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Picture This, October 2013 — Size matters

Back to October 2013  issue

Size matters

Park Liner stuffs plenty of space into a tight place, proving that good things come in small packages.
He’s just learning the business ropes, Chandler Palethorpe of Gibsonville says. After all, Park Liner Inc., which manufactures lightweight travel trailers in Gibsonville, is built on the unlikely principle that less is more. “I’ve had a lifelong interest in small-space architecture,” he says. “This is a chance for me to put that to use.” ParkLiners can be towed behind a minivan and navigate tight fast-food drive-thrus but are large enough to incorporate a queen-size bed, kitchen, stand-up shower and other amenities.  

Palethorpe enjoyed backcountry hiking and camping growing up in Chapel Hill and while studying biology at Carolina in the late ’80s. After marrying and starting a family, he turned to car camping — packing a tent and living out of the trunk — and pop-up campers. The family eventually settled on hard-shell camping trailers. He bought his first in 2000, but during a trip to the beach, wife Emily complained about how much space the table took up. Could he, she wondered, design one that folded flat against the wall or became part of a bed? He decided he could.

Palethorpe, who had owned landscaping, remodeling and other businesses, started the company in 2007, and with about $500,000 in startup money of his own and from friends built mock-ups in his Gibsonville garage. “Most big companies would have a team for design and engineering. I had me.” Working from the inside out, Palethorpe, now 51, drew on his family’s experiences. The result is an interior 12 feet long, 6 feet 10 inches wide and 6 feet 5 inches high. In less than half the size of a typical hotel room, ParkLiners sleep four, have 21 linear feet of cabinets, molded fiberglass furniture and 15-gallon water and 30-gallon waste tanks. Base models start at about $16,000, though options such as refrigerators can drive the price to $20,000. The upholstery is Sunbrella, a fade-proof and stain-resistant fabric made by Glen Raven Inc.

Palethorpe designed a two-piece fiberglass shell in which, among other things, cabinets are glued in with industrial methacrylate adhesive, stiffening the trailers while reducing weight and avoiding rivet holes that can leak and create cracks. Using boat technology, he goes to exceptional lengths in waterproofing to prevent rotting floors, common in camper trailers. But he got in over his head. “The leap from artist’s shop to production is hard. I’d read the chemistry books, but when it came to the molding process, I didn’t have the skills. There’s an art to it.” His solution was to hire a 25-year veteran of fiberglass production. “We made all of three in 2011. It was just he and I.”  

The operation moved out of Palethorpe’s garage into 6,500 square feet of leased space in a former Cone Mills plant in Gibsonville, and output increased to about 25 in 2012, with revenue reaching more than $400,000. After initially building chassis in his garage, Pale-thorpe farmed that out to Boswell Welding & Fabrication Co. in Burlington. Production could double this year if he can hire skilled, conscientious employees. The company has seven.

Growing isn’t easy for a company devoted to smallness. “The space we have in the old mill is probably not large enough to turn out more than 100 trailers a year,” he says. “We’re hoping our neighbor will move out by the time we need more. We don’t really have a business plan. It’s sort of evolving as I learn more about it, but from the beginning, I’ve wished I had a partner who was particularly adept at the business end. I’m more of an engineering guy.”

The truth is, he says, size matters. “I’d like to get a little bigger, so we can worry less about money flow and hire some people to do the things that are challenging for me.”

— Edward Martin

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