Driving Force: RV One's Don Strollo talks about the importance of giving back
Family is a subject that comes up a lot when you talk to Don Strollo.
And no wonder. He and his brothers, Matt and Mark Strollo, grew up in the family’s recreational vehicle business, which their father founded in 1984 in Albany, New York. After their parents’ retirement, Don bought the business and expanded into Florida, South Carolina and the Midwest, growing the annual revenue from $9 million to $400 million in a space of 25 years.
The company was so successful that in 2018 it was acquired by RV Retailer, LLC, a rapidly expanding consortium of recreational vehicle dealers out of Fort Lauderdale with sales in excess of $1 billion via 33 locations across the US. Don Strollo, in addition to his now-shared ownership of RV Superstores, became RV Retailer’s Eastern US Region President, and was able to share the bounty with another family — his long-time employees.
I’d heard that he’d been extraordinarily generous to them, and asked about it during a phone conversation in early May with Strollo and Famous Rhodes, chief marketing officer and chief technical officer for RV Retailer.
He didn’t answer right away. He worked around to it with a story about… his family.
“I grew up with a father who was a first responder,” he said. “Before getting into the RV business he was a police officer in New York State, and he always emphasized teamwork. Like Michael Jordan said, ‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.’
“[RV One] had 20 consecutive years of growth and profitability — never a down year,” he continued. “I couldn’t personally thank my team enough for what they did over the years. So it was exciting to me, when we were in the position to join RV Retailer, to give just a small token of our appreciation.”
“Suffice to say, millions of dollars in bonuses for employees working 10, 20 years for the company.”
But, he emphasized, it wasn’t because anyone had approached him for a bonus.
“Not one person asked for a dime.”
In a way, it makes perfect sense that a man who runs an RV company would place a high value on teams and families. An RV is, after all, kind of the ultimate family vehicle — one you not only travel in but live in, often for weeks on end, where a happy co-existence depends on a willingness to share your space. Its self-containment has made it particularly appealing in these days of self-isolation; at least if you have to quarantine you can do it on the road (as long as you can find an RV campground that’s open).
Strollo has seen an increased interest in RVs for those reasons. “RVs have come a little bit more to the forefront with consumers,” he said. “They rank really high as vacation options that naturally promote social distancing.”
Like all businesses, however, RV dealerships have had to adjust their protocols in order to keep customers safe. Strollo has found video walk-throughs to be surprisingly effective.
“At first I was wondering how this would work,” he said. “But it’s a little bit more easy than an open house — you can call a dealershp and say, ‘I would like to look at seven RVs in 15 minutes.’”
Having been in the business in New York and Florida for years, he’s no stranger to crises. “We’ve been through 9/11, hurricanes —things that have had an impact before. In a time of need, it’s good to focus on our customers.”
Accordingly, the company has reached out financially, giving incentives to RV buyers to match the amount of their stimulus checks up to $1,200, and logistically: RV Retailer is donating the use of several multi-purpose RV units in Florida, New York, Texas and surrounding states to help support first responders and hospitals.
But Strollo is accustomed to giving back. It runs in the family.
“My parents gave back even though they didn’t have much,” he says. “So when you get to a point in your life when you are able to have something extra, [giving] is just something you have to do.”
He and his wife, Stacey, who live in the Orlando area with their two teenage daughters, are longtime supporters of the Make-A-Wish Foundation both regionally and nationally. The company helps, too, donating RVs to families so they can spend time with children in the last months of their lives.
“You don’t realize how fortunate you are till you see others who are stricken by these kinds of challenges.”
He and his family also support Orlando’s Second Harvest Food Bank as donors and volunteers and two non-profits in Tampa, home of his brother Matt, RV Retailer’s VP of Business Development. High Risk Hope improves outcomes for premature babies, a cause important to Matt because he had a child born premature; Kennedy Cares Tampa Bay helps low-income families.
Strollo has seen enormous changes in RVs over the decades, some of it quite recent. “Mobile wifi, heated floors, air conditioning, USB ports… Sixty percent of RVs we sell have solar panel tops; 10 years ago you couldn’t buy one with solar.”
Rhodes concurred. “The technology quality over the last 30 years has leapfrogged.”
But some things don’t change. The design of the classic Airstream, for instance. RV One built the Airstream of Tampa dealership in Dover in 2018. An Airstream museum as much as a showroom, it was ranked the #1 Airstream dealer in the world in May 2020.
“Airstream hasn’t changed its Silver Bullet exterior design since 1931,” Strollo says admiringly. “And 70 percent of the Airstreams built then are still on the planet and still working.”
And the other thing that’s stayed the same: “The RV industry has always been about family fun — going to great places like Yellowstone, the beach — so that hasn’t changed that much.”
But there’s a limit to the fun. When he told his daughter Serena that he learned how to drive by moving RVs around at his parents’ dealership — when he was 12 — she asked if she could do the same. On an RV One lot.
He had to tell her to keep waiting, as “Nowadays you need to be 16 to hop behind a wheel and not make the front pages of a newspaper.”