With a change in ownership and the launch of an aggressive new business strategy, this venerable company works to enhance its niche in the luxury motor coach market.
By Lazelle Jones
Lyle Reed, a retired executive with 33 years of experience in the railroad industry, recently transferred the management skills, business acumen, and enthusiasm he had acquired during that career to focus on the production and marketing of high-line motor coaches. Those attributes now are being applied to Foretravel Inc., C236, a high-line motor coach manufacturer based in Nacogdoches, Texas, that has been an innovative force in the RV industry for decades.
Mr. Reed, former president and CEO of Chicago, Central, and Pacific Railroad, purchased a 2005 Foretravel custom coach and immediately became enamored with the industry, and with Foretravel in particular “” so much so that he grew interested in purchasing the company. In late 2004 he recruited two associates “” Dane Miller, Ph.D., president and CEO of Biomet Inc., a designer and manufacturer of medical implants headquartered in Warsaw, Indiana; and Gregory Amys, a former business executive who resides in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin. During the due diligence process, Frank Sheeder Jr., a retired business executive and neighbor of Mr. Reed’s, also joined the group. The investment group, recognizing Foretravel’s position in the RV industry and its future potential, announced their intentions to grow the company. An agreement was struck with the Fore family, which had founded and owned the company since its inception. The purchase was completed on February 15, 2005, with Mr. Reed signing on as Foretravel’s new president.
A proud heritage
Mr. Reed and company hoped to continue a storied legacy that dates back more than a half-century. In the 1950s and ’60s, C.M. and Marie Fore of Nacogdoches enjoyed camping with their children, first in tents, then in a folding camping trailer C.M. had built. While planning a vacation north to Washington in 1965 to visit the Fores’ eldest son, Roy, who was serving in the military, C.M. thought the family might enjoy traveling in a motorized, self-contained RV. In the backyard of the Fore home, C.M. and his son Ray started with a Dodge chassis with a slant-six-cylinder engine and constructed a 21-foot-long motorhome with aluminum exterior skin.
Since motorhomes were not prevalent in those days, the Fores’ newfangled vehicle generated tremendous interest, especially from fellow campers. Six weeks later, back home in Nacogdoches, C.M. began to consider how he could manufacture and market such a product.
At about this time, son Ray enrolled in a local high school program designed to provide students with hands-on experience in the business world. C.M. and Ray embarked on a project to construct and rent out motorhomes. After completing motorhomes for the school project “” and then about 50 more “” father and son concluded that the manufacturing side of the business really interested them.
By the time the second energy crisis hit in 1978, the Fores were building 400 motorhomes each year and had moved their manufacturing operation to the company’s current location on North West Stallings Drive in Nacogdoches. In 1974 the Fores introduced their first diesel-powered motorhome. The company also was among the first manufacturers to use fiberglass instead of aluminum, real hardwood, and a full air-bag suspension.
In 1986 Foretravel became one of the first luxury motorhome manufacturers to build its own engineered and designed chassis in-house, a business decision that placed the company several years ahead of the industry curve. This “unibodied” chassis led to the introduction of the Unihome, which featured improved drivability and handling, plus a sleek new design.
In 1995 Foretravel debuted the bus-style Unicoach, which boasted a front entry, an Allison World six-speed transmission, and a transmission retarder. And in 1999 the company introduced its first slideout.
Passing the baton
With Mr. Reed at the helm, the new owners lost no time in teaming up with the experienced workforce Foretravel has long been known for. Almost immediately, they began taking giant steps to revitalize the company.
The aggressive approach involved a trilogy of moves that Mr. Reed and his associates believed were imperative to make. First, they believed it was time to update the interior and exterior aesthetics of Foretravel motor coaches, bringing them in line with the stylish trends that mark luxury motor coaches today. Second, and equally important, were the financial actions that had to be taken to accomplish this. The new management team knew they had to immediately re-establish the confidence of their suppliers so that the delivery of materials required when building luxury coaches would immediately resume. Third, Mr. Reed and his team determined that the existing dealer network through which Foretravel coaches were sold had to be reconfigured to better attract the upscale luxury coach enthusiast.
In conjunction with these three actions, the talented pool of Foretravel employees, which numbered about 120 at the time Mr. Reed took control, would need to be enlarged. This involved bringing back some former employees who had proved valuable to the company in earlier years. Such continuity of employee knowledge “” knowing where Foretravel had been and where it was targeted to move in the future “” was considered integral to the new Foretravel strategy. These new plans were to be incorporated while maintaining the company’s existing focus on fit and finish, ride and handling, and customer service.
As I familiarized myself with the “new” Foretravel, which included, of course, an interview with Mr. Reed, I immediately was struck by the forthright approach he takes when responding to specific questions. A case in point is the Foretravel product line and his thoughts on what was needed to revitalize it. Mr. Reed candidly explained that the product models he inherited in January 2005 were growing “tired” and, as evidenced by the drop in sales between 2003 and 2004, were in need of updating.
To begin with, the numeric designations that were being used as model monikers on Foretravel coaches (U270, U295, and U320) were immediately eliminated. Mr. Reed explained that in today’s highly competitive luxury coach market, giving a product a unique name the client can identify with offers substantial marketing and advertising advantages. So as this article goes to press, Foretravel now offers the Nimbus and the Phenix (more on them momentarily).
Model year 2006 ushered in a complete departure from the previous body style that had identified Foretravel coaches for several years, including a low interior ceiling, which, to some observers, gave the models a dated look. The remedy included the introduction of the Phenix, the company’s new flagship, which features an increased overall exterior height of 12 feet 2-3/8 inches. This coach incorporates new visually appealing front and rear end caps as well as updated exterior graphics. In addition to a greater interior height, created by the additional exterior height, the Phenix offers more under-coach storage while maintaining the ability to lower the air bags, allowing the coach to be driven underneath a 12-foot door on level ground, if needed. The coach was introduced in August 2005 at FMCA’s 74th International Convention in Minot, North Dakota.
Foretravel executives concentrated on enhancing the interior aesthetics of its coaches as well. To help achieve this, a licensed interior designer was added to the Foretravel staff. So, in addition to a new exterior high-line profile and updated graphics, Phenix offers new floor plans, slideout room configurations, and decor choices.
Also new are the use of the Cummins ISX 525-horsepower diesel engine with Foretravel’s signature Allison retarder; new SilverLeaf diagnostic equipment; a one-piece windshield; roof awnings; and Foretravel’s new TravelRide chassis. The new chassis enhanced the ride and drivability of the semi-monocoque-designed structure that had served Foretravel so well for many years. TravelRide was expressly designed to handle quad-slide designs and higher-horsepower engines.
A second model was added as well “” the entry-level Nimbus, which replaces the previous U320 and is the point of entry for new clients to join the new Foretravel family. This coach is available in three triple-slideout floor plans and one quad-slideout floor plan.
Foretravel continues to build custom and specialty vehicles as well. These include personal modifications to private motor coaches should clients want to veer from the “standard” choices; entertainment coaches; mobile law enforcement units; and motorsports team coaches; among other specialty uses. Foretravel had no sooner introduced the new 2006 models before the company began planning for the ’07s in its quest for continuous improvement in this very competitive industry.
“We understand we’re in a niche market,” Mr. Reed said. “We want to rewrite the handbook on motor coach quality, and we plan to focus on ride, drivability, fit and finish, and value.”
Underscoring the successes that Foretravel Inc. has experienced by making dynamic design changes to its products and adding new standard and optional packages is the business confidence its new owners have rekindled with its network of vendors. According to Mr. Reed, Foretravel is well supported by its suppliers, citing their positive reaction to Foretravel’s new coach models at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in late 2005. This annual event draws a sizable contingent of the manufacturers, dealers, and suppliers from within the ranks of the RV industry.
The Louisville show is an excellent barometer of how well the industry is doing as a whole, and how well individual manufacturers and their products are faring when compared to the competition. It’s also a good place for RV materials/components suppliers and RV manufacturers to cultivate business relationships. As a result of the warm reception to Foretravel’s new products and business strategies, company executives walked away from the show very optimistic. Mr. Reed said that Foretravel now enjoys a reinvigorated business climate with its network of vendors “” exactly what he had set his sights on.
As they became more familiar with the luxury coach market, Mr. Reed and his brain trust began to make adjustments in their dealer network to line up dealers that they deemed to be a good fit for the Foretravel product profile. Additional “good-fit” dealers that provide regional sales and service choices for Foretravel coaches will continue to be added, Mr. Reed said.
As of this writing, the network consists of eight dealers located in Nacogdoches; Irving, California; Carthage, Missouri; Kodak, Tennessee; Oxford, Alabama; Clearwater, Florida; Elkhart, Indiana; and Medford, New York. The remaining dealers will be carefully positioned in the West and other open areas, according to Mr. Reed.
A skilled and talented labor force
Today Foretravel employs 200. In the 12 months following Lyle Reed’s acquisition of the company, individuals, many with years of experience building Foretravel motor coaches, were carefully selected and invited back to join the design, production, and technical groups as production capacity continued to increase. Mr. Reed noted, “I’ve been more than pleased with the attitude our people have put into the rebuilding effort. Many have worked long hours doing multiple jobs, which is what the situation required. We are now reaping the benefits of their efforts.” He also said that the future holds even more opportunities for additional employees as other models are introduced and market share returns. And speaking of new coach models, Foretravel is on the threshold of introducing several new products that will enhance the lines currently being offered.
Perhaps Lyle Reed best summed up the current corporate strategy in the president’s letter that appeared on the company’s Web site, www.foretravel.com, at the time of this writing: “We continue to place our corporate focus on improving the quality of our motor coaches, which are already rated among the best in the industry. Every day we emphasize with our associates in the factory the mandate to move Foretravel quality from very good to great so that we become in the eyes of our customers the very best.”
Foretravel Inc., 1221 N.W. Stallings Drive, Nacogdoches, TX 75964; (800) 955-6226, (936) 564-8367, fax (936) 564-0391; www.foretravel.com.