Coachmen’s Mike Bear Reflects on Life After a Long RV Career

Mike Bear

After retiring from a successful 34-year career in the RV industry – for the past 14 years as the general manager of Coachmen’s Class C Divisions 210 & 215 – Mike Bear is planning to spend some time aboard a different type of “recreational vehicle.”

Bear, 63, and his wife, Marsha, of Three Rivers, Mich., are preparing to embark on what is commonly referred to as The Great Loop, – a 6,000-mile boat trip from the Great Lakes, south to the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, north up the Eastern Seaboard to the Saint Lawrence Seaway and back to the Great Lakes.

The epic journey will begin in just a couple of weeks.

“If the weather holds, I hope to be able to go to Expo (Elkhart RV Open House) for a day or two, so end of September is the goal,” Bear said Tuesday (Sept. 6) during a conversation with RVBusiness.

“The way we’re going to go, we’re not going to be on the Mississippi very long, basically from Illinois to St. Louis. Then we’ll go up the Ohio,” he explained. “When you get to Paducah (Ky.), there’s a network of rivers and locks that take you down to Mobile. So we’ll get to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, not at New Orleans.”

The barge traffic on that route is not nearly as robust, Bear said, and there are long stretches on the Mississippi south of Kentucky where recreational fuel availability is questionable.

“We don’t really have enough range in our boat to go down the Mississippi, from what they tell me,” he said.

The Bears will be traveling in a 43-foot Cruisers Yachts. sport cruiser fitted with twin diesel engines and living quarters up front.

“This has been kind of a bucket list thing for us. I’m not saying it was driving this retirement for us, but we’re not getting any younger and this is one of the things we really wanted to do,” he said.

The timing and duration of the trip is weather dependent, Bear said, because boaters doing the Great Loop need to avoid hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, which ends around the middle of November.

“And you really can’t start going far north until you get into the end of April or the first of May,” he said. “It’ll take us, I bet, eight or nine months.”

In any given year, around 150 to 200 boaters do the Great Loop, “so you’re not alone, and of course there are all kinds of boating opportunities along the way,” Bear said. “Honestly, it’s a lot like camping. In the boating community and the RV community you’ve got people out having fun. It’s pretty easy to get help with your docking, like setting up your trailer.”

Reflecting on his Career

So far, retirement has treated Bear well, he said, but he misses interaction with people he worked with at Coachmen.

“I worked with those guys for so many years, I do miss them,” he said. “It’s been kind of strange, because when I stay away, I do OK. But I went back a couple of days last week and it was like, well, it was hard. We started some projects that the guys who replaced me are finishing up and I wanted to see how they were coming, and it just kind of pulls at your heart strings. I mean, I’m thrilled for them. They’re great guys, but man, I wanted to be a part of that.”

Despite the separation anxiety, Bear said he’s in a great place in his life.

“Honestly, Marsha and I have been married for 42 years. We get along great. I’m enjoying my time with her and I think if there’s any one single biggest advantage (of retiring), that would be it,” he said.

“I’ll be honest, there are some days where I question what I’m doing because I don’t really have a purpose for the day. Your purpose becomes to get the banister painted, not to go out and sign up a dealer, you know? It changes, but overall, it’s been really good,” he said.

The highlights of Bear’s time in the RV industry, he said, are the relationships he formed with others throughout the industry.

“I look at the tenure I’ve had at Coachmen and Forest River. I look at the people who are in those organizations and they’re really just a quality bunch of good people,” he said. “I look at the industry and the dealers that we’ve had over the years and I’ve got to tell you I would have a really hard time believing that there is an industry full of more quality folks than what we have in our industry. If you asked, ‘What was the highlight and what held you to the business?’ it really would be that. The people I worked with. I look at Mike Terlep. I was there 34 years. Mike’s been there 36 or 37. You can’t work with a guy like that if he’s not a quality guy.”

He said he still stays in touch with Coachmen customers and suppliers with whom he forged relationships over the years and considers lifetime friends.

“I think we’re really blessed to be in a unique industry that’s centered around fun,” he said. “My first job out of college was selling cars. I sold cars when interest rates were 21%. Those were some tough times. Then I went to work for an RV dealer. It just amazed me how the same customer who came into the car dealership and wanted to blow my brains out, was fun and easy to work with because he was making a purchase that was the fulfillment of a dream. It wasn’t just a car to go to work. It was just a whole different dynamic. Just a great business.”

Bear summed up his time in the RV world like this:

“I’m just so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. From employers to customers to co-workers and suppliers and people like you. It’s just been a wonderful experience,” he said.