At Home On the Road

Ehler’s RV rides a growing trend

by Julia Lynam

Peter Beauregard, the owner of Ehler’s RV in Essex, is riding the wave of increasing interest in recreational vehicles fueled by aging baby boomers.

Life is a journey - enjoy it!The inhabitants, temporary or permanent, of motor homes, fifth wheels and travel trailers constitute a subculture that embraces this maxim, bringing the gypsy lifestyle to new heights of luxury.

Modern motor homes might be equipped with flat-screen TVs - yes, more than one - and “toy box” compartments for storing dirt bikes, surfboards and even hot air balloons. Both the market and the products are expanding in all directions, according to Peter Beauregard, owner of Ehler’s RV in Essex.

Family vacations are increasingly popular, and younger families are finding themselves able to buy bigger and better trailers and motor homes, while the motor homes themselves are expanding outward and upward. Sliding sections, pushed out sideways when the vehicle is stationary, can hugely increase the inside area, Beauregard explains, “and some manufacturers are expanding upwards, introducing two-floor mobile homes with sleeping lofts or rooftop observation decks.”

Beauregard acquired the well-established Essex RV dealership in 2002 following the sad and untimely death from cancer of its previous owner, Michael Ehler, whose father, Duke, founded the business in 1965.

Like the Ehlers, the Beauregards have been a local family for many years, and after graduating from high school, he went into his own family’s business, Beauregard Equipment, then in Essex. “In fact, I started working in the family business at the age of 12,” Beauregard recalls, sitting in his bright but modest office surrounded by inspirational sayings and the busy hum of sales and service activities.

“Then about 12 years ago, my three brothers and I bought out our parents, Helen and Robert. In 2001 I sold my interest in the family business to my brothers and looked around for other opportunities. I purchased a company called Nordic Funding, which leases equipment in the forestry and construction industry.”

Sales manager Jim Whitehead (center) has been with Ehler’s for seven years, since he left his full-time disc jockey job with radio station WOKO. He’s pictured here with sales staffers (from left) John Brownell, Scott Martell and Lisa Murray. Cheryl Maynard, at right, is the receptionist.

The opportunity to buy Ehler’s came three years ago. “I could see it would be a very good move,” he says. He was right, and six months ago he relinquished Nordic Leasing to concentrate on the dealership.

Nationally, the demographic sector that purchases most RVs is on the rise. “There are about three million baby boomers a year aging into the 55-plus age bracket,” Beauregard explains, “and that will continue for seven more years. In addition, the average age of RVers has dropped in the last three years from 55 to 52. This is because the value of their homes has appreciated so much that younger people have more buying power - they are able to use the equity in their homes to buy RVs earlier.”

The RV dealership also appealed to Beauregard because it felt like familiar ground, he says. “The business model is very similar to Beauregard Equipment, with big-ticket items, parts sales and service, and the all-important customer relations-building that my father, whom I consider to be my chief mentor, was so good at teaching us about.”

Fond memories of family RV trips to Florida in his youth also played a part, and it’s not surprising to hear that Beauregard, his wife, Veronica, and children Chelsea, 16, Mike, 14, and Alex, 4, still enjoy their family RV vacations. The big attraction is family togetherness. He even named Ehler’s holding company, ACE Holdings, after his children’s first-name initials.

“It’s a family function; everyone enjoys it; it’s a controlled environment. You know where you’re going to sleep each night, as opposed to hotel rooms when you don’t know what kind of accommodation you’ll get,” Beauregard says, adding that many families seem to have become more interested in spending time together since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Beauregard’s old hockey buddy Roger Marcotte claims some of the credit for his interest in the world of RVs. “I’ve known Peter for more than 25 years,” says the co-owner of Shelburne’s Marcotte Appliances. “He and Veronica are godparents of one of our children. We used to go camping a lot when the children were younger. We broke him in, started him from the ground up!” Marcotte boasts.

Beauregard and his family are not alone at Ehler’s in their enthusiasm for RVing. Nearly all of the dealership’s 17 employees enjoy traveling and vacationing in recreational vehicles themselves. If new employees are not RVers, they are soon introduced to the joys of RVing, says administrative secretary Sandi Cormier, the company’s longest serving employee and a keen RVer. “It’s relaxing and a great getaway,” she continues. “We take the grandchildren, go to rallies and meet a lot of very friendly people.”

It’s this kind of interest and dedication on the part of the staff that makes the company what it is, says Beauregard. “Our people know camping; they know the business; they know how the customers feel when they can’t get out on the weekend. We understand that downtime is as important to a person who’s going camping Thursday as it is to a contractor trying to build a house.

“What’s unique about our industry’s service is that the technicians need to be very versatile: They have to be plumbers, electricians, roofers and mechanics. In a motor home, you have everything from brakes to roof construction, so they need to have diverse skills, be open-minded and able to learn a lot of different trades.”

Service manager Roger LeBlanc, a key member of the Ehler’s team, joined the company four years ago after 30 years with other local vehicle dealerships, including Fitzpatrick GMC and Willie Racine’s Jeep in South Burlington. LeBlanc’s mechanics and technicians have to wear many hats and deal with a tremendous variety of items from heavy-duty chassis to cooking stoves.

Another keen RVer, LeBlanc perceives a high degree of customer loyalty, “Once people get into camping,” he says, “they seldom get out of it - they move up. People start with a pop-up trailer, then progress on to a travel trailer and maybe a mobile home as they near retirement. RV camping is especially good for the grandchildren - no parents allowed!” he says with a smile.

Nearly all of the dealership’s 17 employees enjoy traveling and vacationing in RVs. Beauregard’s wife and promotions director, Veronica Beauregard (left) is pictured with Sandi Cormier, the company’s longest serving employee and an avid RVer.

Rapidly rising gasoline prices, while a frequent talking point for potential customers, do not usually influence the decision to buy products that carry price tags from $15,000 for a compact travel trailer to $250,000 for a Winnebago motor home, says Beauregard.

“People don’t usually do very large annual mileages with motor homes or trailers. Most people are not going to call off an annual vacation for a whole family because the fuel is going to cost them two or three hundred dollars more than last year.”

Return business is one important source of sales, but other forms of marketing play their part and Beauregard has selected stock car racing sponsorship as one strategy. Jean-Paul Cyr, general manager of Cyr’s Lumber in Milton, drives the Ehler’s RV Chevy Monte Carlo in the local American-Canadian Tour late-model stock car racing championship.

Since Beauregard joined the team, Cyr has come to appreciate his qualities. “Peter’s a very precise, thoughtful person,” he says. “He seems always to have a plan - always to be looking ahead.”

They’re both looking ahead with anticipation this season - Cyr drove the Ehler’s car to victory in the 2004 tournament and is heading toward a repeat performance this year.

The company’s Web page is a growing source of leads. “Typically these days the first contact we have with new customers is e-mail,” Beauregard says. “I think most people take a look; if they’re interested they’ll drop us an e-mail. Even local people often look at the website before they call. People find it easy to check out the site when they’re relaxing at home in the evening, so most mornings there are several e-mail inquiries waiting for me when I arrive in the office.”

Beauregard and his staff are waiting to charm them with their own enthusiasm for the open road. •

Originally published in September 2005 Business People-Vermont