RV History with Al Hesselbart
In 1964, three brothers with varied backgrounds decided to start a trailer company. Tom, Keith and Claude Corson each had experience that was needed to put together a successful venture. Tom was an accountant working as a “Friendly Bob Adams” for the Associates Finance Company, Keith was an engineer, and Claude was a manager for a successful RV manufacturer. Calling themselves the “coach men,” the Corson brothers founded Coachmen Industries, which was destined to grow into one of the largest RV manufacturers in the country.
The company, however, got off to a slow start. Their first-year production equaled fewer than one hundred products. In that year, they built and sold twelve travel trailers, one slide-in truck camper and eighty utility pickup truck caps. From this rather inauspicious start, Coachmen Industries grew through acquisition and origination to become a multilevel RV company recognized, at one time, as the third-largest manufacturer of recreation products in the United States.
The brothers built a full line of RVs under the Coachmen name. In 1968, as they continued to grow, they acquired the Viking Recreational Vehicles line of folding tent campers. Viking quickly grew it into one of the nation’s largest makers of tent campers.
Coachmen then bought the California-based Shasta Trailer Company, adding significantly to its travel trailer line, which was especially attractive on the West Coast. The company purchased the Georgie Boy Company, an Edwardsburg, Michigan, producer of motorhomes, which greatly increased its presence in the motorized RV field. They also bought the Sportscoach brand in 1981, bringing a high-line motorhome into its stable. Sportscoach motorhomes were designed for full-time living and were equipped for a long-range-travel lifestyle.
The company originated what it called “The Buck Stops Here” warranty. Instead of requiring customers to deal with each component manufacturer for repairs, Coachmen took responsibility for the entire RV and dealt with the appliance and parts manufacturers itself. This approach was so popular that soon it became a standard throughout the RV industry.
In 1969, five years after its slow beginning, Coachmen went public and in 1983, joined the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations. Coachmen also diversified into the supply side of the RV industry with the creation of Coachlite Supply, a full-line marketer of aftermarket materials. They also started Prodesign Products, a company to thermoform plastic products such as holding tanks, raised roofs, running boards, and vehicle ground effects products and other plastic items for the RV and vehicle manufacturers. Prodesign became a leading manufacturer of aftermarket fiberglass for pickup trucks and passenger vans.
As Coachmen Industries evolved, Tom became the CEO and chairman; Keith was president and was the one to manage all operations; and Claude, who had originated the concept of joining together to start up the company, eventually left to develop his own ventures. Tom not only looked after the finances and marketing of his company, but also became very active in the national RV scene. He served many years on the boards of directors of both Indiana and national RV associations, chairing several committees of both organizations. In 1996, Tom Corson was recognized as “Indiana Master Entrepreneur of the Year” and received an award co-sponsored by the professional services firm Ernst and Young and the NASDAQ Stock Exchange.
In 2008 Coachmen Industries was purchased by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and became a part of the Forest River family.