Now retired, former Monaco RV CEO Kay Toolson looks back on golden times and the bumps in the road.
By Ty Adams
If you were to meet him on a morning stroll along the beach of a coastal Oregon town, hands in his pockets, short silver hair combed neatly, he probably wouldn’t stand out as imposing or memorable. Not unless you were to talk with him. Then you might be drawn to his easy smile, how he listens with genuine interest, or the quiet command and confidence that underlie his soft-spoken demeanor.
Following your conversation, you’d probably think, “Wow, out of all the retirees walking the Oregon coast, that guy must be one of the nicest.” But you probably wouldn’t think, “Wow, that guy must have been a high-powered business executive who helped lift a company beyond a billion dollars in annual sales and helped drive an entire industry into the most successful decade it’s ever seen.”
But since June 30, 2011, both things can be said of longtime Monaco Coach Corporation chief Kay Toolson, who, after 40 years in the RV business, stepped down from a leadership post that he had occupied at Monaco for 25 years.
If you ask Kay, he’ll joke that, if he were smarter, he would have retired in 2005, before the American economy ruptured. “I would have retired with a lot more money,” he said, chuckling. “No, I’m obviously fine. I’ve had a great life and a great career, but I’d be lying if I said the last few years were a breeze.”
As most folks who follow the RV industry know, Monaco was severely affected by the U.S. banking implosion several years ago and hit hard times in 2008, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. Kay and his leadership team negotiated the sale of certain Monaco Coach Corporation assets to Navistar International and helped give jobs back to many of the longtime Monaco employees who lost them in the bankruptcy. After the 2009 sale, estimated at $47 million, the company became Monaco RV LLC.
“One of my greatest joys was being able to rehire people and save the brands and give jobs back to so many wonderful Monaco employees,” Kay said.
Kay was raised the son of a potato distributor and wholesaler along with two sisters and a brother in Smithfield, Utah, a small town nestled against the base of the Rocky Mountains in the northern part of the state. Watching his father in business inspired him to think about following the same path. “I always wanted to go into business; it was a dream of mine,” he said. “But, man, I loaded so many bags with potatoes and so many trucks with 100-pound bags.” Maybe that’s why he eventually chose an executive track.
But, first, there were more important things to attend to in life — like girlfriends. And for Kay, it didn’t take long to find the right one. Prior to graduating from Utah State University, he proposed to Judy, his high school sweetheart, and they have been married now for 45 years.
Kay was hired by Xerox, which was growing rapidly in a robust economy. A year later, the company sent him to graduate school to get his MBA.
Over The Bumps And On To Success
In 1971 Kay and a group of colleagues decided to leave Xerox and form their own business. They started a franchise chemical company in Dallas, Texas, but, unfortunately, it didn’t get off the ground.
Kay dusted himself off and returned to the job hunt. Eventually, he found a product manager position at a Redman Industries branch in Los Angeles. Redman, a manufacturer of mobile homes, was looking to produce motorhomes, and Kay’s first assignment was to research this new market. “I stayed there for about a year and a half until the energy crisis of ’73,” he said. “It was just like somebody shut off a switch. About four months it lasted with that oil embargo, and when the oil started flowing again, it was like nobody could build them fast enough.”
Kay next acquired a position at Michigan General, a company that owned an RV manufacturing subsidiary called Kings Highway, for which he was hired to run sales and product marketing. He stayed at Kings Highway for eight years. “I really liked it, because it was high-end and I was involved in helping design the products,” he recalled. “It was a great opportunity for me, because the guy that was president didn’t like to be at the forefront, so I got to do some of that.”
After that experience, Kay was offered an opportunity to buy in as a minority owner and become executive vice president of Executive Industries, which manufactured the high-line Executive motorhome. After four years at Executive, he received a call about an interesting opportunity: a proposal to purchase a company called Monaco Motorhomes Inc. near Eugene, Oregon. He and Judy had talked about making a change and leaving Los Angeles, so they flew up to Oregon to investigate. Ironically, their initial reaction was not positive.
“I just had this hollow feeling, and we decided we weren’t going to do it,” he said.
However, a bank in Portland promised to provide financing for the purchase and eventually swayed them. Kay resigned from Executive Industries, and he and Judy sold their Los Angeles house and purchased one in Eugene.
Kay didn’t know it, but the next big bump in his business life was about to occur.
During a going-away party for the couple in Los Angeles, Kay received a call from his attorney. “He said that the bank wasn’t going to back the deal. And honest to God, the phone (went) dead. I had put in a cancel order on the phone service, and it kicked in right then,” he recalled. Frantic, Kay had no way to call the attorney, because he was out of the office, back in an age before cell phones. “We got in the car and drove up here, and it was the longest drive of my life,” Kay said.
Obviously, the deal went through in the end, but for a time it was a scramble to find financial backers. Kay eventually brokered a deal with longtime Indiana investor Bill Warrick, who agreed to go into the business with him. They purchased Monaco Motorhomes Inc. from Eugene mayor Brian Obie and changed the company’s name to Monaco Coach Corporation, with Kay as president and Bill Warrick as chairman of the board. It was 1987.
Monaco’s Golden Age
After purchasing the company, Kay and the new management team assessed the product lines and began to implement a new corporate strategy with some product changes and redesigns. Over the next 18 years, the company’s annual sales grew from $17 million to more than $1.4 billion. In 1993, Kay, the leadership team, and a small number of outside investors bought out Mr. Warrick and later that year took the company public with a successful IPO, which allowed them to pay off the other investors. Kay and his team had the opportunity to ring both the opening and closing bells at the New York Stock Exchange. With Kay at the helm as CEO, the company acquired the major Safari, Beaver, and Holiday Rambler motorhome brands and positioned Monaco Coach Corporation as the leading manufacturer of diesel motorhomes in the United States.
“I didn’t do it,” said the always-humble Kay, “but the people working here did it.”
Those who talk with him will find that this is a repeating pattern for Kay, who deflects praise and attention to those who support him.
When asked to name the highlights of his time at Monaco, Kay replied simply, “Just watching people grow. Playing a part in helping them achieve their dreams.”
And then, later on, a photo reminds him that, oh, meeting and sitting down to talk with President George H.W. and Barbara Bush at FMCA’s 1989 international convention in Richmond, Virginia, was also a pretty good highlight. “They are delightful people,” he said.
He also has other great memories of FMCA international conventions, particularly of the association’s 2000 gathering at the Brunswick Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine: “It was the most incredible rally I can remember. There were over 7,000 motorhomes parked at that rally; it was just unbelievable. We sold more than 300 motorhomes at that show.
“Some of my fondest memories are with the wonderful people who are members of the Family Motor Coach Association and the Monaco clubs. I have great memories of so many folks, and I’m still friends with a number of them. I’ve met some terrific people over the years and have so enjoyed being involved in this industry. And serving for six years as president of FMCA’s Commercial Council was a privilege.” Kay also served as vice president for two years on the council, which represents the association’s commercial members.
Keep Getting Up
The last challenge of Kay’s career would be the hardest. Sales at Monaco started a slow decline in late 2006 and continued into 2007. When major banks began to fail in 2008, lending throughout the entire banking industry nearly dried up, especially for recreation vehicle purchases, which often involved the purchasers taking a second mortgage.
“We just never guessed a meltdown would have happened like it did,” he said. “I mean, we saw an 80 percent drop in sales in one week. It was crazy.”
The drastic sales decline led to hundreds of layoffs, and eventually the company was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “That was the most painful part of my career,” Kay recalled. “We built a great company with great people and to watch that fall apart was so painful. I stood here in this office and cried sometimes watching people get laid off and clean out their offices and leave. I couldn’t sleep nights. It was not easy. It was no fun.”
Eventually, Kay and the other leaders at Monaco brokered the sale of assets to Navistar International Corporation, a holding company whose subsidiaries produce commercial and military trucks, buses, and diesel engines for both commercial and noncommercial truck applications. Navistar retained most of the former infrastructure and personnel and the company was renamed Monaco RV.
“We had a lot of people come to our aid,” Kay said. “I feel so blessed that Navistar had interest. It is a great company that has been around for 175 years. . . . They offered up their resources and their engineering teams.” Through the utilization of Navistar engineers as well as Monaco’s designers, Monaco RV continued to focus on gas and diesel motorhomes, plus towables, in three distinct brands: Monaco, Holiday Rambler, and R-Vision.
More changes have occurred following Kay’s announced retirement from Monaco in April 2011. In August 2011, Navistar announced plans to significantly scale back operations at Monaco RV headquarters in Coburg, Oregon, and to consolidate motorhome production at Monaco’s Wakarusa, Indiana, manufacturing facility, with some corporate functions being moved to Navistar’s corporate campus in Lisle, Illinois. The company also announced plans to continue producing towable RVs and to retain some financing and information systems operations in Oregon, and to maintain an RV service center there as well.
These days, Kay is indulging in his favorite hobbies of fly fishing and golf, and most importantly, spending more time with Judy. He said he enjoys being out of the limelight. “We have a house on the Oregon coast, so we spend a lot of time there, walking on the beach,” he said. “It’s so neat, because when I’m there, I’m just another ‘old man’ in town. It’s kind of fun to be anonymous.” That said, he also keeps his hand in the corporate world by serving on a couple of company boards.
As they have for years, Kay and Judy are devoted to helping nonprofit organizations in the Eugene area. The Toolsons focus on facilities that benefit children, such as Jasper Mountain, which meets the needs of emotionally disturbed children and their families, and Relief Nursery, a child abuse and neglect prevention agency. And recognizing the value of higher education, Kay and Judy are committed to supporting Utah State University and its scholarship fund.
And for those who might be wondering, Kay and Judy also have time to return to an old love — RVing. They have belonged to FMCA since 1986, bearing member number F20001.
“We’ve already been to 48 of the 50 states in a motorhome, but we’ll do more of that. We used to have so much fun doing it, but then I got too busy running the company, so it’ll be great to get back to that.”
As he looks back on his career, what’s the main lesson Kay has taken from the experience? One that most everyone knows but seems to have trouble putting into practice: “Every day you just have hope and you keep trying and you keep getting up even after you get your teeth knocked out. You only fail if you quit.”
As with most everything, he’s humble when asked to dole out advice or expound on the secrets to his success in business: “I don’t know. I know I’ve been lucky. I truly believe in treating people like you want to be treated. I’ve always believed that you can’t fake caring and you can’t fake being sincere. I used to say that if you treat people like dirt you’ll never be successful, but you know what? I see that some people are successful having treated others like dirt, and some people are successful only caring about themselves. So it shakes my faith. But I still think you have to care . . . help others be successful or see that it’s not about you. It’s about everybody being successful. You never have to be the smartest person in the room. . . .”
After pondering the question awhile longer, he added: “Maybe that’s the recipe for being a happy businessperson. Maybe there are some people who succeed by treating others like dirt, but they’re miserable. I’m happy. I’ve always been a happy person.”