Nathan Wagler, COO of nuCamp, joins Dr. Denis Phares for an episode of the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast. He shares the story behind nuCamp’s unique teardrop trailer and discusses how nuCamp continues to pursue excellence with each feature and upgrade they add to their trailers and truck campers year after year.
Behind the Scenes of nuCamp, the Largest Teardrop Manufacturer in the World
Surrounded by hundreds of lawn furniture manufacturers in rural Ohio, John Mullet decided he was ready to escape the saturated market. In 2004, he took a chance on a niche opportunity and built a teardrop travel trailer. With a hunger for success and a passion for innovation, John dove headfirst into this blossoming market and created the company that would eventually be known as nuCamp. Nearly 20 years later, his aspirations live on through his son and the current owner and president of nuCamp, Jesse Mullet. Under the leadership of CEO Scott Hubble and COO Nathan Wagler, nuCamp’s “dedicated craftsmen are committed to building with integrity and embracing innovative design” through “superior construction techniques and strict quality control” that continue to set them apart from other manufacturers.
In this episode of the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, Dr. Denis Phares sits down with Nathan Wagler to discuss how nuCamp continues to pursue its mission “to build the exceptional.” Nathan shares nuCamp’s history, their perseverance through the 2008 recession, and how they designed their one-of-kind teardrop trailers. Maintaining their commitment to excellence and prioritizing customer service, Nathan explains how powering nuCamp’s revolutionary trailers with Battle Born Batteries falls right in line with their mission. As the largest teardrop manufacturer in the world, nuCamp continues to provide trailers aptly suited to the camper who desires minimalism and being immersed in nature while still enjoying the comforts of home.
Denis Phares: 00:00
Hi, I’m Denis Phares, and this is the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, and we’re here in Tampa at the RV Super Show, and we’re going to take advantage of this opportunity to bring on some very interesting guests. I’m pleased to welcome to the podcast Mr. Nathan Wagler, Chief Operating Officer of nuCamp.
Nathan Wagler: 00:31
Thanks for having me.
Denis Phares: 00:32
So, let’s get right into it. Tell us about nuCamp.
Nathan Wagler: 00:36
nuCamp is a small company located in Sugarcreek, Ohio. We manufacture teardrop trailers and truck campers, founded about 15 years ago by Joe Mullet, who was an Amish preacher at the time and kind of jack of all trades and had done a bunch of different businesses just I guess, a serial entrepreneur, had been in farming and lawn furniture and had built some steel buildings. And he had been in all these different businesses and was really an innovator, and he would come up with new things all the time. So, he would build lawn furniture. And he would come up with a really cool new design, and he would release it. And three weeks later, everybody in the area that makes lawn furniture has the same design. And he was really looking for different opportunities to get out of areas where people could copy what he was doing.
Denis Phares: 01:34
He’s an innovator and a trendsetter too.
Nathan Wagler: 01:35
So, he would, he’d come up with just like a cool new glider or rocker or different design, and people would just knock it off. And so, in the area we’re in, there’s a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of Amish people, and they like to be self-employed. And so, they do furniture, there’s just, I think there’s 150-200 furniture manufacturers in a 40-mile radius. And they supply all the stores and stuff. And so, he was in that business. And then in the winters, you know, it was lawn furniture. So, in the winter, he would do some other stuff. He did some steel building, had a crew, he’d go put up steel buildings, and the guy that he was building a steel building for was like, “Hey, you can do a little bit of anything. Do you want… Have you ever heard of a teardrop trailer?” And he’s like, “I’ve no idea what that is.” “Well, you got to come up and look at this, you know, used car dealer.” He’s like, “I’ve got one. I want to see if you can build them for me.” And so, he came up and met the guy who took cardboard and traced out the shape of this teardrop trailer and was like, hey, I’m gonna go try to build one of these. So, he went back in his garage and took the cardboard and cut out plywood and made sidewalls and he built this teardrop trailer. And he made it for the guy. And the guy said, “Can you make me another one?”
Nathan Wagler: 02:52
And so, it just started from there into this slow growth of doing a little bit of this on the side. And this guy was a used car dealer. So, he had his buddies who were used car dealers because there’s that network all over the country. And they started being like, hey, can you make some for this guy? And so, he started to grow it up until 2008, when everything slowed down, and Joe wasn’t immune to the RV industry, kind of hitting a wall. And these used car dealers weren’t adding teardrop trailers and bringing things to their lot. And so, he got to the point he was going out of business and got connected with a distributor, who had called him actually the day he decided to close his doors. He got a phone call from this guy is like, “Hey, are you..” He’s like, “Are you still building these?” He’s like, “No, we’ve had to shut it down. We’re, you know, in a lot of debt and don’t have orders and all this stuff”. And the guy’s like, “We need to talk.” And so Friday of that same week, it was like Wednesday to Friday, he was in this office up in Canton. And they’re having a conversation of, “Hey, we have a manufacturer in Elkhart, but they’re not doing well. And we want to have some new manufacturing, and we thought of you.” And so, they’re having this conference. They’re like, “Okay, we’ll get it started back up.” And that’s where he met Scott Hubble, our CEO, who was doing marketing consulting for this distributor at the time. And so, they met there and, over the years, developed that, the friendship that has now led to Scott being in leadership in our company. But so, they started out building, and they wanted to take off, and they said, “Joe can you… They started, you know, he did like 50. And then he did 150 units, and they’re about at 150 and they said “Can you build us 500 units next year if we need them? And Joe, being an entrepreneur, said yes. And then he had to figure out how to make that happen. Because as you know, with entrepreneurs and starting your own thing, you believe you can do anything. And then you got to bring your team along.
Denis Phares: 05:00
So, it well, it’s interesting that this wasn’t someone who said, alright, I see a need in the RV industry, and they went, and they reaped, it was kind of like almost an artist and he was making furniture and other things. It was like, yeah, I guess I can make this, but it sort of did fill a need.
Nathan Wagler: 05:15
It did fill a need, within kind of the, just that small campers, the retro look, obviously they’re cycles to any design or look. We see that in many industries, fashion and furniture and interior design they’re cycles. Things that, you know, as, as we were kids were like, “That’s the ugliest carpet we’ve ever seen.” And now you’re starting to see it come back 30 years later, into different things. There’s that cycle. And so, the vintage teardrop shape has been around for years and years and years. And it kind of came back in as people have moved more, a little bit more minimalist, want to be have something that’s theirs, it’s unique, it’s very much personalized. So, we have all these color options. And when you see those different things like that group, even in the earlier days, we have a picture in our office, one from when there were 10 people and the trailer load of campers that are on there. There’s an orange one and a yellow one and a blue one. And they’re these bright colors are just super personalized. And so, it says retro bright colors, things go on where people just have, you know, they want to express their personality in how they camp.
Denis Phares: 06:22
Well, there’s the aesthetics of the teardrop shape. But what about the functionality? I mean, is there a need that it’s addressing, functionally?
Nathan Wagler: 06:31
Functionally, it’s, it’s small, a lot of the small teardrops you see people coming out of tent camping, and they want something as they, don’t want to show up and set up a tent and do that they want to have somewhere to cook. And so, with the back hatched door, having a small kitchen, but they’re outside, they want their bed indoors where it’s dry, some, you know, conditioning of the air, they want to be comfortable, but they don’t, but they want to be outside. They’re not looking to be in their camper and hang out indoors when they go to the campground. They’re planning to be outdoors. And so, it gives them the ability to cook outdoors, do all the things they’re going to do outdoors, but then they’re inside in a secure area with an air conditioner to sleep. And so, it’s kind of the best of both worlds.
Denis Phares: 07:10
It’s almost it’s as close as you can get to tent camping. Yeah.
Nathan Wagler: 07:13
Well, and then they’re lightweight. So, our lightest units are in that 1300 to 1900 pounds. And so, if you’ve got a Subaru Outback with a nice towing package, you’re sticking it behind there, and you’re not having to buy a truck, you’re not having to buy a large SUV. And so, you see a lot of people that camp as an individual don’t want to have to go get an F 150 just to get a camper, you’ve got what you want. And then maybe it’s just a small SUV with a tow package and you can handle it, you can see it to back it up, you can kind of see around it and over it. And so it’s it’s less intimidating for that new camper. They don’t have to worry about learning all these things about backing a trailer in the same way.
Denis Phares: 07:56
Right now that makes sense. So it’s kind of that need.
Nathan Wagler: 08:00
Within there, we see a lot of we do see a lot of individuals that, that solo camp, and so they’re perfect for that because you don’t need all the amenities. If you’re getting outdoors as an individual, you’re an adventurer, you want to be out and you’re also looking to be out and around and meeting people where you’re at and having community at the campground. It’s why you get out there.
Denis Phares: 08:22
That is pretty mainstream. I’m sorry. That is pretty unique among the mainstream RV companies and RV designs. I mean, there’s a lot of boutique types. You’re a little bigger. I think you’re more, you know, in the Indiana, Ohio area, at least and so folks know who you are. But how does that relate to the current RV slowdown that you talked about ‘08, well, we’re in a similar situation now. Do you think that sort of protects you or insulates nuCamp from those slowdowns?
Nathan Wagler: 08:55
We have some variations. We’ve been very strategic and how we manufacture. So, looking back to 2017, The last time we had a cycle of a slowdown in the market. 2017 was a record year highest year ever to date. At that point in the RV industry. And retail sales were high, and pull through was high. And we got into a situation where as a nuCamp, we had been in this exponential growth phase from when we when Joe came back in ’09 and ‘10 and took off and then acquired the tab in 12, we had never been able to fill the appetite for the product they were building. They just couldn’t. It was, “Hey, we built 1500.” And then we needed, if we could build 2000 the next year, there was dealership for it. There was space, and there was pull through because it was new and it was unique, and as you grow and in business, you start to get to that point where you have to have a repeatable cycle, you can’t just exponentially grow. Year over year over year in a market where there’s only so many spaces in the RV industry, obviously, up until we grew to that point, there wasn’t as much competition or similarly shaped RVs in the market, as we as we grew and, and built the tab and added, you know, added a bathroom to it, that had never been in it that really took off for us. And it’s been our flagship unit. But in ‘18, we hit this wall in June where dealers didn’t need anything. And the orders weren’t coming in, they weren’t seeing pull through. And we ran into this, like, well, we’ve never been here before. What do we do? And so, at the end of ‘18, a decision was made among the leadership team to say, we’re not going to get there again, we’re going to build for scarcity, we have a unique product. Yeah, there’ll be lead times at times to get stuff. But we’re not going to get in a position where we’re overstaffed. And we don’t have work for our team. Because ultimately, what we do a nuCamp is about our team first, and the people that are in our building, and then our customers. And w,e I say to everybody that we talk about, we start with people, and we end with people. And if we ever forget about one of those groups, then we’ve kind of lost the point of being in business.
Denis Phares: 11:28
So that is, that’s unique in the, in the industry that they tend to grow with the cycle, and then you know, layoff with the cycle or furlough with the cycle.
Nathan Wagler: 11:38
Yeah, so we’ve been able to fend off the majority of the slowdown move, we’ve reduced production by about 20%. From where we where we have two lines that are running five days a week, full speed, haven’t slowed down. And then we have three lines that are running four days, essentially, they’re done in four days with their production run. But we’ve just stabilized our levels, where it’s sustainable, we’re not building a bunch of inventory, but we’re not over saturating our dealers. And so just really watching those numbers so that we don’t, we’re not as susceptible to ebbs and flows in the market, trying to take out the highs and take out the lows. It’s just a little bit different philosophy. But when you’re focused on your team and your people and having a sustainable company for years and years, you have to figure out that it’s not just chasing the high when it’s there because you end up sacrificing your people, they either get burned out or they leave, or you end up with the wrong people because they’re, there just for the dollars.
Denis Phares: 12:40
Right? Well, I mean, as a supplier to nuCamp, we appreciate having, you know, a very steady, you know, order level. So, you know, it definitely, it helps suppliers to. Well, on that note, let’s talk about the power system on the trailer. And you guys went to lithium pretty quick. And what is the typical energy usage among your customer base? Do they use a high amount of energy for a teardrop customer?
Nathan Wagler: 13:16
We have a lot of we have a unique customer base. And that like I said there, we always we find that a lot of them are highly educated and they’re independent, and they get out, so they like the intricacy of our build. And a lot of times, you know, we have electrical engineers that reach out and they want to inform us how systems could be better and things. And so, we have a great community.
Denis Phares: 13:40
We get those calls too.
Nathan Wagler: 13:43
We were seeing a lot of our people want to get off grid. And they want because again, they want to be outside, they want to do things outside, they don’t, they’re not looking for a camper to set up in a campground and be plugged in. And so they want to put in, they’re gonna be outside, but they don’t, they want to have AC because they’re, you know, in the desert, or they’re not close to hookups. They have they’ve bought an RV that has AC and all those functions, they want to be able to use it. But we weren’t providing a system that allowed them to because you know, dealer, the standard in the industry is dealers provide the batteries because if they sit on a unit for six months, and we provided a battery now it’s halfway through its warranty. It hasn’t been charged appropriately and different things like that. And so, we were needing to, if we were going to offer batteries that had to be something that was going to be sustainable, that would last that’s in the warranty period, again, good for our customer where they’re not getting something that’s halfway through. And it gives them the ability to go out and run their AC when they’re off grid. Everything we have comes with solar standard.
Nathan Wagler: 14:49
We kind of run those numbers and as we had the percentages get over 70% people were taking solar over 70% of the time so we said look we’ll just roll it into the build it’s one less thing for our dealers. Again, as we talk vendor partners, dealer partners, it’s one less thing for the dealer to decide, do I want to carry them with or without, because then you don’t have what the customer wants. And you have to order something custom because they don’t have a solar unit in that color. So, when we made it standard, it allowed them to have better customer relations, because they were more likely to have what they wanted. You’re not going to not buy it because it has solar; you might not buy it because it doesn’t, kind of that mentality. So then we wanted to develop more power, our dealers actually, we watch our social media, our customer experience team is watching. They all have different groups that they watch as part of their job, when they’re not taking calls. They’re kind of monitoring, whether it’s the feedback, what are people doing, even just like, what are they saying good, bad, you know, whatever it is, and we try to respond on our social, but we tried to send those questions to the right place. So, we can get in touch with somebody who has a legitimate question on Facebook, that maybe they haven’t even come to us, where our communities helping them, and we want to learn, but we are seeing a lot of people use Battle Born. And you know, an American company that’s based in Reno, good advertising, you guys have had great customer experience, you know, reviews. And so, we’re looking at, hey, we want a good system. But we also want to partner with somebody that has the customer experience mindset that we have, of that person’s use of this battery is the goal, not the sale of the battery is the goal.
Nathan Wagler: 16:32
Because we promise unparalleled customer support within our community. It’s in our pledge to our customers, it’s in their book when they buy their camper, this is what you’re getting. And we heard that time and time again, within yeah, we listened to your marketing, and we saw it there. But we heard it from our customers as we watched the community say, “Hey, I put Battle Born’s in, and they were great. And they walked me through it, “ because again, electrical engineer’s putting his own stuff in. And he’s talking to Eric or Brandon, and they’re walking him through the install. Of “Yeah, you need to do this or this.” And so we were seeing it. And then actually one of our dealers pointed out to like, “Hey, we are tearing out, like we’re finding space, and we’re installing these full Battle Born packages into your units. Why don’t you do that? Because we don’t have the time at the dealer level to bring a new unit into the shop, and spend a week taking it apart and rewiring it and doing everything, can you offer it as an option? Because your customers want it.” And so really, again, in a different way than we did back in 16 and 17, during growth listening to our dealers and our customers and saying, “Okay, that’s what you guys want. And this company aligns, let’s figure out a system. And so, a year ago at, you know, at the Tampa show, in ‘22, I just approached Wade, he had been calling us for three years. And I said, “Hey, I know you’ve stopped in like, five times. And you know, we’ve just talked and kind of had to ship I said, we’re ready to have a conversation about developing packages for our units because our customers need them. They’re using them, they want to, they want to be out there.”
Denis Phares: 18:16
That’s great to hear. Because it kind of worked for us, it kind of worked by design. You know, we definitely use social media ourselves and as good customer service as we could provide to convince the end user to use our batteries. And at the same time, we had, you know, Wade and Josh knocking on doors and Elkhart. And eventually it was the customers asking the OEMs “Hey, these batteries, these are great batteries, you should be putting these batteries in,” so it kind of worked.
Nathan Wagler: 18:45
And it speaks to that when you build a product that’s exceptional, or you build a product that people buy, they’re gonna start pushing back farther up and saying, “Hey, we want that factory install,” like, “Yeah, we can do it.” And then there’s the people that aren’t electrical engineers, but they want it. And they’re terrified by the idea of just taking it to a dealer, that our dealer relationships are great, and those are awesome. But there’s that, that comfort level that comes with having had it installed at the factory because you’re calling the factory to say, “Hey, I have this problem,” or you’re calling Battle Born direct because, you know, they endorsed the OEM install. They’ve worked together so they can troubleshoot the system because they know the system. It’s not “Well, I don’t know how that was done, specifically.” And so I think that’s been good for, we’re seeing that with some of the buyers at this point where there is a little more peace of mind, and they’ll bite off the chunk of a $10,000 lithium system because it was installed at the factory and it is going to be under their normal warranty and there’s not something different that they have to follow up and they have the peace of mind. Then it’s educating them I think on using it correctly, which I could probably use some help with because I don’t know understand all this stuff you can talk about either but…
Denis Phares: 20:03
Well, you know, we, you know where to call with questions. Yeah. Well, let’s talk about you, Nathan. How did how did you end up in this industry in this role? Do you like to RV? Do you like to camp?
Nathan Wagler: 20:18
I haven’t camped that much. I was, we’re just talking about that with some of our guys. We’re like, we feel like within the industry, we enjoy being here. But we know a lot of us didn’t grow up camping as much. “You’re from Ohio?” I’m not I grew up in Southern Ontario up in Canada was from that area. My mom was from the Elkhart area grew up in White Pigeon, Michigan, and so had a lot of family in the RV industry. Lots of my cousins and aunts and uncles have worked in the RV industry. And so, I knew of the industry kind of my whole life. But living at a distance, we were six hours away in Ontario, and we’d be in and out and we’d see what’s going on, you know, right in Middlebury and in Elkhart. And so, I knew about it. But then, long story short, moved around a little bit after I was 18. I lived in the Middlebury area and traveled the US did some Bible College in Ohio and spent a couple years in Arizona working with inner city kids, and met a girl from Sugarcreek, Ohio. And we started dating, and so I moved to Sugarcreek. In 2011, while we were dating, got married and settled down there and was working in kind of a customer service role. I was an installer doing countertops, quartz countertops to go in people’s homes and deal with the customer and got a, through some friends, got an offer to go work for a commercial contractor doing estimating on hotels and nursing homes.
Nathan Wagler: 21:53
And so I started into commercial construction, learning how that went, doing takeoffs of that and learning how a project is set up and how you run a construction project from a budgeting standpoint, and all of those things and then moved into writing contracts, and then eventually managing projects and was managing hotel builds and nursing home builds. And so that’s what I was doing from a work standpoint. But during that time, Jesse Mullet, who’s Joe’s son, who’s Jesse is now our owner and president at nuCamp. Jesse and I became great friends running, we did distance running together, we started running half marathons and marathons. And so, we spent 15 hours a week together on the road… “You still run together?” No, he runs a lot faster than I do. And he gets bored waiting for me. And I’m just always out of breath. So now he was just starting in 2012, we started running together, and he had just joined the company. He had spent years building storage sheds on site. So, he worked for a local company that builds storage sheds, and he traveled the area and would go on-site with a kid on a trailer and have to set it up on-site with everything that was there. And you know about efficiency and about not wasting a step. And so, he joined the company in 2012. And he’s brought a ton of efficiency to our manufacturing process, and cleanliness and organization because he had years of running a crew. But during that time in 2012, we were running. And we just spent all this time well, I had some family in the RV industry. And so, we, they were getting ready to build a building.
Nathan Wagler: 23:34
And we’re talking and I was like, “Hey, we could probably go get some tours out there. Like we can make some phone calls and see.” And so we did a day trip to Elkhart and toured some facilities and looked at how things were set up and how to lay out a production facility. And we learned a bunch. Well, he learned a bunch, I wasn’t working there yet. But I learned a bunch about how people do different things like how do you flip a trailer from upside down easily and safely, you know, to put your stuff on. And so as they were laying out their facility, I was involved in that process. I helped him build racking in the facility on Saturdays because we were both bored, and we needed something to do. And so we spent all this time and just kind of talking through and eventually Jesse just call me it’s like, “Hey, you know, I know you’re doing construction and doing project management.” At the end, you know, as they got to the end of ‘18, they’re like, “Hey, we’ve been going through this growth for years. And we want to continue to grow, but we want it to be sustainable and get good systems and how do we work to you know, departments together and get the work in the right places.” Because as you grow a company, just, everybody wears seven hats. And you figure it out. And then you get to a certain point like, “Okay, we should probably have somebody that does that all the time because now that’s too much.” And so he was like “Hey, can you do you want to come on board come interview and look at coming in and helping with process and system and getting everybody on the same page,” and so, I was like, I’ll entertain it, you know, I’m always open for something new. And so came in and talked with them and joined the team.
Denis Phares: 25:11
That sounds like the perfect job since you came from an RV family, at least in the industry. And then you had, at least, you know, project management experience in construction.
Nathan Wagler: 25:20
And so it’s interesting, the biggest piece I said, that makes my job easy is one, when I came to NuCamp, I’ve never been in a company where the level of person was so high, just across the board, every individual that we have on the team was just I’d never seen that in a company of 200 people where the hiring process had been in place, the culture had been in place from Joe and Scott and the team putting this together and just living this culture of having a people first mentality, worked for great companies and treasured those relationships with those people. But it’s just so interesting coming in, I inherited this team of people that was already caring about each other and was already focused on making a great product. And so, streamlining a group of people that all get paid out of the same pot, versus doing construction where half your conversations are, “Well, who’s gonna pay for that? Because that’s not my contract.”
Nathan Wagler: 26:10
Again, you’re mediating for people, in a big project where you’ve got 50 contractors, the plumber did this. So now the electrician has to fix something and then the framer has to come through Well, everybody’s getting paid a little bit more, but you’re trying to section off who does what work? And where is it in the contract? And how do you do it? And so a lot of those concepts transferred for me into Okay, now we want to build process. So who should be doing this work? And almost I just use that background of where what contract should this be in mindset? Where it was, okay, if I was writing this, who would I designate that I want to do this all the time. And so those things really worked? We, yeah, I want to get into camping more. But life gets so busy.
Denis Phares: 27:01
I hear you, you know, it’s like, you’re busy running a company.
Nathan Wagler: 27:04
Well, but it’s that other side of my wife, and I love it, we did a bit of Smoky Mountains trip this last year with our son who’s six. And we, you know, we showed up with no agenda, we did like one show, and none of the tourist stuff we went hiking, you know, and that we love to be outside and do that. And so, it’s more just grabbing a unit and going it’s just making the plan. So we’ve talked about it, and that’s, that’s one of our focuses in the coming years is to just grab a unit, you know, we’ve been talking about just getting out in our units, you know, as an executive team grabbing those prototype model year units that we’re just going to have on hand anyway and say, “Hey, let’s go test these out, and see how we like them with one child or by ourselves and see how that works. And so, we’re, we’re getting there, but it’s when you’re building a company or you’re working through a bunch of stuff, to find time to run away and go set up a campsite for the weekend is extra.
Denis Phares: 28:01
I think everything that you said as you know, your background and your the philosophy of your company really speaks to why we work so well together. And you know, thank you so much for for stopping by the program here, Nathan, and I’m sure we’re going to continue to work together for years to come looking forward to it. That’s gonna do it for the show. I’d like to thank today’s guest Nathan Wagler, Chief Operating Officer of nuCamp.