It started with a leaky roof.
Ten years ago, Pat Noble had purchased a used pop-up camper straight from the farmer who had owned it. It was in good shape, so Pat was certain it would stay that way.
Looking back on the purchase, he notes that if he had bought it from a dealership, there would have been someone at the point of sale who would have filled him in on the basic maintenance of the camper.
Not necessarily so when you buy it straight from the former owner, he says.
“Nobody told me how to take care of it,” he says.
So when it rained, Pat noticed a brown ring forming at one point in the camper’s pop-up roof.
Not knowing anything about fixing leaking roofs on pop-up campers, but not afraid to find out, Pat popped on the computer and Googled “camper roof sealer.” Thousands of websites came up, including one from Houston, Texas, on which Pat Noble found the sealant he was looking for.
But he found more — oh, so much more.
“Looking at the website, I couldn’t believe how massive it was,” Pat says.
That’s when he picked up the telephone and called his big brother, Mike, and told him to take a look at the website.
“It piqued his interest,” Pat says.
When Mike Noble was 10 years old, he took a daily paper route in his hometown of Blooming Prairie. He didn’t necessarily like pulling himself out of bed early every morning and delivering those papers no matter what the weather, but that was the expectation.
What he did like was collecting the money that subscribers to the paper owed.
“Collecting that money was the highlight of my life,” he says.
That’s right — collecting money.
It was the highlight, he now says, because he always knew there would be some people who would say they couldn’t pay, even though back then, 42 years ago, the cost figured out to be about 15 cents per week.
“If they wanted to keep the newspaper, they’d have to dig around in the couch to find that 15 cents,” he says.
And why did that 10-year-old boy love collecting that money?
“Because it really makes a person strong,” he says.
Not that there was much question of Mike or his brother, Pat, or their two sisters, Michelle or Amy, being anything but strong. Their father was there to ensure that.
He wouldn’t let his children sleep late, but had them up early working at one job or another, often jobs that he helped arrange.
“He wanted us to be financially independent at a young age,” Pat remembers. “It was the best thing he ever did for us. We started working young and it set us up for the future.”
Mike nods in agreement. “No question,” he says.
And the list of jobs the boys had was long — baling hay, working at Green Giant, painting houses and barns in the summer, and, of course, delivering newspapers.
“Dad took my paper route money and bought me a lawnmower and a gas can,” Mike recalls.
With his new lawnmower, Mike started his own lawn-mowing business.
The Nobles came by their work ethic naturally, it seems. Not only did their father rouse them out of bed early in the morning to start working, but their father and his twin brother had the same sort of experience when they were boys growing up on a farm, being awakened early by their own father to do some work.
“He and his twin had to milk cows at a young age,” Mike says.
And Mike’s and Pat’s grandfather did the same for them. But those houses and barns that Mike and Pat used to paint in the summer, their grandfather would arrange that.
When they weren’t working or in school, they were busy playing sports. You name it — football, basketball, baseball, skiing, hockey, if they could find some ice, and golf. Lots of golf. To this day, golf.
“We didn’t sit around much,” Mike says. “We didn’t have time for that.”
The road to RVs
Few cars drove down the interstate frontage road near Clinton Falls that Wednesday morning, and understandably so. In what had already been a cold and snowy winter, Mother Nature had dumped another five inches or so of snow on Steele County, and the roads, though not treacherous, were still not fun to drive. Who would want to drive on that?
But at Noble RV of Owatonna, there is a flurry of activity, especially in the service area where all the bays are full with recreation vehicles of every size and kind.
“We’re the last 20 feet of the assembly line,” Mike says, noting that at a recent RV dealers show in Louisville, Ky., the company ordered 300 campers and they will all go through the service area at the Owatonna shop to get them ready.
It wasn’t the first time that Mike Noble had been to the Louisville show and it won’t be the last. The first time he went, however, he really wasn’t supposed to be there — not technically.
Every December since 1962, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association — or RVIA, as it is commonly known — hosts the National RV Trade Show, an industry trade show that is closed to the public. Only RV manufacturers and suppliers or RV dealers are supposed to attend.
This past December, when the Nobles ordered 300 more vehicles at the trade show, more than 7,750 people were in attendance, according to a RVIA press release.
But back in December 2004, when the Nobles had not yet started their RV dealership, Mike Noble attended the trade show as a representative of Nelno Enterprises, a dealership that does not actually exist.
“I formed a fake company,” he says, smiling, shrugging.
It was, they say, the only way they could find out what they needed to know about the RV business to decide if they could be successful.
The work ethic that their father instilled in them from an early age had paid off thus far in their life. Mike and Pat had been successful.
After a little bit of college and an electrical degree in hand, Mike took a job fixing copy machines and soon moved into sales as well.
He soon moved into the electrical contracting business, and in 1992 partnered with Steve Kath to form Retrofit.
“That lasted until 2003, then he bought me out,” Mike says.
In the meantime, Pat was in the car business. Like his older brother, Pat had begun his career in copy machines, specifically, selling them as well as other office supplies and furniture. But he moved into the Twin Cities automobile business, ending up as the general manager at Krejci Ford in Blooming Prairie.
The impetus for the move back to his hometown was that his wife’s mother was having health issues and his wife, Julie, wanted to be closer to help her out.
“I always said I would never move back to Blooming Prairie and fix up an old house,” says Pat. “I guess I ate my words.”
After Mike sold his share of Retrofit he budgeted some time — two years — to do a little research and figure out what his next business endeavor would be.
“I played golf by day and researched by night,” he says.
It was during those two years that Pat discovered the leaky roof on his old camper, sought out some roof sealant and discovered the website of the massive Houston RV company that piqued his brother’s interest.
Nothing to chance
An old slot machine sits in Mike’s second-floor office of Noble RV of Owatonna. The slots used to sit in a rec room of his home, but when he and his family moved, they needed to find a place for the old machine. He’s sure it still works, though it may need new batteries, he says.
And why a slot machine sitting in his office?
“Because the RV business isn’t a big enough gamble,” he jokes.
But the Noble brothers have left little, if anything, to chance, to the roll of the dice.
After Pat had piqued his brother’s interest with the Houston RV website, Mike began his research — research that filled six quite large binders with information, binders that he still keeps in the credenza by his desk.
“I knew more about the RV business than those who were in the business,” Mike says.
He had even walked through all the RV dealerships around the area and had taken inventory of what was on their lots.
There was just one thing he was missing in his research — talking to people in the business to get a better idea of what would work and what wouldn’t.
But where could he find a lot of people who were in the business?
There was always the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, but you had to be in the RV business to be allowed in. That’s when Mike Noble formed his fake company, Nelno Enterprises, and went to the convention in Louisville.
“I got down there, checked into the hotel, sat in the bar all day and talked to everyone,” Mike says.
It clicked because Pat remembers the enthusiastic phone he received from Mike that December telling him that they were going to clean up in the RV business.
That was December 2004. By September 2005, after an extensive search for suitable properties from Lakeville to Albert Lea, they settled on some property in Owatonna. On April 1, 2006, the business opened.
“We are lucky we started when we did,” says Mike.
The business was small, but growing. So when the economic downturn happened, the country into a major recession and the market for RVs started tightening, their company didn’t have to downsize like some of the bigger RV dealerships had to do.
“We were already small,” Mike says. “There was only one way for us to go and that was to grow.”
Things could have gone differently.
When the business first opened, Noble RV carried only travel trailers and fifth-wheels — the “towable” type of RVs. But there was one manufacturer, whose name the Nobles wouldn’t divulge, who wanted them to start selling high-end motorized RVs, known in the industry as “heavy metal.”
“People kept telling us that we needed to start selling the heavy metal,” Mike said.
The brothers always intended to add the motorized RVs to their inventory — eventually. The manufacturer even offered the brothers a $4 million line of credit, telling the brothers, “We can get you the money,” Pat recalls.
Though they were tempted, reason won out in the end and the Nobles declined the offer.
“Had we gotten way too emotional and went ahead, we would’ve been bankrupt today,” Pat says. “Someone was watching over us.”
Mike takes it a step farther.
“It was divine intervention,” he says.
And the manufacturer of the “heavy metal” motorized RVs who offered the Nobles the $4 million line of credit? That manufacturer went bankrupt.
And Noble RV? It has grown.
In September 2011, Noble RV completed an expansion of its lot on East Frontage Road — a.k.a., Highway 45. The expansion of the lot was necessary because of how the business was growing. As it grew, so did its inventory — so much, in fact, that even the 20 acres that the business sat upon wasn’t big enough to hold its inventory.
At first, the brothers hit upon the idea of renting some nearby space. After the Heritage Hall Museum closed, Cabela’s for a time rented the museum space. But when Cabela’s no longer needed it, the museum property sat empty and for sale. The Nobles approached the property owner not to buy the property, but to rent its parking lot. That would give the brothers the extra space they needed for their inventory and would keep grass from growing in the parking lot.
The arrangement worked well until Christian Family Church purchased the former museum property with the idea of moving the church there. Of course, with the church established there, the arrangement with Noble RV needed to change because members of the congregation needed a place to park.
Eventually, the Nobles purchased an additional 10 acres of land and expanded their Owatonna location — something, they say, that they had always intended to do.
But that wasn’t the only expansion that Noble RV had.
In April 2012, the Nobles opened a second store in Rochester — a store about a third of the size as the Owatonna store.
Then, in 2013, Noble RV opened two new locations, one in Madelia in southwestern Minnesota in January and one in Jordan, known as Noble RV in Minneapolis, in the Twin Cities metropolitan area in March.
Then, spring 2013 proved to be the worst spring since the business opened. The reason? The weather.
“We had 17 ½ inches of snow in May,” Mike says.
Those who had purchased RVs in the winter couldn’t take delivery because they couldn’t get their older RVs back to Noble. That has meant that the brothers haven’t taken time off in the winter this year like they normally have because their sticking around to make sure they’re ready for the high season this year.
“We haven’t gone south to play golf,” Mike laments. “Our handicaps are going up.”
But they believe that 2014 will be a great year for them and their business because just recently Noble RV has been named the exclusive dealer in Minnesota, northern Iowa and western Wisconsin of the RV Warranty Forever program, which offers RV owners, as the name of the program suggests, a warranty forever, or at least for as long as they own the vehicle.
As for the brothers themselves, they enjoy working together.
“Family is important to us,” Pat says.
And there seems to be little, if any, sibling rivalry. Like their father and his twin brother, who remained “attached at the hip” even when they grew old, so do Mike and Pat stay close.
“We’re here together, aren’t we?” Mike says.