Stepping into the leadership roles in the family business seemed natural to two sisters when they purchased Lewie's RV Center earlier this year.
But it is an industry where few dealerships are owned solely by women.
"I think you could probably count them on two hands nationwide," Teresa Giese said.
Years ago Giese, 43, and Andria Rivers, 33, knew they wanted to purchase the business their father, Lewie Smith, started in 1976. Two of Smith's six daughters, they both worked at his auto dealership turned recreational vehicle center.
Giese moved back from the Twin Cities in 1983 and started working with her father. Rivers also worked there in the 1980s while she was in college. She left to be a staff accountant with A-Tek from 1991 to 1994.
In 1994, Rivers went back to Lewie's RV with the idea that she and Giese would purchase the business when their father, who will be 70 in October, retired.
Smith started the business as a car dealership in 1976. They moved into the recreational vehicles in the early 1980s. The lakes area location was a plus.
"It's just a prime camping area," Giese said. "I think that's contributed to our success. ... You are selling fun."
The travel trailers they started with sold and the business grew. They added service and a parts store. There have been four major building projects. The business relocated to Highway 371 North in 1987.
The sisters' diverse interests helped them divide the duties. Rivers, who enjoys the business end and financial day-to-day operations, acts as the business manager. Giese is so much part of the RV lifestyle and product knowledge she has an upcoming trip planned for Vermont and New Hampshire. Giese is sales manager and handles promotional campaigns. They jointly do the general manager's functions.
Lewie Smith retirement party Sept. 29
Lewie's RV Center will host a retirement party for Lewie Smith.
The event will be 2-5 p.m. Sept. 29 at Lewie's RV Center on Highway 371 North. Customers, friends and business associates are welcome.
For more information and to RSVP, call 829-3695 or 800-627-2160.
"She always calls me the bean counter," Rivers said of her sister. "She knows her product well."
"Andria and I are doing completely opposite things," Giese said. "That's why it works. We offset each other."
Working together has rewards and risks when it comes to family members. There is a trust and honesty expectation with siblings. But there can also be that childhood baggage as well.
It was something Rivers said her father thought about.
"His concern is that something in the business would come between family members," she said. "I think that's something in the back of your mind."
But she said their different business focuses and mutual respect for each other's decision helps them work together and compromise when needed.
Now the sisters want to focus on steady growth and matching their service skills with the business' previous rapid growth. Sales more than doubled since 1994.
Giese and Rivers are implementing a satellite training program to nationally certify their service technicians. Previously technicians traveled to Indiana for a week-long course.
Now a satellite-based learning program allows technicians to train from their own business location and work with an in-house mentor.
A new product line is a Weekend Warrior that is used to haul toys. The trail-behind unit has a large interior for toys such as snowmobiles and motorbikes.
It goes beyond a basic trailer however with sleeping area, kitchen and bath. Prices range from $21,000 to $41,000 depending on amenities and size.
And in a post Sept. 11 America, Rivers said the recreational vehicle industry is finding people are looking at how they travel and are focusing on family time. A national industry campaign has commercials advocating people "go RVing."
Price covers a wide range. A new tent camper may cost $4,600, or be an option at $100 per month. A fifth-wheel trailer may cost as much as $61,000.
Giese said Lewie's RV Center sales were up 40 percent in July compared with a year ago. Nationally, she said sales are up 20 percent. Giese and Rivers said the business is on track to have its best year ever, beating the previous record established in 1998. The company has about 20 employees.
It is also a business where news from the Middle East has a direct effect. The energy crisis of the late 1970s where gas lines were a common sight.
But current interest rates have helped sales and products reflect the changing idea of today's camping in comfort with satellites, kitchens, baths and plenty of space.
Demographics have also changed. Giese said when she started customers were 50 and older. But in the last 10 years, those ages have come down to younger families in their 40s, 30s and even 20s.
Giese said most of the women they see at the helm of RV businesses have been similar to their story and have grown up in the business. And now the sisters are prepared to look ahead on their own.
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