Chalet RV keeps on rolling

Chalet RV keeps on rolling

By Dan Cook

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Cheaper and lighter than most RVs, Model XLI935 by Chalet RV typifies why the Albany company has weathered the industry's downturn.

Chris Hanson remembers that time back in early 2008 — before the crash — when he thought: “I’ll finally be able to quit my day job.”

Hanson, co-founder/co-owner with wife Brenda of Albany-based Chalet RV, was working days for Hewlett Packard in Corvallis and helping Brenda run Chalet in his spare time. “Production was up, orders were coming in. I said to myself, ‘This is gonna be the year!’ Then, everything collapsed.”

Now, nearly four painful years later, the Hansons have cause for cautious optimism once again. As the dust has settled over the demise of the once-vibrant Oregon recreational vehicle industry, Chalet is still alive and even planning to hire more employees come March.

How did this feisty little 12-year-old RV manufacturer survive when industry giants like Country Coach and Monaco Coach couldn’t as stand-alone operations? The secret appears to be part the Hansons’ dogged determination not to fail, and part the company’s ability to respond quickly to market trends.

“That’s why we survived; we were more flexible and could turn on a dime,” Chris Hanson says. “Sometimes we’d launch a new product just to get something new out there, and discontinue it later.”

Chalet’s website claims it’s “the nation’s leading manufacturer of ultra lightweight hard-sided travel trailers.” But even being an industry leader in the recreational vehicle business is no guarantee of success these days. Chalet’s focus on narrow RV niches, such as high-end truck campers and lightweight folding A-frames, means giving up volume for market share. When the industry died in 2008, share shrank in every niche.

The Hansons say they were quick to respond, fighting to stay afloat. They downsized and watched for niches that might hold out promise.

Meanwhile, they were beginning to see a definite sales uptick. But increased demand posed a financial problem: Already undercapitalized, the Hansons had to somehow find the funds to ramp up production. They got $350,000 in government loans in 2010, added a second production line, hired more workers and began to get some traction in the marketplace.

In 2011, unit sales topped 300; still well below Chalet’s pre-crash peak of 500, but a good sign. At one point during the peak season they employed 60. (That fell to 40 during the winter.) But that was enough to raise the Hansons’ hopes once again.

“We’re optimistic. The future is very bright for us,” Chris Hanson says. But will he be able to quit his day job? “I don’t even think about it anymore,” he says. “This business is just too crazy.”