RICKY Baker says he'd love to spin a profound and elaborate tale about how he came up with the name for his company.
Truth is, he named it after his then-father-in-law's old longhorn — a free-spirited, strong-willed bull that resisted attempts to be quartered in the pasture.
“He'd jump every fence there was,” Baker says. “Tough. Couldn't hurt him. He had one of the prettiest longhorn racks you've ever seen on a bull. His name was Big Tex. So when I was thinking of a name, it was kind of, ‘Hey, Big Tex Trailers.’”
On Baker's business card, a longhorn rack is superimposed over a drawing of the state's borders, with this slogan: “Tough as a Texas Longhorn.”
The name alone, Big Tex Trailers, conjures up images of the nation's second-largest state in terms of land mass — a canvas of sprawling prairie, fields of bluebonnets, massive ranches and oil wells, a rich history that includes legendary figures such as Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and Stephen F Austin, and the defining showdown at The Battle of the Alamo.
Everything is big in Texas. The State Capitol in Austin stands largest among all the states. There are more counties than any other state (including 41 that are larger than the entire state of Rhode Island). It is the nation's leading producer of oil, natural gas, beef, sheep, goats, wool, cotton, rice, and watermelons. There are almost as many cattle (15 million) as people (18 million).
It is so big that El Paso, on the western border, is closer to Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast than it is to Port Arthur, on the eastern border. And Port Arthur is closer to Jacksonville, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast than it is to El Paso.
Likewise, Big Tex Trailers is big. Baker, its 41-year-old president and CEO, says the company has the largest market share among all utility trailer manufacturers, fueled by a dealer network that numbers 250 nationwide. It has grown to include over 400 employees at three manufacturing facilities — one at Mt Pleasant in northeast Texas and two at Odessa in west Texas, as well as 10 company-owned dealerships stretching from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Los Angeles.
The ingenuity he has used and the work he has exhibited were recognized earlier this year when he was named Ernst & Young's Southwest Entrepreneur of the Year in the manufacturing sector. In the process, he prevailed over three finalists whose companies deal with the much sexier market of electronic and biotech products: Stan Bradshaw of The Bradshaw Group, one of the country's top complete printing solutions providers; Darlene Ryan of PharmaFab Inc, a contract pharmaceutical manufacturer; and Sean Nguyen of Texatronics Inc, one of the fastest-growing high-tech companies in the Dallas Metroplex.
“First of all, we were nominated, which came as a complete surprise,” Baker says. “Then we were selected as a finalist and got invited to Dallas. At the finalist ceremony, my wife and I looked around and I told her, ‘I guarantee I'm the only welder in this place.’ Then we win.”
Baker — as Texan as they come, with a distinctive drawl and a business suit consisting of Wranglers and boots — was nominated by former Big Tex employee Debbie Rivas, now with Comerica Bank. Rivas, whose brother Tony is a shop foreman, mentioned Big Tex to Comerica nominator Paul Strange. He takes regular business trips to Arkansas on Interstate 30 — driving right past Big Tex, located on the south side of the freeway in Mt Pleasant. He knew exactly where Big Tex is located and what it does.
“He just pulled in here one day and started asking questions,” Baker says. “Next thing I know, we're nominated.”
Next stop for Baker on the Ernst & Young trail: the national finals in Palm Springs. And if Big Tex passes that test, then on to the world awards in Monaco.
Baker and his wife, Sheila, took 28 employees to the Southwest awards — shop employees as well as management. It was a large contingent, but Baker says it was worth it because the award was a “prestigious and honorable thing for the company as a whole.”
Be True To Yourself
Wayne Carter, editor of the weekly Fort Worth Business World, says there is a lesson to be learned: Don't be mesmerized by the lure of something trendy. Go with what you know and make sure it has a long-term future. Although the awards ceremony was filled with a “Benz-and-Beemer crowd,” the “Ford-and-Chevy kind of guy” walked away with the big prize.
“Baker's business might seem boring,” Carter wrote in his “Editor's Corner” column, “but no matter how far technology advances, it can't move cattle to market or zap landscaping crews to job sites.”
Big Tex has become known as an industry leader in utility trailers. But, as Baker notes, it's an extremely fragmented industry. He says that while Big Tex is the largest by far — its closest competitor is about one-third as large — the company is “still just a minute part” of the industry.
“In the trailer business — especially the utility end — the mortality rate for a trailer manufacturer has always been pretty high,” Baker says. “There are not many of us that have been around a long time.”
So why has Big Tex been able to stay at the top?
“A quality product at a fair, reasonable price, and we back it up 100%,” vice-president of manufacturing Jim Kelly says. “We deliver when we say we're going to deliver.”
“The other thing,” Baker says, “is that we've always strived for new products and have tried to look at how to build our mousetrap better. We're always in a state of constant change and improvement. We try very hard to stay out there on that leading edge.”
Last year, Big Tex built 30,000 trailers — 50% of them were all-around, general-purpose trailers, the rest were industrial and commercial. Big Tex has the capacity to produce them (150,000 square feet in the manufacturing facilities in Mt Pleasant and Odessa), the space to display them (45 acres in Mt Pleasant and 50 in Odessa), and the dealer network to distribute and market them.
Says Kelly, “I haven't seen this in other utility manufacturers: We can build you something to carry your lawn mower or something to carry your D-8 (Caterpillar bulldozer). The breadth of line we have, I haven't seen elsewhere. If you want a dump trailer, we have the best selection.”
Two of the three manufacturing facilities feature monorail systems, similar to those used in the automobile industry, for assembling standard models. There are also 10 other assembly lines for specialty and custom trailers. The “North Plant” at the Odessa complex builds dump trailers and the larger industrial models with load capacities of up to 50,000 lb. Combined, the three plants can finish a precision-built trailer every 3½ minutes.
Big Tex uses a high-tensile combination of low carbon, high alloy, which helps prevent trailer twist and steel fatigue. The flooring is mostly (except on steel-deck and hardwood-floor models) southern pine, and only 2" × 6" and 2" × 8" is used, providing uniform shrinkage and higher density load area. When pressure-treated lumber is required, only CCA type C is used. Floor fasteners are heavy-duty 5/16" anti-rust torx floor screws.
To ensure that axles are aligned properly, they use trailer framing fixtures that are like carpenters' jigs. That forces the frame to be laid out perfectly straight and square before welding. From that position, the alignment and attachment of the top assembly are easily performed.
Dexter axles are installed at another station — cambered axles engineered with a slight upward bend so that when the load is placed on the trailer, the axle deflects to the load condition, enabling the tires to ride flat on the road.
The wheels and tires are designed specifically for trailers — as opposed to using automobile tires or even used tires and wheels. They come with a warranty honored by Big Tex or any discount tire location.
The couplers on the trailers have a safety chain and attachment located beneath the coupler — as opposed to welding the chain directly to the trailer, increasing the likelihood of failure. The chains run from a Grade 30 proof coil to a Grade 70 transport.
Lights are installed as complete units. All wires run through channels and grommets to eliminate contact with any rough edges that could snag or tear them. Wires come together at a single plug, ready for direct connection to the towing vehicle. All Big Tex braking systems feature an automatic, battery-powered breakaway box that includes an automatic charging system.
Says Kelly, “Because we are aligned with the best components and supplies in the industry, when a customer needs a tire, we can provide the exact tire the trailer was supplied with. We can also provide an identical replacement for any component on a Big Tex trailer. We are consistent.”
The Process of Painting
Creating the paint job and finish of a Big Tex trailer is a multi-step process. First, the surface metal is hand-sanded, deburred, and contour ground. Next, the trailer goes through a high-temperature, high-pressure wash. A phosphatizing wash system deep-cleans the metal and creates an ideal surface for paint adhesion. The trailer is dried and select surfaces are masked off. It moves into the primer booth, where it is primed with two coats of phenolic modified primer with high performance corrosion inhibitive pigments, and undercoated with Panther 813. The trailer receives two coats of Valspar Supreme Acrylic enamel sent from the paint kitchen, where a large number of sealed, 90-gallon paint vats are located. A painter can change colors quickly by manipulating valves that lead directly to the paint kitchen. The trailer proceeds through the drying ovens. Big Tex has the capability to produce exotically painted trailers. At the front gate of the lot sits a 25DU, a tandem dual gooseneck dump trailer with 25,000 GVWR and a 16' bed — a fully self-contained unit that has its own battery-powered hydraulic system and is used for everything from ranch work to heavy, industrial-job cleanups. But this is no ordinary paint job. It is a “chameleon.” As you walk around it, the color goes from blue to purple to black, and — if you approach it from the correct angle in the right circumstances — also to gold and green.
“This obviously is not a standard color for us to be painting on a trailer,” Kelly says. “But we've got a customer out there who bought one with this paint job that we had out front here. So we made another one. We used this one at shows and parades.”
The other significant aspect of Big Tex is its parts division, Tex Trail, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Tex and a stand-alone profit center, according to corporate vice-president Lynn Beal. Tex Trail wholesales parts for all types of trailers and distributes them throughout the US and Canada. Customers include dealers, parts retailers, and other trailer manufacturers, as well as the Big Tex chain of company-owned retail stores.
Tex Trail's home office and main distribution center is in Odessa, adjacent to the “South Plant” manufacturing complex. The parts inventory includes not only the parts for all types of utility and industrial trailers, but also for cargo and livestock trailers. At Web sites for Big Tex Trailers (bigtextrailers.com) or Tex Trail (textrail.com), customers can order online from a parts catalog by clicking on the category links or using a “search utility” link to search the entire products database and create a customized trailer parts shopping page.
How It All Happened
The story of Big Tex is a fascinating tale of youthful ambition translating into big-time success.
As a 17-year-old in 1976, Baker started building trailers for Jerry Bragg in a 30' × 40' two-bay tin building in Mt Pleasant. Every day after school and also on Saturdays, they'd crank out a standard 16' utility trailer. Working in the stultifying confines of that facility, they left a lot of sweat on the floor.
In 1977, Bragg bought property along I-30 and started Texas Bragg Trailers. Along with Baker and a few others, Bragg built a 50'×100' facility. By 1979, they were building an average of 10 trailers a week. Bragg decided to sell out to Baker, who took in a partner. In the next three years, they went from 10 a week to 100 a week.
“When I bought Jerry out, I saw that we hadn't even begun really building trailers,” Baker says. “The first thing I did was buy a forklift, a tractor, and a delivery truck, and put every employee on piecework. Everyone said we would be bankrupt within six months.”
The Move To Odessa
In 1982, Baker sold his 50% interest to his partner, headed west for 510 miles to Odessa and started Big Tex.
Big Tex started building dump trailers at a time when the primary market for a hydraulic dump was agriculture. The majority of Big Tex's dumps had metering gates on the rear and were targeted to the farm and ag industries.
“We worked our butts off trying to sell those into that industry,” Baker says. “Finally, one day we turned around and said, ‘Hey, let's throw those metering doors away, put dump doors on them and let's introduce them into the construction market.’ And it's just boomed from there.”
Baker would build trailers during the week, hook them up behind his pickup and spend weekends literally knocking on doors — just driving up and down the road, looking for dealers.
“I didn't drive all over the US so I could sell painted iron,” he says. “I did it to sell a name, a brand: Big Tex.”
The lifestyle wasn't luxurious. Money was tight. Baker often would sleep in his pickup to save time and money. One morning, parked in a driveway in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Baker's slumber was interrupted by a knock on his window. “Hey, man, you're blocking my driveway.” It was Bob Massengale, owner of Pojoaque Valley Equipment Inc, and he was trying to get to work. Baker sold him on the quality of his trailer. Massengale became a dealer that day, and remains one 20 years later.
By 1995, Baker says, Big Tex was the largest utility trailer manufacturer in the US. But the mecca of utility trailers was back in northeast Texas, the market he had vacated. He decided to put Big Tex back into that market.
“When I left Mt Pleasant to go to Odessa, people quite often told me I was stupid, that it couldn't be done and wouldn't work,” he says. “Northeast Texas had kind of become over the years — and still is today — the epicenter of utility trailer manufacturing. You take a 25-mile radius of Mt Pleasant, and there are 50 trailer manufacturers of some sort — ranging from a two-bay shop where they're building a couple of trailers a week to some of our main competitors.
“When I decided to do a major expansion and put a plant in Mt Pleasant, everybody said, ‘Why would anybody go to Mt Pleasant? You must be out of your mind. Everybody has a trailer manufacturing plant in Mt Pleasant. It's the cheapest place in the world to buy a trailer. It's everything you don't want.’ Except that I saw it a little different. I said, ‘Hey, that's the epicenter.’ There is a tremendous amount of traffic — dealers coming into this area for product.”
The Importance of Dealers
Baker says that if he had to lock in on any one factor that has contributed the most to Big Tex's success, it would be the dealer network.
“Today, while we still employ that same type of door-to-door tactic, we will sleep in a motel rather than a truck,” he says with a laugh. “But dealers tend to come to us more now than years ago. Over the years, we've demonstrated our ability to stay and lead and grow. Our products have become well-known coast to coast as carrying and holding higher resale values on the market.
“I'm not going to say it's because we're better at everything. It's just that we've been doing it longer, we have more tools to work with and more resources to provide those dealers with, coupled with our ability to take care of that dealer when he needs service. Others, during the slow times of the year, may be able to get product within a week. But all of a sudden when the busy season hits … I know dealers today that are sitting out there waiting 10, 12, 14, 16 weeks, trying to get product in. Well, by the time they get product in, the season's gone. We're forecasting for you ahead of the game. When you need product, we try to make sure we have it sitting here. We load it and here we are.”
Kelly says that during peak season, Big Tex's Mt Pleasant facility is filled with 2,000 trailers. Including the two plants in Odessa, they have between 3,000 and 4,000 units that are available for immediate shipment to the dealer network.
He says his company has not been hammered as relentlessly during the economic downturn as those that handle larger trailers.
“When you get into your over-26,000 GVW trailers, then all of a sudden things such as fuel prices, interest rates, and housing starts have a dramatic impact,” he says. “We're certainly not immune to any of those. However, as diversified as we are with our different product lines, we've been able to react and reposition ourselves.”
While most manufacturers are behind last year's totals, Baker says Big Tex's numbers actually have improved.
“This may sound a little boastful, but over the last 20 years, we've been through two recessions and we've never failed to post gains or growth,” he says. “There have been some times where we've had to work harder than others, but we've still grown.
“Even though we're ahead of last year, we're missing our projections. We didn't stay aggressive enough. We got a little bit lazy. We've got a 5% share, and we can continue to grow at the same rate we've always grown.”
The Product Line
Big Tex's list of trailers includes: cargo, concession, horse, livestock, trash, lowboy, bobcat, skid steer, tagalong, construction, landscape, car/race, bumper pull, motorcycle/ATV/four-wheeler, golf cart, aluminum gooseneck horse, and full living quarters.
As he provides a golf-cart tour of the company's sprawling site, he points out single- and tandem-axle, low-profile dumps, tandem-axle goosenecks, tandem-axle, low-profile goosenecks, Mini Tex, Lil Tex, and Mighty Tex utilities, single- and tandem-axle pan tilt and pan equipment transports, and auto transports.
As he's giving the tour, Baker sprinkles in comments such as, “Look right there. Nothing glamorous about a little 5 × 8 single-axle with a gate on it. But I guarantee they've paid a lot of bills for me.”
Pulling up to a 32' tandem dual gooseneck that is carrying 5'×10' Vanguards designed primarily for the landscaping industry, Baker says, “A guy could go in today and buy this little trailer to use in his landscaping business. The next guy could buy the same trailer to put a motorcycle runner in and haul his Harley-Davidson.”
Just don't ask Baker to name his favorite trailer.
“I like 'em all,” he says. “Everything from the big chameleon to the little 5 × 8 yellow single-axle. We've got such a varied product range that it's hard to pick and zero in on one. Coming in here is like being a kid in a candy store.”