PROGRESS EDITION: Coates RV Center growth taps needs in North Dakota

An aerial view of Coates RV Center in Columbus. The business celebrated its 75th annivesary last year. (Photo courtesy of Coates RV Center)

An aerial view of Coates RV Center in Columbus. The business celebrated its 75th annivesary last year. (Photo courtesy of Coates RV Center)

76-year-old company opens RV center in the heart of the Bakken Oil Fields

 

Coates RV Center co-owner Sarah Coates Lange is pictured with a framed photo of the center’s Williston, N.D. facility that opened in 2011. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

Coates RV Center co-owner Sarah Coates Lange is pictured with a framed photo of the center’s Williston, N.D. facility that opened in 2011. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

The Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota are 10 hours from Forest Lake by car, but that hasn’t stopped the oil boom from having a direct impact on one local company.

Coates RV Center, a Columbus business since 2004, is now in its third year of operating a full-service business outlet in Williston, N.D. The oil boom’s demand for housing and a local population segment that has adopted recreational vehicles as an activity prompted the move in 2011, said Sarah Coates Lange, a business owner and manager of the day-to-day operations in Columbus.

The company started looking westward for the potential expansion in 2009 and 2010 when the Columbus RV location began selling units that were taken to the oil fields area and used as housing by folks finding work in North Dakota. To gain a better measure of the interest, a community center was rented for an RV show in Williston and 20 models under the Forest River RV flag were displayed.

“It turned out that the interest was great,” Sarah Lange said. “There were no other RV dealers in the area. It also was a huge recreation area.”

The demand for housing was a given during the exploratory stages of the move, she said. It was an added bonus, she said, when Coates RV Center learned that many residents of the area used RVs to hit the road and visit the nearby badlands and recreational areas.

“It was a place where we wanted to be,” she said.

The company acquired a building, gutted the facility and added a second floor to provide housing units for Coates employees who made the move from Minnesota. Mark Pettersen, a co-owner and Sarah Lange’s uncle, took on duties as North Dakota manager.

Jesse Lange, Sarah’s husband and owner of Lange, Inc., a construction company located in Minnesota, took on the restoration project and has maintained a workforce in Williston tackling other building projects.

Now in its third year, the Williston location has grown to 15 employees. Along with sales of Forest River products, the center offers full service repairs and a parts department.

Local moves

The move to North Dakota came on the eve of Coates RV Center’s 75th anniversary. The milestone was reached in 2013 just as the company completed its 10th year at 14025 W. Freeway Drive in Columbus, one mile south of Gander Mountain.

Founded in 1938, Coates RV Center spent its first 65 years on Como Avenue in St. Paul before the potential for growth prompted owner Jerry Coates to begin looking for a new home. The property in Columbus was acquired in 2003 and the new RV center, eight times larger than the old site in St. Paul, opened in 2004.

Steady growth has followed. Coates RV employed 15 people prior to the move and over the past 10 years has seen its team grow to 35 here with another five new positions likely to be added in 2014, Lange said. The North Dakota employee base puts total company employment at 50 this spring.

The Columbus location is on the west side of where I-35W and I-35E merge.

“The freeway exposure is fantastic,” Lange said. “It was very difficult for people to find us at the old location in St. Paul.”

The steady growth over the first 10 years in Columbus also played a huge role in the expansion, she said, as the company had the capital to make a major push into a new market.

Top-quality products are also key, she said. Coates RV Center has a strong relationship with Indiana-based Forest River RV and the 15 lines of towable tent-trailers, campers, travel trailers, fifth-wheel units and ice cabins manufactured by the company.

Coates RV Center made its way through the recent economy downturn in fine shape thanks to careful inventory control.

“All in all it was just a slight bump,” Lange said.

The management team at Coates RV is optimistic for the future. Sales were up 20 percent in 2013 over 2012 and this year is off to a good start, Lange says.

“Last year was a fantastic year for us,” she said. “The RV industry is doing well overall.”

Jerry Coates is now retired from the day-to-day management of the company but is on board as an advisory and consultant.

To mark the 75th anniversary last year, the Coates RV Center and indoor showroom was refurbished with new carpet, tile and general upgrades. A new conference room and two offices for finance and insurance and sales were added.

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