In an interview a few years ago, Benjamin F. Carter, who was publisher of the Forest City Summit newspaper for 36 years, recalled the mood: “We knew that we couldn’t maintain the town’s base as a retail center just depending on what farmers were left. We just had to do something different.”
The Forest City Industrial Development Committee was formed in 1955 to woo industry, jobs and people to the area. Citizens rallied on the town’s behalf, with more than one hundred residents putting up capital in the form of $100 each to entice prospective businesses. Seventy-five merchants joined the Dollar-A-Month Club with the same goal. Two years went by, while the money and the manpower stood in wait.
Enter John K.
He ran the town furniture store and the funeral home. He owned the appliance store, too, where he galvanized his reputation as a master salesman with carload sales, hogs-for-appliances swaps, and creative statewide promotions. Even Time magazine took note, applauding his business acumen in 1947. He was one of Forest City’s most respected businessmen. But everyone knew him as John K.
John K. Hanson, mid-40s and plenty busy running his numerous businesses, wasn’t looking for a career change. He had worked diligently to gain the skills and capital to slowly purchase his father’s companies, and had started a family of his own. Forest City had been his home for most of his life, and that’s where he intended to stay.
But then John K. offered a suggestion that altered the course of his life, the future of Forest City, and the burgeoning recreational vehicle industry forever. Why not build travel trailers?
“John said, ‘Men, this is the coming thing,’” said Carter, a statement echoed in yet another Time magazine article about the growing trailer phenomena.
John K., the former Eagle Scout and avid camper, saw countless examples of these new towables on the emerging interstates during his camping trips. He even purchased an Aljo trailer, and visited the plant to learn more about the products. With the committee’s backing and John K. in the lead, an offer was made to Aljo’s parent company, Modernistic Industries in California, to produce Aljos in Forest City. On March 19, 1958, the company celebrated the first Aljo 1500, produced at the one-time site of the Hanson family’s farm implement business. The 15-foot trailer, capable of sleeping five, was equipped with a propane stove, sink and refrigerator.
A Town in Flux
The trailer business was going so well that a small group of businessmen decided to open up a separate company. Unfortunately, Modernistic Industries disliked the idea of a town rival so much that it closed the plant over Labor Day weekend and threatened to relocate, taking jobs and the invested capital of hundreds of residents with them. After talks of reopening the plant quickly deteriorated, John K. and a group of investors decided to buy the business themselves, assuming a $42,000 debt and a backlog of orders.
The plant reopened, and John K. gave himself a year to turn the company around, working six days a week and selling trailers himself from dealer to dealer on weekends. The company was renamed Winnebago Industries for the county where it was created, and soon became one of the most successful grassroots businesses in history.
“The key thing was John Hanson and his drive and his energy. And he surrounded himself with people like that,” said Carter. “With John K. as the leader, anything would have been successful.”
Timing is Everything
John K. was a whiz at building and marketing RVs. He used his vast experience in furnishings, appliances, and machinery to construct a better, less expensive trailer. By 1964, travel trailers were being produced off an automotive-type assembly line, increasing output for consumers hungry for the lifestyle. The company diversified into motorhomes in 1966, just in time for the motorized boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. By 1968, Winnebago Industries employed nearly 500 people and was earning $1 million a day.
“They were very affordable; five thousand dollars got you into the first motorhomes,” said Sheila Davis, Winnebago public relations and investor relations manager, and an employee since 1976. “It was in a time when the interstates were becoming more and more developed, and people wanted to travel and see the United States. It was an affordable proposition to buy a motorhome and get on the road.”
“We just couldn’t build enough of them,” recalled Chairman of the Board and CEO Bruce Hertzke, who started work in production in 1971. “Our product was being received very well because it was kind of a new fad at that point and time. Today, we’ve established ourselves into a mature recreation vehicle business; it’s definitely not a fad.”
Thanks to an ever-increasing market share, Winnebago survived a fire that destroyed its factory, two hard-hitting gas shortages that knocked out three-quarters of RV manufacturers, times of economic uncertainly, and the passing of its impassioned leader in 1996.
During his leadership of Winnebago, John K. had tried to help employees prosper along with the company.
“He went up and down the manufacturing lines and sold stock to his workers,” said Carter. “For $125 you could be a stockholder in Winnebago Industries. After some of the splits and the price increases, those men could pay off the mortgage on their farm or house.”
The original town shareholders also cashed in from their original investments in Winnebago, prompting a Playboy magazine article entitled “The Little Town of Millionaires.” The Hansons also contributed millions of dollars to their beloved Forest City, and continue to do so today in the form of the Hanson Foundation. Winnebago Industries also contributes to its communities through the Winnebago Industries Foundation.
As Winnebago goes, so does Forest City. In true Hollywood style, the company has reached its 50th anniversary as the nation’s largest motorhome manufacturer. Revenues exceeded $1 billion for the first time in the 2004 fiscal year, and although motorhome sales have declined industrywide from that peak, profits have been strong, dividends have grown and the outlook for the future is positive. And it was all made possible by a town that would not give up, and a man with an idea that helped shape an industry.
Brent Peterson is an avid camper and RVer. His most recent book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to RVing—Second Edition,” was published in 2007.