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On the Rebound

Forest River's Dallas plant on road to economic recovery

Paul Eskritt, general manager of Forest River's Dallas plant, has led a dramatic turnaround at the facility since 2012.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

Paul Eskritt, general manager of Forest River's Dallas plant, has led a dramatic turnaround at the facility since 2012.

December 30, 2013

DALLAS — Jim Schoenfeldt, the human resources manager for Forest River's travel trailer manufacturing plant in Dallas, said his job — at least one facet of it — was easier in 2013.

"Typically in the winter months, we are slowing down. People are being laid off," Schoenfeldt said during a factory walk-through in late December. "There is always that 'black Friday' where 25 people on a list have to come see me, which is unfortunate. But not this year."

The factory has been increasing production for a year now, to the point where 12 travel trailers are being built each day. With plans to increase production to 18 trailers by April, the factory will add to its work force this winter instead of reducing it — an estimated 50 to 70 positions.

Daily production has been increasing recently, but beginning in 2014, line rates will grow even faster. By April, 18 travel trailers will be built each day.

Graphic by Karyn Pressel

Daily production has been increasing recently, but beginning in 2014, line rates will grow even faster. By April, 18 travel trailers will be built each day.

The result? A bustling factory floor, so loud people have to shout to one another to communicate.

That is music to the ears of Paul Eskritt, the plant's general manager.

When he took over in November 2012, the plant was in crisis. It had lost money — millions of dollars in five years — since 2008. Orders, and therefore shifts, had been inconsistent and there were no back orders to fill. He needed sales and needed them soon. He made a last-minute sales push at a recreational vehicle show in Louisville, Ky.

"We wrote 10 to 12 weeks (worth) of orders and the plant has never looked back," Eskritt said.

He's projecting a slight profit in 2013 and a nearly 54 percent increase in production in 2014.

That type of turnaround wasn't easy to come by, though.

Eskritt said it took each employee, from management to floor worker, buying into new philosophies and standards — and doing it quickly.

A line of Grey Wolf travel trailers are being completed at Forest River

Photo by Jolene Guzman

A line of Grey Wolf travel trailers are being completed at Forest River's Dallas plant on Dec. 18. Production at the factory is increasing, with more growth expected in 2014.

"My messaging to the work force when I came in here last November was that Forest River has been pretty kind to keep the plant open considering the drain it's been," he said. "I told them, 'We need to operate with a sense of urgency.'"

Plant 22's commitment to that was tested in August during the factory's dealer open house, the show during which sales are made for the winter season. Eskritt said for the factory to continue to operate on a full schedule through the lean months, it needed to make 1,500 sales.

To put that goal in perspective, the year before the open house had netted less than 200 units in sales.

"Last winter, we probably worked half time, down a week, up a week," Eskritt said." People weren't earning any money, you get turnover. Then you try to rebuild (staff) for the selling season and it's too hard."

Strong sales at the open house would help close the employee revolving door with more consistent work and higher pay.

Eskritt asked every one of his employees "to be a salesperson" during the open house, making a good impression on the dealers. Paired with polite staff and a cleaner factory were lower prices on the trailers, better options and new floor plans.

Plant 22 sold more than 1,700 travel trailers during the show. Those sales alone will keep the factory humming through April.

The Dallas plant redesigned exteriors, introduced new floor plans, and added features -- such as exterior LED lighting -- on its travel trailer models in the last year.

Photo by Jolene Guzman

The Dallas plant redesigned exteriors, introduced new floor plans, and added features -- such as exterior LED lighting -- on its travel trailer models in the last year.

"It was one of the greatest moments of my career to watch these people rise to the challenge," Eskritt said. "Morale is really high on the floor. They know they are working all winter. ... We are well on the way to a turnaround in this factory."

If 2013 was a rebuilding year, Eskritt is predicting 2014 to be a banner year for Plant 22. In 2007, before the recession hit, the Dallas factory shipped 2,759 travel trailers and fifth-wheels. His goal for 2014 far exceeds that -- 3,800.

That goal is dependent in the plant continuing to make sales. Eskritt said sales volume leads to a stable work force, which in turn brings more efficiency, higher quality and coveted loyalty from dealers.

Recreational vehicles (RVs) are a volatile industry, one of the first hit in an economic downturn and first to rebound. Right now the market is growing, which Eskritt sees as an opportunity to secure the plant's future when the next inevitable recession arrives.

"People aren't picky when they are dying for product," Eskritt said. "When that downturn happens, our dealers get real picky about what they are going to keep on the lot. Now is the time to build that reputation, so when the next downturn happens we don't get hit like the rest of the industry.

"This foundation we are building, I think will pay off for years to come at this factory," he added.

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