Kevin Thomas says he received his figurative “gold medal” last year, when he was named the Mid-Atlantic regional sales and finance manager of Pete RV Center’s newly acquired stores in Virginia and South Carolina. 

The dealership’s three stores in Salem and Chesapeake, Virginia, and North Charleston, South Carolina, represent one-third of Pete’s empire spanning eight states. For Thomas, they also allow him to showcase his more than 11 years of experience in the RV industry. Expanding while maintaining a local mindset has brought Pete’s the greatest success in its more than 40-year history. Revenue exceeds $200 million and is on target to keep growing, possibly with more acquisitions. 

“My vision for Pete’s RV is to help grow us to be a better first choice for the consumers in our area,” he says. 

Kevin Thomas

Based out of the Salem location, Thomas previously worked with owners of American Family RV in opening a new location in 2018, after owning a car dealership in Arizona and being in management at a big-box outdoor store, when family obligations called him back to Virginia.  

In car sales, he focused on fulfilling customers’ usually immediate needs. RV sales allow him to focus on fun, he says, including learning whether shoppers want to travel to the mountains, the beach or a lake – not just the sales lot. 

“We’ve taken a more hands-on approach to getting the word out and doing more in the community; boots on the ground-type of soliciting to customers,” Thomas says. “That includes being in the campgrounds and having these off-site shows (with music). 

“We’re making it a fun experience, instead of being just ‘Hey, let’s go look at an RV’,” he says. 

Those activities usually garner loyalty and referrals, particularly among younger customers. Jay Flight 264BH layouts are particular favorites among the blue-collar customers in Charleston, Thomas says. The average customer in both Virginia and South Carolina is in their 40s or 50s – but the age is dropping. More customers want larger fifth wheels such as Jayco’s Pinnacle, with second bedrooms for children and an increasing amount of technology. 

“We are very lucky to have Kevin Thomas pushing us to success,” says Pete’s co-owner Chad Shepard, whose parents purchased the original Pete’s RV dealership in Vermont in 1983 with Fleetwood and Shasta towables. “His ability to communicate, desire to win and the way he mentors his staff makes him a great role model for everyone at the dealership.” 

Pete's RV

Thomas says his own experience as an African American in the RV industry also gives him a unique perspective and an opportunity. Camping with his parents as a child, he says such pursuits weren’t typical within the community. He often wears a Black Folks Camp Too (BFCT) t-shirt in support of Earl B. Hunter Jr.’s organization (Pete’s RV is a Unity Blaze member of BFCT) and is usually asked questions about it and camping in general. He’s often sporting it while at Virginia Tech University tailgate parties. 

“It’s education of availability,” he says. The dealership is also reaching out to community groups and sponsoring youth sports teams. 

That goes for the industry, too. Thomas challenges the industry to work harder to tap into just 10% of the minority buyer pool that’s been ignored for decades. 

“That turns into millions of dollars that are not being utilized,” he says. “And at the same time, you are helping people spend more family time.” 

Thomas does see progress in the industry and sees many organizations are raising awareness of the need for more diversity. Pete’s has several minorities in leadership positions throughout the company. 

“They’ve embraced me, and they’ve given me the opportunity…,” he says. “My expertise has proven that I belong.” 

Eyes on Expansion 

Along with diversity in leadership, Pete’s RV includes all areas of possibility as it eyes expansion opportunities. 

“We are looking for demographic diversity, geographic diversity and cultural diversity,” Shepard says. “These are all qualities we consider when understanding the potential customer market for expansion.” 

The dealership has a long history of selling to locals and Canadians. It began searching for acquisitions in about 2009, when the owners realized the dealership could grow more quickly and increase its purchasing power by expanding outside the state. 

Pete’s first deal was in 2011 for the former Rollin-On RV in Schererville, Indiana, from Paul Craven, who wanted to retire after nearly 40-plus years in the business. Located 35 miles from Chicago, it appealed to Pete’s because Rollin-On was also a Keystone dealer and offered Cougar, Montana, Passport and other brands. It’s close proximity to Elkhart, Indiana, also enticed Pete’s. 

The Indiana store’s sales have tripled, and its staff has grown to 40 in the past 12 years. It includes Forest River Cherokees and No Boundaries, Keystone Bullets and Cougars, and Jayco Eagles and Jay Feathers. 

“The biggest surprise is how hard it is to manage remotely,” Shepard says. “(We tried to) put a good manager in place and manage from Vermont, but we quickly realized we have to be there more often to build the culture that has led to our success.” 

Shepard, who now co-owns Pete’s along with his cousins, Todd McGinnis and Scott Borden, travels roughly 300 days a year to Pete’s store sites and runs the Schererville store’s sales department.  

The dealership’s second purchase was Van’s RV Center in South Windsor, Connecticut, near Hartford, in 2015. 

“We had a lot of customers in that area, so it was a way (to give) the customers better service,” says Shepard about the deal, which took about two years of Shepard’s pursuit to secure. The appeal was its Jayco-exclusive relationship and that it offered both the Jayco towable and driveable options. Since the purchase, Pete’s sales have increased more than 400%.  

Dealership acquisitions in Plainville, Massachusetts, near Boston (2018); in Providence, Rhode Island, to add more Forest River products; and in Mountville, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg (2020), to add more Jayco products also proved successful. The latter purchase allowed Pete’s to host the Jayco display at the Hersey RV Show in 2021, an extremely profitable event for Pete’s. 

“It was fun; it was bigger than I thought,” Shepard says of the Hershey show. “It was harder than I thought.” 

Pete’s bought a second Pennsylvania location in 2022, shortly after the purchase of the South Carolina store and before buying the two Virginia locations in a joint sale. The Greencastle, Pennsylvania, store provides Pete’s a location midway between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Former owner Eric Kendle continues to run the high-volume sales department, offering a wide range of brands from Forest River, Coachman, Jayco and Entegra Coach.  

Pete’s, which also owns Airstream of Vermont and CamperLiquidators in Indiana, made is most ambitious purchases by expanding into South Carolina and later Virginia. Shepard says the owners sought stores where consistent year-round sales are possible. The average customer in both Virginia and South Carolina is in his or her 40s or 50s, but the age is dropping. More customers want larger fifth wheels such as Jayco Pinnacle with second bedrooms for children and an increasing amount of technology. 

The Virginia stores also have good service capacity, and about 50% of Pete’s total business is service now. The location alone has 12 service bays – and Shepard wants it to increase. 

Pete's RV

“That’s why we bought these stores that are four hours apart, so we can service our customers no matter where they’re camping,” says Shepard, referring to the distance between most stores. 

Looking toward the near future, Shepard says Pete’s is building a store in Saco, Maine. It will include a state-of-the-art service center to serve the state’s coast, as well as the large groups of RV travelers who visit Maine each year.  

“The goal of myself and my partners is to continue to grow in dealership locations as well as use technology to help us provide high-level customer satisfaction on the service side,” Shepard says. 

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