Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Evan Anderson
The beloved Brevard-based business expands with caution, innovation, and established brand appeal.
When Capital at Play last profiled SylvanSport nearly seven years ago, in March 2012, the early story was told of the outdoor gear company’s creation and production of the GO Adventure Camper.
The all-in-one recreational vehicle and utility trailer was lightweight yet strong, versatile and innovative, and it is still the company’s best-selling product. As our previous article stated, the GO Adventure Camper had established itself on the market by 2012 and SylvanSport had successfully survived the Great Recession.
Indeed, the SylvanSport tale of entrepreneurial success has been one of growth and staying true to the specific niche in the outdoor market that they have brilliantly exploited. Owner and chief product designer Tom Dempsey has chosen to be cautious with the company’s expansion plans. The goal has been to make sure the original products increase their market shares while the company’s brand continues to grow. The last several years have seen SylvanSport staying steady and not recklessly producing new products that fall short of the initial entrepreneurial dream.
Now, as 2019 arrives, the SylvanSport story is about to jump into an exciting new chapter, as the Brevard-based company is expanding its manufacturing capabilities while introducing a new camper soon to debut in this new year. On the eve of our visit with Dempsey and SylvanSport, they have just moved into a brand-new, 30,000-sq.-ft. building that will house their manufacturing facility as well as the business offices and design studios.
As Dempsey talks about his company’s experience, he is proud of the fact that you can now buy the GO Adventure Camper and the smaller GO Easy Adventure Gear Trailer at dealers located not only across the United States and Canada, but also with dealers found overseas as well. The key to the design of the original Camper and Trailer is that kayakers, hikers, mountain climbers, road bikers, and more can get off the highway without hauling a super-heavy, cumbersome outfit. With the GO being both a hauling trailer and fold-out camper that can be pulled by a smaller car or SUV, it has proven to be a niche-filler in the highly-competitive sports utility market.
At the heart of Dempsey’s stewardship of SylvanSport is innovation and smart business practices.
“About 15 years ago, I created a company that bridged the gap between outdoor gear, as in camping, backpacks, and lightweight gear, and the RV industry,” says Dempsey. “Whether you are going out in a half-million-dollar motor home or you’re going to backpack up in the mountains, people call both of those camping, even though they couldn’t be farther apart. We exist in that connective space in-between the two. We like to say that the SylvanSport GO is a piece of technical camping gear that so happens to be easily towable.”
He adds there is also an aesthetic side to the GO Adventure Camper that goes along with the functional attributes of the product, explaining, “We wanted the GO to be something that didn’t sit in your yard for 11-and-a-half months out of the year. It has a very utilitarian aspect to it. When we began, we did not start out to be this little niche trailer maker. We started this company to be a global manufacturer of outdoor gear. But, the economy didn’t cooperate with us for a few years.”
As success began to come, SylvanSport was lucky enough to have financial backers on the business side of things who agreed with their overall long-term strategy.
“We are very fortunate to have some great financial partners here in Western North Carolina and nationally,” says Dempsey. “That means we have the resources to pursue our ambitions, and those are to be a global player in both recreational vehicles and outdoor gear. We want to bridge that gap. With our new products that we are developing right now, we want to spread more into both the RV industry side of things as well as the outdoor gear world.
“Six years ago, we were kind of a one-trick show with the SylvanSport GO. Then, we added the newer and smaller trailer with the GO Easy. Now, we are working on a larger, more amenity-packed camper that is our version of a travel trailer. It will be very technologically cool. It has a kitchen in it. It has two queen-size beds in it. It has a bathroom with a full shower in it, and it all comes in a 15-ft.-long package that can be towed with a Subaru. We are planning to introduce it in late spring of 2019.”
Dempsey says that he and his crew began to design the new camper about a year ago: “We have been engineering it and building it for quite a while. Most of the components are out for tooling right now. Early in 2019 we will begin to get the first production parts in. We intensely researched the need for this new camper before moving forward. We have about 80 RV dealers right now that carry our products across North America, so first and foremost, we are very in tune with the market, both at the dealer level and the consumer level. Before we sold to dealers, we sold our products directly to consumers, so we really understand our customer.”
This bold expansion has been a matter of many pieces coming together for the company in a coordinated effort. SylvanSport is still a privately-owned LLC company with their financial partners having their place on the board, yet no new financiers were brought in for this impressive development.
“The expansion from a building standpoint is a true partnership between us, the City of Brevard, Transylvania County, the State of North Carolina, and the Golden Leaf Foundation,” says Dempsey. “This Transylvania Economic Alliance took the lead and we pulled together all of these organizations to create a partnership. Basically, the Transylvania Economic Alliance built this new building and we are the long-term anchor tenant. We finance our part of it through our ownership partner group, but the building itself was financed through the organizations I just mentioned. It is important to note that we are paying for it ultimately by committing to a long-term lease, but without the help of those partners, we could not have done it.”
With expansion comes growth projections, and Dempsey believes that the future is bright for SylvanSport. But that is not a matter of wishful thinking, as he and his partners have crunched every number they could conceive of and considered every scenario before moving forward.
“This is a very ambitious plan, as I consider this to be a second start-up that is even more challenging and demanding than the first one,” he adds. “We are going to transform the company in a good way and build upon what we started 15 years ago. This move will more than double our manufacturing output, and we anticipate adding about 15 to 20 new employees over the next two years.”
When it comes to the introduction of contemporary additions to the product line, Dempsey calls on his experiences from his early days in the outdoor gear world.
“I started working for the Coleman Company in their RV division in 1989,” he recalls, “so I have been in the outdoor gear business for almost 30 years. We follow the trends, but we also have a lot of connections with other businesses in the space and we benefit from the research of our peer companies. We also do our own direct-to-consumer surveys and we talk with our customers to find out what they need, what they want, and what they wish they had. The great thing about today’s world is that there is so much data available to sift through. With both the Outdoor Industry Association (Outdoorindustry.org) and the RV Industry Association (RVIA.org), they have tremendous amounts of data that we as members have access to. And while that is all great, what that data ultimately does is to validate our ideas.”
By way of an example, he cites the reason that SylvanSport is building the bigger camper is because a part of their customer base and target audience is getting a little older and beginning to create families. “What is really interesting is that we are simply replicating the model that the RV industry introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. If you go back to the 1970s, the Coleman pop-up camper was the gateway to the RV industry. A young family would buy one and then outgrow it, and then they would buy a travel trailer. Then, their kids would eventually grow up and move away and they would retire and then buy a motor home. The recipe was progressing through the industry then, and all we did was reset the dial and create an appealing product for today’s younger consumer. Our new product has a modern, very automotive appearance.”
Once the idea came about to fill yet another consumer niche with the upcoming larger camper, Dempsey and the folks at SylvanSport then focused their minds on inventing a leading edge recreational vehicle.
“The sides of the new camper will be made out of a composite material that we worked to develop with a couple of partner companies,” continues Dempsey. “So, this is an all-composite construction with the roof, the floors, and sides. We set out to kind of break down the barriers between the indoors and the outdoors. So, massive window walls open up in good weather and allow you to spill your living space into the outdoors under cover. The whole kitchen pod can be used indoors or it also slides outdoors, and when it is slid outside, that space becomes a full-sized shower on the inside. You get the best of both worlds. You get a ton of space in a compact package with very little work for the customer to open it up.”
While SylvanSport has been successful for many years, there is still a need to expand the knowledge of the brand with more consumers. Dempsey says that one way they have done that has been via a robust online presence for the company at Sylvansport.com. “Even though we have been making the GO Adventure Camper for roughly ten years, most people that see it have never seen it before. So, having more products just adds to the brand awareness by giving more options to the consumer. We are still a small company, so our growth rate is pretty high. As of now, we have sold GO Adventure Campers in countries like Jordan in the Middle East, Peru, New Zealand, and even by a distributor in South Korea. We also have a bunch of dealers in Europe. We containerize our products here in Brevard and then ship them worldwide through the ports of Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, or Wilmington, North Carolina. Once again, we designed the GO to be a global product from the beginning.”
These days, with tariffs being attached onto various metal markets and other products by our government as new trade deals are being negotiated, some material prices have risen for SylvanSport. Still, they have managed to keep their manufacturing plant here in Western North Carolina, as opposed to moving it overseas, due to what Dempsey describes as having found “a kind of sweet spot” for American manufacturers: “I carefully selected this industry to enter. The volume of our sales is high enough and the sale price of our product is high enough to make us a very attractive company, yet our volume is also low enough that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to manufacture our products overseas and then bring them back in. It is physically a large product, so it wouldn’t make any sense to make them in China and then ship them back over. The GO Adventure Camper is still our best seller, and our job is still to let the world know about it.”
Just like most businesses in the country, even successful ones, Dempsey and SylvanSport have had their share of obstacles to overcome during the last several years.
“Are you kidding me? We have had many bumps in the road over the years,” says Dempsey. “Being an entrepreneur, I always tell people that you have to be an ‘irrational optimist.’ Because, if you are not one, you just can’t get through all of that because there will be bumps in the road every other day. To get through them, I think, you should focus on the end game and you should focus on simplicity. The more complexity that you can boil down to simplicity, the better off you will be. I have always intuitively thought this. But, I have also seen quotes from other, more successful entrepreneurs than me that say, ‘Focus on one thing and do it well.’ We certainly would have liked to expand sooner, but at times the economy didn’t make it easy for us. We had some hard work to do to get to a certain plateau before we could expand. We had to build the foundation to launch off of, so we had to prove our concept a little bit first before we built on it.”
With Dempsey, the engineering side of his personality encourages him to ‘work through the problem.’ Innovation requires patience, research, and hard work—and patience, research, and hard work produces innovation.
“Two steps forward and one step back is very much a part of the equation at times,” says Dempsey. “At our core here at SylvanSport is product design. That is what we do. Our strength is in developing products. In a way, it has been a challenge to be restricted from that while we ramp up our business operations. One of the things that we are extremely grateful for, and we are very fortunate to have, is that we have been able to attract a really good team. Our talent here in this building, from our operations leadership to our sales leadership to our engineering, marketing, business, and financial side—we have some really great people working here.”
As many people who reside in this beautiful part of the planet known as Western North Carolina know, it is much easier to live in these mountains if you can support yourself with a good job. Dempsey is well aware of this fact of life and is happy to be able to make his business work amongst the Frasier firs, the snow-capped mountaintops, and summertime greenery of the region.
“I consciously chose to locate this company in Brevard because it appealed to my lifestyle and my family’s lifestyle,” says Dempsey. “In the outdoor industry, there are a lot of people that have that same desire, so we are fortunate to be able to attract talent to this area. Fifteen years ago, my wife said, ‘I’ll move anywhere in the country, if you will just get a job.’ [laughs] We picked this community to raise our kids in, so I ought to be smart enough to figure out a way to make a living here. It is a ‘make your own job’ kind of place.”
One result of building up the successful SylvanSport brand is the GO Adventure Camper Rally that was held a year and a half ago. At the rally, hundreds of GO owners showed up to camp together and have some fun. Happy customers tend to help a brand grow.
“We had about 300 people come to our first GO Rally in the summer of 2017,” says Dempsey. “It was awesome, and everyone had a great time. The band Town Mountain played for us, and we love those guys and we’d love to have them back for another rally. It happened at a farm on the Transylvania County and Henderson County border. It was crazy because our customers are such evangelists for our products. We have an owner’s group online and if anyone posts anything at all questionable or negative, our owners will rally around and answer the question or defend it far more than we could ever do. It is an amazing community. We set out to deliver a very high-quality product that was truly valuable.”
At the heart of manufacturing a utilitarian product is awareness of the state of the world in which it is produced. As we all know right now, the times they are changing, yet again. The current social dynamic is unique, to say the least. In light of that, SylvanSport wants to be more than just an enterprise along for the ride. Instead, the company desires to be relevant.
“My belief is that the days of ‘one dimensional products’ are over—as in, the making of products that people can only use for one specific purpose,” says Dempsey. “Especially in today’s world, where shared ownership and the whole uber-type mentality cause people to think, ‘I’m not going to buy this because I can find it when I need it.’ If you are going to manufacture something right now, it better be a really good product because to convince someone to actually buy it, it has to have enough value. It needs to exceed something that they would occasionally borrow or rent. The satisfying part of all of this is when your customers are truly happy about what they have purchased and they don’t regret it.”
One way that Dempsey has given back to the region has been to be instrumental in the creation of the Recreation Recruitment Director position in the new North Carolina Outdoor Industry Office.
“The office was established in 2017 by the North Carolina legislature,” says Dempsey. “We also created an organization that functions as a board for this office called the North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Coalition, and I am the chairperson of that entity. This office is about bringing some attention to the rest of the world about our natural beauty. There are already nearly 40 companies making outdoor gear in North Carolina, and there are 260,000 jobs in the state related to outdoor recreation.”
Once the idea was hatched to create the North Carolina Outdoor Industry Office, it was off to the state capital of Raleigh for Dempsey and other business leaders to talk with the duly-elected politicians.
“Lobbying for the creation of this office was actually quite easy. The reason that I say that is because it’s one of those rare subjects that can be bipartisan in nature. How many opportunities do you have in today’s world to have both Democrats and Republicans agreeing on something? We had really strong agreement on both sides. It is just a sensible thing to do, because in North Carolina we have more outdoor assets than any other state east of the Rockies. So, not telling the world about all of that is leaving a lot of opportunity on the table. This is a spectacular state.”
Dempsey is well aware of how blessed he is to be raising his family in this wonderful part of the country, while providing jobs for enthusiastic, like-minded people who have a true love for the natural world around us.
“The one thing that keeps me going is gratitude,” summarizes Dempsey. “Every morning I drive from Cedar Mountain down here to Brevard through the most beautiful scenery. The views and the skies and the mountains are different every single day, and I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. To be able to do that and then come in here and be able to pursue something that is fun and is what I love and that also brings joy to people: It’s amazing. This area is an interesting blend of appreciation for the natural beauty that we’ve got and the realities of paying the bills. I love employing people. Bringing opportunity to people that appreciate it and want to take advantage of it is very satisfying.”
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