Indiana woman renews the family tradition of building recreational vehicles
By Marshall King
BRISTOL, Indiana — Ashley Bontrager Lehman has a passion for her family business. When she and several other industry veterans were creating and naming a new recreational vehicle for a new recreational vehicle (RV) manufacturer, they were going to call it Element RV, with her being the fire. They ended up establishing Ember RV. And yes, she’s providing the spark to make this company successful.
Bontrager Lehman wasn’t born yet in 1985 when her grandfather, Lloyd Bontrager, died in a plane crash with his son Wendall and two others. Lloyd was an innovator in making campers, including a lift system for pop-up RVs. That product was the basis for a company called Jayco, which Lloyd and his wife, Bertha, co-founded in their barn near Middlebury, Indiana.
Jayco started with 15 employees who made and sold 132 campers in the first year. In the 1970s and 1980s, the family business expanded to produce other kinds of RVs, including travel trailers, fifth-wheel units, and small motorhomes. The plane crash rocked the family and company, but they forged ahead. Bertha took over the company with sons Wilbur and Derald, Ashley’s father, and worked with others to ensure success.
Ashley had grown up in Middlebury and left for Butler University. Like many, she had said she wouldn’t come back to northern Indiana. After graduating with a degree in public relations and advertising, she moved to Washington, D.C. But the pull of the family business was strong, and she came back in 2011. She worked in advertising and marketing and started to work her way up through the ranks. “My family always did a great job incorporating what we called the third generation into that business,” she said.
Growing up, she’d gone to family board meetings, gone on tours, and learned how the company worked. As a young woman in her 20s, she now hoped she’d someday run Jayco Inc., which had become the largest privately held RV company and a leader in the industry. It provided jobs for several thousand employees. In 2016, the millionth unit rolled off the line. That year was also when the company closed a sale with Thor Industries, one of two giant companies that now own most of the brands in the industry. The Bontrager family, which has a long history of philanthropy, continues that tradition of giving after the $576 million sale.
Ashley and others in her family continued to work at Jayco. She had become director of marketing prior to the sale and stayed in that role for several years before leaving the company. She both understood the family’s decision and was disappointed that she wouldn’t someday be the president/CEO of Jayco. The urge to carry on the family legacy didn’t go away. The embers kept burning, so to speak. “I still had the desire to run an RV company and stay in the industry,” she said.
In 2021, she had the opportunity to forge into new territory. A group of cofounders came together to establish Ember RV. Industry veterans Chris Barth, Steve Delagrange, and Ernie Miller joined her to establish a new RV company. They believed there is room in the industry for an independent RV company and started one to produce towable RVs. The first priority was building a team of good people to create something a family can take camping. Four others from the industry joined the company’s management team. “Our ultimate goal is to create an inviting culture that values every team member, that brings people in to do the job, but that they leave fulfilled going home to their family.”
She preaches that employees need to enjoy coming to work, feel valued, and know they’ve made a difference. She uses the phrase, “Be a good Ember citizen.” Her Mennonite grandparents lived by the Golden Rule, and she also puts it into practice. Ashley, who attends a non-denominational church with roots in Anabaptism, said that you don’t have to be a missionary to have a mission and small actions can have a large impact on others. She leads a team with passion and fire but also care and regard. “It’s treating people well,” she said. “I never want to look at people as a tool to get the job done. Every individual has value, no matter what their role is here.” Those aren’t values always found on the assembly line of an RV factory.
She purchased a production building and an office building a mile from each other near the Indiana Toll Road. They lined up suppliers, created assembly lines, and crafted marketing to sell the new RVs. The first product is the Overland, a towable RV you can pull with a Jeep and head into the wilderness rather than just a campground. When it debuted during the COVID-19 pandemic, campgrounds were full. This camper, with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, has independent suspension, a robust solar system, and larger water tanks. She compares it to a hiking boot. The second product, called Touring Edition, is more like a pair of running shoes, she says. It has high-quality materials but is more suited to the campground than going off-road. That unit is being compared to the iconic Airstream camper, which she said shocked and pleased her.
Bontrager Lehman loves camping and what it can do for individuals and families. She likes getting away into nature and putting away screens. She’s a wife and mother who goes to work and leads a company. “It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. She knew that starting a company would be hard, but it brought surprises, including the challenge of getting licensing in every state for their products.
The RV industry has a good ‘ol boy feel. At a recent meeting with a local congressman, she was one of the youngest and only females in the room. She said people look down on her all the time, but she focuses on the work and inspiring others. After all, when she started Ember, she was 35 years old — the same age as her grandfather was when he started Jayco.
Marshall V. King is a writer and journalist based in Goshen, Indiana. He is the author of “Disarmed: The Radical Life & Legacy of Michael ‘MJ’ Sharp.” You can read more of his writing at hungrymarshall.substack.com.