- Associated Press - Friday, January 9, 2015

COBURG, Ore. (AP) - The recession dealt Lane County’s recreational vehicle industry what many saw as a knockout blow.

But at least one local RV maker is off the mat and back in there punching again.

Revenue at Coburg-based Marathon Coach almost doubled in 2014, rising from $25 million in 2013 to nearly $45 million, said Steve Schoellhorn, the company owner and president.

Now Schoellhorn wants to hire 50 mechanics, electricians, cabinetmakers and other workers by April to assemble Marathon’s luxury RVs.

“I’d say 2013 was kind of a turning-the-corner year for us,” Schoellhorn said.

Five years ago, the company was fighting to survive.

The region’s biggest recreational vehicle makers - once championed as Lane County’s new manufacturing anchor - were collapsing as the economic crash wiped out demand for luxury RVs.

But while such big players as Monaco RV and Country Coach were forced into bankruptcy, Marathon is climbing back toward prerecession sales and jobs levels.

The 50 new hires would raise Marathon’s employee count to about 230. Employment there peaked at about 350 before the recession, then bottomed out at fewer than 70 in 2010.

The company’s reversal of fortune comes after years of depressed sales led to pent-up demand for the RVs, Schoellhorn said.

“The recession came so hard and so fast, and there was a great deal of fear in the RV industry,” he said. Many RV owners who might have bought new models instead chose to maintain their older vehicles.

“But with the stock market improving and people more comfortable with their finances, frankly a lot of (customers) have been waiting on the sidelines, and they’re getting back in the market now,” he said.

Marathon was a far smaller company even during the boom times than Monaco and Country Coach - two of Lane County’s three largest private-sector employers in 2008, according to Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce figures.

Monaco eliminated 2,000 of its 2,145 local positions in 2009. Country Coach went from a 1,600-worker operation in 2007 to a bankruptcy liquidation and asset sale two years later. The two companies declared bankruptcy on the same day in March 2009. Two years later, Monaco’s new owner, Navistar, moved production of Monaco RVs to Indiana.

With price tags exceeding $2 million for most of Marathon’s RV models, Schoellhorn’s success hangs on the financial flexibility of America’s elite - professional athletes, NASCAR race crews, successful entertainers and others.

The market for such big-ticket items as RVs, boats and private planes all but dried up as bank financing for these kinds of purchases ground to a halt in 2008.

American RV makers shipped more than 353,000 vehicles of all kinds worldwide in 2007. By 2008, shipments and dropped to 237,000. In 2009, shipments continued to plummet, to 166,000, according to Recreational Vehicle Industry Association data.

Sales slowly rose industrywide over the next few years. But it wasn’t until 2013 that, for the first time in six years, the industry saw sales spike back to more than 300,000.

Schoellhorn is projecting revenue of at least $50 million in 2015. If he hits those figures, more hires are almost certain next year.

“We’ve persevered through the worst of it,” he said.

Those jobs would provide a welcome boost to Lane County’s manufacturing sector, which has seen jobs grow from a recession-era low of 11,800 in early 2010 to about 13,000 in November, according to state Employment Department figures. But that is still markedly below the peak of 20,600 reported to the state in 2005.

Many of those losses in manufacturing jobs stem directly from the RV industry’s woes. Transportation equipment manufacturing - which includes the assembly of cars, RVs, boats, airplanes and trains - peaked at nearly 4,500 in 2006, state data show, but has fallen a staggering 90 percent since, down to just 450 in the middle of last year. Figures from the first half of 2014 were even lower than 2013.

RV layoffs accounted for almost all of the drop, said Brian Rooney, a regional economist with the Employment Department.

But the national uptick in shipping, and Marathon’s growth plans, could point to an industry primed for a rebound, although perhaps not to the same level as before.

“Demand nationally and globally for RVs has been picking up,” Rooney said. “And with the population aging and more people traveling and camping more, that demand seems to still be increasing.”

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Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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