King's Campers

Camping is a family business for Ron Gajewski, seated, and sons John (left) and Mike at King's Campers in Wausau.

Most families cruise through campgrounds looking for the perfect site to set up and relax for a break from real-world stress.

Odds are there’s a Gajewski looking at the stickers on the back of the campers and RVs.

And while folks gaze into their campfires thinking about nothing but unwinding from the workplace, one of them — John Gajewski, sales manager of King’s Campers in Wausau —is wondering if he’s spotted any trends.

Such is life when you’re deep into the second generation of ownership at King’s Campers, which was founded in 1967 and has been in the Gajewski family since 1990.

Ron Gajewski, the patriarch, helped Roger King establish the camper dealership in 1967, when it was still on the 1.5-acre lot on Stewart Avenue where Griesbach Automotive now resides. The Gajewskis moved to Nekoosa in 1972 to establish Deer Park Trail campground, but when Gajewski the elder learned in the late ’80s that the camper business was available again, he leapt at the opportunity.

Even after all those years, and so many advancements in so many areas, there are some principles that don’t really change.

“Service is the most important thing we do,” Ron said.

It was the service side that got King’s through the 2008-09 recession. As people’s discretionary income took a hit, they found them- selves maintaining the camping equipment they had rather than looking to replace or upgrade.

“It made us re-evaluate everything we were doing,” John Gajewski said. “There was definitely a dip in sales, but service really picked 

up. There was a total flip-flop. The number of customers who came in the door didn’t change dramatically, but what they came in for did.”

Sales dipped about 20 percent during those years, but careful restructuring of inventory helped King’s minimize its tax burden on unsold inventory while maintaining strong relationships with its vendors. This was important despite King’s significant upgrade in avail- able space when they moved into the current 5- acre facility at 5507 Lilac Ave. in Rib Mountain in 1995.

Sales have rebounded significantly, clearing $20 million last year. King’s will sell up to 500 units in a year, and even with room to display dozens of large RVs and trailers, King’s still has to lease space behind a nearby Kwik Trip for extra inventory. With more than a dozen service bays, the Lilac Avenue facility is a testament to the company’s focus on service.

“Service sells,” said Mike Gajewski, Ron’s son who is company vice president and works closely in the service department. “About 80 percent of us who work here are related in some way, so that creates a real family atmosphere.”

That personal touch has become all the more important as a national competitor has moved into the area. Camping World acquired Gander Mountain out of bankruptcy in 2017 and rebranded it as Gander Outoors. Of the 10 locations it subsequently opened in Wisconsin, one near Appleton closed in early January, but Camping World reorganized its Rothschild facility to include camper sales.

“Having some competition in town,” John said, “there’s some good that comes with that. It makes us stay focused in our knowledge of our products and services. We can focus on what’s best for our customers, like with flexibility in our service pricing. Or when we have to ‘run (a decision) up the chain,’ our chain is a lot shorter.”

With area unemployment at less than 3 per- cent, one area that competition doesn’t help is by further tapping a talent pool that’s already pretty dry.

“We try hard not to poach from others,” John said. “We really only want people who want to be here. Often, our current employees are helping us find our next ones.”

King’s employs just more than two dozen, between service technicians and sales force, a total that can fluctuate a bit seasonally. Gajewski cites King’s flexibility with scheduling as one way to help employees get to their kids’ appointments, games, and school events, and schooling isn’t limited to the kids.

“Technology has come a long way in just the last two years,” Mike said. “With touch screens and Bluetooth. We send our technicians to school.”

The advances in tech are reflected in the evolving complexity of customers’ tastes, according to the sales manager. While the aver- age King’s customer may have been 50-60 years old in 1990, he said that age range is 30- 40 today.

“We’re seeing Millennials more because buying a cottage is cost-prohibitive, and there are so many festivals out there now,” John said, offering one more testament to the company’s focus on treating customers right. “We’ve sold to fourth-generation customers.”