John Macpherson has acquired Alaskan Campers. Here’s the story of why John bought the company, the changes he’s already made, and his vision for the nearly 60 year old truck camper manufacturer.
Alaskan Campers was founded in 1958 by Californian, Don Hall. After serving in the Seabees 30th Battalion (naval construction) in World War II, Don moved to Sunland, California from Rochester, New York. There, in 1948, Don designed and built a truck camper for a three-month adventure to Alaska.
With its unique hard side roof that raised and lowered with hydraulics, Don’s camper quickly captured the attention of outdoor enthusiasts and became the prototype for Alaskan Campers. By 1965, Don and his wife, Irene, had grown Alaskan Campers to seven factories across the United States and Canada.
After experiencing a boom in the 1960s, the 1970s were very hard on the RV industry. Alaskan was one of the few truck camper manufacturers to survive the fuel crises of 1973 and 1978, and the following recession of 1981 and 1982. By the time the late 80s arrived, Alaskan Campers was for sale.
Don Wheat bought Alaskan Campers from the Hall family in 1989 and moved the company to a two stall garage at his home. That year Don sold 16 Alaskan Campers and began an upward swing for the company. By 1992, production demands increased and Don asked his son, Bryan, to join Alaskan Campers. Bryan soon took over the day-to-day operations and continued steering Alaskan Campers forward.
That brings us to 2016. After owning Alaskan Campers for 27 years, it was time for Don Wheat to put Alaskan Campers up for sale.
Having worked with Alaskan Campers for over 24 years as their Alaska dealer, John Macpherson purchased the company last fall. John knew Don, Bryan and the Alaskan Camper production team well, and was excited at the prospect of taking the nearly 60 year old manufacturer to the next level.
For over thirty years, John Macpherson has owned a satellite communications business servicing the Alaska oil, fishing, and marine industry. He’s also a passionate outdoorsman and takes any opportunity he can get to go fishing and hunting in his personal Alaskan Camper.
More importantly, John has brought his philosophy of business, quality control, and customer service to Alaskan Campers. As John explains it, Alaskan Campers is going to become significantly more efficient, but not much else is going to change. How do you improve a product that has lasted almost six decades?
For the full story behind the acquisition, we talked to John Macpherson.
Above: John Macpherson with Dorrie Benson, Office Manager, Bryan Wheat, President, and Rick Bremgartner, Foreman
TCM: Tell us about your professional career prior to your involvement with Alaskan Campers.
John: I’m 64 years old, so how far back do you want me to go?
TCM: As far back as is relevant to your involvement with Alaskan Campers.
John: In March of 1989, we had the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I had been in the satellite communications business in Alaska for a number of years before that. Needless to say, there was a lot of mobilization that had to happen and our satellite services were part of the clean up effort.
When I reached the town of Valdez, it was already trying to support a city of people that had arrived for the spill. I spent a week sleeping in my regular cab pickup. That’s when I decided I wanted a pop-up truck camper.
My uncle had Alaskan Campers in the mid-60s, but I thought they had been out of business for decades. I just never saw any newer Alaskan Campers in Alaska at that time. Without the option to buy a new Alaskan, I bought a Jayco pop-up truck camper.
TCM: Of course Alaskan Campers was in business at the time, but the majority of their units were delivered to the lower 48. Did you want a truck camper for anything other than work?
John: Yes, I’m an outdoors guy. I like to go fishing and hunting. Having a truck camper was a natural fit for my lifestyle. I used the pop-up quite a bit for work and pleasure.
TCM: So how did you come across Alaskan again?
John: The oil spill clean-up went on for quite a few months. During that time, I flew to Cordova. I stopped at a store and picked up a Sunday Seattle newspaper for something to read. In the classifieds I found an ad for Alaskan Campers. I called Don Wheat, Owner of Alaskan Campers, and ordered an Alaskan Camper sight unseen.
On the phone I told Don I didn’t need it right away. About six months later, I went to Seattle to pick it up. I couldn’t believe how nice they were, and asked what would take to become an Alaskan dealer. Don said that if I bought four, I could be an Alaskan dealer. I only had money for three, but we made a deal. I got my first shipment of Alaskan Campers in April of 1992.
Above: John’s Alaskan Camper rig
TCM: Why did you think becoming an Alaskan Camper dealer in Alaska was a good idea?
John: I thought I couldn’t be the only guy who thought Alaskan Campers were cool. And it turned out I was right. I really never had to sell an Alaskan Camper. People just wanted them. They sell themselves.
TCM: What led you to purchase the company 24 years later?
John: Don Wheat stepped down from the day to day management of Alaskan Campers over ten years ago. His son, Bryan Wheat, stepped in and has been actively running the company ever since. I have known Don for more than 24 years, and Bryan as long as he’s been there. In other words, I know the people and product very well.
About 18 months ago, Bryan mentioned that Don was selling the company. That’s when I talked to Bryan Wheat, President, Dorrie Benson, Office Manager, Rick Bremgartner, Foreman, and members of the production crew. After learning of their intention to stay on board with Alaskan after the sale, I decided to seriously look into purchasing the company.
Above: Inside Alaskan’s new facility in Winlock, Washington
TCM: What led to your final decision to move forward and buy Alaskan Campers?
John: They were back ordered for months. They had just moved into their new facility, and were all set up for production. Everything the team told me that needed to be changed to improve efficiency was very feasible.
During my research, I called my uncle. He lives in Vancouver, Washington and is good with numbers and analysis. Together we went to Alaskan with his son who happens to be an investor. That was the second time I had been to Alaskan to review the business. After crunching the numbers, they both said, “Need a partner?” After I purchased Alaskan, they became shareholders.
TCM: How did things progress from there?
John: I asked Bryan, Dorrie, and Rick about what the company needed to get cracking. They knew conceptually what needed to be done, but I asked for actionable specifics.
For starters, their bookkeeping system was a dinosaur, their accounting was a mess, and the website was antiquated. We updated and rebuilt all of that. At the same time we increased the parts inventory and bought new equipment to dramatically increase efficiency. Those things weren’t hard to do, and really got things moving. It’s been a lot of fun these last six months.
Above: The expanded inventory of parts and materials needed to build Alaskan Campers
TCM: How does increasing inventory help with efficiency?
John: There are hundreds of pieces that go into building an Alaskan Camper. There are stoves, furnaces, air conditioners, awnings, and windows. Then there’s the plywood, maple, and metal. All of these items constitute the inventory I was speaking of.
The first thing I told the production team was, “You’re not to want for anything. Whatever you need to build an Alaskan Camper, it will be here. Tell me what you need.” The team was very happy to hear that, and told me exactly what inventory and equipment they needed.
Some parts take 30 days to arrive once their ordered. To avoid production delays, we ordered more than we needed. With our new facility, we now have the room to store this inventory. Having everything on hand and well organized is a tremendous help for efficiency.
Above: New Alaskan Campers ready for their new owners
Last year Alaskan didn’t complete one camper a week. Building one camper a week is our goal for 2017. I asked the team, “How many guys does it take to build one camper a week?” They told me, and we made the hires.
TCM: You live in Anchorage, Alaska and Alaskan Campers is in Winlock, Washington. Some folks might be concerned about the idea of an absentee owner for Alaskan Campers.
John: I am at Alaskan Campers a lot, and my partners are less than an hour away from the factory. We are very fortunate to have an established management and production team that knows exactly what they’re doing.
Everyone at Alaskan is motivated and doing a good job. As an owner, I would only be standing in their way if I was there all the time. These guys have been doing this a long time, and they’re good.
TCM: Since you’re not going to be at the factory day to day, what do you see as your role and responsibility to the company?
John: My responsibility is to help the existing team become more efficient. We do not want customers waiting months and months for their Alaskan Camper.
We have already started having some of the more labor intensive components manufactured on a CNC machine. We also hired more people for production. Our new facility has the space for more team members, more equipment, and more parts inventory. My goal is to maintain and to even improve quality, while delivering Alaskan Campers in less time.
TCM: Alaskan Campers has been building truck campers essentially the same way for over half a century. Do you plan on modernizing the methods and materials with which Alaskan Campers are built, or do you want to preserve the time-tested and proven Alaskan build?
John: The original Alaskan Campers design has persevered for over 60 years, and will continue for many more. Any changes we make would be in the technology side, like more efficient refrigerators or heaters. The Alaskan design will remain the same. It just works.
It’s not unusual to see 40 year old Alaskan Camper out in the field. That’s another testament to the quality of the Alaskan Camper design and build quality.
The people who purchase and own an Alaskan Camper are friends; almost like family. They stop by the factory and show off their latest modifications and ideas. That’s how Alaskan Campers evolve over time. There are no model year changes, but customer suggestions have made Alaskan Campers better year, after year, after year.
Above: Working with a CNC cut curved top wall
TCM: You mentioned using CNC machinery during the build process. Where are you using CNC at Alaskan Campers?
John: We have started with CNC machines cutting the curved pieces for the back and front. Alaskans are not squared-off campers, but rather rounded campers. A CNC machine can cut those curves faster and with more precision and consistency than a human can.
Above: Alaskan roofs are insulated with spray-in urethane foam insulation
We locally outsource the CNC work. So far it’s worked out great. We may even invest in our own CNC machine in the future. If a CNC machine will cost effectively improve our efficiency, we’ll do it.
Above: The new building has twice the square footage as the old one
TCM: Alaskan Campers moved to another building in 2016. Tell us about the new facility, and why the company moved.
John: They moved last fall, before I bought the company. The building is in a much better location with twice the square footage and four times the lighting.
The old building was in the woods on top of a hill. Semi trucks delivering inventory had a hard time getting to the plant. Now Alaskan is in Winlock with excellent accessibility and room for expansion.
The new facility is twenty minutes from the old Chehalis location. We’re now half-way between Seattle and Portland on the I-5 corridor. For Alaskan, it’s a great building, and an even better location.
Above: An awning being installed on an Alaskan Camper
TCM: Is the new factory open to the public for factory tours?
John: Yes, it is. Anyone who is considering an Alaskan is welcome to schedule a visit. The Alaskan team is very friendly and accommodating. We want our customers to see Alaskan Campers being built.
TCM: In the ten years we have published TCM, we have never had a consumer complaint about Alaskan’s quality or quality control. That remarkable fact aside, what is your approach to quality and quality control at Alaskan Campers?
John: First of all, if there’s a problem with an Alaskan Camper, it will get fixed – whatever it takes. If we send a camper down the road and it has serious problems, we will build a new camper. We haven’t had to do that, but that’s what we would do. If our customers aren’t happy, we’re not happy.
For 30-plus years I have run a business and my priority has been customer service. We do satellite work all over the state of Alaska. If we didn’t have a product we believed in, we wouldn’t offer it. That’s how I am. I like to go home and sleep at night. It might sting the pocketbook to fix a problem, but we’ll learn, and we won’t make that mistake again.
TCM: Are there plans to possibly expand the Alaskan dealership base? Or will Alaskan remain predominantly a direct manufacturer?
John: Dealers need product to sell and we’re already back ordered with our direct sales. We have received inquiries from prospective dealers, but we can’t yet supply them with product. That will change, but we’re not actively pursuing dealers at this time.
TCM: Where do you see Alaskan Campers in five years?
John: We are 100-percent focused on improving efficiency and capacity. Alaskan Campers is not a company that’s going to see huge changes to the design or materials. The product has proved itself for 60 years, and doesn’t need to be changed. We just need to make them more efficiently while maintaining and even improving quality.
I would eventually like to see a dealer network, and production so that people are not waiting many months for a camper. Part of that effort will be getting away from 100-percent custom products. For efficiency and quality more of the build process needs to be standardized, as does our option list.
In five years, I would like to see one Alaskan Camper a day emerge from our facility. I think that’s a very attainable goal.
TCM: Thank you for the inside look at where you’re taking Alaskan Campers. Is there anything else you would like folks to know about Alaskan Campers in 2017?
John: Alaskan has been here 60 years and we’re going to be here another 60 years. As long as pickup trucks are being built, we’ll be building campers. For the money, Alaskan Campers are the best there is out there.