A Cup of Coffee with…Wally Comer

  1. Cup-manufacturedhomepronewsWho, What and Where: (Your name and your formal title at Adventure Homes and where your company is based).

Walter Comer, President, Adventure Homes, 1119 Fuller Dr., Garrett, Indiana.

  1. Background: (Educational/Professional snapshot before entering the factory-built housing arena. Specifically mention your prior industry experience to opening Adventure Homes, meaning the years with Fleetwood, etc.).

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I grew up in LaCrescenta, CA where I attended Crescenta Valley High School. I was graduated in 1965. I went to University of California and graduated with a BS in Marketing in 1971. In between those years, I did an 18 month tour of duty in the Army.

After leaving college in 1971 I joined Redman Ind. In their RV Division working for Jess Maxcy. I moved to Oregon and enjoyed a brief but successful stint in the Mini-Motor Home division before moving on to the Manufactured Housing side of the business. I have worked for Redman, Zimmer, Holly Park, Skyline and Fleetwood.

I was General Manager at the Fleetwood Plant in Garrett, IN when Fleetwood made the decision to file bankruptcy. CAVCO bought all of the Fleetwood facilities but Garret and the plant in PA. Our plant had a solid reputation with the dealers, a well trained work force, and a seasoned management team in place. The decision was really rather simple: Lose all that we had built together as a team or purchase the facility and save 130 jobs!

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  1. When and How: (When and how you began with in manufactured housing).

Redman Industries was my very first job out of school. Like most people in our industry, I’ve been in it for so long that I don’t know what else to do.

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  1. What are your personal interests or hobbies? How do you like to spend non-work time?

I enjoy being with my family.

  1. Adventure Homes was started by you, Jerry Henry and Walt Fuller. You opened at exactly the time that so many others in our industry were closing! What gave the three of you the vision and courage to do what you’ve clearly pulled off with such success, when others have struggled, slid backwards or failed?

Our team here was so well trained and so professional. Had I had to start over with new people, I would not have made the decision to go forward. However, we shut down on a Friday and re-opened on Monday and never missed a step. Our dealers were encouraging us to remain in the market and pledged their support. So, we had the team and we had the dealer base. All that was remain was to find the financing that would make it all possible.

My banker introduced me to Walt and Jerry. I will forever thank Mark Fogt, President of Garrett State Bank for that introduction. Walt and Jerry are two men with mighty resources and they quickly moved in to save Adventure; more importantly, all of the jobs that would be lost in Garrett and surrounding areas. It was a generous and courageous move on their part. I remember Walt saying to Jerry, “We can’t afford to lose 100 jobs in Garrett; we will never get them back!” and then he turned to me and said, “Wally, were going to have to trust you and these numbers. So, I have one question: If Jerry and I do this, can we make money?” I said, “Yes Sir, I’m sure we can!” He turned to Mark Fogt and said, “Make it happen!” I’ll never forget it!

Just for the record: We lost a little money the first year, turned the corner in year two and never looked back!

We now have 130 employees. We are adding 20,000 sq.ft. to our building that will allow us to add 6 stations. We expect to employee as many as 160 people in 2014.

Walt, Jerry and I are all very proud of what the people in Garrett have accomplished.

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6) You told the Indiana Economic Digest in 2011, “Come in, help us with some financing, and we could put several thousand jobs on the line immediately.” While Adventure has clearly done well, you also said: There are so many things out there that could be done to help housing and this industry, and they’re not doing them…The banks aren’t lending to creditworthy people,” We will dig into Dodd-Frank, SAFE Act and the CFPB in a minute, but in your expert opinion, what other factors do you think harm our industry? Government? PR with the media? What say you, sir?

The general public’s perception of our industry is not good! I blame our industry for the circumstances that surround us today.

Before HUD’s involvement, our industry built a number of homes that just were not worthy of the label of “house!” There was so much growth and so much money to be made in our industry that very few companies truly cared about the future home owners. Those bad decisions have come back to haunt our industry.

Today we build an outstanding product worthy of any home owner. Unfortunately, the press and the news at large give us little to no respect. We, as an industry, dug that hole for ourselves and now we must find a way to dig ourselves out!

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7) Usually one of the hottest topics in manufactured housing revolves around financing. Tim Williams at 21st among many others MH C-suite leaders we’ve interviewed have made a strong call for support of HR 1779 and the planned Senate companion measure. In spite of the threat caused by the ‘unintended consequences’ by Dodd-Frank, SAFE Act an other regulations, bill that will be filed in the Senate. We are seeing apathy or inaction by too many in the rank and file, including owners of MHCs and independent retail centers. For those readers who have not yet picked up the phone, sent an email, fax or letter to their Congressman or Senators about this issue to get them to co-sponsor, please explain why grass roots action is so important.

In 1971 our industry was growing and making good money. Skyline, Champion, Redman and Fleetwood were publicly held companies and the darlings of Wall Street. Today, all but Skyline, they are gone! Point is, we don’t pull much weight in political circles. The Girl Scouts have more influence than we do! Dodd-Frank has it’s good points but none of them are helpful to affordable housing. If we are to be successful in this fight to retain our position in the housing market, it will be necessary that we fight the battle for “Affordable Housing” and not just Manufactured Housing.

We have to remember: Bankers don’t like HUD housing because it’s too hard to finance. Congress ignores us because we’re no longer a force to be dealt with! Hell, no-one’s on our side! But we can’t quit and we can’t give up. If we do, it’s going to be the average American Home Buyer that will be the loser. As Manufactured Housing goes, so goes the “Affordable Home!”

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8) Having said why passage of HR 1779 is important, finance experts like Dick Ernst at FinmarkUSA.com have said there is ‘no lack of capacity’ among manufactured home chattel (personal property) lenders to make loans to ‘credit worthy customers,’ who today start around the 640 or 660 and up FICO score range. The leading MHIndustry lenders on the same panel that Dick Ernst made that remark all agreed. Since some 58% of all Americans have a credit score about 700, what do you think our industry must do to attract and sell more people with good credit?

Build a better home worthy of comparable comps.

9) Leadership is critical for any company leader. What is your personal leadership style? What would you say to those who want to take a risk and try something bold, but are nervous for whatever reason?

I’m a manager that puts all of his time into finding and hiring extremely good people. My philosophy is: Hire good people; pay them a very good wage and then do the following: Tell them what you want; Give them the tools to get it done; Hold them accountable.

10) Let’s talk Louisville! Adventure Homes was one of the companies that took the lead in 2011 to support the return of the show. You mentioned Dennis Hill at Show Ways was part of that decision. What other factors caused you to believe in the Louisville Show‘s comeback, and why you made such a strong showing when others were toes in the water or skipped that year?

Louisville was a dice roll for me; a very expensive dice roll! But it paid off! I felt strongly that if Louisville failed, an already fractured industry, would fail too. Plus, I got great strength from my old friend, Ron Thomas, Sr..

Ron is one of those guys who brings an enthusiasm to the game that just cannot be ignored. Between Ron and Dennis Hill and their remarkable tenacity, I just couldn’t say no. They need to build a statue of Ron and Dennis and put it out front every year of Louisville. Those two guys did an extraordinary job putting this show together.

11) In 2013, the Louisville Show actually attracted more attendees and total attendance than the popular Tunica Manufactured Housing Show. For those who haven’t been to Louisville in years, or those who may have never come, what reasons would you give them why it pays to come to Louisville? What are the kinds of things that Adventure Homes has planned for your show display in 2014?

We will be there with 7 or 8 homes this year; more importantly, there will be many other manufacturers there showing off their product. We will have a new and even more beautiful MOD at this upcoming year’s show as well as new Community Series Home product. The competition will be awesome!

12) I personally know professionals both in retail and in communities who use Adventure Homes and love your product. All HUD Code and modular homes have to have certain basic standards alike. So what do you think sets Adventure apart from others? What can you point to as a reason why Louisville Show attendees need to check Adventure Homes out?

A 14X66 is a 14X66!

The one thing I have learned in the last 50 years is that it all boils down to “desire” and “attitude”. If you want to build the best built house and if you want to build the best looking house…you will! I think that’s what gives Adventure the edge. Our people have been with me for over ten years and we have people in the plant that have been here for 20 years. Everyone here is excited to build the very best house in the market; and it shows!

When I return from Louisville, they expect a floor meeting and they want to hear all the details. They want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly! I’m so very proud of our people at Adventure!

13) In a group discussion on the professional social media site, LinkedIn, a community owner was complaining that a factory said no to him about carrying a line of homes, because there was a retailer who had the line and they had a protected territory. The community owner argued, saying, well no retailer has sold a home into our community in years. There are certainly arguments to be made both ways, so what does Adventure Homes do when such an issue comes up and why?

Panic! That’s never an easy question. If we have in fact made such a deal with a retailer…we of course honor it. We will and often do contact the dealer and see if something cannot be worked out.

There just isn’t enough business out there to walk away from a customer; however, I’m not prepared to in any way compromise my ethics for an order. Not all business is good business!

14) While some are crying in their beer or see doom and gloom, Adventure Homes has worked hard and grown, even during the downturn and in spite of economic obstacles you’ve mentioned. Your industry colleague, UMH CEO Sam Landy, said in an interview with MHProNews that given the large and growing need for affordable housing in the U.S., he sees how manufactured housing could return to new home shipping totals of 300,000 to 400,000. Others inside our industry think we ought to be happy to return to shipments in the 100,000 annual shipment levels. What say you? Why?

I see no reason why we cannot return to more impressive numbers; however, we will require some help. If this Dodd-Frank Bill is not modified to a friendlier version, not just Manufactured Housing but “all” affordable housing will be in trouble.

Should we be victorious in our efforts with Dodd-Frank, I think our industry could be looking at a very exciting 5 year run of growth and profit! It’s about time!

15) Another former Fleetwood manager, Jay Hamilton from GMHA made a pithy, powerful plea for the Industry to pull together and support training and image building if we are to grow again. Leigh Abrams made a powerful case for the same. Jim Ayotte from FMHA specifically shared their experience in image building, and encouraged the effort launched with ManufacturedHomeLivingNews.com. What do you personally think are the merits of image building, marketing and sales education in terms of industry growth?

We are a splintered and self-motivated industry. We are a house divided and that is very unfortunate! I would support, both personally as well as financially, any effort as an industry to raise public perception of our Industry. Unfortunately, I think you have a better chance of herding a bunch of cats through Louisville than you do of getting our industry unified on that topic!

16) What do you consider the largest challenges facing the industry in general today? Where do you see our largest opportunities?

Financing and acceptance by the buying community in general.

Young people! We have no-one with whom to leave this industry. There are no young people entering into the industry. If we don’t find a way to start attracting talent, it won’t matter what we do with financing!

  1. Closing thoughts or comments, sir?

It’s been a great ride!

A Cup of Coffee with… Sam Landy

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