Business Monday

After surviving a stabbing, she became a leading CEO in the male-dominated RV business

Gigi Stetler, CEO of RV Sales of Broward, celebrates the 30th anniversary of her company and as a CEO of a male-dominated industry on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016.
Gigi Stetler, CEO of RV Sales of Broward, celebrates the 30th anniversary of her company and as a CEO of a male-dominated industry on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

A month before she started the first female-led RV company in the country, Gigi Stetler was in a hospital bed, the victim of a vicious stabbing that could have left her paralyzed at best or dead at worst.

The assailant, a homeless man she had taken in at a Miami Beach apartment building she owned, attacked her with a knife 21 times. He stabbed her through the elbow and on her fingers. He tried to strangle her with an electric cord. Then, thinking she was dead, the man left.

Somehow, Stetler survived — but doctors said she would lose the use of her left arm. That didn’t happen, either.

Instead, a month and 200 stitches later, Stelter started selling RVs on a piece of land on State Road 7 just south of Griffin Road in Davie. She stumbled into the industry “by accident,” she said, at first helping sell the campers as a favor to a friend and then turning it into a full-fledged business.

When one door closes, you gotta go find another one or get out the window.

Gigi Stetler, CEO of RV Sales of Broward

Her rebirth, first from the fallout of her attack and then from other hurdles, became a recurring theme in Stetler’s life as she has ventured into new territory for women, found success, found failure and found success again. She celebrated 30 years in the business in November at a time when RV sales are spiking. In November, total RV shipments grew by nearly 15 percent over the same time last year, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, with 2017 projected as a banner year for sales.

“When one door closes, you gotta go find another one or get out the window,” she said of her mantra in business from her office at her new RV center in Davie, RV Sales of Broward. Stetler and her team moved there a little more than a year ago. Her name, “gigi,” is etched in the concrete by the front door.

But the road to success has been an arduous journey for 55-year-old Stetler, who has had to contend with sexist competitors, a mentor who took advantage of her, a public lawsuit with Marcus Lemonis, CEO and chairman of leading RV company Camping World and host of CNBC’s “The Profit,” and the near bankruptcy of her company after years of success.

Her entry into the business set the tone for what was to come.

Stetler attended her first association meeting in the mid-1980s, a time when there were nearly two dozen RV dealers on U.S. Route 441, near the location she was working at the time. She was the only woman in a top leadership position.

“I showed up with my stilettos and my pony tail and my big brilliant ideas,” Stetler said. She wanted to stay open later, to cater to younger families — not just retirees — and open on Sunday. At the time, the dealerships had 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekday hours and opened 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Instead, she was told, “ ‘Little girl, you need to go home and bake cookies. This is no place for you,’ ” Stetler said.

[They said,]‘little girl, you need to go home and bake cookies. This is no place for you.’

Gigi Stetler, CEO of RV Sales of Broward

But she shifted her hours anyway, staying open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. And her competitors started shuttering their doors, some due to retirement and some due to the competition.

Stetler’s success continued to grow — after she started anew when her business partner and mentor sold the business from under her, she said — until 2010.

That year, Stetler was doing particularly well thanks to her niche of selling campers to the the equestrian community. Stetler had married her passion for horses with her business ventures, something that proved almost “recession-proof” because equestrians needed the campers — not just wanted them — for competitions, she said.

In 2010, Stetler was in the 16th year of a sponsorship deal with the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, where she built a campground. But prior to the show, which runs from January to April, the festival ended her sponsorship and gave it instead to reality star Lemonis, who had previously tried to buy Stetler’s business, she claims. In a suit filed that year against Lemonis’ Camping World and Wellington Equestrian Partners CEO Mark Bellissimo, Stetler alleges the two conspired to run her out of business and drive her from the showgrounds.

Stetler has had to contest with sexist competitors, a mentor who took advantage of her, a public lawsuit with Marcus Lemonis and the near bankruptcy of her company after years of success.

The fallout of the feud caused Stetler to lose all her horse show clients, she said, and considerable business.

Since, she’s worked to rebuild again, move into a new location and cut away at her $11 million debt.

“Now we are just a squeak over $1 million dollars in debt; I’ve paid it all back,” Stetler said.

It’s the second time she’s had to start her business again.

“I wing it,” she said. “You set your goals so high that you get there.”

The Miami Herald sat down with Stetler in November at her Davie office, just after her 30th business anniversary, to discuss her road to recovery.

Q. Very early on in your RV career, you were the victim of a stabbing. How did that experience — and the response you received from police at the time — impact you as you endeavored to enter a male-dominated business?

A. After being stabbed 21 times and left for dead, I was greeted by two male officers in the ER who asked me what I was doing in that old building. “Was I a prostitute or drug dealer?” [they asked]. Learning early on in life to never be a victim, I march forward and look at life very differently. Every day above ground is a great day. So when I first arrived on the scene in the male-dominated RV industry, the fat-cat, good ole’ boys told me to go home and bake cookies. Needless to say I paid someone else to bake cookies, and I proceeded full speed ahead to gain market share.

Q. You've had other complicated life experiences with men as well — both with your father and with your first job as a horse jockey. How did early challenges build your character early on and serve you as you carved out your niche in the business?

A. Being unwanted by my father in my early years drove me to work hard to prove to him that I was worthy of his love and acceptance. With that said, I found myself having to prove to every male that I was worthy and more than capable of doing any job. So when I was 15, I wanted to be a jockey so bad and I had my first opportunity to ride race horses. But it didn’t come without being asked to do sexual favors and constant sexual harassment. I was lucky enough to escape the encounters but landed in the hospital because the trainer put me on a dangerous horse — probably for retaliation.

I built my character around many obstacles that life threw at me by focusing only on the goal I set as a young girl: to be a millionaire so my father would be proud and accept me.

Q. Talk about your peak years before the recession. What did you do in business that you think helped propel you to such a successful position during that time?

A. I had several peaks in my career and have started over two times. I have always created a niche in my industry rather than going after the same customers that everyone was fighting over. I went after clients that needed RVs, not wanted them. Combining my love and passion for horses and the need for them to have comfortable housing while on the horseshoe circuit kept me recession proof.

Q. Your success also came with a publicized legal battle with Marcus Lemonis of Camping World. That suit is ongoing. Why did you feel it was important to pursue that?

A. I’m a very logical person and understand competition even at the toughest level but when Marcus Lemonis went on a personal attack to destroy me, that had nothing to do with business anymore. I’ve had to fight back all my life. I have been bullied and I’m finally in a position to fight back and stand up to bullies so what happened to me may not happen to the next person. People always wonder how I was able to get through some of the things that happened to me and I say it’s the biggest compliment one can have that I must have been that great that they spent so much time, money and effort to destroy me. But I’m still standing.

Q. The last several years have been a time of growth for the RV industry. How does RV travel fit into today's travel trends and how has the growth of the tiny house trend and the shows the have sprung from it (like HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living,”) bolstered business?

A. I think with all the new travel channels and glamour campers that we call “Glamping,” we have attracted the millennials into the market. Also, with all the difficulties of flying and terror out there, I find families want to be closer together and I think it’s awesome and we should keep our family’s closer.

Q. You started in your new location a year ago and now celebrate 30 years in the business. Looking back at the long road to this point, what are you most proud of? What would you tell other women looking to enter a male-dominated business?

A. Having moved to our new location where we have everything under one roof is amazing but I’m most proud of my son Jarryd. In spite of me working seven days a week, 14 hours a day for his first 11 years growing up in the dealership, I’m proud to be his mom as he turned out to be the most magnificent person in my life. I’ve been a single mom his whole life, and he’s made the sacrifices. He is now my full business partner and has learned the business literally from the ground up.

My piece of advice to woman starting out in any industry is to first make sure you are passionate about what your going to do and set a very high goal and don’t ever take your eye off it. You will fail, but just get up fast, dust off and go again and you will eventually get there.

Gigi Stetler

Title: CEO of RV Sales of Broward

Age: 55

Experience: Stetler has been in the RV business since 1986 in several leadership positions and as CEO for nearly 30 years. She celebrated 30 years in the industry in November. Stetler calls her GPS, “Gigi’s Personal Service,” the key to her success. The company provides seven-day-a-week, 24-hour service every day of the year. Stetler is also the author of her memoir, “Unstoppable! Surviving Is Just The Beginning.”

Personal: She has one son, 23-year-old Jarryd Stetler.

About RV Sales of Broward: RV Sales of Broward sells, rents, services and repairs RVs at 3030 Burris Road in Davie. The dealership also refurbishes campers and provides several programs for buyers, such as allowing owners to put their RVs in the dealership’s rental fleet when they are not in use. RV sales of Broward will make the payments for the owner, store and service the camper while it’s in the fleet. The dealership has been involved in several charitable causes, including donating emergency trailers to displaced victims during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Andrew and donating an RV to Driving for Donors, an international bone marrow drive which drives around the country looking for bone marrow donors.

Website: rvsalesofbroward.com

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