In 1941, Alex Tiffin began Tiffin Supply Co., a lumberyard and general merchandise store in Red Bay, Alabama.
From that business start-up, two more generations of Tiffins and more than 65,000 RV owners have profited by Alex Tiffin's strong sense of customer service. That customer service helped make Tiffin Motorhomes the success story it is today.
With the release of its 2012 models, Tiffin Motorhomes Inc. marks its 40th anniversary as a family-owned business. Bob Tiffin started the company in Red Bay, Alabama, in 1972. Today, Tiffin Motorhomes is a leading manufacturer of Class “A” motorhomes. The Phaeton was the top-selling brand of Class “A” diesel motorhomes in 2010. Tiffin’s Allegro Bus, Allegro RED, and Allegro Breeze were also among the top five best-selling diesel pushers. Tiffin models also include the luxurious 45-foot Zephyr.
Today, dealers across the U.S. and Canada sell the shiny new gel-coat units built at the Red Bay plant. Tiffin Motorhomes is respected for its product quality, customer service and a strong relationship between dealer and manufacturer.
“This year, Tiffin Motorhomes proudly celebrates our 40th year of building the finest motorhomes on the road,” said General Manager Tim Tiffin. “We want to thank everyone who has been part of our journey, from our dedicated team to our wonderful customers. As we celebrate 40 years and continue to strive to exceed the expectations of our customers, we look forward to celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2022.”
Building a Business
Alex's son Bob first made a name for himself in high school as a first-team tackle for the Red Bay Tigers. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Judy Nix, in 1961. For 20 years, he worked at Tiffin Supply, which sold just about everything needed to build and furnish a house.
Bob often saw more than 75 customers a day. Franklin County only had about 23,000 residents in the '60s, so there was a good chance he would run into a customer at church or in the grocery store. Bob understood the customer policy: If you don't treat people fairly, you can't look them in the eye. Bob made sure he could look his customers and neighbors in the eye.
In 1965, Alex Tiffin and a handful of investors bought a state-of-the-art cotton gin, when cotton was still king in Alabama and much of the South. The operations manager quit before the first bale arrived for ginning. Alex turned to his 23-year-old son Bob, who took to the cotton business, machinery and management like it was second nature.
Soon he had the gin operating at 10 bales an hour. He still marvels at the way the gin was engineered, with relatively inexpensive, easily accessible and replaceable parts designed to break under a heavy load, saving the high-priced parts that could shut down the ginning and anger both producers and buyers. Looking back years later, Bob smiles about his abiding fondness for anything mechanical – especially something that rolls.
Bob operated the gin in the fall and the lumberyard the rest of the year. By this time, his sister Beulah and brother David also had joined Tiffin Supply. Bob and Judy began their family with the births of Tim, then Van, then Lex, three sons who would follow in their father's footsteps and their grandfather's customer service philosophy.
As the cotton gin became a steady contributor to the Tiffin enterprise, a new manufacturing operation came to Red Bay. The Commodore Co. opened plants to build manufactured housing and recreational vehicles. Many of their supplies were purchased from Tiffin Supply Co. The Tiffins learned more and more about their new customer and its products.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Alabama, Red Bay was isolated from the major suppliers and other RV manufacturers, most of which are in northern Indiana or southern California. After three years, the Commodore Co. called it quits, closing its doors.
The Chevrolet dealership in Red Bay was stuck with a dozen RV chassis. That was in 1972, which had been a poor year for cotton in Franklin County. Bob looked at the family's empty cotton warehouse, the chassis gathering dust in the Chevy dealership and he proposed a new venture to his dad. Alex Tiffin agreed, and Tiffin Motorhomes was born.
Just as 1972 was a bad year for cotton and Commodore, it was a tough time to launch a motorhome operation. A fuel crisis left angry motorists waiting in long lines at gas stations. Suddenly, after the celebrated era of the muscle cars and huge station wagons, Americans learned to pay attention to miles-per-gallon.
The RV industry was in its infancy then. Winnebago, Champion, and Open Road were just a few years ahead of Tiffin.
Fortunately, there are motorhomes and there are well-built, competitively priced motorhomes. And customer service.
Since the Tiffins had worked so closely with residential construction, Bob decided to build the Tiffin RV like a house. He started with a hefty steel frame on the chassis, then followed with a strong steel skirt. His competitors were using exterior plywood below the floor and a Fiberglass or aluminum coach skin.
Tiffin's 16-gauge structural steel skirts covered with the same aluminum skin used in the walls became a first in the RV industry. Tiffin coaches sported a durability the competition could not match. In 1980, Tiffin introduced the first motorhome basement, which provided much more storage room and accommodated larger water, sewage and fuel tanks.
Tiffin was one of the first RV manufacturers to offer slideouts and a lower-end diesel pusher.
As the Tiffin reputation for quality and service spread through the RV market, Bob developed a small but dedicated dealer network. The RV Dealers Association has recently honored Tiffin with its coveted Quality Circle Award for dealer satisfaction for the 8th consecutive year.
Within the past decade, Bob and Judy's sons have taken on more and more responsibility. While Bob continues strong as founder and CEO of the family-owned enterprise, Judy retired recently after handling the Tiffin decorating decision-making since the onset.
Judy is also credited with coming up with the name Allegro, still emblazoned on the Allegro, Allegro Bay and Allegro Bus models as well as the owners' organization, the Allegro Club. Bob wanted a name that began with an A so that his company would be listed at the beginning of trade directories. Judy thought of the musical term, allegro, which means brisk, sprightly, and cheerful.
Oldest son Tim is the Tiffin Motorhomes general manager. His business training began where his father’s did, at Tiffin Supply Co. Tim was 10 years old when the motorhome operation started. He remembers the concrete being poured for the original building. After earning a marketing degree in 1984 from the University of Alabama, he returned to Red Bay as a Tiffin Motorhomes service advisor, booking appointments for customers. After stints in purchasing and procurement, he became general manager, with 14 years of experience in the plant. Tim's role, working with six managers, is to solve problems and remove snags in production. The daily production quota is his yardstick.
Van Tiffin, the second son of Judy and Bob Tiffin, brought his practical approach to the family's motorhome business in 1990 after his graduation from the University of Alabama with a degree in public relations. One of his earliest memories is a family trip to Mobile for a motorhome show when he was six. Van began his career at Tiffin in customer service, where he learned, as his father and grandfather before him, how to treat customers and focus on solving problems. He learned customer perceptions of effective design and workmanship. That assignment led to his current role as Tiffin's primary research and development manager, listening to customers and conducting surveys to determine what features are liked and disliked. Van avoids insignificant fads but pursues solid improvements.
After attending the University of Alabama in 1998, Lex Tiffin, Judy and Bob Tiffin's youngest son, created a team of quality assurance problem-solvers. In the assembly plant, welding shop, after-assembly and the new paint plant, Lex and his associates practice what they call in-line inspection and correction: Identify a problem, find the best solution.
Not all the development of Tiffin coaches takes place in the plant or listening to customers. With notepads in hand, all members of the family management team travel in motorhomes each year, tracking down the rare squeak, brainstorming the next floorplan, experiencing first-hand what it's like to pull into a tight restaurant parking lot.
At an Allegro Club rally, Bob Tiffin joins the plant technicians who knock on every coach door, offering to make whatever minor repairs time and parts allow. At an RV show, RV owners – no matter what make they drive – line up to shake Bob's hand and visit a minute. At the plant in Red Bay, Bob spends much of his day greeting walk-in customers, catching up on their families and travels. He can wave at customers through his office window, but most folks come into his doorless office for a chat. They do that because they can. Because Bob and his family make them feel welcome, comfortable, important. His sincerity and his commitment to meeting or exceeding his customer's needs are as plain as the 1997 pickup truck he drives to work.
In that converted cotton warehouse in 1972, Bob set a modest production goal of two motorhomes a day. Thirty-three years later, the 50,000th coach rolled off the Tiffin production line. Those early coaches, about the length of a minivan and so simple the owners could fix just about everything that broke, bear faint resemblance to a 2011 Zephyr, 45 feet of state-of-the-art electronics, from the huge LCD TVs (living room, bedroom and outside), the four slides that almost double the on-road width, three A/C units, the king-size bed, tile and carpeted floors, and low-profile satellite dish. The Allegro, Allegro Breeze, Allegro RED (rear-engine diesel), Phaeton and Allegro Bus also boast many of the Zephyr's features.
Continuing to Meet Customer Demands
As the coaches have become more elaborate the business has expanded to meet customer demand. Before a recent slowdown related to the recession, Tiffin produced as many as 13 coaches a day. After dropping to as few as three a day, 10 are rolling off the line daily now. Coaches are now painted – no more decals to discolor or peel off -- at a new facility in Belmont, MS. A 45-bay new service and parts operation and a welcome center opened in 2005.
Many RV industry observers note that it's the attitudes of employees that make Tiffin stand out. Other motorhome manufacturers have been clustered in Indiana and California. Observers say that for many of the workers in those plants, it's just a job on an assembly line. At the Tiffin plant, customers are invited to wander throughout the manufacturing and service areas, to look over a technician's shoulder, to ask questions. If a customer wants to sleep in his or her coach while it's in the shop for overnight service, fine. Tiffin workers ask their managers about customer feedback, the competition and the industry. As the saying goes, we're all in this together, but at Tiffin, it shows.
Folks in Red Bay are quick to acknowledge that their community is very dependent on Tiffin and the customers Tiffin brings to the area. North Alabama is rich in homegrown industries, and of these Tiffin remains among the most stable. When the textile industries began moving production to Mexico, Tiffin kept Red Bay secure with jobs. With its good pay scale, benefits and sense of belonging to a great company, Tiffin does not have a big turnover rate; once you are there, you stay.
Tiffin customers contribute almost as much to Red Bay as the company does. Owners of Tiffin coaches have learned through the years to time their service visits to coincide with special events in Red Bay, such as the community theater and the Founder’s Fest. When in Red Bay, they buy Red Bay. They shop in the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, browse the Dollar Store downtown shops.
With this close relationship binding customers, community, managers, workers and dealers, you can be assured that the future is going to be more of the same. More quality. More intense communication that leads to improvements. More happy customers, many of whom are proud to be driving their sixth or seventh Tiffin Motorhome.
Alex Tiffin passed away in 2004, but not before he had a good long chance to see how a general supply and lumber company in a small town with three traffic lights could spawn an industry leader.