By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
Jerry Edwards, founder of Roadmaster, is a natural entrepreneur. Even in high school, he knew he was destined to own a business.
In fact, when he was a freshman in high school, he got a job sweeping floors at Vista Liners, a truck camper company in Utah. While going about his job, Edwards observed the cabinet shop was creating a production hold up.
So, the 15-year-old went to see the owner and promised if he was allowed to take over the department, he’d never be out of cabinets. Surprisingly, the owner agreed and accepted the offer.
To prove he could handle the job, Edwards worked nights, days and weekends evaluating the production process and developed a system in which anyone could build a cabinet. He even hired his high school shop teacher to help him develop the jigs that streamlined the manufacturing process.
When a firm supplying metal to the manufacturer went on strike, he again asked the boss to take over the metal shop, which he made just as efficient as the cabinet shop.
By the time he was 18, Edwards was plant superintendent for a new factory launching a new line of truck campers named Freeway Coaches. Within a few years, that company was bought out, so he went to work for Aladdin Trailers.
But, at 21 years old, the entrepreneurial bug bit again and he started Vetro RV and repair with $3,000 and a tool box with the goal to repair RV’s for consumers and other RV dealers.
In 1974, Edwards launched Roadmaster Distributing company to sell RV awnings throughout the Pacific northwest. Despite serving just three states – Washington, Oregon and Idaho – Roadmaster became A&E Awnings third largest distributor in the country.
Seven years later, he sold the awning segment to Tim McGuire, the founder of Coast Distribution, but kept the Roadmaster name. He had also expanded Vetro RV into Monaco’s third largest dealership, and Sun Raider’s largest.
Edwards, who personally holds 14 U.S. patents, sensed an opportunity when people would come to the dealership looking for ways to tow a car behind their motorhomes. His staff would make custom A-frame towbars that had to be manufactured specifically for each type of car and welded to the vehicle. Hooking up the car was very difficult and time consuming for RV owners.
When the recession of 1982 combined with another gas crisis, Edwards was forced to diversify. He had a chance meeting with a gentleman who had designed an innovative towbar that featured adjustable arms. So, Edwards bought the patent, modified it and launched the first StowMaster folding towbar, an industry first. Working out of a tiny shop in Vancouver that employed 16 people, the crew built just six towbars a day.
A few months later, he took the product to a Family Motor Coach Association rally in Del Mar, Calif, and sold 300 StowMaster towbars that week – and his company became a national success.
“We sold the entire truckload and couldn’t keep up after that,” said Edwards. “We rented part of a building in Portland, Ore., that was so big I knew we would never fill it. But, as other companies moved out of the building, we just took over that space as well.”
By the early 1990s, Roadmaster was producing 175 towbars and 225 brackets per day – and still had difficulty keeping up with demand.
In 2002, Roadmaster acquired Wheel Masters, and built a facility right down the street from the current plant. Wheel Masters has produced more than 3 million air hoses since then.
When work is play
Lawrence Pearsal Jacks is noted for saying, “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
That certainly applies to Jerry Edwards.
“I have always been careful to mind my own business and take care of my people,” he explained. “I like my employees and I enjoy what I do. For me, coming in every day is not work.”
In fact, it’s a rare week when Edwards takes a day off. He doesn’t play golf, but considers himself to be a history buff. He does own 18 acres of property that he tends for relaxation. He says there’s something about being around deer and the outdoors that he finds very appealing.
Despite being an industry pioneer, Edwards predicted he’d never be inducted into the RV/MH Hall of Fame because the nomination committee likes to see copious amounts of industry committee work and volunteer opportunities. Yet, at 72 years of age, Edwards would still rather innovate.
For example, the company released the Sterling aluminum tow bar that prevents binding, which is a big problem for motorhome owners turning into a driveway or campsite. Usually, one or both bars lock up making it difficult to detach the tow vehicle.
Roadmaster addressed the problem by creating an easy-to-use lever to simply release the pressure. The device is rated for 8,000 pounds and has never failed, Edwards explained.
Edwards finds it odd there are no government regulations dictating how towing equipment needs to be manufactured, tested or sold. But, if the government were ever to opt to regulate towing equipment manufacturers, he is confident the agencies would look to Roadmaster to establish the standard to which products need to be tested.
“We do a lot of testing on our products. I don’t ever want to see someone hurt as a result of our products,” he added.
One way the company tests its towbars is by attaching it to a machine that pushes in the bars and pulls them out again a total of 150,000 repetitions – far more use than the average towbar will ever see.
The biggest challenge he faces today is, ironically, the first one he dealt with as a teenager – money.
“It costs a lot to plan, organize, innovate and service everything we do,” he explained. “I’m a stickler for controlling waste. It’s a huge cost and if our team doesn’t keep a handle on it, it just gets bigger and bigger.”
It was especially hard in 2008 when the Great Recession started. Edwards could no longer walk into a bank and walk out with a $2 million line of credit like he once could. The need to save money became the impetus for consolidating and that was one of the most painful experiences of his career.
“There are some people still working here that I hired the first year I was in business,” he explained.
He learned an important lesson early in his career when he was challenged by a customer after he got a “little too big for myself,” as Edwards described.
“A major customer pulled me aside one day and told me that ‘I had forgotten what made me successful in the first place,’ and that really caused me to rethink some of my actions and attitudes. It’s a lesson I never really forgot,” he explained.
Treating people right while taking care of his employees is paramount. Despite the fact the company could save a lot of money by buying from overseas, Edwards wants to keep the jobs here.
“Machines don’t make money – people do. And the people working here have helped me build the company from nothing. I just couldn’t replace that type of loyalty with a machine,” he said. “I’ve found that people really don’t want to find another job. They just want to be happy where they are.”
His employees have a great deal respect for him and he walks miles through the plant every day just talking to employee, most of which he knows by name.
“Five years from now, I’ll still be doing what I’m doing,” said Edwards. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, and retiring with nothing to do would be very boring. I’d have to start something else.”
For more information about Roadmaster, visit www.roadmasterinc.com.