Rex Willett, President of Northstar Campers, is something of a living icon in the truck camping industry. Everyone in this business seems to know him personally. His name often comes up in our conversations with other truck camper manufacturers. They’ll say, “I just talked to Rex yesterday. He’s into everything.” So who is this Rex Willett and what’s his story? TCM set out to get the real deal on Rex – and how.
TCM: What are your earliest memories that involve RVs?
Rex: I would say when I was five or four years old running around my father, grandfather, and uncle’s inventory. We would play in between their pickup toppers. They would build twenty a day and make a sea of fifty to eighty pickup toppers. We would also play in the room with the cushions and hide and jump around. I’m the youngest of six kids and we’re all only eight years apart. I took lots of abuse. We’ve lived on the same corner since 1955. I look out on these grounds and see all sorts of memories. I feel just as comfortable sitting here as I do at home. It’s wonderful, but there is a price to pay. It’s all we talk about as a family. Inevitably, our conversations always turn to RVs.
TCM: Tell us about the history of Northstar Campers.
Rex: My grandfather started Texson. Northstar was our main competition. Pat Barner was the owner of Northstar. I liked Pat and he liked me. I was working the Minneapolis show about at about 22 or 23 years old thinking I was doing well having sold three pop-up campers. I walked over to Pat and told him that I thought it was a good show and that I had already sold three campers. I asked him how many he had sold and he said 34 and then he opened a file with checks neatly paper clipped to the orders. So I said, “How are you kicking my butt so big?” And he explained that we didn’t have screen doors. That was like getting smacked right in the nose.
He was 60 or 62 years old and already had my brother and I pegged to buy Northstar. We weren’t all that financially strong after making it through the beginning of the 1980s. It took every stitch of what we owned. We really laid it on the line. We didn’t change anything. We copied Northstar exactly. Then we went to each Northstar dealer and told them that we had bought the company. It really spring-boarded us into another zone. The best thing we did was keep the same prices and camper design. For awhile we dual marketed both Texson and Northstar campers. They were absolutely identical, but people thought the Northstar was twice the truck camper that the Texson was. And I was sick of everybody asking us if Texson was built in Texas so we became Northstar only.
TCM: Was there ever a time when you thought you might not want to follow in your father’s footsteps?
Rex: Yeah. I was the type of personality that didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do. I was going with the flow. Back in 1979 and 1980 the economy was extremely rough. I took the Navy test, but I didn’t want to be on a nuclear submarine.
TCM: What might you be doing now if you weren’t building truck campers?
Rex: Probably a florist. I love flowers. What a great job! You walk in and they smell fantastic and you get to create things. And you sell year round to funerals and weddings and for Valentine’s day. I always try to have fresh cut flowers in my house and mixed bouquets. I’ve always been interested in that. I think I would always be involved in selling or some kind of business in that aspect. I thought several times about a florist shop, but I bet they’re just as competitive as any other business.
TCM: Do you feel like you’re running your family’s business or is this now Rex’s Northstar Campers?
Rex: It’s always family. It’s a 100% partnership with my brother, Rory, and my Dad. My Dad is 73 years old and I don’t think there’s another person that’s been in the truck camping business as long as he has. He works here three months a year. We like to bring him to the National shows because he knows so many people. The comment I hear often is that my Dad’s a peach. I have not a clue where they get that word. He’s just so docile and honest. This is a family thing. Grandmother Tex’s wife is still alive at 93 and lives just three blocks from here. It’s really between Rory and myself. He has just as much sweat in this company. And we’re a good balance. I’m more flamboyant and jumping on things. He’s constant and more of a bean counter. We have grown an average of eight to fourteen percent every single year. I don’t know how much bigger we want to get. Not everybody can have a Northstar.
TCM: Why of all places is Northstar in Iowa? With the high cost of shipping, wouldn’t it make more sense to be closer to one of the coasts?
Rex: It’s so inexpensive here. And we’re fairly centrally located about 1200 miles from the east coast and 1800 to 1900 miles from the west coast. We wouldn’t move. This is our home. And we have a responsibility to the employees. I grew up with a lot of these guys. I would put our truck camper crew up against anybody’s. The knowledge and experience between these thirty people would blow you away. I have one employee that’s been here for forty years. Many have been here ten to twenty years. That’s experience. And you get to know them and their families and see their kids grow up. We like Iowa. There’s not a lot of people here and it’s a great place to raise a family. And we’re the most gullible people on earth. We’ll believe anything, once.
TCM: Why do your truck campers have cassette toilets? Is it a design preference?
Rex: Absolutely. It’s a function preference. Other truck campers companies are starting to offer cassette toilets. If you look at the big diesel pusher motor homes in Europe, they all have cassette toilets. With a cassette toilet you don’t have to worry about freezing in the winter, you just fill with antifreeze. And you don’t have to worry about filling up. You just wheel it up and dump it. It’s just as fast, it’s just different. Besides, 25% of our business is overseas and they demand cassette toilets. Our brochure and web site also give a good explanation as to why we decide to use cassette toilets.
TCM: Your hard side truck campers uniquely feature two small windows in the front of the over cab. Why do you do that?
Rex: Rory and I were at an RV show in Germany in 1987 and saw those windows. Almost every European motor home or caravan has them. They have a built in roller shade and screen, they open so you can pass things in and out, and they have excellent visibility and no condensation. They don’t radiate cold. We were the first American company to offer these insulated windows. We’ve had them in our campers for twenty years now. Once you have these windows in your camper, there’s no going back, period. We haven’t built a camper without them since 1987. And they’re $1,000 more than standard windows. Other companies are finally giving in. It’s a huge compliment now that other companies are starting to use cassette toilets and our windows.
TCM: There’s a perception in the marketplace that Rex is into everything. Talk to us about that.
Rex: That’s the thing I love about it. I’m into everything and I can be because it’s my life and I have the time to do it. I’m into the things that are important to the growth of the industry as a whole, and my company as a whole. My family is in this for the long term. We live, eat, and sweat truck campers. I was conceived in a cab over of a truck camper. In my dreams that’s what I’m dreaming about. I’ve had epiphanies at night and sat straight up and said, “That’s it!” My brother does the same thing. It’s all consuming. We have 100% passion for it.
TCM: Tell us about your involvement with NATCOA.
Rex: I love NATCOA, I really do. I saw it and thought it was a fantastic idea. I jumped on it immediately. I’m really into the interaction with the public and teaching the knowledge of the do’s and don’ts. And I’m not afraid to answer any question. NATCOA has by far the best forum. You get people like Beau Durkee, Bob Mehrer, and the Wards from Hallmark who have been into truck camping a long, long time and understand the ins and outs of them. We can correct things and set the record straight. There are a lot of other forums but they can get more Disney Land than accurate. You need to have a source where you can get the correct answers and hang around with people who are true truck camping enthusiasts. That’s what sets NATCOA above the rest. With NATCOA, manufacturers can promote, defend, teach, and solve problems. That’s the real beauty and spirit of NATCOA.
TCM: And the Truck Camper Show?
Rex: You could call me the Chairman of the Truck Camper Show. It was my original idea, something I’ve always wanted to do. Big markets used to have one show in the early spring and late fall. Now there’s five or six. Manufacturers and dealers cannot afford the time, effort, or money to get product to every show. Which ones should they go to? Every manufacturer and dealer fights this battle. So I thought it was time to have our own show. I mentioned the idea to Paul Beddows of NATCOA and the idea just ignited. I stared calling on the relationships I had built over decades. Some of these people are Presidents and I stood by them at shows when they were salesmen. I’ve eaten at some of their houses, shared rental cars, and picked them up at airports. Now I work on the Truck Camper Show ten to twenty hours a week.
TCM: You’re well known for selling your truck campers internationally. How did you get into that? Has it worked out?
Rex: It’s been very successful. I’m going to blame our international business on a person called Kentucky. His real name is William Rhule. In 1986, I was standing in Louisville and Kentucky walked up to our display with a woman speaking with an accent. He lived in Stolkholm, Sweden and was importing another camper he wasn’t happy with. I had never thought about exporting but Kentucky got us exporting our campers to Sweden. He’s a really interesting character. He’s an old biker, knew Elvis, and a real colorful personality to say the least. Now our export business is a solid 25% of our business and growing. We ship campers all over the world including Africa, New Zealand, Australia, England, Germany, Norway, and Iceland.
TCM: Where do you see the truck camping industry in ten years?
Rex: The number of truck campers sold over all will go up as the price of gas goes up and pushes more people into more fuel efficient vehicles like diesel trucks. Of course it’s a very precarious time for us. The explosion of the Chinese economy, sometimes growing at over 11% of month, will have a profound influence on the American RV market. If we send a camper to China, the duty, custom, and tariff fees total 33%. If Chinese campers come into the United States, the tariff is 2.5%. Chinese travel trailers have already showed up at Louisville.
Here in America we can’t fathom the impact that they are going to have on RVs. Last year my brother went to an Australian RV show and there were no Chinese campers. This year there were nine brands. It’s starting.
The RV business as a whole is totally oblivious to what’s going to happen. They can put two or three travel trailers or two or three truck campers in a container and ship them from China for about four thousand dollars. It’s a recipe for disaster. This will either force manufacturers to partner with the Chinese or raise tariffs. What the Chinese want to do is completely pick our mind of our knowledge and take the RV industry, an American icon, away from us. So many American families have gone through tough times and they can take it all away from us in two to three years. And they can build quality.
TCM: That’s certainly something we should all keep an eye on. What can we expect to see from Northstar in the future? What’s the vision moving forward?
Rex: Our vision is to stay fresh. Keep redoing bathrooms and wallpaper so the campers don’t get dated. We want to be in this business for a long time. We want to continue to be a leader in innovation and style and a good value for our customers. You can talk to almost anyone who went RVing as a kid and they have fond memories of their camping days. It’s just good for the soul.