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.