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Lance Camper CEO Jack Cole: Always Be Learning – and Listening

March 28, 2017
This manufacturing leader's advice: Don't ever think you know it all.

Business is booming for recreational vehicle manufacturer Lance Camper Manufacturing Corp., so much so that the Lancaster, Calif.-based maker of truck campers, travel trailers and toy haulers is in the midst of an expansion to increase production capacity.

President and CEO Jack Cole can remember much less robust times, however. The 1973 oil crisis, for example, struck just as Cole became a partner in the business. "Within a month we started dealing with the aftereffects of the oil embargo, long gas lines and rapid inflation," recalls Cole, now owner of Lance Camper. "It really put the company's future in jeopardy."

More recently, the RV industry was no less immune to the ravages of the Great Recession than any other industry. Shipments plunged from well over 300,000 in 2007 to just 165,000 in 2009, before starting to claw their way back. 2016 was a banner year with more than 430,000 shipments, and hopes are high for 2017. "There are companies expanding all over the country, including Lance, to try to keep up with the demand," Cole says.

Indeed, Lance Camper is readying to begin production in a recently purchased 60,000-square-foot building that will increase production capacity for the company by 25% to 30%, the president estimates. More than 100 new hires before the end of the year also are part of the plan.  

Cole, who has been at the helm of Lance Camper for more than 40 years, recently spoke with IndustryWeek. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

On his start at Lance Camper:

"I was 17 years old and going to high school. It was a part-time job. I started in at the lowest level of the company. Basically sweeping floors and pulling weeds. And I also learned the manufacturing part of the business from the very bottom up.

"I had no idea I was going to ever get involved in the day-to-day business decisions and operations. It's just been an amazing learning opportunity and experience. You learn something every day. You know, don't ever think you know it all because that's when you get hit in the side of the head with something."

On his leadership style:

"I try to lead by example. I always have. I found out very early on I don't know everything.

I like to hear from all of our management people and right out to the guys on the assembly line, how things are going and how we're doing. We're not the kind of company where all of a sudden an edict comes down. We talk. We have a great group of very seasoned people here. One of the greatest things that I've experienced as a leader here at the company is seeing people achieve things and do things that they never thought they could do. I experienced that in my life and I enjoy seeing it from other people.

"We have employees who have been here 25 years, 35 years, 45 years. [They] have made this a career. And I take that very seriously."

On why Lance Camper offers plant tours:

"Over 95% of the people that come on a plant tour that are looking to buy an RV will buy ours once they've seen how the product is built. That's just a really strong motivator for the company to swing its doors wide open to anybody who wants to come in and see how we operate. The common thread that people say when they go through the tour is 'I never realized there was so much to putting an RV together.' When you hear that, you know that they're really soaking it in and they're enjoying it."

On social media:

"We're a big promoter of social media. We used to say years ago that we can't afford to run [ads] on national TV. They cost a fortune. But today with social media, your message can go around the world."

On hiring production workers...

"We don't have a problem hiring people. I'm more concerned about retaining people because there's a lot of what they describe as tribal knowledge out in the manufacturing area. Training is expensive; consequently turnover is expensive. So we're working very hard here to minimize our turnover."

...And missing skill sets

"When I was in high school we had metal shop, we had wood shop, and we even had a printing shop. They don't do any of that anymore, so we have to show them and help them to learn."

On the value of bad:

"You can learn two things from people -- you can learn good things from them and you can learn bad things from them. I've always felt that learning the bad things are almost more valuable than learning the good things because one of these days you're going to be in a position where you have to make a decision and you want to really give it a lot of thought before you make that call.

"I can remember in my career where I've seen somebody handle something, and I thought 'Wow, that's a really good way to do that. And if I get into that position, I'm going to remember.' On the other side, I've seen things be handled really poorly, and I have to remember those things, too, so that I don't make the same type of mistake."

On advice for upcoming leaders:

"Listen as much as you can, talk to the people that you're working with, and work as hard as you can to not get in people's way or hold people up within the company who are trying to get projects completed. And be encouraging to them along their own career path."

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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