Like many great ideas, Helio RV was born at the ice rink.
Co-founders Jean-Roch Lacroix and Marco Leblanc would chat at the local arena as their children took figure skating lessons.
Mr. Lacroix grew up camping and was looking for a trailer so he could bring his children on the kind of adventures he enjoyed as a boy. Mr. Leblanc was a long-time entrepreneur looking for a new kind of adventure himself.
“We would chat every time we were at the arena,” Mr. Lacroix says. “My partner had a business for 30 years and he wanted to diversify and [work] with his son and create something new.”
Eventually, the friendly chats became serious discussions, market research and analysis and the three of them – Mr. Lacroix, Mr. Leblanc and his son, Jeremy Leblanc – launched Lavaltrie, Que.-based Helio RV in 2014.
“We wanted to have the smallest trailer that you can pull with a small SUV or electric car,” Mr. Lacroix says.
It’s a niche product in a very competitive and lucrative industry.
Last year was a record year for RV manufacturing and sales in North America, with more than 600,000 RVs built and more than US$30-billion in RV sales and service activity in the U.S., according to the American RV Industry Association.
North of the border, the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada estimated $470-million in sales in 2017, the most recent year statistics are available. Helio RV sold about 300 trailers last year.
“There were not a lot of builders or manufacturers in that niche,” Mr. Lacroix says.
Helio’s Series O mini trailers can sleep up to four people and each has a queen-sized bed, a toilet and shower and a kitchenette with a two-burner stove, fridge and sink. The smaller Series HE3 trailers, designed to be towable by a three-wheeled vehicle, contain a bed that converts into a couch and weigh in at just 456 pounds.
The trailers are moulded fibreglass on an aluminum chassis, which keeps them ultralight.
From their initial offering at only a few RV dealers in Quebec, Helio RVs are now available at dozens of dealerships across Canada and eight in the United States.
Vehicles are strictly regulated industries in both Canada and the U.S., in this country by Transport Canada, and in the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
While the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), the successor of NAFTA, has harmonized many regulations, there are still differences, says Jeremy Leblanc, president of Helio RV.
He and his father had previous experience exporting furniture and kitchen cabinets to the U.S. for their company Atelier Nouveau Décor. There were some cross-border hurdles, he says, but “it was less complicated in terms of standards requirements because it was not related to vehicles.”
It’s the exporter’s responsibility to know what certifications and regulations apply, he advises. And in the U.S., it’s not just one set of national standards. In addition to the NHTSA’s rules, requirements vary state-by-state, he says.
“You have to be aware of the industry standards in your own country as well and the requirements of the countries where you want to export,” Mr. Leblanc says. “You have to expect that you will have to answer to specific requests for the targeted states or regions.”
It takes time, and exporters have to anticipate that before entering any specific market in the U.S., he cautions.
“In Canada, it’s easy. For every province you can do the same,” adds Mr. Lacroix. “But each state in the U.S. has a different way to do it. They all work with the NHTSA, but when you’re talking about California or another state, they have specific requirements.”
Rather than try to navigate the national certifications themselves, Helio RV turned to British Columbia-based QAI Laboratories.
QAI offers testing, inspection and certification services in a variety of sectors, including building products, electrical products, and RVs and park model trailers. The company’s certification process is recognized by all agencies as confirmation the trailers meet all safety standards such as gas and electrical.
QAI reviews design plans, looks at each component that will go into the RV and conducts factory visits a few times a year, explains its president, Kent Adamson.
The company’s certifications are also recognized by U.S. agencies and U.S. standards are now very similar to the Canadian ones, he says.
“In the case of Helio, if they tell us up front that they plan to export to the U.S. as well as within Canada, we’ll do our evaluation to both standards at the same time,” Mr. Adamson says. “And because they’re so similar, it’s not too difficult to do. Just a few minor differences that we have to look out for when we do our inspection.”
There are differences, though, he says.
“With CUSMA and different trade agreements worldwide, there is a much greater effort to harmonize standards to reduce barriers to trade. And they’ve made a lot of progress in bringing the U.S. and Canadian RV standard closer together to make it easier for cross-border trade,” Mr. Adamson says. “But I think there’s a lot more progress that can be made on harmonization efforts.”
Canada is far more harmonized with the U.S. than other regions of the world.
For now, Mr. Lacroix says that’s one reason Helio RV will focus on expanding North American sales, which are split about 50-50 between Canada and the U.S.
“We’ve received a lot of inquiries from Europe and Australia but for now, the USA is so big and Canada. We have plenty of opportunities here before opening up in other markets,” he says.