Every additional feature to a custom camper van elevates your trip to make it more comfortable and memorable. Max Rekowski, General Manager at Vansmith, talks about how he brings his natural love for the outdoors and ecological knowledge to custom camper van conversions. Max tells us how they have continually changed and transformed into what it is today. Grown from a team of one to nine in three short years, they take ultimate pride in our Vansmith builds. They use premium materials with an intuitive design that allows for easy-to-use elegance in “Mad-Maxing” your van. Max also opens up how they compromise with their client’s most ridiculous requests and deal with the public’s increased interest in the outdoors because of the pandemic.
Max Rekowski: How Vansmith Translates Customers Love For the Outdoors into Beautiful Camper Van Conversions
Welcome to episode 301 with Vansmith General Manager, Max Rekowski. Max tells us how Vansmith has continually changed and transformed into what it is. Grown from a team of 1 to a team of 9 in 3 short years, they take ultimate pride in their Vansmith builds. These premium materials with an intuitive design that allows for easy-to-use elegance in your van.
Max, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
Let’s start off with how a guy with a BS in Ecology and Wildlife Biology Concentration gets into doing van buildouts.
It’s one I ask myself every day because it is different from what I thought I’d be doing years ago. I never thought I’d be working for a company that builds out vans. I went to school for ecology because I knew I liked the outdoors and I always wanted to be involved in that realm in some way, shape or form. Going back, I would’ve done more research into what outdoor Bachelor’s degrees were available and what I could go for. At the time, I knew I loved animals. I loved being outside. I thought I wanted to be a zoologist or do research involving wolves, for example. The more and more I went through school, the more I started to realize that I didn’t exactly love the research side of things.
I just liked being in the outdoors and experiencing it. If I were to get that degree to become a full-on scientist, the amount of time you’re out in the field is not all that much. A lot of it is crunching numbers, which is what I didn’t want to do. I’ve tried to stay in that outdoor realm but the job keeps me grounded in a way in that industry. That’s what I love the most. Vansmith, you might not say it’s an outdoor industry necessarily. It’s an avenue that you can take to get outdoors. It’s different than what I thought I’d be doing but I wouldn’t be here had I not taken the path I took.
I have an Outdoor Recreation degree and I stumbled into it in a wildlife biology course. Somehow, I looked at that and I also looked at it as a Wildlife Law Enforcement Course but I’m curious what inspired you to pursue science versus parks and rec or something like that?
That was a young error, in a way. That’s where I would have ended up if I had that opportunity because most of my job history has been in the outdoor rec. My first job straight out of college was working as a naturalist at a state park in Delaware. I would have focused on the outdoor rec. I didn’t know about it, honestly. I never thought in high school that learning how to run a park, a camp or anything like that was something you could major in.
I would have chosen that had I realized it was an option. Having the background that I did and being more science-centric also helped me get some of the positions I’d had. As a naturalist, taking people out, teaching them about their local wildlife and ecology. Even in my role as an oceanographic technician on a research vessel, I wasn’t the guy now had I not had my science background. I’m thankful for it. Had I had that opportunity or been more exposed to the outdoor rec side of things, that’s the way I would have gone.
Your experience as an oceanographic technician has helped you in your current role because some of them are on a ship. I’m assuming you’re on boats and things and had to fix stuff. That’s the same as a van. You got to be able to get underneath the hood and fix the electronics.
The job of any good manager is problem-solving, figuring out how to fix issues and providing solutions where they don’t exist.
The way it helped me in my current role is not exactly what you expected or what you thought my answer might have been but the most valuable and important thing I learned from that role was how to manage and respect people. In my role as an oceanographic technician, I was in charge of all of the science, tools and things on the boat itself.
We would collect data and information about water temperature. We’d run scans of the ocean floor and things. I had to take care of those instruments but I also acted as a liaison between the scientists that would come on board on our vessel and then also the crew that worked every day on that boat. As you can imagine, people are trained to work on boats.
Maybe you’re a little different than people that come from a university that have a very science background opposing roles and viewpoints. I was that guy in the middle. I worked for the ship crew but I also helped the science crew. As you can imagine, being gone for two weeks at a time, the same group of people, sharing dinner and your quarters, you quickly learn how to understand differing viewpoints and work with people. At the end of a two-week trip, you’re at the end of your patience with people. You’re on your rope. That helped in my role as a manager of seeing where people come from and understanding not everybody has a great day every day. Sometimes people need a day off.
What are some of the places you went to?
We go all over the East Coast. We were based in Delaware but we’d go up to Woods Hole in Massachusetts, all the way down to Fort Lauderdale in Florida and everything in between. We were a ship for hire. Different universities and science crews would hire our boat, bring on their gear and instruments. We would go out and do what they wanted to do. Some days, it was trawling for fish at the bottom of the ocean floor and doing population surveys. Other times, it was launching weather balloons from our boat. Every trip was different and unique. It was a wild experience.
How did you get connected with Vansmith?
I was fortunate enough to know the co-owner of The Vansmith. My previous job before this was with Nathan Sports as a tech rep. I’d go to running expo, shops and do demo runs with them for our gear. At the time, Roberto Gutierrez was the Marketing Director at Nathan Sports. He now works for Jack Wolfskin. You interviewed somebody from there.
Diana Seung was on the show.
Roberto started The Vansmith with his cousin. Once I got laid off from Nathan during quarantine days and COVID, as you can imagine, having a job where you travel around the expos, I reached out to Roberto, who has always been a great mentor to me. He was like, “We’re looking for a general manager for a van company. Do you want to move out to Colorado and do that?” It took me about two seconds to say yes to that. I was quarantined with my parents in Indiana. I had to drive back to Philadelphia with my fiance, pack up all our stuff and then drive all the way across the country again to Colorado. Here we are. It’s not a bad place to be during COVID days. There are lots of outdoor things to do.
In the early days of any company, it’s exciting. You’re doing all kinds of things, which is fun. You might still be that way. You’re still new.
We started before the whole van life boom that happened during COVID. We were at least able to get our feet under us before that happened. When I started, we were a company of 3 or 4. That’s helped us grow to a company of ten, which is still pretty small compared to some other van companies out there that have been doing this for 15, 20 years. We’ve all experienced a growth in interest in this industry.
I live in Bishop and we see people all over the place with their vans and little trailers. It’s interesting. There’s a big Alabama Hills south of here. It’s the area right in front of Mount Whitney. A lot of people go there to camp, hike, climb and all that stuff. There’s a lot of people that go there. Since COVID, this has exploded. There are people everywhere. The BLM is shifting the camping. Everybody talks about how they’re cutting it off. Nobody’s talking about the fact that there are ten times as many people. It’s crazy.
It’s both good and bad. I love everyone’s interest in the outdoors but unfortunately, it’s going to take a couple of years for the national parks and state parks on land to grow and learn how to manage this renewed growth interest in the outdoor world.
We haven’t built new campgrounds. I don’t know about in another country but sure in California. I remember the last new campground we built when I was a kid. We have to come up with places for these people to go. It’s great that they’re digging it but they’re all in one spot. It’s not working.
We have no alps close to us. It has arches and canyonlands. It’s a two-hour wait to get into some of these national parks. Unfortunately, the ecological side is going to take a hit because more and more people, erosion and trash are there but we’ll manage and grow from it.
What does a typical day at Vansmith look like?
That’s the fortunate thing about working for Vansmith because we are so small that every day is different, especially in my role as general manager. We do have a salesperson who I managed but one day I could be working on sales and marketing. The next day, I could be managing our inventory and ordering. Next, I’m managing operations in the shop itself. Most days, I feel like I’m putting out fires and managing problems that somehow arise out of nowhere. The job of any good manager or general manager is problem-solving, figuring out how to fix and have solutions where you don’t think they exist.
How many vans are you working on at any one time?
We do about 3 to 4 at a time. That varies between a full-on custom build or one of our more standard layouts. Some builds are pretty quick to go out the door. They’re only in the shop for a month. Other ones are in the shop for 2 to 3 months or so because they’re many new things that we’re putting into them that we haven’t done before. We have to figure out how to mount or power something. It’s very wildly different as to how long vans are in the shop. We moved to a new shop in 2020 so that we could start building more vans at one time. I expect in the years, we’ll be moving again. It’s a good problem to have.
Do you mostly work on Sprinters or is it all kinds of vans?
One way or another, you will be stuck in a camper van. That’s why you want it to feel nice and be a place you could spend time for days.
We have been working mostly on Sprinters. They’re one of the few that has a four-wheel drive system. Ford Transits have all-wheel drive but they’re still fairly new. They came out in 2020 or 2021. Sprinters have a lock on the whole van life industry. Say you want a roof rack for your van. You know a company is going to make one for a Sprinter, Transit, ProMaster, Nissan NV or something.
I’m trying to compare for some people. It’s like having an iPhone. Everybody’s going to make a case for the iPhone. Not everybody makes a case for your random Android phone or something. That’s what I compare the Sprinters to. Everybody makes some accessories for them. We do a lot of those. Ninety percent of our builds are Sprinters but we still work on the other ones if people want us to.
Is there a typical buildup? I’m sure they’re all customized somewhat but is there a typical feature set where everybody gets a bed, table or fridge?
Yes. We have three standard buildouts that we do. You don’t get to change the layout because in our minds, it’s the perfect layout that gives you everything you need without being too cramped in there. Customers get to choose their choice of colors for the cabinets and trim fabric pieces. They also get to pick a lot of upgrades and accessories, say a roof rack for that van. It’s rare when we build one van and then another one, maybe as the same exact layout but the colors are going to be completely different.
It looks like a very different van, which is great but we also do custom builds. Our bread and butter are still custom builds to an extent. A part of our job is saying no to people sometimes. One guy asked if we could put a bathtub that fits in his van. I was confused about how or where that would go. I was like, “A bathtub bed, how do we make this work?”
Is that the most unique request you had?
That’s the most unique request that we’ve had to say no to but we’ve done plenty of unique builds. For example, one customer had four kids and they wanted to fit that in a van, which is limited in space. We added four additional seats. We put a pop top on top, so they have an extra sleeping area. We fit almost a California king-size bed in the back of the van, which we had to trim a little bit but it was a very long and as wide as possible bed that you could fit in the van. It was a ridiculous build.
With four seats, that doesn’t leave room for much else.
It was a fridge, sink, four seats and a big bed. Underneath the bed, you get tons of storage under there. That was one of the more unique requests that we were able to satisfy for the customer.
What are some of the most popular features? I’m sure everybody wants a bed and a fridge.
One thing people like is what we call Mad Maxing your van. Putting bigger wheels, all-terrain tires and refract lights. People get stoked on the exterior stuff. The beauty lies on the inside. Any company can put all that exterior stuff on. For our builds specifically, we try to make them feel at home and not feel like a toolbox in a way. People liked the wood features in our builds. We put in Cedar ceilings and wooden cabinets. It feels homey, a place you’d want to spend time. That’s one of the more popular features people like about our builds specifically.
It’s important because if you get stuck in bad weather, you’re going to be in that thing. You want it to be comfortable and feel like home. You’d rather be inside there than standing out in your rain gear at the picnic table. We’ve all done that too.
That’s the thing people don’t necessarily think about when they think of living in their van. Some days you’re going to be stuck in your van all day. Drive away from the storm necessarily, so you want it to feel nice and a place you want to spend time.
Let’s give some love to our sponsor. I’ve heard from so many photographers out there that you’ve always wanted to sell your photos online. SmugMug makes it easy. With a few clicks, you can start selling prints and digital downloads right away. They handle everything from billing to shipping and work with some of the best labs in the world. RickSaezPhotography.com has been with SmugMug for years and they’ve handled every chance action flawlessly. Go to RickSaez.com/SellPhotos and try it for free. Set up your account.
What about electronics? I’m sure a lot of people want a variety of electronics. You probably have to have a house battery in addition to the car or vehicle battery. Do you mount screens? How does that work?
We have a standard electrical system that we do for most people. It can be expanded upon. Say you want more amp hours for your battery lives, so we’ll add batteries to the system. We can add more solar if you want to be independent. Charge your system while you’re parked somewhere. Electrical is one of the hardest and most complicated things to chat with customers about because most people don’t understand it. Some people don’t even know what they want to power and that’s the hardest conversation. It’s like, “This is what we’re going to give you. This is all that it will power. Do you want anything more than that?” They’re like, “No, I don’t think so.” Then they try to run a microwave off of it. It can’t handle it.
Do they come back and say, “I need more power?”
We’ve done and upgraded that before. That has happened a couple of times before, so we try to almost overkill with electrical systems so that they don’t have to come back to us. You have a thumb per system you don’t have to worry about.
I’m sure being proactive is going to be better for you guys to get it done on the front side, as opposed to having to tear stuff out and put it back in.
The hardest thing is conversations with people that want air-conditioning in the van because that requires a bulky electrical system. Even then sometimes, there are caveats. You could have a big battery thing that will run your AC overnight but then how do you charge it the next day? You have to have an insane amount of solar on the roof. It’s a conversation we’re having with people. Everybody wants it but nobody necessarily wants to pay for it or understand that you might have to be hooked up at a camp spot on ship to shore power.
A camper van’s beauty lies on the inside. Any company can put all kinds of exterior stuff on it, but making it feel like home is what counts.
Air conditioning is more difficult than heating.
We put a heater in all of our builds. It taps into your diesel or gas tank. You can run it when the vans are off. It doesn’t require a lot of electricity. It’s dry heat, so you’re not creating humidity inside your van. It’s easy to heat a van but difficult to cool it down.
Let’s shift gears a little bit. I see you support the Access Fund. Are there any other nonprofit groups you work with or people you support?
We also started supporting the Honnold Foundation. We partner with a company called Omaze that runs a sweepstake where you get an opportunity to win one of our vans. Let’s say somebody buys an entry to win the van. Part of that entry goes towards a charity of our choice. We partnered with Access Fund for years. In 2021, we’re working with the Honnold Foundation.
It’s a new switch for us. We still are super close with the guys at Access Fund. We’re helping any way we can. In the future, I would love for our company to possibly work with 1% for the Planet or other similar like-minded companies out there. We’re still small. Even a 1% for us is at a deal. We’re working towards it, for sure.
The van life and overlanding seemed to get comixed quite a bit. How many vans do you do that you build? How many are targeted towards more of an overland customer versus a van-life customer? Van life customers rarely leave the road. They might go to a campsite but they’re not going on some dirt road backcountry of Utah. They’re staying on the pavement for the most part.
It’s 50/50. The overlanding aspect of that is growing and growing. One of the unique things about having a van is you have more of a capacity to drive down that dirt road versus an RV. Everybody wants that capability to go down the dirt road. It’s a conversation we have with people that want four-wheel drive in their van. I try to have a conversation with them. If you spent $80,000 with us in the van, maybe you don’t take it down that sketchy dirt road.
You’re going to need another $20,000 in gear to get yourself out of it if you get stuck.
There’s a lot of people that still want that capability of going down the dirt road. For the most part, most fans have that capability but as far as pure overlanding, being out there not being on paid for a week at a time or something, that is an aspect that is starting to grow more and more from our customer base. People want that capability.
What’s the biggest overlanding rig you have worked on so far? Some of those things are huge.
We don’t do any of the converted military vehicles or anything like that. We’re still purely in that van realm. Sprinters have plenty of capability of going down a lot of those dirt roads and being out on land for a long time. We’ve done bigger wheels and tires on builds. We’ve done some lifts and some builds to give people more of that capability going where they want to go. Getting farther away than somebody’s sedan can go or something. We’ve done quite a few that have that Mad Max.
How often do you get out yourself? Did you get to go out quite a bit?
Not as much as I would like. We have a van at work that we occasionally get to take out. We let some of our staff take it out. I’ve taken it out, which is great. In the end, it’s a company vehicle, so we have to take it to shows and things like that. My fiancée, our pup and I go out in my Subaru more often than we get to go out in a van. The beauty of “overlanding” is you can do it in anything that gets you out there. My Subaru can’t go everywhere but it gets us to some cool places. 1 to 2 times a month, we find ourselves out camping somewhere or on some little fun adventure.
Have you tricked out your Subaru with any stuff you’ve learned from Vansmith?
I’ve got some bigger wheels and tires on there. I’ve been thinking about an upgraded suspension on it. I’ve got some rack accessories and a bike rack to take my bikes out. I’m fully aware that it’s going to be limited whenever we go. It’s a Subaru in the end. I try to be trying to be mindful of where my car can go.
What other outdoor activities do you participate in? It sounds like you bike a lot.
Cycling is my number one activity. It’s something I’ve found more and more passion for as I’ve gotten older here. I still go hiking, running, camping, anything that gets me outside. A lot of our employees are big climbers. I’ll go with them to the gym or climb some of the flat irons occasionally. It’s not a bad place to live to do those things.
That’s been one of the greatest things of being a cyclist coming out here. There are so many people out on the road. It feels great to be able to cycle with a lot of other people. It doesn’t show on my work history or anything but I biked across the country in 2016 and through Colorado. I’m going to some of these places I visited on my bike where I was camping in my tent. I had no idea where I was spatially. I’ve been in Colorado for a while. It’s cool to go back and visit some of the places I experienced on my bike.
Did you do that solo?
I did. Weirdly enough, there’s not a lot of people that want to quit their job and cross the country for 90 days. I wanted that freedom to set my own schedule. I knew that if I wanted to stay in one place for longer than 1 day or 2 and be free to make my own plans, I wanted that capability. There were a lot of times along my trip where I decided on a whim that I was going to go this way. I went up to Canada for a week because I could. Nothing was holding me back. I met plenty of friends along the way that I biked with for periods of time. That was great. For the most part, I did it solo.
The outdoor industry may not be the most glamorous or the highest paying job, but you get to do what you truly love.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the van life or overlanding? Not necessarily a business side but someone out there thinking, “I want to get a van.”
Be realistic of what you want to do. Most people can experience the van life for fairly cheap if they recognize that the van life is not going to be your home life. A big thing for people wanting to get into the van life is like, “Where do I go to the bathroom? Where do I shower?” Those are things that you can put in a van. We do that for customers a lot but there are also people that have a Planet Fitness membership. They plan their travels around, stopping in the Planet Fitness, taking a shower and doing that kind of stuff. People have to understand what’s the most important to them and what are things they can sacrifice. Go from there.
As somebody that was new to this industry before I got this job, I can understand where people come from in the way, how their interest has grown in this field and how they get into it. This was completely new to me before I moved out here. Growing up in the Midwest and living out on the East Coast for a long time, RVs were the main thing in the Midwest for me, especially growing up in Indiana. Elkhart is the RV industry of the world. When I was offered this job, I was like, “People do what in vans?” I understand people’s interest in this, where they come from and trying to figure out what they want themselves.
It helps if you were camping as a kid or as a young adult because if you’ve never camped and you want to get into van life, that’s a shock when you realized, “I can’t do this and bring that.” It’s different.
Van life is similar to your home life but it’s also very similar to camping. We use a lot of camping tools, say a camping stove or camping equipment, because it’s light that packs well. Bringing everything from your home doesn’t always necessarily make sense.
Do you have any daily routines you use to keep your sanity? Do you meditate? It sounds like you bike a lot. That’s good.
Exercising is a big one for me. I also have a little dog. I take her on walks a lot. Sometimes I get to combine my love of cycling and taking her out. She’ll go mountain biking with me occasionally. She’s my little trail buddy. Those helped me keep me sane for sure. I listened to a lot of audiobooks on my commute to and from work. That’s a big one as well.
Do you have any favorite books or books you give as gifts? The Audible thing helps me listen to books as opposed to reading them. I do both, though.
I do both as well. There’s still a part of me that loves that tangible sense of having a book in your hand. I like to give gifts based on the person. I don’t think there’s one book that is good for everyone. There are definitely a few that I use interchangeably depending on the person. I read a book called A Man Called Ove, which is an inspirational book. It’s great for people that are in hard times. I’d recommend that book or give that book to somebody. It’s from a Swedish author. It’s a good book.
If I have a curious friend or somebody that’s insightful, I will give them a book from Malcolm Gladwell. He does amazing books. If I had a friend that was in a rut and needed to experience some adventure, I’d tap into my nerd fantasy side and give them a book from Lord of The Rings or something. That was the first major book I read when I was a kid. It got me into that whole adventure side of life.
How about a favorite piece of outdoor gear under $100?
I don’t think you can go wrong with a good wool t-shirt. I had a couple for my bike trip across the country and I still wear them. They’re great for hiking, cycling, running and everyday life. They don’t stink. They were indestructible. Honestly, that’d be my go-to.
As we wrap, is there anything else you’d like to ask or say for our readers?
Thanks for allowing me to be a part of this show. Hopefully, it was somewhat insightful to people that read and they enjoyed it on their commute in the morning or something. To everybody out there in their outdoor industry, it’s not the most glamorous, the highest-paid positions out there but we get to do what we love. Some of the best people I know have come from this industry and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I commend those that have lived, breathed and sweated inside this industry.
If people want to follow up with you, how can they do that? What’s the best way to find you?
They can reach me via email if they want. I’m always happy to chat with people. It’s Max@TheVansmith.com. I’m also on Instagram, @MaxReko. LinkedIn is another good one and then follow us at The Vansmith. We’re on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
It’s been great talking to you. I look forward to seeing you at the next show whenever we get together again, not sure when that’s going to be but coming soon.
- Diana Seung – Previous episode
- Access Fund
- Honnold Foundation
- A Man Called Ove
- Malcolm Gladwell
- Lord of The Rings
- @MaxReko – Instagram
- LinkedIn – Max Rekowski, M.S.
- Facebook – The Vansmith
- Instagram – Vansmith
- YouTube – The Vansmith
About Max Rekowski
An adventurer at heart. Always seeking opportunities to “level up”.