Owner Karl Blade chronicles the history of the company and how it continues to be an innovative leader in the luxury motorhome market.
By Lazelle D. Jones
Strange and wonderful things happen in life, and the explanations for why they happen often make for interesting reading. Such is the case not once, but at least twice, with Newell Coach Corporation.
The history of the company — how it got started and why it continues to thrive in the provincial northeast corner of Oklahoma — is a fascinating two-part story. The rural, yet beautiful, setting of Miami, Oklahoma, belies the fact that one of the town’s corporate citizens is a custom coach builder that for the past three decades has been on top of the latest coach technology and trends.
Newell Coach Corporation consistently builds and delivers 35 to 40 motor coaches each year for clients around the world, custom creations that sell for $700,000 to more than $1 million. Recently I spoke with Karl Blade, owner of Newell Coach Corporation since 1979, about the circumstances that led to the start of the company and its success through the years.
The building where Newell is located today was once a cement block factory owned and operated by L.K. Newell during the 1960s. How did a cement block maker get into the business of building motorhomes? In 1967 Mr. Newell visited the Streamline RV company in California in search of a motorhome for his personal use. At the time, Streamline was known primarily for its line of travel trailers that looked similar to the classic Airstream trailers. During the mid-1960s, Streamline introduced a line of motorhomes with aluminum bodies similar to its travel trailers. Unfortunately, the motorhomes were not big sellers for the company. But Mr. Newell liked the product he saw, and with his interest aroused, decided to buy not only the motorhome but the entire motorhome division. So, he loaded up all the parts, tools, machinery, and equipment required to build the motorhomes and shipped them back to his factory in Miami. Ironically, several years later, the Streamline trailer operation folded. The motorhome line — which had been renamed Newell — has flourished.
L.K. Newell could be described as a Henry Ford type of guy. Mr. Newell would come up with an idea, turn to his staff — he had no engineers, just clever workers who could weld steel and saw wood — and explain what his idea was intended to achieve. They would then go off and build it. Soon the company was building front-engine, gas-powered motorhomes on conventional frame rails of his own design and manufacture. But Mr. Newell heard about an obscure early-1950s passenger bus that featured a bridge-type chassis rather than the conventional frame-rail chassis, and was powered by a rear “pusher” engine. He bought one of the buses, brought it back to Miami, and had it disassembled. After stripping the bus, Mr. Newell liked what he saw. The combination of structural strength and storage opportunities that the bridge-style chassis construction offered was what he was after. That’s how today’s Newell chassis was born, complete with spacious “basement” storage that would become a staple of the industry some 20 years later.
Karl observed that L.K. Newell’s chassis concept, developed more than 30 years ago, became the key to the company’s leading role in slideout innovation during the late 1990s.
“Mr. Newell’s chassis design concentrated the structural strength in the bridge-construction welded framework below the coach floor,” Karl said. “Unlike other designs, including monocoque buses, the Newell chassis relies very little on the sidewalls for support. This is the real secret to how we could easily incorporate first one, then two, next three, and finally four slideouts in a structurally sound manner. Mr. Newell had no way to know in 1970 that incorporating slideouts in luxury motorhomes would be so important in the late 1990s. But he fully understood that a strong, self-supporting chassis would provide flexibility to build custom coaches to each customer’s preferences, as well as develop the product in a variety of as yet undefined directions. Mr. Newell’s visionary imagination more than 30 years ago is today, in hindsight, pretty incredible.”
In 1971 Newell Coach Corporation became the first motorhome manufacturer to build a diesel-powered motorhome. At the time, a few small operations converted a handful of new and used diesel bus shells, but no other purpose-built motorhome used diesel power, Karl noted. While the company continued to build front-engine, gas-powered coaches well into the mid-1970s, its revolutionary diesel pushers were a sought-after product.
Mr. Newell operated the company until 1973, when poor health forced him to sell the business. For the next six years, an interim owner directed the company, until Karl Blade happened upon Newell Coach Corporation in 1979.
Much like Mr. Newell’s spur-of-the-moment decision to buy the company, Karl’s relationship with Newell Coach Corporation could almost be considered accidental. At the time, he and his father owned a very successful Chevrolet dealership (founded in 1929 and still operated by the Blade family) in the Seattle, Washington, area. With a keen eye for new opportunities, Karl began showing motorhomes at the dealership to the point that, in 1976, he was representing four different makes of motorhomes. One of those was Blue Bird Wanderlodge.
In the fall of 1979, Karl and his wife, Alice, were returning home from Blue Bird’s manufacturing facility in Georgia, where they had taken delivery of a new Blue Bird coach that they would use as their personal demonstrator. Having seen Newell Coach Corporation advertisements in FMC magazine, Karl was intrigued by the company’s unique rear-engine design. Almost on a lark, they decided to stop in Miami — more as motorhome fans than businesspeople — to visit the Newell plant, where they were given a tour. They were impressed with the innovative rear-engine, air-suspension coaches they saw. But, they also sensed that the owner may have lost his passion for running the company.
“We just couldn’t help but be increasingly excited about the quiet-running, air-sprung rear-engine coaches we had just seen,” Karl said. They also sensed an opportunity. He inquired about purchasing the company. Three months later, ownership of Newell Coach Corporation changed hands again, with Karl Blade and two other investors taking control.
At the time, the Blades were settled in Washington, running the Seattle-area Chevrolet dealership, and raising their two daughters, so they expected to be a “silent partner.” The original plan included a successful RV industry sales executive as one of the two other investors. He was to be the general manager and run the company on a day-to-day basis. However, as often happens with business partnerships, things did not go as planned. The partners ended up disagreeing about how the company should be operated. Karl was the majority owner and, as such, elected to replace the management. A year and a half after purchasing Newell Coach Corporation, Karl and his family moved to Miami — just for 90 days — to get things back on track and to hire another general manager. The funny thing is, Karl found he enjoyed running the plant, immersing himself in every aspect of day-to-day operations. And his family liked living in Oklahoma. Ninety days has turned into 23 years, and the Blades are still in Miami.
Karl recalled, “It didn’t take me long to discover that my many years of literally growing up in the retail automobile business, my degree in accounting, and a background in the sale and servicing of high-line motorhomes were a pretty good fit for managing the Newell operation, even though I was only 35 years old at the time. Plus, running Newell and building our own product is a lot more fun than any car dealership. What sealed the deal to relocate to Oklahoma was that Alice instantly loved the business as much as I did and immediately bonded with the employees and customers. She has a very high energy level and was on the premises with me every day. I never make a difficult decision without her advice.”
In 1985 Karl bought the remaining shares of the company and today is its sole owner.
Looking back over the past couple of decades, Newell Coach Corporation has been on the cutting edge of a number of important innovations, such as high-horsepower diesel engines (before Newell began upping the power ante in the late 1970s, motorhomes topped out at about 225 horsepower); the 102-inch “wide body”; European exterior styling combined with slick, contemporary laminate interiors; independent front suspension; slideouts featuring flat floors and air seals; and air-powered entry doors.
One of the company’s most recent innovations has been the use of linear ball bearings to mount the slideouts. Suspending the rooms on the linear bearings offers a new approach to slideout mechanisms. The design holds the rooms in precise location as they move, greatly reducing the force required to extend and retract the rooms and enabling the use of small electric motors to power the mechanisms.
Karl readily admits that Newell Coach Corporation’s good fortune rests clearly with its employees, some who have been with the company for more than 30 years, since the days of L.K. Newell. These include key personnel such as Boyd Vanover, vice president of engineering, and Scott Larson, vice president of operations. “Most of our employees, including Boyd and Scott, have literally grown up within our organization,” Karl said. “Twenty-five years ago, Boyd was a cabinetmaker on the Newell production line. Today, key vendors like Detroit Diesel uniformly tell me Boyd is one of the most skilled and effective engineers in the coach industry. Scott came into our organization as a junior draftsman, went to night classes at a local college while working full-time with us, and graduated with a four-year business management degree and a perfect 4.0 grade point average. People like Boyd and Scott are the foundation of Newell’s long-running success.”
Currently, 175 people work at the company’s 120,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 20 acres. Recently, the employees suggested that they switch to a 10-hour-a-day, four-day workweek. Karl asked them to present their proposal in detail. After settling on several key issues, he gave the go-ahead for the new schedule, with the understanding that the company would return to the conventional five-day workweek if either the employees or company were dissatisfied with the results. So far, productivity has increased by more than 10 percent. With the same workforce, the company is finishing new coaches at the rate of 40 per year, up from 36. And the employees enjoy having three-day weekends. The service department operates on Friday, if necessary, on an overtime basis, and the company’s service “hot line” continues to provide 24-hour, 7-day-a-week coverage. The sales staff and front office personnel continue to work five days a week.
In terms of philosophy, Karl said that remaining an innovator in the motorhome field has been, and always will be, a primary line item in the company’s mission statement. “The graveyard of RV manufacturers is full of companies that for one reason or another have gotten stale with their product,” he noted. “A lot of the time this happens when management and ownership ages and they begin to think they’ve designed the ultimate motorhome. Pretty soon the market runs right past them to a product that is more innovative and more in style for the day. The only long-haul strategy for success is to keep your new idea and innovation antennas up.”
While innovation has been a company trademark, so has the ability to adapt another company’s ideas to Newell Coach Corporation products. One example cited by Karl came about when he and Boyd Vanover were attending a Formula One race in Germany as guests of the Ferrari team three years ago. One of the team’s motor coaches was a slick, custom-built European bus equipped with nifty air-operated doors that opened and closed at the touch of a button. “We took a close look at the door itself and found the name of the manufacturer on the mechanism,” Karl explained. “It took several weeks to chase down the German-based manufacturer, but it was worth the effort, for that’s what our clients enjoy on their Newell coaches today.”
Karl knows that staying successful in the motorhome market means understanding what the public expects in today’s motorhomes and doing it better than any other company. “You need to always look at the competitors’ products, look at related industries, like boats and fine homes, listen to your customers, and listen to new prospects. You need to immediately look at a competitor who is experiencing new successes. But the idea is not to copy. Success comes from understanding a new concept and its appeal, and then doing it better. A good example is slideout rooms. This concept was pioneered by others, but ours were introduced with air seals and flat floors. Now our rooms move smoothly and easily on linear ball bearings. We keep fine-tuning this effort all the time.”
Karl estimates that 70 percent of Newell’s business comes from repeat customers. Clearly, L.K. Newell’s company vision lives on, as Karl Blade remains focused on building the best motorhomes possible.