After Surviving A Stabbing, She Became A Leading CEO In The Male-Dominated RV Business

By Chabeli Herrera The Miami Herald

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Gigi Stetler is the founder of RV Sales of Broward, an RV dealership in South Florida. Stetler's rebirth, first from the fallout of a violent 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.

The Miami Herald

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.

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.

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *