NORTHEAST INDIANA—I am on the clangorous factory floor at Riverside RVs, a $3 million annual recreational vehicle business in LaGrange County. My host is the affable Mervin Lehman, the operations manager, sporting a beard and haircut that makes him look unmistakably… Amish.
It’s not an illusion. Lehman and many of the other people running RV businesses in this booming part of Indiana are Amish, as is a quarter of the population in some of the local counties. Despite pledging themselves to a religion that eschews many of the conveniences of modern life, including driving, they are building recreational vehicles for a constituency they sometimes call “the English,” i.e., non-Amish.
Riverside’s workforce is 95 percent Amish, and the day is ending—at 2 p.m. Bearded men and women in long dresses and caps were heading to their cars and buses—“Amish taxis” driven by English drivers. As Lehman explains, the Amish are used to getting up early, and they like time at the end of the day to work on the farms that dot the countryside.
The RV business in Northeast Indiana took a big dive in 2008-2009, when the recession and high gas prices amounted to a double whammy. Remember, the bigger rigs get eight mpg. Some companies declared bankruptcy, and the state threw its weight behind a nascent electric car industry for hard-hit Elkhart (it didn’t take). But the region didn't sit on its hands: the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership was formed to foster business growth. Gas prices fell, and they’ve been relatively stable for three years. Today, the RV companies, including Riverside, are enjoying their best year—ever. Americans are on big wheels.
To keep the RV business healthy, “drill, baby, drill,” Lehman said. He’s joking, but also being serious—the RV business rises and falls on the price at the pumps. Lehman doesn’t build motorhomes, but travel trailer/caravans and fifth wheels that get towed by pickup trucks. Some of them are quite adorable, in a rather 50s, retro way, though they use modern appliances and materials. Prices at retail are around $20,000 to $35,000.
Many modern RVs have a fold-down front ramp and room for “toys.” When Lehman first tells me about this, I picture kids playing on the floor with blocks. But, he said, “these kids are 6’6,” and their toys are dirt bikes and ATVs. Some RVs actually have “garages” that could accommodate anything up to and including a Smart car.
The Amish don’t do “toys,” either. Their buggies come in basic black, and the big debate is whether enclosed models are allowed or not. A controversy over requiring the horses to wear diapers was decided in the Amish’s favor. The Amish may appear monolithic but they’re actually quite diverse in their beliefs, with the direction set by powerful local bishops.
If you’ve been laid off elsewhere, try Northeast Indiana. They’re hiring just all over the region, and since the industrious Amish are paid via piecework, some nail down six-figure salaries. The 11-county area has near full employment, and new business construction is everywhere.
We visit another Amish-owned RV business, Rock Run Industries. CEO Fritz Schlabach started it in his three-car garage, which “wasn’t being used for anything else.” His work force of more than 40 is mostly, but not exclusively, Amish. Rock Run makes small metal parts for RVs, such as TV mounting brackets, and Schlabach has $4 million in high-tech machines. But, like many Amish, he is camera shy.
The work day is from about 3 a.m. to noon. “Rising early has been in our blood for a long time,” Schlabach said. “It’s in our blood, and we get a lot done.” He agrees with me when I posit that some Amish must have become quite wealthy via the RV business. But that doesn’t mean they’re buying Barcaloungers, Xboxes and, well, motorhomes.
“We have a tri-county land trust that helps out young couples just starting out,” Schlabach said. The biggest problem for the Amish these days, he said, is the need for more land—it’s getting expensive in a full-employment economy. The Amish have a transportation problem, and they like to live near each other. Without land, centuries of farming tradition could fall away.
The Amish run RV businesses, but they’re far from the only or the biggest players. There’s 100 RV businesses in the region, and the industry employs 28,000. It’s six percent of area employment. The biggest companies are Thor and Forest River, which have been on an acquisition spree lately.
We visit a Forest River production facility, and although we didn’t get inside we saw rows of completed RVs stretching to the horizon. Half the workforce is Amish, a spokesman said. They’re hiring. “The RV business has been on a steady incline,” he said. “The last four years have been pretty good.”
Rev Recreation Group, another RV giant, incorporates Fleetwood, American Coach, Holiday Rambler and Monaco. Now we’re talkin’ motorhomes, some of which can stretch to 45 feet and cost $850,000. No Amish here, though that could change if outreach to the community succeeds. As Fleetwood, this company went through bankruptcy but it came roaring back and now has a million square feet in Elkhart and nearby Decatur. At its pre-recession peak, the company was producing 60,000 RVs a year; now it’s back up to 45,000.
It’s amazing to watch motorcoaches being built. The process starts with frames from Ford or Freightliner, running either diesel or gas power (and up to 600 horsepower). The tile floor goes on next, then the cabinets, then the roof. It’s built ground up, in a fairly labor-intensive process—not a lot of robots around. The basic materials are fiberglass, aluminum and steel.
Lenny Razo, the vice president of sales and marketing for Rev, takes us around, and we end up sitting together in a nearly complete luxury coach with all the trimmings—washer/dryer, large refrigerator and bed (with all bedding), multiple TV screens, stereo and more. Rev has its own area service center, and customers come from around the country, living in the RV while the vehicle is being serviced, and enjoying the comforts of Rev’s lounges. Quite a lot of the owners have dogs.
It’s impossible not to contrast the lifestyle of the RV owners with that of the Amish who were all around. Who’s to say that people riding in a horse and buggy, without electricity or running water, are any less happy than their English brethren? The Amish seemed pretty happy to me.
It’s not all RVs in the region. We also visit a family business, Thunderbird Products, which makes the Formula series of power boats—from daytrippers to huge 45-foot yachts. Actually, they’re kind of like waterborne motorhomes, down to the fiberglass construction and the luxury features. Similar pricing, too.
Grant R. Porter, whose father started the business in the 1960s, seems to really care for his workers, some of whom had been with him for a long time. The company is known for high-end, high-quality boats, with Florida and California being big markets.
“It’s a lot of dayboating these days,” Porter said. “People don’t seem to have the time for longer trips these days.” They also like all the latest in electronic gear, and they don’t like putting up canvas, so fiberglass hardtops are in. The company makes 300 to 400 boats a year, and will gladly paint them in custom colors if you ask.
Any Amish? Nope. “I’m not sure they’d adapt to this work environment,” Porter said. There are some obstacles. The Amish sometimes take Tuesdays or Wednesdays for funerals or other family events, so in a red-hot economy that can be an issue.
But, all in all, it’s remarkable how the Amish have adapted to the local economy, while preserving their lifestyle. Both Shalbach and Lehman stressed the importance of good communications between these communities, so different in outlook—but equally dedicated to hard work and making quality products. Here's a closer look, on video, at making motorhomes at Rev: