Quality coaches, reliable service, and competitive pricing have made Marathon Coach one of the leading luxury converters in the market.
By Lazelle D. Jones
Each year in North America, approximately 300 new custom coach conversions are built using Prevost, MCI, Neoplan, Dina, Setra, and other bus shells. These coach conversions typically sell for $600,000 to more than $1 million each. The number of luxury vehicles produced -- and the prices they command -- no doubt amazes many. But another interesting fact is that out of this total, a single custom coach converter quietly and successfully continues to cultivate this niche market and will be responsible for approximately 70 of those conversions in the year 2002. That custom coach converter is Marathon Coach Inc., reputed to be the world's largest converter of Prevost bus shells.
Since acquiring the company in 1993, majority owner Bob Schoellhorn, with president and chief operating officer Charlie Myers, and executive vice president of marketing and sales Steve Schoellhorn, continues to take this privately held luxury coach converter to new and higher levels of excellence and market share.
The company's corporate headquarters and production facility are located in Coburg, Oregon. Here, at any given time, 20 to 25 new coaches can be found in various stages of construction. At the same location is a large service facility consisting of eight indoor service bays, plus a 17-acre display lot that features approximately 50 new and previously owned Marathon Coach conversions. To serve the eastern part of the United States, Marathon Coach operates a 9-acre sales and service facility in San Antonio, Florida, near Tampa, which includes new and used coach conversions, plus six inside service bays and a showroom. Just recently, the company opened a new 4.3-acre sales and service facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, just outside of Dallas and minutes away from the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
During a recent visit to Marathon's Coburg facility, I took a tour and chatted with key people involved in the operation, including Steve Schoellhorn.
"Our mission," Steve Schoellhorn said, "is to design and build the highest-quality bus conversions on the market today and to back those coach conversions up with the highest level of after-market service." He went on to emphasize how important follow-up service is to Marathon Coach’s current and future success. "A third of Marathon’s customers are repeat business," he said. "Our success is based on three things: quality of product, the quality of our aftermarket service, and our competitive pricing relative to everything our product and company brings to the client. The level of our repeat business is a success that we are extremely proud of."
For both the custom-ordered bus conversions and the inventory show coaches Marathon builds, Prevost XLII and H3-45 bus shells are used almost exclusively. In the past, the company regularly used other bus shells in their conversions and will still do so today on a special-order basis. Custom orders represent 30 percent to 50 percent of Marathon Coach's new conversions. But to accommodate the growing demands for bus conversions, Marathon has dedicated the rest of its production capacity to building inventory show coaches. "There are the custom bus conversion clients who know exactly what they want," Steve Schoellhorn explained. "On the other hand, there are clients who don’t want to wait the eight to 10 months it takes to complete a custom-ordered coach, so Marathon keeps an inventory of new show coaches at its locations so this group of prospective clients can be accommodated."
Steve Schoellhorn explained that Marathon officials believe it is important to be able to show prospective clients completed units. He equates it to building houses. "There are clients who don’t want to go through the process of building a house," he said. "They simply want to see a house and decide whether they like it, and if they do then they buy it." If a customer wants to change something later, Marathon Coach can accommodate that wish. Other clients are not able to picture the coach they want to have built, so seeing several completed show coaches actually helps them to make decisions about their custom coach.
Marathon keeps a dozen show coaches in inventory throughout its system. To create this inventory, Marathon has developed the kinds of efficiencies required to produce custom and inventory show coaches simultaneously. "What we do is spread the custom-ordered coaches out among the production inventory show coaches," Mr. Schoellhorn explained. "By so doing, we create an efficient production mix of both."
For those who have dreamed of designing and furnishing a custom coach conversion, Marathon Coach is capable of accommodating the most discerning of tastes. First, a project team is assembled. The team includes the client, a salesperson, a project engineer, a design engineer, and an interior design consultant. A number of existing floor plans are examined -- Marathon Coach offers more than two dozen basic floor plans. When the client identifies one that is relatively close to his or her expectations, the plan is then tweaked until it meets the client’s wishes. The basic floor plans offered are constantly evolving as improvements are discovered.
The coach is then divided into venues (living area, galley, bath, and bedroom), with each of those areas uniquely designed according to the client's desires. Once there is an accumulation of ideas that define the coach, the design engineer uses a computer-aided design (CAD) program to create the coach the client wants. Paint designers, also using computers, help the client to create the exterior paint scheme and to explore graphics possibilities. Before construction of a new coach is even started, a client can see exactly what it will look like with the help of computers.
Of course, the client must decide on which Prevost shell (XLII or H3-45) he or she prefers, and the number of slideouts desired. Both the XLII and the H3-45 arrive from Prevost with factory-provided slideouts. Once a shell arrives and is placed on the production schedule, the conversion takes an average of 24 weeks and more than 7,500 man-hours to complete. However, if a show coach is in the process of being built and the client decides to purchase that vehicle, the production time is reduced.
Marathon Coach's corporate clients make up a significant part of its business. These customers use their coaches for business conferencing, hospitality suites, and luxury shuttles. Marathon also is active in providing luxury coaches to those involved in motor sports, with clients spread throughout all of the different racing circuits. "We cultivated this market," Steve Schoellhorn said. "Marathon has been involved in the racing market for some years. It’s a fun part of our business, but we don’t pursue it at the expense of our other customers. We involve ourselves only in what we consider a fair business transaction for both parties. We aren’t interested in having the most coaches out there."
In NASCAR, Marathon Coach is proud to be associated with four-time Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon. The company is currently in the process of designing Mr. Gordon’s third coach. Bill Elliott has had two Marathon coaches. In CART, series champions Michael Andretti (who has a double-slideout model) and Jimmy Vasser each own Marathon coaches, and Newman/Haas Racing (Carl Haas and Paul Newman) has had a corporate coach built. In the Indy Racing League (IRL), Kelly Racing has two Marathon coaches and Bradley Motorsports owns one. Eleven-time NHRA Winston funny car champion John Force is a Marathon Coach owner, and the company is involved with several other competitors in the drag racing series.
Marathon Coach also maintains an inventory of approximately 25 preowned custom conversions in its system at all times and sells as many preowned coaches throughout the year (65 to 70) as its sells new coaches. "Preowned coaches are an extremely important part of our business," Steve Schoellhorn explained. "Preowned units are often the point of entry, the beginning along a series of stepping-stones that will move our clients along a path where many of them eventually acquire one of our new Marathon coaches."
With a bus shell and chassis designed and engineered to go 2 million miles, it’s impossible to think that a 5-year-old coach driven only 60,000 miles is anything but "just broken in." For value, a preowned Marathon coach is a fraction of the cost of a new bus conversion. When Marathon takes possession of a preowned coach through a trade-in, company employees make every effort to recondition the vehicle so it's as close to new as possible for the next owner.
Marathon Coach has what is called its Continued Excellence program. When a preowned coach conversion is brought into the inventory, it goes through a rigorous and detailed predelivery inspection. Problems that are identified during the inspection are addressed and resolved. The interior and exterior are thoroughly detailed, giving each coach that just-like-new appearance. And all preowned coaches come with a six-month bumper-to-bumper warranty. Not only does this make all of Marathon Coach’s resources available to the next owner, but the warranty often gives a client who is considering the purchase of a new high-end type A motorhome the confidence to take their purchase to the next level and acquire a preowned custom bus conversion.
Another service Marathon Coach offers is remodeling existing coaches. Customers often are happy with their coach but want it updated. They may simply desire new valances and lambrequins, new carpet and floor coverings, or new sofa fabric. "We can do partial or complete face-lifts, as well as incorporate the latest in electronics and other new technologies into an owner's current coach," Mr. Schoellhorn said. "It’s just like remodeling a house." With the company's state-of-the-art paint operation, new exterior graphics or a totally new paint scheme can be added if the client wishes.
Full service is offered at all of the company's current locations, including full warranty coverage, maintenance, and service on the Prevost chassis and power trains. Marathon Coach maintains a technical service department with a toll-free telephone number that is manned around-the-clock, seven days a week. "The need for support outside normal working hours is infrequent, but when it does occur it’s important that we immediately respond and resolve whatever the issues are," Steve Schoellhorn said.
I asked how the Marathon Coach support system would work if a Marathon Coach owner had a problem in some remote area of North America. Mr. Schoellhorn explained: "Our technical service center would help identify and diagnose the problem. Because many of the components can be easily obtained, Marathon Coach would work with the component manufacturer to get the component immediately delivered, if needed, to wherever it might be."
For example, Mr. Schoellhorn explained that Marathon Coach uses Kohler generators. In the unlikely event that a generator problem should occur in one of the company's coaches, Marathon employees would work with Kohler's network of dealers and service centers across the United States to coordinate the resolution of the problem. Another example he offered was a wiring harness with an electrical problem. Marathon Coach’s technical service center has immediate access to all of the electrical and wiring diagrams (in fact, all engineering drawings) for every coach that Marathon has ever built. Typically, the company's technicians can diagnose the problem over the telephone and help a third-party repair facility make the necessary fix.
Marathon Coach Club International is another ingredient in the company's success. The group is Marathon's owners club and also functions as one of FMCA's 400-plus chapters. Rally sizes can range from 35 to 60 coaches. During the racing season, Marathon Coach Club International hosts rallies at NASCAR events, as well as at other interesting venues across the country. Club members have even discussed the possibility of participating in another "rolling rally" to Europe, such as the one Marathon hosted in 1996. (See "Europe On 10 Coaches A Day," FMC, August 1997, page 94.) For owners of Marathon Coach conversions, these rallies are important events where old friendships are renewed and new and lasting ones are made.
For more information about new or preowned coach conversions by Marathon Coach Inc., phone (800) 234-9991 or visit www.marathoncoach.com. Factory tours at the Coburg, Oregon, facility are offered daily at 11:30 a.m. The tour includes a visit to the engineering and interior design offices and the massive production floor where the coaches are in various stages of construction. Tours include going inside and seeing just-completed coaches. No reservations are required. The tours last about one hour and require walking. To contact the company's Florida sales and service facility, call (800) 437-8295. To reach the new Texas facility, phone (800) 448-8881.