SylvanSport puts camping in everyone’s reach
Tom Dempsey’s version of a three-martini lunch: Mountain biking on a trail winding through the green shadows of Pisgah National Forest with birds chirping, gears clicking and companions breathing heavily. “We love it here,” he says. “Not many places you can get out-of-doors, wind up high up on a mountain and be back at your desk in an hour.”
His desk is in Brevard, where he’s founder and CEO of SylvanSport LLC. Midday bike treks fit the formula he created in 2004 when he began making the first of what will soon be SylvanSport’s 5,000th camping trailer. They’re the Swiss Army knives of the trade, unusual in that they’re so light and compact they can be towed behind small cars, and adaptable enough to carry gear such as canoes and mountain bikes.
SylvanSport is more than doubling its payroll to 45 people this summer, while holding true to its roots. Its Brevard factory is a center of high industrial technology, adventure appeal and fondness for the outdoors, tempered with business acumen.
A private company, it doesn’t release revenue, but sales point to a healthy bottom line. SylvanSport manufactures two models — the Go and the Go Easy — with the top-selling Go retailing for about $10,000. It’ll sell more than 1,000 Go versions this year, along with several hundred Go Easy campers, through a network that extends to about 30 countries. It recently opened a dealership in New Zealand.
“We’ve been growing at the rate of about 100% a year for several years now,” Dempsey says.
The Go and Go Easy start here, in a factory that Patrick Kennedy describes as primarily welding and assembly. He’s vice president of operations, an engineer with an MBA by training, and a whitewater canoer and backpacker in his spare time.
“We track labor costs, but it breaks down to about 20 man hours per unit,” he says. “We have a unit coming off the assembly line about every 44 minutes.”
SylvanSport outsources some work, such as plastic molding, to specialized suppliers in Fletcher, Charlotte and Salisbury. “We have over 50 suppliers, but we work hard to source as much as possible within 100 miles of Brevard,” Dempsey says. The bulk of assembly and fabrication is done in-house.
In an industrial glow of blue welding arcs and soft clanging of aluminum tubing and power-coated steel frames, SylvanSport is carrying out a vision grounded in Dempsey’s 1989 industrial design degree from Auburn University. That’s the wedding of what once were opposites.
“Camping used to mean putting on a backpack and heading into the wilderness, or driving a half-million-dollar motor home and going to a recreational-vehicle resort,” he says. “The two industries grew up side-by-side with no interaction at the industry or consumer level. I created SylvanSport to be an intersection of those two things.”
After college, he worked for camping-gear giant Coleman Co. as a designer, then for a South Carolina kayak maker before founding Liquidlogic Kayaks in Fletcher in 2000. “I found I loved the outdoors but was also an entrepreneur by nature,” Dempsey says. Four years later, he expanded into a bigger business venture, basing SylvanSport on marketing, not just design flair.
“Eighty-five percent of people who go camping go to facilitate another activity,” he says. “They go for hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, fly-fishing or some other activity. Camping is secondary. But typically, the smallest trailer was about 2,500 pounds and you needed an SUV or pickup to tow it and carry all the stuff you needed.” The Go weighs about 800 pounds. “We want to turn the Prius into a pickup truck.”
To do that, SylvanSport — with Dempsey heading the design team — fabricates a skeleton-type trailer that spreads nylon wings into not only sleeping quarters but also covered space for cooking and other activities. Other gear, including four-wheel off-road vehicles, can ride on top.
Dempsey has spent most of his life in western North Carolina, though he’s not a native. He grew up in Chicago, Pennsylvania and Alabama, until deciding Brevard was an ideal niche. SylvanSport is now one of about 30 members of Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, a trade group whose members make products from wool socks to rock-climbing harnesses.
Now, 14 years after putting down roots here, Sylvan-Sport will become anchor tenant of a project that could bring more industry to the region. At the site of a former paper mill, Transylvania County, Brevard and the nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation are building a 60,000-square-foot industrial building that could eventually double in size. This fall, the camper-maker will occupy about half of the first phase, investing about $5 million and gradually adding several dozen employees, including production, sales and administrative posts. Pay will average more than $50,000 annually.
There, it will begin production of a new line tentatively called Go Live, a roughly 15-foot multifunctional trailer that can be opened for summer camping or closed and heated for cold weather. It will retail for just under $30,000. SylvanSport is also expanding into outdoor gear such as camping furniture, cooking products and lighting, and a new line called Roofus, a quick setup, car-top camper.
All with singular purpose, Dempsey says. “Our mission is to make access to the outdoors easier, more convenient and more fun, so people have more time to enjoy themselves when they get there.”
Maybe because there’s so much of it, the outdoors is often unrecognized for its economic clout. But no longer will it be ignored. “It’s a $28 billion annual industry in North Carolina,” says Tom Dempsey, founder of camping-trailer maker SylvanSport LLC in Brevard. In January, the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office opened with $250,000 approved by the legislature in June 2017 after lobbying by Dempsey and others. He chairs the industry group that advises the office.
The outdoors as an economic driver is a natural. “We need to help build bridges between the business side of outdoor recreation and the public side,” Dempsey says. “The backpack or camper that’s built by private industry is almost certainly going to be used on public land, and as more people are out there in tents, sleeping bags, RVs or whatever, the pressure on public lands becomes greater and greater. We really feel it in western North Carolina, particularly in the summer.”
About 270,000 people work in the outdoor industry in the state, adds Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland, noting that North Carolina is the first state east of the Mississippi to create a department to promote the industry. Utah, Colorado and Washington have similar state offices.
“We have the biggest outdoor economy east of the Rockies, and we’re one of the top five states nationwide in terms of the outdoor economy,” Dempsey says.
It’s also a rare area of agreement in a divided political environment. “The cool thing is, [the state office] had strong bipartisan support. It was created by the Republican legislature and filled by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. “