By Al Hesselbart
In 1925, a young engineer graduated from Cornell University, joined his father’s company, and began a long career inventing and producing a wide variety of products and supplies to enhance the growth of the infant RV industry. As soon as kitchens started to appear in the early trailers and house cars of the 1920s, Coleman hot plates, stoves, lamps and lanterns were the RV appliance known to most campers. The Coleman Company was the first major supplier of these “creature comforts” to the early manufacturers. Sheldon Coleman spent more than 50 years developing and improving appliances and equipment to enhance the RV lifestyle. Among the first published aids to early RVers was the “Coleman Motor Campers Manual,” a book of hints and “how to” articles published in 1926.
By 1936, the trailer coach industry was reported, in business surveys, to be the fastest growing industry in the country. The Coleman Company was racing to keep up with the dynamic industry demand for heat, light, and cooking appliances.
In the early days of his career, Sheldon Coleman identified a weakness in the marketing structure of industry suppliers. It was evident to him that there needed to be a better engineering liaison between the manufacturer and his suppliers. To effect this liaison, he gave separate divisional status to his trailer coach industry business and assigned specialists in research and development, engineering, production, sales, and service to commit to improving his products.
Coleman strongly believed that his company needed to continually expand and improve its products. Because of this, The Coleman Company was the first in the industry to establish its own research and development center. The early success of his engineering R & D center is illustrated by one of his “war stories.” In June 1942, he received a request from the U.S. Army Quartermaster for a one-man portable stove. The unit needed to operate on any available liquid fuel at temperatures from –60 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and be no larger than a one-quart milk bottle. Reportedly, his first response was “It can’t be done,” followed quickly by “but we’ll try.” With teams of engineers working around the clock, he successfully designed, prototyped, tested, got approved and began manufacturing and shipping the Coleman Pocket Stove. Five months after the Army’s request, in November 1942, 5,000 units were in the hands of American GI’s in the North African invasion. He later remarked that he was aware that no successful products had been made by any committee, but in this case, his team concept worked.
Following the war, he observed that, in cold weather, while flies lived in paradise on the ceiling of most trailers, children froze on the floor. This led, in 1949, to the development of the downflow furnace, which blew warm air out at floor level and circulated heat throughout the trailers. The gravity heater, the most commonly used system of the time, heated the air at the ceiling level but could leave the floors extremely cold.
Coleman developed the technology that led to the manufacture of the first all-plastic insulated cooler. This was just one of the products popular among RV owners and outdoorsmen. By the 1960s, he was producing tents, sleeping bags, catalytic heaters and folding tent-type camping trailers for the RV industry.
He was an avid proponent of customer service, guaranteeing the quality of his products. To follow up on this belief, he was among the first to establish a network of field service centers located throughout the country. This network eventually consisted of hundreds of authorized centers in 49 states (and Canada) with trained service personnel making on-the-spot Coleman service readily available to his customers. The Coleman production facilities grew to keep up with the enormous growth in product variety and technology.
In the 1960s, his plant in Wichita, Kansas, had grown to more than 1,000,000 square feet of production area. In one part of this facility, operators would feed a roll of steel, 67 1⁄2 inches wide, into the assembly line. Through a succession of press operations, welders, and formers, a complete furnace casing unit that came off the end of the line every 34 seconds. After electrostatic painting and the addition of a grill, burner, and controls, Coleman produced more than 1,000 furnaces for the RV and “mobile home” industry per day.
Sheldon strongly supported efforts to promote the industry. His company was typically one of the first suppliers to join state and national industry associations as they were formed. He took an active part in industry promotion events and was a ready participant in all regional and national trade shows, often manning his company’s booth to interact with customers.
Upon joining his family’s company immediately upon graduation from college, Sheldon Coleman quickly achieved notable recognition in the local community. Following a speech at Wichita State University in the mid-1930’s, a student asked, “To what do you attribute your great success at such a young age?” to which he honestly replied, “Choosing the right father had a great deal to do with it.” In spite of his having a head start in the industry, Sheldon was a tireless worker. He dedicated his entire life to making continual improvements and additions to The Coleman Company product line and its service to the RV, manufactured housing, and outdoor industry.