Continuing along the path of success while keeping customers foremost.
By Lazelle Jones
The year was 1969. Neil Armstrong had taken one giant step for mankind by walking on the moon. Weeb Ewbank and Joe Namath led the New York Jets to the Super Bowl and, in a huge upset, prevailed over Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts. It also was the year Dodgen Industries began designing and building Born Free motorhomes, a run that continues unabated some 44 years later.
Born Free Motorcoach, Dodgen Industries’ motorhome manufacturing operation, successfully navigated through the petroleum embargoes of 1973 and 1979, maintained a consistent but prudent pace of growth during the RV boom years without over-aggressively seeking to build market share, and is surviving what recently has become known as the “great recession.” As the saying goes, “The only thing that remains constant is change.” Born Free has addressed that change as needed, adapting to a new and more tentative RV marketplace while maintaining the practices that have produced years of success.
In the spring of 2012, John N. Dodgen, founder and longtime president and chairman of Born Free Motorcoach, experienced some of the maladies commensurate with living a long life — one notably marked by vision, keen foresight, and an unmatched work ethic. John N. invited his son, John C.T. Dodgen, to return to Humboldt, Iowa, so that the senior Dodgen could take a breather. As a young man, John C.T. had worked his way up and through Born Free, learning the ins and outs of production, sales, and management. After a 19-year hiatus from the RV industry, John C.T., now a management consultant, accepted his father’s proposal. He returned to Humboldt to steer the company.
Now with John C.T. at the helm, John N., as chairman, is a Born Free ambassador, leading RV rallies in choruses of “Born Free” and “God Bless America,” mingling with clients (some he has known for decades as repeat customers), and sharing the Born Free story with new owners.
Last July I had the pleasure of meeting this new management team and chatting about the changes that have been made, changes designed to carry Born Free Motorcoach well into the future.
In March 2012, John C.T. engaged the expertise of Kent Barbee, a close friend and visionary leader with whom John C.T. has worked closely over the years to revitalize companies. Both John C.T. and Kent highly value the input and initiative of employees. “You can lose your job at Born Free if you don’t do it,” explained C.T., “but you will not lose your job by trying something innovative, even if it doesn’t work.”
Armed with this philosophy and attitude, by early June the team had designed and built three new models (23-foot, 25-foot slideout, and 29-foot units). The company held a factory rally, where they dazzled more than 100 Born Free owners by unveiling these units.
Now that Born Free had these new models, they needed to be able to display them more effectively, a sentiment expressed by many Born Free owners at the factory rally. Humboldt, Iowa, is a friendly, charming town, but it isn’t very convenient to visit if you are from points far away.
Born Free Motorcoach has traditionally sold factory-direct from its showroom in Humboldt, largely eschewing dealers throughout the company’s 44-year history. In the past, when the dealership model was tried, the company had to raise its prices significantly to provide a margin for the dealer, making its motorhomes more expensive than if they were purchased directly from the factory. In some instances, Born Free leaders were frustrated by dealers who used the company’s coaches as an example of a top-of-the-line luxury Type C motorhome but would then hook a potential buyer by saying, “I can get you into something else that’s a lot less than this Born Free.”
Because of Born Free’s long-standing reluctance to enter into dealer relationships, providing visibility for the new RVs posed a problem. John C.T., motivated by excitement for Born Free’s new designs as well as the promptings of Born Free owners, began talking with John Horton of Lazydays, an established RV dealership with an original location in Tampa, Florida, and a recently opened second facility in Tucson, Arizona. After several encouraging conversations, John C.T. and John Horton met at Lazydays’ Tampa location. John C.T. noted that he was impressed with the integrity with which Lazydays conducts business as well as the company’s customer-centric philosophy. Not only that, but both John C.T. and John Horton agreed that it was time to try something other than the typical dealer-manufacturer relationship.
Before any agreements were finalized, a task force composed of several Born Free personnel spent time at Lazydays’ Tampa dealership, asking questions, meeting with salespeople and managers, and generally getting a feel for the company culture. After days of scrutiny, all concluded that Lazydays and Born Free would be a great fit.
Beginning in October 2012, Born Free motorhomes were displayed and sold at Lazydays’ two locations, and, of course, still at the company’s Humboldt factory. This Factory Direct Plus partnership means that the price of a Born Free is not inflated — each motorhome is sold for the same factory-direct price no matter where it is purchased.
Well before price is ever addressed, however, Born Free employees work to infuse a high level of quality in each motorhome that is produced, following the company’s unwavering commitment to customers. For example, virtually all aspects of construction are completed at the Humboldt factory, including cabinetry, fiberglass, assembly, and finishing; this helps to ensure the quality-built vehicles for which Born Free is known. The company mantra: to build it as though it were your own. Upon completion, each unit is driven, water-tested, and its appliances and systems operated to ensure optimum usability. This is backed up by a stringent quality-control checklist.
In addition to Born Free Motorcoach, Dodgen Industries is also parent company to Dodgen Mobile Technologies, which produces mobile command vehicles, mobile veterinary clinics, emergency response vehicles, and other specialty units.
It should come as no surprise that John N.’s commitment to his company and his decision to hand the reins to the next generation of Dodgens already has borne fruit. The course has changed somewhat, but the high road is still being taken.