Business Profile: Sportsmobile West

Business Profile: Sportsmobile West

Recently, we had a chance to hang out with the Sportsmobile West, Inc team. Sportsmobile has been specializing in van conversions for decades, making them a well-known name in the adventure-vehicle market. We chatted with Jonathan Feld, President of Sportsmobile West. Here’s what he had to say.

For those that don’t know about Sportsmobile, who are you and what are you about?

We basically produced what we like to consider the ultimate adventure vehicle, so it's really about overlanding, adventuring and van camping for us. We're a custom builder and a camper manufacturer and so we'll take any stock Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Mercedes, and custom build it using designs either that we've come up with or you, the buyer, can come up with. Either way, we really design and customize around your needs. If you want to get down to details, our mission statement is to promote and enhance a travel and adventure lifestyle through the manufacturing of vehicles and accessories.

This is a long but interesting answer. So, in 1961 regular Volkswagen vans were being sold through Volkswagen dealerships. Something happened though, there was a big tariff on utility vehicles—it was called the chicken tax for imported utility vehicles—and VW fit the bill. We also had the patent on the pop up and down top for camper vans.

So, there was a big tax levied on those things when they were imported. What ended up happening was Westphalia started building them as campers in Europe and then shipping them over to be sold to dealerships. Since they were now, you know, motorhomes, campers, and not utility vehicles, they were able to avoid the high taxes and get into a lower price point. Once that happened, we had to shift gears from VW vans and move onto the American Built Van—, Ford, Chevy, Dodge—and kind of took off from there.

My family got involved in 1989 when my dad was looking for a camper for the family and saw a guy who had a Sportsmobile from the Texas facility. He went out and wanted to buy one and asked why they didn’t sell these in California. They said they didn’t have the capacity, so he put together a plan and ended up opening a showroom in San Diego to start selling these things that were built in Texas. My dad could sell just about anything and the Sportsmobile product was no different. Demand jumped and the production couldn’t keep up with sales. We had to expand so we moved to Fresno in 1990 and started building them here in California. From that point forward, we kept pushing and learning about how to build a true adventure vehicle. We started doing our own 4x4 conversions on vans and now customers could really take their vans to some pretty awesome and gnarly places. We even installed extended gas tanks.

Now, we build anything from government vehicles (rescue vehicles, Red Cross vans) to specialty vehicles (mobile clinics, etc.) to our more widely known adventure vans.

How has the business changed and stayed the same over the years?

That's a real good question. You know, technology is one of the big drivers—these more efficient refrigerators, solar now supplies more efficient battery systems, nicer interfaces, etc. The other part is the quality of materials and how we improve our builds with time.

That's the second part of that question is the creative use of space. You know, it's so important in a van where you don't have ton of square footage to work with and oftentimes you don't have straight walls. Most of these vans have kind of a shape or curve in at the top—they have wheel wells, and it's just small. You're trying to fit an entire home in that space. You know, some people literally live out of these things and others are weekend warriors. In either case, you need room for your gear, and room to feel comfortable and sleep. Getting creative in maximizing every inch is something that has stayed consistent over the years.

So much goes into managing and operating a business. We often forget about those things when making a purchase. Can you share some challenges you all have experienced along the way?

When you offer fully custom configurations and there's hardly ever two vans that roll out of here alike, it’s an enormous manufacturing challenge. It’s one thing to offer templated builds and just keep building and installing those. However, going into custom creations take time, resources, negotiations with the customer (if we do this then we can’t do that), and presents enormous challenges on the line. When we build something new or custom that we haven’t before, it takes time to figure that out and implement that into the process. We’ve been known to build all types of custom dreams but that comes with sharp challenges, too.

As far as van building, it really is the fundamental business stuff that is a challenge. You know, dealing with, regulations, insurances, and all the agencies in California—certifications, compliance, and credentialing.

One of the challenges—and really a double-edged sword that comes with opportunities and challenges—is the internet. The internet is filled with so many great ideas, collections of information and opinions. Liberating information always makes learning and growing that much easier. On the flip side, it can give everyone a podium and make anyone seem like an expert. 10 years ago, we were known as one of the experts out there. If you were building out a van back then and had questions with how to do something, you called us—or a few others out there—and we’d walk you through the steps on how we do it. No cost–just there to help everyone get better. With the internet, that conversation has changed a bit. Now we have customers saying ‘I heard so-and-so on this blog is using this and that it’s the only way to go.’ We certainly don’t want to stop creativity because that also helps our business, but sometimes we have to rein people in a bit and negotiate with them on their build. That can be a challenge at times because we’re all aligning expectations.

Last question for today: what do you like best about your work?

It sounds kind of cliché, but we're building dreams. I've had men in here with full on tears picking up their van. They’ve dreamt about this and dreamt about taking their family members places they haven't been able to go. Just today, we had a client pick up their van and their child is wheelchair bound. That family now has a 4x4 van that is allowing them to explore places they’ve always wanted to explore. That part of the business is really awesome.

To learn more about Sportsmobile, check out their website at: https://sportsmobile.com/ or under our Van Builders section on the directory.