This 33-year-old company reflects the personal work ethic and business philosophy of its founder, Bob Tiffin, and his three sons.
By Lazelle Jones
The word “allegro” is a musical term that calls for a quick and lively tempo. Back in 1972 when Bob Tiffin began designing and building motorhomes, his wife, Judy, who had a background and education in music, suggested that they name the coach the Allegro. Today this moniker remains on several of the coach models designed and built by Tiffin Motorhomes Inc.
Much has changed “” and in allegro fashion “” from that first year when Bob Tiffin built two type A gasoline motorhomes in a 23,000-square-foot cotton warehouse in Red Bay, Alabama, with 30 employees. In February 2005 coach number 50,000 rolled off the production line, and it came from a state-of-the-art 740,000-square-foot facility where more than 1,000 people work to produce 15 motorhomes a day. The company is still headquartered in Red Bay, but it has a new cutting-edge paint facility in Belmont, Mississippi, just minutes away. And Tiffin’s dealer network stretches across North America, with 85 dealers in more than 100 locations throughout the United States and Canada.
Despite its exponential growth, Tiffin Motorhomes remains very much the same. Bob is still a personable man with an open-door policy. It is genuine “” not public relations fluff. I tried calling him directly without identifying myself as a writer, and the receptionist put me through to his phone “” which he answered. No screening and no stonewalling. In this day and age, that truly is amazing.
The personalized touch Bob has brought to each and every Tiffin customer will be around well into the 21st century, for his three sons, Tim, Van, and Lex, work together to run various aspects of the company. Tim, 43, is general manager; he watches over the day-to-day operations and manufacturing. Van, 39, heads up product development and oversees the marketing process. Lex, 29, manages quality control.
Bob said his passion in life is his family’s company, and just like his father, he plans to work until he is 84 or 85 years old “” and that’s another 20-plus years from now.
Bob attributes his successes in the motorhome business to a number of factors. One is that Tiffin is family-owned. Another is that by keeping his span of control from becoming too great (which would limit his ability to be accessible to customers and employees), he stays well-acquainted with their needs.
The Tiffin work ethic is yet another reason for the success of Tiffin Motorhomes. Bob and his sons arrive at the plant in Red Bay at 5:00 a.m. every day, and it’s no short drive for any of them. Bob travels 42 miles one way.
Each day begins with a meeting between Bob, Tim, Van, and Lex, a practice that not only utilizes their collective talents to manage Tiffin Motorhomes, but gives each son the opportunity to be intimately familiar with all areas of the family business. It’s a strategy that serves Tiffin Motorhomes very well, one that guarantees continuity for the day when Bob finally does retire.
One more factor that Bob attributes to his company’s ability to survive the manic swings that have occurred in the RV industry (such as the two oil embargoes during the 1970s, and the various recessions over the years) is financial stability. He saved money during the good times and plowed those savings back into the company when it was prudent to do so. Bob leaves no room for knee-jerk reactions in business. He remains steady and steadfast. As a result, Tiffin Motorhomes has been able to downsize quickly when the economy goes into a contraction, and it has the resources available to respond when it’s time to expand the company during good times.
So, how did Tiffin Motorhomes get started? Bob’s father, Alex, owned a general merchandise store in Red Bay that sold everything from fabric and canned goods to automobile parts. Back in the 1960s, two motorhome manufacturers decided to open shop nearby, and Bob and his father began stocking the kinds of materials these two companies needed, just in case they ran out of something and had to complete a unit for rapid shipping (which happened quite frequently). The two RV makers began to have financial trouble, and it was Bob’s job to do the bill collecting. In the process of working with these motorhome builders, he became intimately familiar with how the companies ran, what they had done wrong, and what was needed to successfully build and sell RVs.
The companies finally went under. Bob told his dad that he could build motorhomes using the leftover inventory of parts and materials. And he did “” in fact, he built two that first year and immediately sold them both.
Tiffin first gained its excellent reputation by building type A gasoline-powered motorhomes. It still makes gas models, starting with the entry-level Allegro, with the Allegro Bay being the next step up. The Tiffins use Workhorse or Ford chassis in these coaches, which range in length from 28 feet to 38 feet and come with up to three slideouts.
In addition to the gasoline models, Bob and his sons have targeted niches in the diesel-pusher market as well “” and filled them. Case in point is the luxurious, entry-level diesel pusher, the Phaeton; a review of the motorhome begins on page 108 of this issue.
The Phaeton came about because the company needed a diesel coach with an entry-level price point. Twelve years ago, the diesel-powered Allegro Bus debuted in that segment; over the years, however, it incorporated more and more state-of-the-art luxury appointments, and its price point increased accordingly. As this happened, it left a gap “” which the Phaeton was developed to fill. Now the Allegro Bus is positioned in the middle of the company’s trio of diesel pusher models. Above it sits the flagship of all Tiffin motorhomes, the top-of-the-line Zephyr.
By the way, do the words Zephyr and Phaeton sound familiar? If you’re seasoned enough to recall, or simply a fan of classic cars, you know that they once applied to automobiles. It so happens that one of Bob’s hobbies involves antique cars. He has restored two Packard convertibles (1933 and 1938 models), as well as a 1940 Ford convertible.
Bob chose the name Zephyr after the Lincoln Zephyr, constructed by Ford (with a V-12 engine) between 1936 and 1942 “” it’s a car he admires very much. The Phaeton was a style of upscale (open car) automobile that was built from the beginning of the 20th century until World War II.
It’s one more great example of Bob Tiffin’s personal touch in the company he founded more than 30 years ago.