Bob Lee, a pioneer in the local RV manufacturing industry that for decades was one of Lane County’s largest employers, died earlier this month after a long period of poor health. He was 78.
Lee co-founded the company that became Monaco Coach in the late 1960s, before branching out on his own in 1973 in Junction City with a company named Country Camper, after the toy motor home of his daughter’s Barbie doll.
The business later became Country Coach and, with Lee at the helm, an industry leader in manufacturing high-end motor homes, with the slogan “A Class Act.” At its height, in the mid-2000s, Country Coach had about 1,800 employees.
But Lee experienced both the highs and lows of the cyclical RV-making business.
His attempt to rescue Country Coach after he bought back the company with a group of investors in 2007 ended in failure when the Great Recession decimated the local industry. Country Coach abruptly shut down during its 2008 holiday break and was forced to declare bankruptcy. Its 500 remaining employees lost their jobs.
Two other local RV-makers, Monaco and Marathon, laid off hundreds of their employees about the same time. Combined, the layoffs were a huge hit to the local economy.
Terry Lee, who was married to Bob Lee for 56 years, said he maintained a positive, can-do attitude throughout his business career.
“I always had faith in Bob,” she said. “He was a glass half-full kind of guy.”
Terry Lee said her husband came to love the motor-home lifestyle. The couple would log thousands of miles every year traveling to industry shows around the country.
“He’d sit down and talk to people about the problems with their campers, and he’d talk about the problems with his,” she said. “It helped him a lot.”
Of the company’s bankruptcy, she said that he “didn’t say too much about it.”
Shannon Nill, the president of Guaranty RV Super Centers in Junction City, a longtime seller of Country Coach vehicles, said Bob Lee was “a born leader” who was “always looking for an edge.”
“He believed in the RV industry and he believed in Junction City,” he said. “He could have set up shop anywhere, but he chose Junction City. This town would not be what it is today without Bob Lee.”
Country Coach hasn’t made any new RVs since 2008, but Nill said he believes Lee’s legacy will be cemented by Winnebago Industries’ purchase in 2015 of the former Country Coach plant. Winnebago, which is making expensive, diesel-powered motor homes in the facility, plans to eventually re-introduce the luxury Country Coach brand on some of its new RVs, Nill said.
“That’s a real merit to Bob and what he accomplished,” he said.
Lee was born in Klamath Falls in 1939 to a farming and logging family. After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy as a jet mechanic and later worked as a purchaser for NASA’s Apollo space program. He moved back to Oregon in 1968 with two partners looking for a suitable place to start a camper manufacturing business.
In 1996, Lee sold Country Coach, by then a successful business, to a publicly traded company from California for $9 million. He continued to work as the company’s CEO after it changed hands.
In 2007, he led a group of investors who bought it back for $38.75 million and took the company private.
But facing mounting debts during the economic slowdown, the company closed its doors in December 2008. The Lee family purchased the company’s engineering drawings, production tooling and molds for fabricating Country Coach motor homes, and other intellectual property at auction in 2010 while its other assets were liquidated in bankruptcy proceedings.
Outside of work, Lee was fascinated by aviation and hot rod muscle cars.
In 2010, he had a stroke, according to his wife, Terry Lee. At about the same time, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and started experiencing short-term memory loss and slurred speech.
His deteriorating health meant that he wasn’t able to be involved with attempts to revive Country Coach in recent years, Terry Lee said.
Instead, Ron Lee, his brother and a longtime Country Coach executive, led those efforts, which culminated in the sale to Winnebago.
“It was a good run, and it was a lot of hard work,” Terry Lee said of her husband’s time running Country Coach. “He had a wonderful life and did pretty much everything he wanted to do.”