the idea of a million-dollar motor home makes you do a double-take,
you probably aren't aware of Newell coaches. Think top-of-the-line
comfort in a luxury RV, exterior of aerodynamic design,
interior furnished with leather, granite, and marble-the
kind of home-on-wheels that you walk into and are probably
started in 1967, when feisty, fussy, outspoken, innovative
L.K. Newell traveled from his Oklahoma home to El Monte,
CA, to take delivery of a new motor home for his retirement,
manufactured by a division of the Streamline Trailer Company,
in its day the top luxury item in its class. A few weeks
later Newell returned the aluminum-body Streamliner to the
factory for alterations; he was not happy with the product.
He asked to see the owner, who suggested that if Newell
knew so damn much about the whole business, why didn't he
just buy it? He did.
took the company back home to Miami, OK, and made fundamental
design changes- from a front-end, gas-powered Madson engine
and a single-axel Ford chassis, to a rear-drive German diesel
motor with a more solid chassis and tag axels, and "basement"
storage for slide-out components, air brakes and suspension,
and more. The resulting motor coach was so popular during
the gas crisis in the 1970s, Newell's was the only motor
home company in America still operating. Illness caused
him to sell in 1973 to local businessman Chuck Goldenberg,
who maintained Newell's standards and eight years later
sold to Karl Blade and two partners; in 1987 Blade bought
out his partners and remains sole owner.
the original building has additions, and is currently in
the midst of another expansion that will bring the 115,000-square-feet
of manufacturing space to 135,000 (and number of employees
to 198); an adjacent building with bays houses the service
part of the business. With trade-in coaches parked outside,
the entire facility has the appearance of a giant dealership.
Vice president of manufacturing Scott Lawson, who just celebrated
23 years with the company, says further expansion is projected
in phases over the next decade or so.
problem, if you can call it that, is that customer orders
are booked into October 2006, and the production schedule
is quite structured. It takes at least 4,940 hours of manual
labor to build each coach, and since every coach is customized-the
company has never built two identical coaches-when a particular
unit is more customized than another, overtime is needed
to complete it on schedule. Currently 40 coaches per year
are produced, on a 52-hour schedule with 13 stages, meaning
that every 52 working hours, a coach moves from one stage
of production to the next, taking a total of about four
months to construct one. The plant expansion will mean a
46-hour schedule, producing 44 coaches per year. The company
has built 1,160 coaches to date.
is unique in building its coaches from the ground-up-frame,
chassis, body, plumbing, electrical, cabinetry, drapery,
upholstery, much of the furnishings-and selling to customers
factory-direct. "You might think that building each coach
uniquely customized clashes with the concept of a production
line that moves on a standard schedule," says Lawson, "but
that's one of our reasons for success. We've forced that
discipline on ourselves to make sure we can meet that schedule,
and it's why we have fewer man-hours in our coach than a
lot of our competitors, who don't even build from the ground-up."
involved with several manufacturing groups and organizations
in various capacities including officer, president, and
chairman; having toured a lot of plants with different approaches
to manufacturing, including lean and six sigma and other
continuous improvement programs, he can select elements
that suit Newell. "I don't think it's as important to be
on the 'right' program, as it is to be committed to something,
and one thing very successful for us is the employee suggestion
program. Most are specialists in their particular aspect
of the coach, and they get to have conversations with the
fact, customers often visit while their coach is in production,
and sometimes make suggestions themselves. "Toward the goal
of producing a coach that the customer is going to be totally
satisfied with," says Lawson, "we'll often have discussions
between our engineering, service, and manufacturing people,
with the customer, and we'll talk about particular concerns
in a customization. It not only results in happy customers,
it gives us a chance to discover areas of further improvement."
suggestions that are approved and implemented are recognized
and rewarded at monthly meetings, and every suggestion gets
a response. "If we don't approve their idea, they know why,
and it gives them a base for perhaps coming up with a better
suggestion that might be accepted because it fits the bill,"
he says. A profit-and-gain-sharing incentive program offers
employees the same goals as management. "We don't want departments
to compete with each other, let's work together as a team.
So there's a constant incentive to improve work habits,
reduce waste, improve the product."
include sports celebrities, especially golfers and equestrians,
with the biggest sector the motor sport industry; check
the parking lots at the next major auto racing event you
attend, and you'll undoubtedly see some Newells. Some are
owned by retired couples and Fortune 500 company executives,
as well as entrepreneurs who work wirelessly from a distance
and like to travel in luxury, with the beach outside their
window one day, and the golf course the next.
sees a bright future for Newell, and thinks custom manufacturing
will always have a future in America: "As we're faced with
more competition, we need to find niche markets that we
can excel in. Build more of what the customer wants, rather
than take a cookie cutter approach to manufacturing. Some
manufacturers dread customization, they find it difficult
and disruptive-but I'll tell you, having your product pre-sold
is certainly better than making something and hoping that
someone buys it."