Andrew Cooley: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

Mar 3, 2022

While co-founder of Storyteller Overland Andrew Cooley is a successful RV entrepreneur today, he’s quick to credit his mentors, tutors, and inspirations – a list of industry leaders that begins, literally, from his birth.

“Those who say they’ve never met their heroes must have the wrong heroes,” says the 36-year-old, who was recently named by RV Pro Magazine as one of the industry’s “40 Under 40.”

A fourth generation RV dealer, Cooley's roots go back to his great grandparents who travelled around America’s southeast selling used RVs before settling in Bessemer, Alabama. Then several years later his grandparents became Hi-Lo travel trailer dealers and campground owners.

Their son followed them into the business, taking over the Hi-Lo franchise and founding Dandy RV in Birmingham, Alabama – a name derived from Cooley’s father’s nickname, “Jim Dandy.” The Hi-Lo franchise grew from the smallest in the state to the ninth largest in the country during the 37 years that Cooley’s parents owned and operated it. But in the early days, when the property they leased had no utilities, they had to pump water out of a nearby creek to wash the campers. One day, a man from a neighboring Ford dealership commented on their industriousness and introduced himself as Jim Kimbrell, later the founder of Le Mesa RV in Arizona.

Cooley had heard stories of Kimbrell his whole life but did not meet the “mythical and legendary Mr. K” until 2019. “Mr. K proves to me that if you treat people right and keep doing the right thing, that eventually your hard work will pay off,” said Cooley, who today keeps a photo of Kimbrell in his office.

Andrew CooleyRVs were a family obsession and by the time he was 12, Cooley was working at the dealership washing campers and later, helping in the parts department on the weekends. “I remember how hard my parents both worked - dad in sales and service, and mom—Tammie—in administration,” said Cooley. “People only see successes, not the sacrifices needed to get there.”

At 15, he met the first of his inspirations to whom he was not related, a Cougar fifth wheel salesman whom Cooley called, “Cougar Bob.” The future THOR Industries’ president and CEO, Bob Martin, helped him to sell his first RV at the Birmingham RV Show.

“It’s crazy how people stay in your lives, especially in this very close-knit RV community,” said Cooley.

Over the next several years, Cooley worked as the head of every department at the 50-bay dealership – and his wife worked in financing – in anticipation of taking over the business. So, it came as a shock to them and to their parents when an irresistible offer to purchase what had become “Dandy RV Superstore,” the largest RV dealership in Alabama, came from Marcus Lemonis and the folks at Camping World.

“I was surprised but happy and proud of them,” said Cooley. “My father had always said, ‘if you put your head down and go to work, there’s enough money out there that you can make a good living,’ so we decided to open our own dealership in 2016.”

Cooley applied and was rejected five times for financing by GE Capital, but when Wells Fargo bought GE, he became the youngest dealer in the country at 29 years old. And while “Yellow Hammer RV” was the smallest dealership in the state, it soon ranked in the top ten for sales.

“I was trained by my parents, but I didn’t know what they had to go through until I had my own dealership,” he said, laughing and noting that many times it seemed he “took 10 steps back to get 11 steps ahead.”

One of the keys to his early success was having been trained in the importance of processes by another mentor, Greg Justice, who had been the general manager at Dandy RV Superstore from 2007-20012. Justice was an industry titan in his own right, starting at Lazy Days in 1980 and ushering in a new era of sales and service before helping the company sell out in 2003.

While Cooley and his wife enjoyed owning and operating the dealership, they started to sense that a change was needed in the industry. Big box stores were able to undercut them in product pricing, so they decided to focus on the service side of the business. Here they saw long service turnaround times as the Achilles Heel of the industry.

“People are still paying on their RV even when it’s in service for two months,” said Cooley. “This causes them to become disenchanted with their RV and it becomes a lawn ornament. We wanted to grow the industry and prevent people from spending their disposable income elsewhere.”

This led the Cooleys to creating “RightRV,” an app that connected RVers within 150 miles of the dealership to a 6-person team of mobile service technicians. Users could submit a ticket with details about the repair work needed and schedule a technician to come to their location. The app proved so popular that soon, the dealership revenue was higher in service than in sales.

It was around this time that Cooley received an unsolicited call from Jeffrey Hunter asking if he wanted to get out of the dealership business and start building adventure vans in Birmingham. Cooley thought it surely was a practical joke, but Hunter assured him it was not and invited him to meet him and Lee Conn, a manufacturing legend in Birmingham, at a local eatery the next day. At the meeting, Conn grilled the young RV Dealer on what his beliefs and foundational principles were. Hunter shared his vision for what he believed the three of them could accomplish together and how they could really serve the adventure minded market with high quality product and a focus on service after the sale.

Andrew CooleyTo the RV Lifer, the offer proved too alluring to pass up, so, in 2018, Cooley and his wife sold their inventory to a dealer up the street and helped to co-found Storyteller Overland. The manufacturer of adventure vans with the “fit and finish of a custom unit at a mass-produced price,” debuted its first vehicles at RVX in 2019. Its four models – or “MODES” – are carried coast-to-coast at 35 retail locations and have 55 service locations. The units, which are built on the Mercedes Sprinter 4X4 and Transit All-Wheel Drive platforms, are currently sold out for 2022, 2023, and have 100 retail orders for 2024.

The company is based in Birmingham, Alabama and has grown from seven employees to 100 who are now producing 45-50 units per month. “Live free, explore endlessly, tell better stories,” as Storyteller Overland says, was born out of that spirit for grand adventure and they passionately equip those who are pursuing meaningful experiences and living a life of discovery out on the open road and beyond.

“There’s something Lewis & Clark-esque about hopping into one of our vans,” Cooley said. “You can go anywhere, do anything – it’s a very freeing experience that offers a sense of control at a time when control has been taken away from us.”

The bulk of Cooley’s customers (known as “Storytellers”) range in ages from 28-72, although one van enthusiast is 91 years old! One of the features that appeals to future Storytellers is the company’s ability to be forward thinking and to get out of the box to solve traditional problems.

“We’re developing tools for consumers on their playing field of their choice: their phones,” said Cooley.Our customers don’t contact the dealership for service, they contact us.”

This is a very different business model for an RV manufacturer, but that is intentional, says the former dealership owner. In fact, the company’s relationship with dealerships is far from typical, starting with a 0% pass-through rate in the quality control department.

“Our dealers are our partners and everything we do is designed to support them and to reinforce consumer confidence in our product,” said Cooley. “We want to give dealers a sustainable pathway to profitability, while being mutually beneficial to our shared consumer.”

Cooley likens the company’s service offering to an automotive warranty, paying out to dealers within two weeks and getting parts shipped to them before the customer gets to the dealership.

Storyteller Overland’s see-through pricing structure is also unique.

“We are the only RV manufacturer in the world that controls the pricing of its units, and these prices are the same nationwide,” says Cooley. “RVs aren’t necessities, they’re accessories, so we have to take away objections.”

One of the ways Cooley believes the industry takes away objections is through the RV Industry Association standards seal.

“Consumers can purchase something and know that the unit is safe,” he said. “As a manufacturer, I know it’s hard to get the seal. We have an industrywide set of standards we’re trying to adhere to, and they let us know when we’re doing things the right way.”

Cooley looks to the RV Industry Association, whom he calls “the major leagues,” for leadership on building a better RV ecosystem that helps consumers buy 4-5 units over a 20-year period.

“We have this perfect storm of high demand and supply chain issues that calls for different skills and handling customers with more care,” he said. “We’re on a mountaintop now and we can continue to go up or go back down. Up requires recognizing what’s happening now with prices above MSRP; we need to keep default rates low and encourage lenders to adjust as consumers evolve.”

Cooley enjoys getting together at RV Industry Association and RV Dealer Association events with others in the industry who are as “hyperactive” and “obsessed” with the RV business as he is. And he draws on a few of its other leaders as inspirations for his own ambitions.

“How can you be Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein, who pushed the boundaries to achieve amazing growth at Airstream/THOR while simultaneously striving to be Bob Tiffin, who made the highest quality RVs and offered the best customer service that the industry had seen,” said Cooley.

Like those generations and the industry giants who came before him, Cooley is determined to contribute in a big way to the industry he loves. He’s always “on” even when his wife and three young sons accompany him on his days “off” to RV shows and on camping trips.

“I was born for this! I get to do what I love and love what I do. Curating a more positive ecosystem from manufacturer to dealer to end game consumer, and back again is what continuously drives me to never give up and keep pushing forward.”