anything different. I knew it was an exciting opportunity, but I had always worked for the company as if it were my own anyway. My working style and energy didn’t change a whole lot.
TCM: Getting back to your family when you were growing up, did your family go truck camping?
James: Not as much as I would have liked. On occasion, I remember riding in the upper bunk with my brother and sister looking out the front window as mom and dad were driving below. I have good memories of the family time and campfires. For my honeymoon in 1978, my wife and I spent two weeks in a camper exploring the West coast from British Columbia to California.
TCM: How about now? Do you go truck camping?
James: I have taken my family truck camping when my children were smaller. We were always towing a boat. More recently, I’ve gone camping with my youngest son and my brother towing dirt bikes up into the mountains. We still don’t get to go often enough. I always have an Adventurer camper available.
TCM: Good deal.
James: It’s a benefit of being the boss.
TCM: In the past few years, you have opened Fraserway RV locations in Whitehorse, Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Airdrie, and grew your dealership in Abbotsford. How do you know when and how to grow the company?
James: I have to go to my vision for strategic and profitable growth. A lot of our growth has been driven from the rental side of our business. There was a strategy from the mid-1990’s to be a national supplier for RV rentals. From a marketing perspective, renting is very valuable to Fraserway with over 1,000 RVs with our name on them. All but two of the ten Fraserway locations is a stand alone full-service RV dealership with parts, service, sales, and rental. This is part of our business plan, to ensure full service to our customers.
TCM: How did you get into the camper rental business?
James: I bought the inventory of a rental company that was upside down and subleased their RV units to other companies. After a few years, we decided to set up our own rental company. A respected rental’s manager from the industry joined our company in 1992 and today we rent over 1,000 RVs!
TCM: Now that you have a foothold in the United States with Adventurer in Yakima, Washington, would you consider bringing the Fraserway RV model of renting truck campers to the US? I can tell you that we get inquiries for rentals on a regular basis.
James: That’s an interesting question because I’ve had that question asked of me a lot recently. We will certainly consider it in the future, but for now we’re focusing on maintaining our position and growing our market share. There is a good chance that you’ll see someone renting Adventurer campers in the United States in the next few years.
TCM: What are you doing to position Adventurer to weather our current economy?
James: We’re doing a lot of small things. We are trimming our staff at Fraserway and I’m challenging all management to look at all costs and make the necessary adjustments. I’m encouraging managers to get out on the floor more often. We are challenging our managers to draw ideas from our team that save money and improve efficiency. Your staff can have a much bigger impact on making the company more efficient and customer friendly. We’re really pushing the team. Our initial target is to have about 10% of the US camper market, or about 500 to 700 units per year. We are a very strong contender in the Canadian market and we want to break further into the US market.
TCM: It seems like you see the current economic challenges as an opportunity.
James: Yes. Having said that, it’s difficult. We’re all going to have to work harder and smarter. In the end, I believe we’ll get through this difficult time and emerge as a stronger and better company.
TCM: How is it going with Adventurer’s move to Yakima?
James: We have a strong new team at Adventurer in Yakima. The timing of the move to the United States could not have been better. With Western Rec and Chinook closing down in Yakima, we pulled a very strong management team together. My job with Adventurer is to develop strong and healthy disciplines through this difficult time and position us well for the future.
TCM: Philanthropy is an important part of your personal and professional life. What can you tell us about your efforts?
James: Corporately, I am involved in two levels. A number a years ago I challenged our staff to support children in third world countries. We support children in the village of Lodwar, Kenya. As a company, we match any contribution our employees make from $5 a month to $150. It’s $37 a month to sponsor a child. For every child an employee sponsors, they get two. We presently have nearly 100 children sponsored by our employees. I’ve traveled to Kenya and there’s a personal passion for what we’re doing that rivals my passions to run Adventurer and Fraserway RV.
We also have an Early Bird and Snowbird RV Show run by MTD Promotions, a division of Fraserway. What we earn at the gate minus marketing expenses goes to various community and international charities. It all comes back to my own personal faith that all people, from all walks of life, are created equal and need be respected. Those who have, have the responsibility to help those who have not. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously.
TCM: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you would like to add to your interview?
James: Even in these difficult times, I am looking forward to 2009. The energy and experience of our new Adventurer management team is very exciting. I have really enjoyed the energy level of the Yakima team I work with. They are a quality team of people who are really taking ownership and realizing that this is an opportunity for them to grow with a new company. Adventurer is a company on the move. I am excited about the future.