BELGRADE — Made in the U.S.A: It’s a title that’s tough to achieve. But the easy way is no way to build a company if you ask Wiley Davis, the CEO and co-founder of Go Fast Campers in Belgrade, Montana.
“We kind of have a joke that we don't do anything the easy way around here,” laughed Davis. “If we want to consider ourselves a nation of problem solvers, we actually have to do the hard work.”
The work he’s doing today was just a dream a few years ago. In 2016, Davis was on his usual Christmas camping trip in Mexico when he had an idea.
“I'm 6’4” and the Tacoma I drove, even though it was a long bed, it was only 6 feet. I spent a lot of time in Mexico over the years sort of sleeping in the back of a truck with the tailgate open and my feet poking out of the camper shell.”
As the inventor drove back home, he came up with a concept: a camper tall enough to stand in that is lightweight but strong.
“The goal wasn't just to make a camper, it was to figure out, OK, how do you sort of leverage all these neat kind of amazing automation tools that exist now at a very small scale?”
He opened up a warehouse and manufacturing center for Go Fast Campers in Belgrade, just outside of Bozeman. He and his neighbor designed a pop-up camper that is permanently attached to your car.
“It's meant to be the bare minimum that you need to be able to set up camp quickly, sleep comfortably and tear down camp quickly,” said Davis.
Most importantly, he wanted it built in America.
"Obviously, we care very much about making a great camper. But, we also care a lot about building up the knowledge of how to how to solve problems in this country and to not just sort of offload that responsibility onto other people," said Davis.
From making two campers a week, to now 40 a week, the team uses robots and automation to make their own bolts, screws and camper frames.
"It effectively amplifies the value of someone's time," said Davis of automation. "Somebody who is running a set of automated tools produces a lot more in a unit of time than somebody who isn't."
Willy Totten oversees all the automated production.
"I kind of show up in the morning and fix all the problems," said Totten.
Investing more in these machines this year has helped Go Fast Campers make it through the pandemic supply chain shortages a little easier.
"Having that automation kind of gives us more space to weather the storm in some ways. We have everything in-house," said Totten.
Yet, it’s still tough to get the raw materials—even from local suppliers.
"Some days, it feels like, 'What are we going to run out of today?'" joked Davis. "Then, it sort of becomes a fun game that at least you can mildly enjoy while you play it."
The real enjoyment for this business owner comes from building a successful team that’s paid well for their work.
“Productivity is going up, but wages generally aren't,” said Davis. “So, what we're trying to do is tie those two together to say as we essentially make money, everybody is going to get paid more. The goal is to actually make the base pay eventually somewhere around $70,000 to $80,000."
The management team here has a promise: they won't get a raise until all employees do.
"I was like, 'I'm never going to find a job locally to do that.' When this opportunity came up, I just leaped at it," said Totten.
The pay scale and American manufacturing make the campers more expensive, but customers are happy to pay it.
“It’s all about keeping it in our country, keeping it local and really supporting people here," said Chris, who drove from Texas to get his Go Fast Camper installed on his pickup truck. "I'd rather spend a little extra money here, get a better quality product and be able to see the people who are putting it together.”
And with relentless, home-grown innovation, Davis hopes these campers are just the start of his team’s success.
"That, to me, would be kind of the ultimate picture of success is that we helped show a lot of people that taking on these hard problems is a great way to earn a living and a great way to live a life," Davis said.