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News / Business / Clark County Business

Van Haus Conversions, Panther RV find success in customized autos

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 22, 2018, 6:05am
5 Photos
Brandon Anderson, a builder at Van Haus Conversions, starts the initial work of customizing a van at its West Minnehaha workshop. The custom van industry in the region has grown significantly in recent years, fueling companies such as Van Haus that charge at least $30,000 to outfit a van.
Brandon Anderson, a builder at Van Haus Conversions, starts the initial work of customizing a van at its West Minnehaha workshop. The custom van industry in the region has grown significantly in recent years, fueling companies such as Van Haus that charge at least $30,000 to outfit a van. Photos by Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

If there’s an engine that runs on social media envy and daydreams, it’s the one powering the business of building adventure wagons.

Van conversion, where everything from old Volkswagen Vanagons to plain white work vans are turned into yachts-on-wheels, is thriving in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area. Companies thank the growing numbers of retirees and untethered freelancers who are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to be nomads in comfort.

The trend is helping local companies like Van Haus Conversions and Panther RV Products do bigger and bigger business every year. Revenue growth is in high gear, both companies said, and they are primed to expand.

“One reason is this whole boom of people doing corporate jobs, stuck in the cubicle and seeing images of #VanLife,” said Erik Ferjancic, owner of Van Haus Conversions, alluding to a social media trend that romanticizes a van pilgrimage to bonfire-lit beaches or to the feet of golden bluffs and mountains. “It’s fueling this whole ‘I want to get out of this 9-to-5.’ ”

Like the dream vans they create, interior space is tight but wisely used at Van Haus’ headquarters in West Minnehaha. Three tall vans are parked in the bay of a 2,000-square-foot warehouse, where they will be soundproofed, redesigned and tailored to the customers’ needs over the course of about two months.

“I’m constantly looking to find a new spot,” said Ferjancic, 42, a former computer programmer. He started converting vans about five years ago before officially starting the business in 2015.

Conversions start at about $30,000. A finished van typically has a bed and a kitchenette, but then veers wildly according to the customer’s wants and needs. A cycling coach’s van will haul up to eight bikes. An organizer of the summer festival Burning Man paid for a van that doubles as a mobile music studio. One customer needed a soaking tub.

“He actually got on the floor in my office and measured himself so we could custom-build a tub that fits him,” Ferjancic said. “The devil’s in the details, man. It’s so much about those final details.”

Ferjancic describes his vans as “land yachts,” equipped to handle weeks or months off the grid. And demand is growing for vessels to help people fall off the map.

No hotels in the wild

A trip around New Zealand in a rented van stuck with Hudson Harris, a 32-year-old worker at 54?40′ Brewing Company in Washougal. The van wasn’t tricked out, but it still got them up and down the island nation’s diverse terrain.

“New Zealand is known for just amazing locations. We knew we weren’t going to be able to go to all these locations and find hotels and things like that,” Harris said. “It gave us access to locations we probably wouldn’t have had access to. We weren’t off-roading, but it gave us a location distant from towns and city centers.”

That itch is essential to the demand for van conversions and it is fueling other industries, as well. The National Park Service is welcoming record numbers of visitors, with 330 million visitors in each of the last two years. Washington residents spend about $26.2 billion on outdoor recreation every year, including $2.17 billion from Southwest Washington residents, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

But people have to get there first, right? Cheaper gas prices and the economy’s rebound has helped fuel auto sales. And, more specifically, the RV Industry Association reports more than half a million RVs sold last year and a new sales record is forecast for 2018.

New ventures have risen as well. Outdoorsy, headquartered in Austin, Texas, was founded three years ago as an Airbnb for RV and van rentals. According to CEO Jeff Cavins, the company will do $200 million in sales this year — up from $14 million two years ago. The average rental, Cavins said, is for about six days and $1,800.

“There’s no Airbnb in Yellowstone,” he told The Columbian. “And there’s no Hilton in Yosemite.”

That would benefit Harris, who said he and his wife probably won’t spring for a converted van of their own. The price is too high at the moment, he said, but he would look to buy one cheap and refurbish it himself. But he said he can see how many people in the Pacific Northwest are flocking to vans.

“There’s so many gorgeous parts of this region. You know, you go a couple hours to the ocean, a couple hours to Olympic National Park, or make an easy trip to Montana or Wyoming,” he said. “These are all maybe a day’s drive. You can really see a varied landscape all within a couple of hours of where we are. I think that at least has an impact on those sales.”

People nearing retirement are driving most of the sales at Van Haus. Many are still healthy, with retirement on the horizon and children becoming independent. Vans also hit a sweeter spot than recreational vehicles, he said, because they handle more like cars and can go off-road.

“Baby boomers are still active. We get a lot of cyclers, surfers, all these people who want a little more out of their van than just a motor home,” Ferjancic said.

The bare necessities

Still, businesses in and around the auto industry seem to know they can’t really leave the economy in the rearview. Van conversions are a luxury, and even less expensive autos see sales hit the skids during a recession.

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Van Haus is doing well enough today that it has partnerships with four auto dealerships in Washington and Oregon where new van owners can finance the costs of a conversion. But vans aren’t really blowing past the competition, dealers say, meaning they could be vulnerable to shifts in sales.

“It’s always like this in a booming economy. I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” said Rob Bardonski, co-owner and general manager of McCord’s Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram in Longview. Vans are selling well, but no better than SUVs, trucks, coupes and sedans, too. And he said he’s already seeing a plateau.

“It’s like anything else. It will be full soon. Everybody will have a new vehicle and (sales) will slow back,” he said.

That’s familiar thinking to Panther RV Products, a Washougal company that started as a custom RV manufacturer in 2005, only to spin out with the economy three years later. Clients stopped spending and suppliers went out of business.

Today it no longer manufactures RVs, but sells an array of parts and accessories. Most of its sales come from supplying the high-end conversion companies like Van Haus. Those local clients have grown from three in 2016 to 20 different companies today.

That has made it a success story. Its 3,900-square-foot warehouse is now crowded with products and activity. Employee counts rose from two people a decade ago to 14, with plans to hire six more this year. They will soon relocate to a 14,000-square-foot warehouse across the road.

“We’re like in the perfect spot for this to be booming,” said co-owner Ethan Sweet, 26.

Yet Sweet acknowledged there’s still risk. Its top products are luxury goods, like Italian-made awnings and refrigerators. Customers pony up when they have disposable income.

“We get large shipments from Europe and the majority is already sold by the time it gets here,” Sweet said, adding that they have a waitlist for $700 cooktops.

Sweet hopes to steer Panther RV Products back toward the necessities. It may get back into manufacturing, he said, but instead of building custom camper vans it would make solar, plumbing and propane kits for do-it-yourself van owners, like Harris would be.

Meanwhile, Ferjancic said that if the economy starts to sputter, Van Haus’ business will shift gears. It could outfit fleets for transportations and logistics companies, for example, or make custom vehicles for people with mobility issues. He’s not worried.

“I was never that guy sitting in the cubicle looking outside (daydreaming), but I was sitting behind a desk working at a computer. I got tired of it,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do now and I enjoy my guys. I’m not looking to take the planet over by any means.”

And there will always be an adventure a drive away.

Columbian staff writer