After more than three decades, Explorer Van Inc. has become completely self-reliant at its headquarters in Warsaw, Ind. “We do almost everything in-house,” owner Steve Kesler says. “We build our own furniture, we have our own metal shop and we make our own plastic. Everything we do, we do from here.”

The company, which started operations in 1980, specializes in converting custom luxury vans from Chevrolet, GMC and Ford vehicles. Before co-founding Explorer Van, Kesler worked as a driver for Coachman Industries when he was not teaching school, an experience that allowed him to gain some insight into the market.

“I delivered vans and motor homes for Coachman for a couple years and got to slowly know a van dealer in St. Louis,” he recalls. “He was not happy with the performance of Coachman with their van conversions and suggested I ought to make one.”


Kesler partnered on the project with his father, Robert, a dental supply salesman. 

“He bought the first raw van out of Detroit,” Steve Kesler recalls, noting that the two customized the vehicle and successfully sold it. “The rest is history.” 


A Positive Turnaround

Although the Keslers did not have backgrounds in the automotive industry, it did not hurt their business. In fact, what seemed like a negative turned out to be a positive, Steve Kesler asserts.

Robert Kesler’s employer in medical supplies was very hands-on with its customers, which proved to be the ideal approach for Explorer Van. “We applied that [approach] and didn’t take our customers for granted,” Steve Kesler says.

Robert Kesler died in 2003, but would be proud of Explorer Van’s current status, Steve Kesler explains. “My father was a little bit down on his luck,” he recalls about the time before Robert started the company. “I’m most proud that he was able to succeed [with this company].”

He also would be proud that his grandsons work at Explorer Van, Kesler says. “They are sales reps and share a giant territory [that includes] Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and North and South Carolina,” the proud father describes.


Coping With Changes

Explorer Van recently adapted to a move to larger van models, Kesler says. Between 2006 and 2014, the company converted GM’s half-ton vans. But at the end of 2014, GM decided to make a change.

"General Motors called me and said, ‘We’re done with the half-ton van,’” he recalls.

The company has spent the past several months transitioning to GM’s new 3/4-ton vans as well as Ford’s full-size Transit vehicle. “We’ve been working on getting those back on dealers’ lots,” Kesler says. “This has been my most challenging year since 2009.”

Those challenges include educating customers on the advantages of the 3/4-ton van over the half-ton. “[It] gets better fuel efficiency, but it doesn’t have all-wheel drive,” he notes. “We’re going to lose some customers because of the all-wheel drive, but we hope to get them back eventually.”

The Ford Transit van is not currently all-wheel drive, but will be soon, Kesler states. “They hope to have it all-wheel drive by 2018,” he explains.


Hard Work

Explorer Van employs 20 sales representatives across the country who drive demonstrators, Kesler says. “It is their job to go to the dealerships, train and retrain each of them on the pros and cons of the Explorer Van,” he says.

But it can be hard to sell vans to customers that range from young families to retirees, Kesler admits. “It’s not like a four-door car,” he says. “There are a lot of components that need explanations. That’s one of the biggest challenges we have.”

The company also copes with competition from SUVs. “We try [by explaining] to the customer, ‘With less money, you’re ending up with more storage room and people room [in a van] than any one of the Suburbans or extended Yukons,’” Kesler says.


Great Growth  

Explorer Van is planning for growth, Kesler says. “We’ll just continue to self-improve the GM van, which has been the heart and soul of the company,” he says. “I also see great growth for the Ford van.” 

Additionally, he sees potential with Mercedes-Benz USA LLC’s Metris van, which is the size of a full-size Transit van. “That’s a four-cylinder, high-powered people mover,” he states, noting that the vehicle will appeal to younger families.

Fuel prices also will help Explorer Van’s business. “We sold a lot of vans when fuel was over $4,” he recalls. “People got used to paying $3.75 to $4.50 per gallon of gasoline. 

“Now that it’s $2.50, it is just icing on the cake,” Kesler says. “It looks like it’s going to be pretty solid here for a while.” 

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