The Great Canadian Factory Sale

In another life, I was part of a company that built portable camps, camps for the oil patch mainly, but camps for anyone who needed them and were prepared to pay our price. Aye, that was the rub. We built a very fine camp, if I do say so, and quality comes at a price. Unfortunately, the mining and construction industries didn’t feel the need to supply their workers with quality camps, so the oil industry was our primary market.   By and large, they valued quality, especially the drilling companies and the catering companies who serviced them.

Anyway, in those days (late 1960’s) drilling activity in Western Canada was a cold weather business. Activity was brisk in northern Alberta and northern B.C. and was growing rapidly in the Northwest Territories, Alaska, and the Arctic.   When the spring thaw (referred to as the break-up) arrived activity ground to a halt. Unless a business wanted its equipment swallowed by the mud or the muskeg, it sat tight until conditions were better and that generally didn’t happen until the next freeze-up.

Our company had to find a way to keep our valued work force working over three to four spring months until the oil companies decided on their next year’s plans.

Why we did what we did, I’ll never know, but in 1967 we came up with the idea of building travel trailers. The decision probably had something to do with a skill set possessed by two or three employees. That spring we built 20 16-foot travel trailers that were well received and helped us weather the seasonal downturn.

Circumstances the next year were different. We moved from 5,000 square feet of rented space in south Edmonton to our own new plant, a 20,000 square foot building in Spruce Grove, 12 miles west of Edmonton. How we made this transition (the company was only 2 years old at that point) is the stuff for another story but the game was now being played on a much bigger field – higher overhead, greater capacity, more staff, and more intense pressure to produce. When break-up arrived in 1968, we decided to build more travel trailers – this year 40 – 16-footers and 20 – 18-footers that would include a bathroom. It all seemed logical enough at the time.

We were well into building this inventory before giving much thought as to how we were going to actually sell such a large production. I guess we thought the market would simply come to us.   It didn’t. Worse, none of the travel trailer vendors in central Alberta (travel trailers, in those days, constituted almost the entire RV market) were interested in carrying our product line.  We were faced with an expensive inventory of recreational vehicles and no way to market them. Meanwhile, creditors and the bank were starting to get nervous. Above all, we had to keep enough money to meet our payroll.

As a possible answer to our marketing problem, we found a failing travel trailer sales lot in west Edmonton.   We thought it was a good location on a busy street and next door to a successful mobile home dealer; and it had a small inventory of Ontario-built trailers. Maybe it simply needed the right management. The trouble was finding the owner. He had lost interest and was no longer showing up for work. If you’ve never had to watch your own business slide into bankruptcy, when nothing you do seems to make any difference, don’t criticize.

One grey day, we finally tracked the owner to a pool hall – yes, a pool hall – in downtown Edmonton. I guess he was trying to hustle his way out of debt. We watched him briefly and concluded he would need help there, too. Taking him aside, we explained our visit (He wanted to interrupt his game like he wanted to be the first out of the trenches at the Somme). He was sure we were creditors using subterfuge to skim off whatever was left of his bank account. But he agreed to talk. The three of us retired to a janitor closet where we could conduct business amid the muffled crack of snooker balls. You make do.   After we informed him of his options (not many), he quickly agreed to take a very modest sum for his equity in the inventory and the rental deposit. It’s understandable, I know, that people wouldn’t see all this as the world of high rollers and industrial magnates but you have to admit, it had all the ingredients, pool hall notwithstanding. As a post-script, the man went on to become a successful stockbroker. We did not see that in his stars on that rainy afternoon.

We moved some of our trailers onto the new lot, hired a commissioned salesman and waited for business to take off. The lot now had the “right management”. We waited.   And waited. Nothing happened. We sold two units in two weeks and those were to friends. If we were discouraged, imagine how the commissioned salesman felt. The two sales weren’t his. He was starving to death while being bored out of his mind tending a disturbingly quiet sales lot for twelve hours a day. We did some low-key advertising but nothing seemed to help. We knew advertising could be a ‘bottomless’ pit and things were tough enough as it was. One day we received a phone call telling us the door to the lot office was open but no one was in attendance.   We found the office unoccupied and the book we’d left to fill in hours of work was open to yesterday’s date. It included only one comment – in very large letters – “F – – K THIS, I QUIT”.   We never heard from him again. We were, however, beginning to appreciate why he would write such a thing.

Things were not going well. The lot was a disaster. I found myself averting my eyes when I drove by in the mornings on the way to work. Opening a business and simply hoping for customers will do that. Whatever we thought was “right management”, what we were doing wasn’t it. Small wonder the would-be pool shark moved to another career.

What to do now? The creditors were becoming more shrill and the inventory of unsold travel trailers was mounting. We could see our business going down the drain with these smart-looking additions to the recreational vehicle market. Our discussions sounded more desperate by the hour.

We knew we could manage another couple of paydays. That was it.

Finally, one day, one of the partners suggested we hold a factory sale. We had this brand new production facility in a small town west of Edmonton and maybe people would like to see how recreational vehicles were constructed

Okay, so it was not as daring a marketing ploy as Lee Iaccoca’s 1964 and a half Mustang, but to us it was a wild plan, conceived in desperation and founded in hope. With little money, an unknown manufacturing facility in an out-of-the-way location, and an untested product line, we didn’t see our options as being plentiful.

Aggressive pricing would help. We decided on $1,650 for the 16-footers. No one would be beating that price. The 18-footers we priced at $2,950 and threw in a free 12” television (No one seemed to care that rural TV reception was pretty much nonexistent). We placed the order for a full page ad in the Edmonton Journal and, with that, the paper agreed to do a feature story on the company. The ad headlines read Factory Sale! Open House! Come see trailers being built! Free coffee and donuts! The ad cost $800 dollars. In 2016, this doesn’t sound like much. In 1968, to a struggling company, it was huge.

The open house was scheduled to begin at 9:00 am on Saturday and everyone in the company pitched in to get as many trailers finished but still have an adequate number on the production floor.

We all planned to be at the plant by 7:30 Saturday morning to make sure everything was ready.   Someone was designated to buy doughtnuts.

Even in our most optimistic musings could we imagine what greeted us when we arrived at that early hour.

The parking lot was almost full and dozens of people milling around the front door. My first thought was “There can’t be that many of those assholes who show up early at yard sales!” But these were people genuinely interested in touring our plant. And they were polite and anxious to get started. We let them in and ordered some tear gas and truncheons just in case. Actually, we didn’t do that.

Around 8:30, the chaos really began with a steady stream of visitors. When we finally coaxed the last few people off the premises twelve hours later, roughly 3,000 people had visited the plant, purchased over half our inventory of travel trailers, and eaten every sugar doughnut available from west Edmonton to Stony Plain. Not to mention swilling at least 100 pots of really bad coffee (our well tapped into some of the most brackish water this side of a tailing pond and it made coffee taste like a rusty nail – a real rusty nail, not the drink).

It would be no overstatement to say it was the wildest – and most rewarding, if confusing – day of our corporate life. With one salesman and four owners doing the selling and four plant staff telling people what they wanted to know about our product, we sold almost 40 travel trailers. The plant staff were ecstatic. What finishing carpenter didn’t want to show off his cabinet shop? What sheet-metal worker didn’t want to show how a crimper worked? What plumber didn’t want to explain the purpose of a flaring tool? We were literally run off our feet. Customers were lining up to buy trailers. At times the activity reminded me of the floor of the Chicago Commodity Exchange. If such records were ever kept, It had to be the most successful “factory sale” the Edmonton area had ever seen.

Customers couldn’t buy fast enough. A representative of Trader’s Finance had set up a desk in the foreman’s office and a constant lineup of buyers were ready to swallow whatever interest rate it took to finalize the deal. Meanwhile, we settled into a standard sales patter, pointing out our trailers were locally built, better constructed than either the Triple-E out of Winkler, Manitoba or the Travelaire out of Red Deer, possessed a more robust running gear, heavier aluminum siding, and a stronger frame.   We could have competed with Airstream on this day.   My big problem as a would-be travel trailer salesman was a prospective buyer asking for instructions on how to back up when towing a trailer. I knew something about backing up a semi-trailer from an earlier career wrong-turn as a truck driver but had never performed this variation.   Nevertheless, I went ahead as if I knew what I was doing and luckily no one challenged me on my ignorance. All I know is if there had been a tree or a boulder where I was demonstrating, I would have hit it.

The upshot of this whole glorious day was we moved a lot of inventory, put a smile on our banker’s face, and felt we had successfully climbed a very steep hill. I think we half-expected the media to show up to report on what a great day this had been for the Edmonton business community. The entire inventory of trailers was gone within three weeks and orders for new camps were coming in quicker than we had anticipated. We disposed of the sad little lot in west Edmonton and thanked all the bakeries for helping out.

Nobody could tell us a “Factory Sale” wouldn’t work. On the other hand, we hoped we never had to do another one. A lot of our success on this one was attributable to the RV industry exploding when it did. We did not see another one in our future.

The company never looked back and sold two years later to one of Jim Pattison’s Vancouver conglomerates. We had many highlights and firsts over those four years, some of them deserving stories all their own.   But the one we remember with undiminished surprise and pleasure was that “factory sale”.

Robert Alan Davidson

(May, 2016)

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