By Eric Peterson | Sep 15, 2013
Off road vehicles
Bill Swail’s persistence and a refined business model have landed his Xpedition vehicles in the fast (growth) lane
After cutting his teeth in aerospace production, Bill Swails moved to Colorado in 1995 to work as a telecom analyst, but soon found himself gravitating professionally to his passions: travel writing and photography.
He built himself a rugged vehicle -- a Dodge 2500 with a pop-up camper and plenty of bells and whistles -- to get to remote destinations, dubbed it the EarthRoamer, and drove to Alaska for the summer in 1999.
He hit an impasse. "I loved the photography, but I didn't like the writing," he says. "But it was hard to sell photography without the writing."
But he got so many comments about the EarthRoamer, he decided to take another sharp turn in his career and go into XV (a.k.a. expedition -- or "xpedition" -- vehicle) manufacturing in 2003.
"I went back to what I really knew," says Swails. "I grew up working in my dad's shop fixing Volkswagens."
A decade later, Swails has delivered 140 EarthRoamer XVs, typically priced $250,000 to $450,000. He's got a backlog of about a year's worth of orders, and has 17 employees in production building two to three vehicles at a time -- a process that takes six weeks.
He went with a heavier-duty platform in the Ford 550, which he strips down and adds a composite body for the best of both worlds. The vision? "To be able to go to really remote places and still be comfortable," says Swails.
"Be comfortable" is a bit of an understatement when it comes to the luxury of the EarthRoamer interior. There's a 32-inch flatscreen TV, granite countertops, surround sound, a king bed, and a kitchen complete with an induction cooktop and stainless steel fridge/freezer.
On the rugged exterior, EarthRoamers have solar panels, fog lights, and 37-inch snow- and mud-rated tires. This is truly a vehicle that's built to go just about anywhere.
"People really love the combination of a really luxurious interior and a rough and ready exterior," says Swails.
They come in three varieties: the standard XV-LT, the stretch XV-LTs, and the super-stretch XV-LTss.
Swails says he learned many lessons piloting EarthRoamer through a 2009 bankruptcy. After selling 28 vehicles in 2008, the company went a full year without an order. "Don't leverage," says Swails of his top lesson. "We had a lot of debt and were focused on growth. Today we're 100 percent focused on profitability and sustainability."
To wit, the company has sold a dozen vehicles in the last year and is also the prime reseller of used EarthRoamers.
Challenges: "One of our biggest challenges is finding skilled, good employees," says Swails, citing in-demand skill sets from woodworking to welding to electrical work. "The more rounded they are, the better."
"Growing up in the 1970s, we had a shop class," he adds. "Now they don't even offer it, more often than not."
Opportunities: "Our biggest opportunities are expanding our product line," says Swails. He says he sees markets for both bigger and smaller EarthRoamers. The former would cost upwards of $1 million, but Swails says he just needs an order or two to commence production. "It's for a guy who needs the coolest toy," he says.
Needs: "To continue to book orders," says Swails.