Sports—Wheel, Deal: Calgary's RV king tries lacrosse

Calgary's RV king tries lacrosse

Flashback to May: Bruce Urban, the National Lacrosse League's newest Canadian team owner, is watching the championship game from one of Air Canada Centre's luxury suites. It's almost halftime, and a Toronto Rock player has just scored another goal against the Arizona Sting, upping Toronto's lead to 10-6. The 19,000-strong crowd goes wild, waving white towels in the air as rock music blares from the sound system. Urban, dressed in dark blue jeans and a white dress shirt, smiles, but shakes his head. “It's too bad,” he says. “You want it to be closer for the ratings.” The business of lacrosse is on his mind, because Urban, a Calgarian, bought an expansion NLL team for Edmonton a week earlier. Standing in the suite, surrounded by friends and family who have flown to Toronto with him to see the game, Urban had only seen three lacrosse games when he decided to buy a team. “I tried to buy the Stampeders in January,” he says, referring to Calgary's Canadian Football League franchise, “and I wasn't successful. I want to try a sports team?I want to challenge myself. I don't even know all the rules yet.”

Urban may not know the game, but if his past is any indication, when he has a goal, he succeeds. The 39-year-old owns the Western RV Group, Canada's largest recreational vehicle dealership. Not only are sales expected to hit $120 million this year, buyer demographics are also shifting in Urban's favour. Even as baby boomers are aging, the average age of RV buyers has dropped considerably. And Western RV's profits are huge. Urban estimates his margin to be about 20%, which can translate into profits as high as $60,000 from a single sale, compared with car dealers who make as little as a $1,000 off a vehicle. “Our industry is a little more like real estate on wheels,” Urban says. “We're making money like a new-home builder.”

Urban wasn't always in the RV biz, though. Before he was old enough to even drive, he was fixing beat-up cars and flipping them for a profit. At 15, armed with a permission note from his mom, Urban hit Calgary auctions to find his latest fixer-upper. While friends were out on the weekends having fun, he was toiling away in his mom's driveway, repairing and detailing cars. Urban was working so much that he even missed a class or two?he came six credits short of getting his high-school diploma.

At 18, when no one would hire him as a car salesman because he didn't have enough experience, an RV dealer gave Urban a break. After five years selling RVs, he left for the car business again. “I had ten thousand bucks of my own, and I got ten thousand bucks from TD Bank,” he recalls. “I turned it all into traveller's cheques, and I went with my best buddy to Los Angeles, because I was going to start running cars up and reselling them.” Urban did that for about a year, but his outlook changed when he bought his first used American motorhome. He brought it back to Calgary, repaired, washed and detailed it, and made a $15,000 profit. “That was my first big hit, or what I thought was a big hit back then,” he says. For a year, Urban made trips to the U.S., sometimes bringing someone with him to bring two vehicles back. He'd fluff them up and resell them. In 1993, he opened his first location?a small gravel lot in northeast Calgary?with one salesman and one service technician. Today, the Western RV Group has six locations across the province, a seventh in the works, and it employs some 270 people.

Urban's annual sales have grown by 7,400% since 1993, when they were just $1.6 million. He sells both new and used RVs. The most popular is a 27-foot bunk-bed travel trailer, starting at about $19,990. The most expensive RV on his lots is Mandalay Coach's Presidio, a $240,000 luxury model with all the amenities. Urban says that snowbirds heading south for four months at a time typically buy the big motorhomes?”apartments on wheels,” he calls them. But most people would be surprised at his primary customer demographics. Five years ago the average age of an RV customer was 62; Urban thinks it's now about 42. “It used to be people thought only old people who retired got an RV and travelled,” he says. “Now, more and more people are realizing you don't have to be old to go camping and have fun. Young couples are buying RVs because it's affordable.”

Urban also says young couples are buying RVs for another reason. “It's another relationship tool,” he says, “something that will bring the family closer together. As sad as that is, I think that's the way women think.” He says about 90% of the calls his company receives are from females who have visions of going away with their families for a weekend of quality time. Urban thinks it's unfortunate, but with “70% of relationships on the rocks,” the number of “perfect couples” walking through his doors is minimal. “Half the time people are trying to patch things together because there's been some kind of hurt done by one or the other,” he says.

Urban makes sure that Western RV is family-friendly?in fact its motto is “Family fun is number one.” For instance, inside the dealership in Airdrie, about a 20-minute drive north of Calgary, a café offering free hot chocolate, tea, slushes and coffee sits next to a merry-go-round and an arcade. A large television screen graces the premises, while murals depicting country singers, Calgary-area landscapes and recreational vehicles decorate the walls. A sign in the showroom reads: “No fightin', spittin', or cussin'.”

On a warm day in July, Urban is sitting in his office, surrounded by pictures of himself with his nine-year-old son, Brandon. On this particular afternoon, he is mulling over six potential logos for his new lacrosse team. A graphic artist is standing next to him, discussing the player in the logo, who is wearing a ripped tank top, carrying a lacrosse stick in one hand and tossing a ball with the other. He suggests adding a gold chain with a large R pendant, for “Rush.” “Oh, I see,” says Urban, the entrepreneurial wheels turning. “That might be good because it's something else we could market.” (In the end, when Urban reveals the logo in August, there is no player, just a simple Edmonton Rush design in black and silver.)

The Rush will hold its training camp in November, just as RV sales begin to slow, and Urban will be busy planning for the lacrosse season's start in January. The Rush is now the third Canadian team in the NLL, and the 11th in the league. “We have high hopes for Edmonton,” says NLL commissioner Jim Jennings, who notes that Edmonton has always been a target market because the Calgary Roughnecks franchise has been so successful. While Edmonton and Portland, Ore., are the most recent additions, the NLL has grown significantly in the past five years, and Jennings says the league plans to have 14 teams for the 2007 season. It is eyeing Chicago and Montreal next. “Our first choice is to have NHL ownership, but the Oilers decided they would pass on it,” says Jennings, adding that seven of the league's 11 teams are NHL-owned (none of which are Canadian). “Bruce contacted our league office, and I got to know him real well. I thought with his personality, his success in his other businesses and the plan he laid out for us, he'd be the perfect owner for an Edmonton team.”

Lacrosse's increasing popularity has a few explanations, according to Jennings: games are hard-hitting and high-scoring. (The final tally in the 2005 championship game was 19-13 in Toronto's favour.) Matches are played in about two hours, and the atmosphere?complete with dance teams and loads of upbeat pop and rock music?is fun. And it's economical: the average ticket price is $20. The costs for owners aren't bad, either. The most a rookie can make on any team is US$6,500 a year, while the two best players (each team can declare two franchise players) make almost US$23,500. That's not the only difference between lacrosse and other sports: games are always on weekends, and teams are allowed to practise only once a week to ensure fairness for squads who must fly in players for the games. With only a 16-game season, costs remain low. All told, Urban's player payroll is US$300,000, and his overall budget, including salaries, travel, staff and lease, is about US$1.5 million.

Besides Urban's successful track record and the fact that the Rush is off to the fastest start of any NLL expansion team (more than 3,000 season tickets have been sold so far), there is evidence to suggest lacrosse will do well in Edmonton. Apparently, wherever monster truck and pro wrestling events do well, lacrosse follows, and, as Urban notes, “Edmonton sells out for both of those.” But there's more to it than that. “We felt that Edmonton would be the next perfect city for us because of the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry,” says NLL commissioner Jennings.

Urban doesn't shy away from the topic. “Edmonton's a better sports city than Calgary,” he says. (Note to Urban: lock your doors.) Living in one city and owning a team in the other has meant taking heat from media in both?but Urban laughs it off. “I live in Calgary, but I'm an Albertan, and that's what I keep trying to remind the media,” he says. “So they quit referring to me as 'the Calgarian.' “