LAKE MILLS — During 25 years of traveling and working long hours for information technology firms, Todd Oberg would steal away from his career in RVs, boats and motorcycles.
Then, in June 2014, the McFarland resident flipped the script and bought Country Campers in Lake Mills, adding Fathead’s — his childhood moniker — to the business name and jumping into a growing industry.
“I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial itch,” said Oberg, 52. “Being able to find something that you like to do in your free time, but also help others find their own version of fun — it’s fun getting up in the morning.”
The Deforest native and UW-La Crosse grad believes the understanding of customer service he honed in the rapidly evolving tech industry gives him a competitive edge as an independent dealer in an industry with a plethora of competitors.
Oberg says his business has tripled in the 3½ years he has owned the business, building on the seven-figure revenues of the previous owners of Country Campers, Rick and Marie Puttkamer. Oberg declined to provide more specific figures.
Fathead’s Country Campers, off of Interstate 94 along Highway V, sits on a 3-acre lot encircled by new and used RVs of many shapes and sizes, from those that fit in a pickup truck’s bed to luxury campers with high ceilings and electric fireplaces.
Down the road on the 5-acre site of a vacant factory, purchased in 2015, are more units, lot space and winter storage for customers’ campers. Combined, the lots typically hold 100 new and used units, with more in the spring high season.
A recent visit to Fathead’s Country Campers found Kong, a butterscotch-and-white mutt, watching the glass entry while basking in the sun. Taxidermy mounts gained from a trade Oberg made with a customer lent a rustic feel. Practical parts for campers lined shelves, along with fun accessories like strings of lights and pudgy pie irons.
An adjoining garage holds five service bays for technicians who walk customers through the repairs on their units, as well as prep RVs to be excursion-ready right out of the lot. The staff of 12 includes 6 technicians, 3 salespeople, a two-person business office and one retail staff member.
A student of data
In the early 1990s, Oberg began his career with Texas-based, multinational heavyweight Electronic Data Systems. The company, founded by two-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, practically invented IT outsourcing.
He returned to Wisconsin in 2002 when EDS’ consumer network services department was purchased by Brookfield-based Fiserv and later took jobs at various regional Wisconsin software companies.
Before his jump from IT to RVs, Oberg studied data from different industries that fit what he was looking for: an interesting business with ample growth potential in a good location.
“It was a big gamble. You spend 25 years in technology and the next day, you wake up and you’re an RV guy,” Oberg said.
It seems Oberg chose well, as the RV business in the United States is bullish, according to data from the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
Total shipments of motor homes and towable RVs grew more than 25 percent in August from the year earlier, marking the highest shipments for the month on record. This year is shaping up to be the eighth consecutive year of growth for the RV market, up 161 percent from 2009, when the recession-battered market bottomed out.
Families taking trips in RVs to save money otherwise spent on hotel rooms and restaurant meals is thought to be encouraging growth.
RV dealerships are in no short supply in the the Madison area. Perhaps the biggest player is the DeForest location of national sales and service chain Camping World, which has 120 stores nationwide.
Madison has two other RV dealers, Jerry’s Camping Center and Camperland RV, as well as Camper Corral and Hubert Trailer Sales in Fitchburg, Custom RV Services and Wisconsin RV World in DeForest, and Kirner Campers in Middleton. There are nearly a dozen more RV dealers between Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Kenosha.
The Midwest is a hotspot for RV sales, in part because much of the industry’s production is based in Indiana. Elkhart County, the home of major manufacturers Forest River Inc. and Thor Industries, is known as the RV Capital of the World. Their subsidiaries are sprinkled throughout the Midwest.
Leisure on the go
Though the RV industry, like many, consolidated during the Great Recession, camper features are keeping up with consumer trends.
The increasingly popular smaller, lightweight RVs are Country Campers’ niche. Owners want fuel efficiency and maneuverability, Oberg said.
Newer RVs are available with technology like built-in USB ports and readiness for solar panels, satellite television and WiFi. Other amenities include outdoor kitchens — by lifting a panel on the exterior of the unit, a stovetop, grill and sink slide out. At the same time, a television, refrigerator and speakers are accessible externally
As a motorcyclist, Oberg prefers to travel with a “toy hauler.” These increasingly popular campers are equipped with a ramp on the back end to drive motorcycles or ATVs inside for protection. The ramp can convert to a screened-in porch.
Fittingly, RV buyers seem willing to travel to make purchases.
Lake Mills is ideally located between Madison and Milwaukee, Oberg said, and customers also come from the Upper Peninsula, Canada and Minnesota. Interstate travelers sometimes see the sign from I-94 and stop in, too.
“There are other dealers not far from us and, to me, they’re great generators for us because I don’t think they take the same kind of customer service/customer experience mindset as we do,” Oberg said.
That mindset was built into Oberg’s business strategy, drawing from his experience in his previous career — the dearth of customer service from technology companies.
“I don’t want our team engaging a customer and the first thing on their mind is worrying about how they’re going to get paid,” he said. “I want them to figure out how we’re going to solve a problem. The rest of that will come hand-in-hand. If you have to give up a nickel now, I think it will come back in three nickels down the road because you provided great service.”
That suits Country Campers Service Manager Andrew Adolphson, 31, who has been with the business for a year and a half after leaving a position at Camper World.
“I’ve never seen [Oberg] not put the customer first. He’s lost money and time to make customers happy,” Adolphson said.
Not on cruise control
Oberg’s favorite RV destinations are South Dakota, northern Wisconsin and the Smoky Mountains.
“You can go riding all day and have a place to come back to and relax and build a fire and have a beverage or three,” Oberg said.
That, though, is only when he’s not busy with Country Campers.
“I didn’t get into this thinking that it was going to be on cruise control. I was working long hours for other companies, for other owners,” Oberg said. “This was an opportunity to do it my way, do it a way that I think is going to make a difference when it comes to serving your customers.”