The hottest brand of 2021 is sending sparks through the overlander market.
Ember Recreational Vehicles is just a little over a year old, but they've already got a buzz that any manufacturer would covet. You might think it's because of their lineage—their President and CEO are Ashley Bontrager, granddaughter of Lloyd and Bertha Bontrager who founded Jayco, where her father Derald and Uncle Wilbur also played large roles. But Ember's success to date has little to do with her family history. In fact, it has more to do with Bontrager's desire to blaze a new path. “If we're going to do this, we're not going to do it the way it's always been done,” she says, relating how she and her co-founders wanted to challenge the status quo from day one. “And we had the guts that it takes to step out of the comfort zone and try something a
little bit different.” Bontrager is also quick to credit her cofounders.
Chris Barth is her chief operating officer, with Steve Delagrange and Ernie Miller running operations. If Barth wasn't already known for trend-setting designs and product innovations, he would be now, as Ember's look isn't just distinct. It's elevated. To start, they're exclusively focused on the overlander market. “For us, the market is segmented by how our users are going to use the RV. This overland space is taking off, and we [wanted to embrace this] trend toward unconventional hookups.” Their product designs aren't just pretty—they're smart, too. When the company was just warming up in 2021, the supply chain was still feeling the effects of COVID intensely.
“The supply chain was wrecked. A lot of our initial meetings were around parts and pieces,” says Bontrager. Their willingness to embrace a different approach paid off. “But we had this idea for featuring composite materials more prominently. No rot, no mold, no mildew. And today, the only wood in our unit is inside with the furniture, which gives a more organic feel.” That shift to composites also eased their supply chain needs, as they weren't competing for the same parts as everyone else. Embracing composites adds to their durability, but it also makes their units distinctly Ember. The I Heart RVing team first saw their production units at the 2022 Florida SuperShow, where they stood out among thousands of more traditional designs.
Their elegant minimalism delivers a wildly appealing visual style. They've got a cool factor. And they shine in the details, even down to the chunky, go-anywhere, do-anything tires and wheels. Having met Bontrager more than once now, this doesn't feel like just a great brand. It feels like a great company. “I don't want to build a company that I just want to buy from,” she says, “But one that I would want to work for. I'm providing a workplace that people come to and devote time to, and they need to be walking away from our company feeling fulfilled by the job that they're doing.” Her energy is consistent and clear, a force to be reckoned with.
And while years spent in a familiar industry can often lead to a business-as-usual attitude, her love for it is still strong. “It's just a great, vibrant industry, and ultimately I think that everybody wants everybody to be successful.” Ember is connecting with an RV audience that shares Bontrager's desire for doing things differently (see Page 34). How far that takes her company over the long haul is still to be seen. That'll be determined by how successful she is at infusing the company with her own start-with-me mentality. “If Ember and I are successful at providing a great culture—if we are successful at building a better RV company, then we will in turn build a better RV.”