This manufacturer of RV awnings and related accessories has grown and prospered throughout its 39-year history “” and that’s no movie fantasy.
By Lazelle Jones
Okay, what’s the connection between Song of the South and Zip Dee Inc., the 39-year-old company that designs, builds, and sells high-end RV awnings and accessories? This was but one of several questions Bob Miller, the CEO of Zip Dee, would answer during my visit to the Zip Dee plant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, this past summer.
Henry Duda, a travel trailer owner, founded Zip Dee in 1965. In the process, he took advantage of the kidding he often heard about his last name and its close association with the lyrics in the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the Disney musical Song of the South. Henry chose the name Zip Dee after designing and building the first-ever stainless-steel, aluminum, and Sunbrella fabric awning that could be set up by one person “” a bold departure from what was then conventional awning technology.
He was driven to do this after personally experiencing how difficult it was to put up the awnings that were available in the 1960s. It could take a couple of hours and required two people to complete the installation, which involved sliding fabric into a channel that was mounted on the RV; putting up poles, ropes, and stakes; and then adjusting everything. Henry was an avid RV enthusiast who for years enjoyed the RV lifestyle in his Airstream travel trailer, and he knew there had to be a better way. As the president of a large dairy company in the Chicago area, Henry turned to materials that were used in the dairy business “” stainless steel and aluminum. As is typical of so many inventors and innovators, he created a better “mousetrap.”
From the get-go, Henry Duda’s new awning design was a resounding success. He immediately received requests for his awning from other RV enthusiasts and fellow members of Airstream’s Wally Byam Club. It seemed they all wanted similar awnings for themselves. One after another, requests for Henry’s awnings kept coming in, and one after another, Henry accommodated those requests. In the process, he discovered a multimillion-dollar market that he ultimately would tap into as well.
By 1970 the awning activity had reached such a fevered pitch that Henry decided to leave the dairy industry and devote all of his time to building Zip Dee awnings. He moved the operation from his home to its current location in Elk Grove Village, near Chicago. In 1973, Bob, Henry’s son-in-law, was tapped to run the business. Henry took his Airstream and hit the road, traveling all over America, visiting RV dealers and introducing them to this new product.
Since the early 1970s, Zip Dee also has been showing and offering its products directly to RV enthusiasts at FMCA conventions. Henry was the company’s only salesperson, so these events, augmented by word-of-mouth testimonials by satisfied customers, helped to spread the news about Zip Dee awnings. Bob told FMC that back then, Henry would build an awning only after the order was received; that practice continues today. In the early days, Henry would coordinate with a customer who was going to be traveling through the Chicago area and would make an appointment to meet the RVer, sometimes even at a highway rest area, where they would install the awning.
The way Zip Dee does business today is quite similar. It is a small family concern that coexists with “the big guys.” There are still no salesmen (except for Bob and, of course, thousands of satisfied customers), but today more than 700 RV dealers and RV accessory stores carry Zip Dee products. Bob no longer meets clients along the highway as Henry once did, but Bob does personally man the booth at FMCA conventions so he can meet his customers face-to-face.
Zip Dee sells its custom-built awnings to high-end RV manufacturers and converters such as Blue Bird Corporation, Featherlite Vantare Luxury Coaches, Country Coach, Liberty Coach, and, of course, Airstream; to many emergency and specialty vehicle manufacturers; and to the retail customer through dealers. There is no generic size, style, or model of Zip Dee awning, and there is no inventory of completed awnings waiting to be sold. Each Zip Dee awning is custom-built and coach-specific.
Bob and his wife, Judy (Henry’s daughter), today own this privately held company. Bob has been at the helm since Henry passed away in 1985 and continues to direct this company as Henry did. Bob’s contention is, “Why change a formula that was, is, and will continue to be successful?”
Zip Dee remains committed to the high-end luxury RV market, not only with awning products but with other items that accessorize and facilitate the lifestyle. For example, the company builds folding chairs with wood armrests that are handcrafted and selected so that the grain of the wood on each pair is a near match for aesthetic purposes. These chairs are only 2 inches wide when folded and can be easily stowed in most any basement storage compartment. Three models of folding chairs are offered: one with the standard seat width; an extra-width model; and a stainless-steel model. The latter is often purchased and used by those in the marine industry, because stainless steel is resistant to corrosion.
To this day, Zip Dee’s manual awning still features the same basic metal wrap design that Henry created and the same proven materials of stainless steel, aluminum, and Sunbrella acrylic fabric. Though competitors have adopted the once unique look of the Zip Dee awning, the company’s continued success may be its small-company attention to detail. For example, 40 different types of hardware and more than 140 different Sunbrella patterns and color schemes are available. This allows Zip Dee technicians (who average more than 15 years with the company) to help the customer choose the hardware that is correct for a specific RV and to select colors that will complement and enhance the appearance and lines of that RV and its paint and graphics scheme. The technicians work with the individual RV customer as well as the original-equipment manufacturer. Zip Dee also does individual monogramming for RV manufacturers.
The company continues to be on the cutting edge of power awning design as well. Always responsive to the changing needs and demands of the RV enthusiast, Zip Dee was one of the first to introduce a fully automatic awning for RV use. Today it has two models, the AutoAwn and the NewCentury.
The AutoAwn utilizes support arms for extra strength. It employs two sources of power to operate the extending and retracting processes, 12-volt-DC electricity and compressed air. DC power is always available on an RV, and compressed air often is, but should compressed air need to be added, a small self-contained DC-powered compressor module is included as a part of the awning package. Actually, the DC electric components in the AutoAwn are 24 volts, and the self-contained module awning includes a small capacitor that steps up the voltage from 12 volts to 24 volts. I found the AutoAwn to be both rugged and attractive. Bob noted that the one that is kept at the plant for demonstrations has handled an accumulation of 3 inches of snow and has withstood actual wind speeds of 42 mph. He said he believes that it could withstand wind speeds of up to 60 mph. The AutoAwn features both push-button and remote controls. Yes, push a button. That’s all that’s required.
The Zip Dee NewCentury is an armless box awning that operates on 120-volt-AC power and comes with a remote control and a wind sensor that automatically retracts the awning when winds of about 22 mph are experienced. This allows the RV owner to put out the awning and then leave and not worry about wind damage to the awning while away from the coach.
Zip Dee also offers screened-in patio rooms that are custom made to the specific measurements submitted by the customer.
Be it an awning or a screened-in patio room, from the time an order is received at Zip Dee until it is shipped to the customer, no more than seven calendar days will pass. Customers also can visit the Elk Grove Village location, and the Zip Dee people will do the measuring.
To augment the screened-in patio rooms, Zip Dee also has developed a water-anchor called the Aqua Anchor that is used in lieu of stakes to keep the patio room in place along the bottom. What a great idea! You simply place the acrylic bags around the bottom of the patio room and then fill them with your RV hose. The bags form themselves to the contour of the ground below.
Another product that enhances the enjoyment of outdoor patio living is the patio carpet Zip Dee offers. Bob buys this in bulk and has it shipped from his supplier in Europe. It is then cut to the specific size requested by the client. This carpet is made of foamed PVC-encapsulated jute mesh in an open weave design; the material allows dirt and moisture to pass through to the ground below, rather than get tracked into the RV. Because the mat is laced with small openings, grass will even grow through it if it is left in place long enough. This means no dead or yellow spots on the ground after the carpet is folded up and put away. It is lightweight and dries quickly.
An important player since the early days of recreation vehicles, Zip Dee continues to offer its customers the quality and state-of-the-art creations they demand. Even if you can’t visit the plant in Elk Grove Village, you still can obtain a custom awning through one of Zip Dee’s many qualified dealers, coach converters, or RV manufacturers.
Zip Dee Inc., 96 Crossen Ave., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007; (800) 338-2378; www.zipdeeinc.com.