by Jill C. Lafferty
We bring over 65 years of knowledge and experience to a growing and changing industry,” says Bob Grambsch, president of Canvas Replacements/Camper & Recreation Inc., a Loyal, Wis.-based manufacturer of replacement canvas tent tops for pop-up campers. “My dad had been building camping trailers since 1957. I was about eight years old when he started, so I grew up in the business, hanging around the shop. Dad’s company, E-Z Kamper Inc., was never one of the ‘big ones,’ but he was always promoting and was active and well-known in the industry.”
E-Z Kamper closed its doors in 1971, leaving Grambsch’s father, Clyde, with a large debt and some bad feelings. Clyde tried starting another camper company, and after graduating from college, Grambsch moved home to help. While working for the new, struggling company, Grambsch heard about an opportunity that would change the course of their business, although if Clyde had had his way, that future would have gone up in smoke—literally.
A competitor, Trade Winds Campers of Manawa, Wis., had been acquired by Outboard Marine Corp. (OMC) a few years earlier. When OMC decided to stop manufacturing the camping trailer line, the company put a huge lot of surplus parts up for sale. Clyde jumped at the purchase without the blessing of his partners (“Dad was kind of a wheeler-dealer,” Grambsch says), so father and son set up a separate company for the purchase.
“We had to haul it about 80 miles from Manawa to Loyal and rent a warehouse to dump it into,” Grambsch says. “One whole semi load was unused canvas tents for camping trailers that had been built 10 years before.”
Clyde wasn’t interested in the tent tops and wanted to leave them behind—he even suggested burning them right there. But the seller insisted they be removed, so the pair transported the canvases to their warehouse.
About a month later, they received a letter forwarded from the OMC office. “Somebody was looking for a new tent for their 1963 Trade Winds camping trailer,” he says. “That happened a couple more times, and my dad began to get the sense that God was knocking him on his head and pointing at the canvases. And it did gradually become the center of our new little company.”
Early on, Canvas Replacements struck a deal with Anchor Industries Inc., Evansville, Ind., for new canvas tent tops and purchased additional tent top surpluses from other fabricators. But as the company grew, Grambsch realized that sewing needed to become part of the company’s repertoire, so he bought a used sewing machine and taught himself to sew.
“With tents we had bought from other companies that were just sitting on the shelf gathering dust, I would take them apart, cut down here, add in there, and sew them back together until they matched a camper tent we had a sale for,” he says. “That is how we operated through most of the ’80s.”
The company started hiring sewers, too. Today, Canvas Replacements employs 18–21 people, depending on staffing needs, with ten of those employees working in the sewing department.
“We still buy a few tents, particularly Jayco-Starcraft,” Grambsch says. “For virtually everything else, we make them right here. We get old tents in and pattern them out. My sewing shop manager has been with me for 18 years now, and she knows how to measure an old mouse-chewed, mildewed rag, direct measuring and cutting new material, and sew it together into a perfect match for the customer’s camper.”
As pop-up trailer manufacturers have come and gone, the Grambschs’ original purchase became a template for growth: buying surpluses from distressed companies and becoming a distributor of hard-to-find, out-of-date and “orphan” parts. Pop-up tent trailers include lift mechanisms that vary from simple to complex, and over the years manufacturers devised a variety of lift systems—Rube Goldberg-level designs in some cases, Grambsch says. “We have acquired most of the obsolete lift systems, the original or duplicate parts, and the knowledge to help people repair or replace their original lift system,” he says.
One growth period came just before the FTCA RV/Coleman pop-up camper trailer brand folded in 2010. Grambsch was offered “about $1 million (FTCA’s cost estimate) in surplus Coleman parts and tent tops,” but he wasn’t a particularly eager buyer, so he bid $80,000 and expected to never hear from them. To his surprise, the offer was accepted—and the seller even agreed to deliver the parts.
“They made six trips with a 40-foot semi from Somerset, Pa., to Loyal, Wis.,” Grambsch says. “So again, our warehouses were bursting at the seams, this time with Coleman parts to sell and distribute, including a lot of tents. Now we are the major distributor of all parts for Coleman camping trailers, especially the canvases. That was a big deal.”
Clyde’s reputation in the recreational vehicle industry helped Canvas Replacements to grow—he was active in the RV Industry Association and was inducted into the RV/MH Hall of Fame in 2001. Because pop-up camper enthusiasts often turn to their local tent and awning business for replacement tops or repairs, the company’s reputation spread through the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) as well, first by word of mouth and later through advertisements in Review and exhibiting at IFAI Expo.
“Our slogan in Review advertisements was, ‘Don’t tie up YOUR shop with tent camper canvases—get them from us,’ because they are so unique,” Grambsch says. “Camping trailer tents are different from boat covers and most of the things IFAI members specialize in.”
More recently, online marketing and search engines have helped pop-up camper owners around the globe find the company directly, although it still works through RV dealers and awning shops. Canvas Replacements also manufactures soft goods for camping trailers, such as cushion covers and curtains, and serves additional niche markets; for example, the company makes tire covers for a medical transport van company and original tent tops for a motorcycle camper manufacturer.
“We have started making awnings, particularly retro-style awnings and canopies for restored older hard-side campers like Airstream,” he says. “There’s a big cult following on the retro stuff, where they take an older Airstream or Shasta and just completely restore it, put some high-end wood paneling in it, and then they want an awning—not a modern, easy-to-use roll-out, but an old-style fancy striped awning with ropes and poles. The nostalgia for all things ‘retro’ in recent years has been great for a business grounded in restoring pop-up campers, no matter how old.”
Grambsch’s business philosophy is based in his Christian faith, particularly the doctrine of loving your neighbor as yourself. “When you live your life and operate your business according to those words, everything becomes very simple,” he says. “I don’t mean easy, but simple. You just do the right thing every single time, not just when it benefits you or your business.”
That philosophy dictates how Grambsch manages the business, from making sure every customer is satisfied and happy with their purchase to ensuring his employees get time off to spend with their families. It’s important that every canvas that goes out is right the first time, because each one represents a family that goes camping, he says.
Given the company’s corner on the market, Grambsch has been told by some that he should raise his prices. But he credits the company’s longevity with offering a high-value product at a fair price, even if it means slower growth.
“Back in ’91 or ’92 I would wonder how long this would last—when would we run out of campers to cut and recanvas?” he says. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Clyde worked until his early 90s, passing away in 2015 at age 98. Now two of Grambsch’s sons work in the company, and with his wife retiring recently from another employer, he doesn’t expect to be at the helm for quite as long as his father.
“We got into it because of all of the God-directed ‘coincidences’ that happened along the way that guided us, and that’s been our place in this world,” he says.
Jill C. Lafferty is associate editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and senior editor of InTents.
SIDEBAR: What is your best customer service advice?
Do the right thing, every time, in every situation, period. If you have a customer who’s really upset and dissatisfied, work with them to solve the issue and help them become your friend. To help a tough customer be happy—that’s the challenge I like to succeed at. It’s not always an easy or a fun challenge, but it really gives us a good feeling to successfully turn someone who is mad at us into a friend. When the inevitable irate customer becomes your friend, you are doing it right.
A tent for every camper trailer
Bob Grambsch, president of Canvas Replacements/Camper & Recreation Inc., jokes that his company has yet to do a canvas top for a Conestoga wagon. But if asked, they could likely do it—Canvas Replacements has the experience and skills to make a canvas tent top for any camping trailer, no matter how old. A favorite project was a replacement tent for a 1921 Chenango trailer being restored by a customer in Pennsylvania. “The customer corresponded with us quite a bit and brought the camping trailer to us, as well as the old tent and all the information. We rebuilt the tent and installed it on his camper, and it turned out really sharp. It wasn’t the most difficult thing we’ve ever done, but it symbolizes what we do. We can make a replacement tent for any make, model or year.”