If you grew up on a Hawaiian island of 140 square miles where “camping” is more akin to sleeping on the beach, working in the RV industry may not come to mind as your top career choice. And yet Cathy Sutton, a native of Lanai, has enjoyed a long-standing and very successful career in an industry she considers to be a “wonderful, tight-knit community made up of partnerships and respect.”
Sutton has spent most of her RV industry career in what she calls the “product awareness” space, landing her first job with Dometic Sales Corporation in 1980 after graduating with a degree in Business Management from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. In 1985, she moved to North Trailer Parts (now NTP-STAG), where she spent the next 29 years, starting as a file clerk and moving up the ranks to vendor management. During that time, she says, she began to cement relationships with customers and colleagues that went beyond sales and customer service, and have lasted for decades.
“It’s the people in this industry that really make it remarkable,” says Sutton. “I’ve worked with multiple generations and a multitude of personalities. I grew up in the industry with other women, including Susan Carpenter, Donna Warr and Donna Martin. You learn to form partnerships and to work hard at dealing with a wide range of personalities. Over time – and through years of building relationships – comes trust and respect.” Once you have that trust and respect, she adds, there’s a lot of reward.
One of the people in the industry who’s had the biggest impact on Sutton is her current employer, Tom Manning. Sutton and Manning knew each other from working across the aisle in category management over many years, and she developed a high level of respect for him early on. “Back then we had a lot of conversations and handshake agreements, and he always made good on those agreements,” Sutton says. She marveled at how Manning not only accelerated his father’s company, Tom Manning & Associates, but also had the business prowess to launch a second company, AP Products, to sell aftermarket products.
Tom Manning & Associates, established in 1982, is an agency that represents component manufacturers that make products for the RV, mobile housing, and to a lesser extent, marine industries. TMA represents 21 vendors, one of which is AP Products. Says Sutton: “Our team represents a lot of companies that have served the industry for as long as I have. There are critical components that all parts of the industry plays; the TMA team emphasizes product awareness and training to help these companies grow their businesses.”
Sutton recalls when she was recruited by Tom Manning. At one point, she says, she was considering taking a break from the RV industry. Manning got wind of her situation and came calling – and Sutton relented. “Tom was one of the people in the industry I respected the most,” she says. “He may not know it, but he helped me build myself and my career during the years we interfaced. But he also became a personal friend.”
Since then, Manning and Sutton have become a force in the industry, collaborating to create unique marketing and other programs to benefit their customers. “Far beyond just selling marketing programs, it has been about creating and bringing products to market,” Sutton explains. “When Tom has a new product offering, we work in unison on awareness.”
Manning, in turn, has much to say about Sutton’s business acumen and capabilities, which have been instrumental to her longevity in the industry – and now benefit his companies. “As our agency worked to expand its services beyond what my father and I created, it's always challenging to find the right people,” he says. “Just at a time when we needed someone the most, Cathy became available. Although I knew her talents and industry experience would ease the workload I was under, it was not until later that I began to fully appreciate the depth of the impact she would have on the company. Cathy’s unique abilities have been a blessing for TMA – and for me personally.”
Just as nearly every company on the planet has had to make major adjustments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, TMA has been no exception, and Sutton and the entire sales team have led the charge on the customer service front. “We have the ability through our [Salesforce] CRM to use tools that help our customers in maintaining service and keeping communications lines open while we can’t meet face to face.”
Sutton has been an active member of the Aftermarket community, serving on numerous boards over the years. “The association has made huge strides from where it was to where it is today. The RV Industry Association’s webinars and virtual education are making sure we’re demonstrating the benefits of why companies need to be a part of the association today--and why they should be part of it tomorrow,” she continues. “I’m very passionate about where we’re headed as an industry.”