AN UNUSUAL COMBINATION of manufacturing, truck equipment distribution, and municipal supply sales has helped Bonnell Industries Inc grow from a one-man repair service in 1960 into a 30-employee-strong company.
Bonnell operates from a modern 46,000-sq-ft facility on the outskirts of Dixon, Illinois, about 100 miles west of Chicago. Business is divided nearly evenly with 35% from manufacturing, 35% from truck equipment, and 30% from the sale of municipal supplies.
Now in its third generation, the family-run business continues to grow. Bob Bonnell, company president and son of its founder, has been with the company during most of its growth years. He will pass the business on to his son, Joe, who is currently the company vice-president.
"Price is not everything here," says Bonnell. "Producing a quality product is what we strive for most."
The company has been in the manufacturing business since 1962, two years after its inception. Bonnell became a full-line truck equipment distributor in 1985. Company founder Jesse Bonnell started the business doing repair work from a welding truck in 1960. He then began building plow hitches after installing another manufacturer's hitches for a local distributor for several years.
"He realized he could build the hitches himself and produce them faster than they were being supplied," says Bob Bonnell about his father. "We still strive to beat the competition on delivery today. This is how we've built a strong municipal market."
Plows and Spreaders The company manufactures four models of spreaders and three different designs of snowplows. Bonnell manufactures v-box, pickup, under tailgate, and replaceable tailgate spreaders. Snowplows are available in straight moldboard, tapered moldboard, and double-ear moldboard designs. All Bonnell snowplows can be constructed in steel or polyethylene and can be fitted with standard high carbon, carbide insert, or rubber cutting edges. Bonnell plows range in size from 9-ft to 24-ft units that are used at a nearby airport. Snowplows can be customized in a variety of models by combining different structural materials, trip styles, and cutting edges, according to Bonnell.
"The rubber cutting edge plows have a squeegee effect and are often used in conditions where a plow will encounter many manhole covers or railroad tracks," says Bonnell.
Bonnell has its own engineering staff members who use CAD software when designing Bonnell products. The company often makes adjustments to main designs per customer request. Bonnell products can be adjusted to meet other manufacturers' specs, says Joe Bonnell.
"About 50% of the plows we manufacture are customized," says Bob Bonnell. Modified push tables, running gear, and additional or fewer support ribs are some of the often requested customer modifications. Bonnell will paint its products to suit.
"Some customers want more roll on moldboards than our stock form," says Leo Vossen, national sales manager.
Parts are cut and formed for snowplows and spreaders and then stored in bins. Workers gather parts from bins and take them to an assembly areas where they are welded. After welding, plows and spreaders are sandblasted to remove impurities before painting.
"We sandblast our products because it's the only way to be sure all mill scale and oil are removed before painting," says Bonnell. "This way we don't have to worry about the EPA requirements associated with a chemical wash."
Welds are double-checked for quality by painters and in final assembly, says Bonnell. Salesmen also check the products for quality measures.
"We aren't big enough to hire a dedicated quality control supervisor," says Bonnell. "We have very quality conscious employees."
The company builds most snowplow parts itself but purchases nuts, bolts, chains, and hydraulic cylinders. In 1997, Bonnell produced 195 snowplows and about 200 spreaders. In total, 45% of company business comes from the manufacture and distribution of snow and ice control equipment.
Custom Truck Equipment Bonnell distributes various manufacturers' service and dump bodies as well as spreaders and plows for light trucks.
The company customizes much of the truck equipment it installs. For example, a nearby cement plant often needs parts fabricated for its vehicles. The plant uses Bonnell's engineering department to design and remanufacture parts that it has no drawings for, says Joe Bonnell. Shop workers at Bonnell crossover between installing truck equipment and manufacturing snow-control equipment.
"No two customers want the same thing," says Bonnell. "We buy bodies but always manufacture our own cabshields, asphalt lips, ladders, and light brackets."
Bonnell feels the company can better control quality doing the work itself.
"We will repair or get parts for anyone's product," says Joe Bonnell. "We don't have abias against working on someone else's product. We are here to help the customer."
Bonnell's main customer base comes from the counties, townships, cities, villages, and private contractors within a 100-mile radius of its facility. The company avoids very high volume jobs because it wants to continue serving its smaller customers while concentrating on quality, according to Bonnell. Although the company concentrates on smaller jobs, contracts of 14 to 15 trucks are not uncommon at Bonnell with some customers.
A new showroom at Bonnell has generated extra sales and added customer interest in display products.
"We were selling parts off the showroom floor the first day it was open," says Vossen. "It has generated many positive comments from customers."
Bonnell plans to add shelves to the showroom to further increase display item sales. Seasonal products will be rotated in the showroom throughout the year, says Vossen.
Marketing and Distribution Bonnell updated its company literature in 1996. The literature includes a new design and more comprehensive listings of company products and services. Bonnell's new sales book is more than 300 pages and includes individual specs for each product.
The company has four outside salesmen who work a 100-mile radius around Dixon. Salesmen make calls on municipalities, truck dealers, and private contractors. Salesmen often take small plows or spreaders in their trucks or trailers when making sales calls.
Bonnell places ads in trade magazines and local publications and sends members of management to trade shows. The company has been a member of the National Truck Equipment Association since 1985 and attends the national convention.
Bonnell's main distribution network is in Ohio and Illinois. The company's products are distributed by 15 distributors in the snowbelt with the capacity to reach coast to coast.
When evaluating a possible distributor, Bonnell looks at the company's sales staff and its market potential. Bonnell distributors must meet high standards.
"We generally visit the company to see that it has a market for our products and financial stability," says Vossen. "We want companies to represent us well and have success selling our products."
Bonnell delivers snowplows and spreaders to customers within a 100-mile radius with a one-ton truck and a 24-ft flatbed trailer. Deliveries of more than 100 miles are made by common carrier. In many cases, carriers that deliver dump bodies to Bonnell will backhaul snowplows and spreaders to its distributors.
"We must write specs to sell our products," says Joe Bonnell. "We don't try to sell on price alone."
Growing Up Bonnell didn't reach its current level of success overnight. Many years of hard work went into making the company what it is today. After Jesse Bonnell began building hitches in 1962, the company moved into its first building. The 5,000-sq-ft building was expanded in 1964 as the business grew to include more installation, repair, and hydraulic service. In 1962, Bonnell also began manufacturing a pull-type road maintainer that the company still manufactures today.
"The road maintainer is used on gravel roads, and has not changed much in the last 35 years," says Bob Bonnell.
In 1972, the company moved to its present location with a 9,500-sq-ft building. The following year, the company added a 5,000-sq-ft warehouse and a paint booth. Further expansion in the 1980s doubled the size of the original building and expanded the company's existing warehouse by 3,500 sq ft.
In 1994, the company added another 3,500 sq ft to its main building that included a 45 x 19 x 19-ft downdraft paint booth. The booth is equipped with a 3.5 million-Btu air makeup system, which can raise the temperature in the booth 90 degrees in four minutes. Bonnell also has the ability to custom mix paint.
Last year Bonnell grew again with new offices, warehouse space, and a showroom. The company now displays truck bodies and equipment in the showroom. The addition of more products and higher volume will likely lead to future growth for the company as the economy and available space permit, says Joe Bonnell.