How do you keep a family business going through half a century and into four generations of leadership? For this Rockford-area business, it starts with the Golden Rule.
Robert Franklin knew the recreational vehicle industry was thriving when he opened Winnebago Motor Homes in 1967. He didn’t know the hardships his family would endure or the success they would attain for generations to come.
“He’d be 102 now if he were still here,” says Terry Franklin, co-owner of Winnebago Motor Homes, 6841 Auburn St., Rockford. He chuckles and admires a framed oil painting of his father. “He was a hardworking guy and started the whole thing.”
Bits of Robert’s legacy remain in the showroom. Like the dealership’s luxury motor homes, they stand tall and demand attention. A 1924 Ford Model-T touring car – nearly identical to the one Robert owned – sits in the back of the room. Robert’s painting hangs under a trifold American flag that honors his service in World War II.
On the opposite side of the room, gold and silver plaques and trophies from the past four decades gleam gloriously.
“Those are all service awards,” Terry says. “They’re not easy to get. You have to satisfy your people.”
Before he owned an award-winning RV dealership, Terry worked alongside his brother, Don, at a local engineering firm until they joined their father’s business in 1970.
Two years later, Robert and his wife, Dorothy, joined in Winnebago Industries’ motor home roadshow. As the factory caravanned motor homes to the Franklins, they’d take the units to area shopping centers and sell them over a weekend.
“It’s surprising how many we sold just in one weekend,” says Terry.
Representatives from the factory would retrieve those units that didn’t sell and drive them to another dealership. Back then, a fully furnished unit sold for $6,900. Today, the least expensive unit on the lot sells for around $70,000-$80,000, Terry says.
Business was good. But bumps in the road lay ahead.
The first was an oil embargo that hit the United States in 1973, leaving a weak economy, high unemployment and high gas prices in its wake. RV sales declined as fewer people hit the road for vacations. Then, in December 1980, prime interest rates hit an all-time high at 21.5%.
Through it all, the Franklin family kept a firm hand on the wheel, and today the family business is one of the longest-standing dealerships in the country.
Around the showroom and parking lots sits a fleet of motor homes, from travel trailers and vans to class C units and diesel pusher RVs. New class B units like the 2023 Winnebago Era 70X 4×4 come fully equipped with a complete kitchen, rear sofa bed, seven seats, Ultraleather front cab seats and Wi-Fi hotspot, starting at $183,211.
“It’s a very relaxing way to travel because you don’t care where you end up the next night. You’ve got everything you need in the unit,” Terry says. “To have that campfire environment – it’s hard to get much more family-oriented than that.”
Located northeast of the showroom is the service center, where customers receive regular RV maintenance, repairs and bodywork from a team of experienced, Winnebago-certified technicians. There’s also a parts department that carries a variety of travel accessories such as tow bars and satellite dishes.
Anyone needing RV service can stop in to the service center, regardless of whether they purchased their motor home at the dealership.
“You’d be amazed how many times we get people from the bigger guys who say, ‘They won’t take care of me,’” says Mick Franklin, Terry’s son and the dealership co-owner. “Our customers come first if there’s a priority, but we’ll sure take care of everybody. That’s part of being smaller and knowing your customers instead of just being a number.”
Terry’s sons, Scott and Mick, grew up in the business, as Terry did. Joining the team in 1990, Scott ran the parts department; Mick became the service manager in 2011. Shortly after that, Scott was diagnosed with ALS and died in 2012. Scott was a big part of Winnebago Motor Homes and is dearly missed, says Terry.
In 2016, Mick took on co-ownership with his father.
Since working with his father, Mick has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. When COVID hit in March 2020, he knew it would impact the economy. Luckily, the pandemic’s effects created growth in the RV industry and provided an outlet for people to travel on their own terms. The shift to remote work made it even easier for people to travel with their RV.
“Think about camping – it’s not like it used to be,” Mick says. “So many people are working from their motorhomes, especially the little B vans. So much of it isn’t typical camping anymore, which makes the market bigger. RV owners aren’t just parking in a campground and sitting around a campfire. They can use their RVs anywhere.”
In addition to new and used motor homes, the dealership also offers consignment for those who want to sell, upgrade or downgrade. For the Franklins, consignment goes hand-in-hand with going above and beyond for customers. Often, their consignment customers consist of elderly clients who want to get rid of their units following the loss of a loved one.
“It is a good service for them because a lot of times a spouse doesn’t know which way to go,” Terry says. “We typically have people say, ‘If I pass on, are you going to help my wife sell it?’ They ask us that all the time, and I think after you get to know your customers they have that feeling that they know they’re not going to be taken advantage of, especially in those types of circumstances. That means a lot.”
The Franklins credit their continued success to their determination to take care of every customer the best way possible. Throughout trials and tribulations, their strong customer base has helped the dealership survive and prosper.
Terry encourages other business owners to treat their customers how they would want to be treated.
“We do our best to take care of them,” Mick says. “I think as a small, family-owned business, if you don’t take care of your people, you don’t last.”