THEY CALL THEMSELVES the "Over-the-Hill Gang," a group of trailer industry veterans who have vowed to pull an established brand name out of mothballs and make it well respected in the trailer market once again.
Rescuing Nabors Trailers from the auction block, the former employees of the company have the Mansfield, Louisiana, plant up and running again following a seven-year period in which the facility sat idle.
The gang is led by Charles Guinn Sr, president. Guinn joined the old Nabors Trailers in 1961, representing the company in East Texas and later managing the factory branch in Houston. Other "gang members" include Bill Smith, whose father Henry was the chief engineer at Nabors for 43 years; John Wilson, a former salesman at Nabors who now serves as vice-president of marketing for the new company; and Sam Derrick, chief financial officer.
The partners recently were joined by Mike Stringer, a trailer industry veteran who at age 51 is the youngest member of the group. Also playing a key role as vice-president of production and plant manager is Larry Deas. He had been assistant plant manager before the Nabors plant closed and gave up a management position with another manufacturer to rejoin Nabors.
"Larry has helped us tremendously," Guinn says. "We wouldn't be building 50 trailers per month without him."
The new Nabors Trailers of America has been producing trailers since September 1998, the first to be produced under the Nabors brand since the previous ownership ceased operations in 1991.
"Even after seven years, the Nabors brand still had a good reputation," Guinn says. "We have been surprised how many people have called for new equipment."
Nabors is back building the old company's specialty-trailers for the logging industry. These include chip vans, pole trailers, double-bunk logging trailers, and specialty lowbed trailers for transporting logging skidders in and out of the forest.
The company says it will not return to the dry-freight market.
Out of Mothballs
While the Nabors reputation survived the seven years in which the company was out of business, the plant and equipment did not fare as well.
When Guinn and his three partners bought Nabors last July, the plant, property, and equipment were in the hands of an auction company that was preparing to place the assets on the block. Guinn contacted the auction company and bought the assets "as is" before they could be auctioned.
Buying the plant was one thing. Making it capable of producing trailers was something else.
"You can imagine what it was like," Guinn says. "Nothing had been operated for seven years. A lot of the equipment had been dismantled. Take the heaters, for example. We had 85 gas heaters-all in one bay of the plant. They had been placed there because they were going to be auctioned off individually."
Pirating the Gold
To get the plant operational again, the Over-the-Hill Gang relied heavily on Stuart "Boogie" Laffitte, a direct descendant of the famous pirate Jean Laffitte. "He didn't give us any of the gold, though," Laffitte says.
Instead of spending gold, it is Laffitte's job to save Nabors some. Guinn cites how Laffitte was able to save the company more than $100,000 by upgrading the existing sprinkler system instead of replacing it.
"I really think Boogie can fix most anything," Guinn says. "Bringing the sprinkler system up to where it needed to be was going to cost a fortune, but Boogie said he could fix it for $8,000. He is an independent contractor who charges us an hourly rate. He literally has saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Solving the Puzzle
Getting the old plant operational was a challenge. Even so, the company was able to begin producing trailers two months after the resuscitation process began.
"About 88% of the stuff here didn't work," Laffitte says. "It seemed like everything was either unwired, unplumbed, or piled up. The polarity was backwards on one of the cranes, and every water pipe leaked. This plant may have built trailers before, but getting it back in shape was a startup operation. Actually, it was more like solving a jigsaw puzzle because so much of what was here had been taken apart so that it could be auctioned. But a lot of the pieces were missing."
Getting the existing equipment in shape is only part of the process, however. Some of the equipment dates back to the 1920s. The company also added machinery in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The plant's first piece of CNC equipment-an ESAB plasma cutting table-is being installed now. Boogie Laffitte is handling the installation.
"Nabors did not buy any new plant equipment during the 1980s, and the plant has been shut down for most of the 1990s," Guinn says. "The only thing that has been added to this plant in more than two decades is what we are installing now. But this equipment will make a big difference. Without it, we are building about 50 trailers per month. With it, we should be able to produce 100 per month."
The plasma is being installed on tracks that will enable it to cut beams up to 53 feet long. With cutting speeds of 300 inches per minute, Guinn estimates that the plasma and a new automated welder will allow the company to slash production time on platform trailers by 30%.
In setting up its cutting table, Nabors received help from Clement Industries in nearby Minden, Louisiana.
"They helped us through the entire plasma process," John Wilson says. "They were really accommodating. The people at Clement even shared drawings they use with their cutting table. The drawings gave us something we could modify to meet our own needs.
"Clement makes dump trailers. Although we aren't direct competitors, a customer still is a customer. We were impressed that they would spend the time that they did to help another trailer manufacturer."
In addition to the helping hand the company received from Clement Industries, Sigmanest software also helps Nabors maximize the usage of raw material. Data from the bill of material determines how the software will lay out the parts to be cut.
Louisiana State University also helped get the company going again. The LSU office of sponsored research helped the company perform feasibility studies, write a proposal for receiving grant money, and drew up the company's business plan-all at no charge.
The result of Nabors' efforts is a 180,000-sq-ft plant located on 23 acres. The plant contains three assembly lines that coincide with the company's three main trailer lines.
The chip van is Nabors' most elaborate product. In March, the company completed its first with a live floor. Nabors produces chip vans in two basic stages. The steel frame is built in one part of the plant and is then equipped with aluminum sides that are assembled elsewhere.
Other assembly lines include one for pole and bunk trailers and another for lowbeds designed to transport skidders. While each line produces widely different products, all are geared for the same industry.
"We are the only trailer manufacturer offering a full line of forestry trailers," Guinn claims. "That's where we are going to concentrate. Nabors used to make dry-freight vans, but that's not our niche. If we branch out from the forestry business, it would be to manufacture platform trailers. Once our automated equipment is ready, I think we could be competitive as a platform trailer manufacturer."
The plant currently has 91 employees, up from 30 at startup and 20 ahead of what management projected at this stage of the business plan.
Nabors does not plan to make extensive changes to its product line.
"Our designs are about the same as they were under the previous owners," says Bill Smith, engineer. "We have evaluated the product line and have made only minor changes."
One area that Nabors had been current at the time it closed was computer-aided design.
"The previous owners had the most current version of AutoCAD that was available at the time," Smith says. "We have since upgraded to Version 14."
In the Woods
The existing trailer designs that the company once again manufactures are all built for use in the woods. Nabors' folding pole trailer has a special hinge in the middle of the drawbar. By locking the trailer brakes, the trailer can load itself onto the tractor. The advantage is reduced wear on trailer tires and brakes.
The Model DBS four-inch-drop double-bunk trailer can carry more logs because of reduced tare weight-in part through the use of T-1 steel. Features include eight-inch channel over the running gear to protect all components, extended 102" wide push bumper and drag bar, and a toolbox over the upper coupler.
The plantation trailer includes many of the features of the Model DBS. Flexible bolsters, however, are designed to reduce stress cracks.
The Nabors chip vans have a bull-nose front for improved aerodynamics. Offered either in straight or possum-belly designs, the chip vans use aluminum sides mounted on a high-strength, low-alloy subframe.
Nabors is expanding its distributor network. The company currently sells its trailers through nine distributors in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. The forestry products are sold throughout the South, where the predominantly pine forest stretches from the Carolinas to East Texas.
"We do not have a lot of forest west of us," says Mike Stringer, regional sales manager. "So we mostly go east. That will change, though, when we introduce our platform trailers. We will go wherever we need to go."