This year will be a time of celebration for Pitts Enterprises in 2011, and not just because business has picked up sharply.
The trailer manufacturer, based in Pittsview, Alabama, is celebrating 35 years of doing business. That in itself is noteworthy for trailer manufacturers coming out of the worst market in a generation. But the Pitts folks are mere whippersnappers compared with Dorsey Trailer, the venerable trailer manufacturer that Pitts acquired in 2007. This year will mark a solid century since the Elba, Alabama, company was started.
For Pitts Trailers, the ride has been fairly steady. Yes, there have been ups and downs, but the Pitts family has owned and managed the trailer manufacturing operation for all 35 years. Andrew Pitts owned a trucking company when a local logger asked him to build a logging trailer back in 1976. Pitts did, and the trailer manufacturing business took off from there. The company soon added heavy haulers and other specialty trailers to its product lineup, eventually growing into a mid-sized trailer manufacturer serving several niches.
Jeff Pitts, Andrew's son, joined the company in 1982. After 20 years with the company, Jeff Pitts bought the operation from his father 20 years later. Pitts Enterprises has continued to grow.
By contrast, the last few decades have not been kind to Dorsey. For more than a half century, the company was a leading trailer manufacturer and the largest employer anywhere near Elba, a small town in southeast Alabama. But a variety of factors forced multiple changes in management, including plant closures.
Yet despite its recent rocky past, many of the company's employees have remained loyal and were ready to return to work when Pitts Enterprises decided to breathe new life into the shuttered operation.
Reasons for the decision
Acquiring Dorsey made sense for Pitts. His reasons include:
- Complementary product line. Pitts Enterprises first made its mark building logging trailers. However, the company did not have a chip trailer. Acquiring Dorsey would give Pitts a proven product with a history of service in the forestry industry. Additionally, Dorsey's line of platforms could be combined with Pitts' to provide a full lineup of drop decks, flatbeds, extendables, and other specialty trailers.
- Custom van trailers. Pitts has no illusions of competing head-on with the trailer industry's high-volume van trailer manufacturers. However, his research has indicated a need on the part of independent trailer dealers for lower-volume vans built with a high level of custom content.
- Proximity. The Dorsey plant in Elba is only 98 miles from the Pitts Enterprises home in Pittsview, Alabama, making it relatively easy to administer.
- Reputation. In spite of its struggles, the Dorsey name remained strong. “We found that the end customer continues to consider Dorsey trailers to be a solid product,” Pitts says.
- Been there, done that. Pitts had a positive earlier experience. At the time Dorsey became available, Pitts had recently acquired the Dynaweld brand and set up a plant in Columbus, Georgia.
“It's a good fit,” Pitts says. “Interestingly, one of the first trailers Dorsey made was a logging trailer. That's the product that gave us our start.”
Pitts bought the assets of Dorsey in July 2007. By October of that year, the plant was building trailers — including refrigerated vans.
“We hit the ground running,” Pitts says. “We were able to hire a lot of experienced Dorsey employees. Plus, our experience with Dynaweld really helped. We acquired the Dynaweld name in 2006 at a time when the market was really good. We opened a plant 25 miles away, and transferred some of our people to start the Dynaweld plant. The result was that we got that plant up and running seamlessly.”
The downturn had something to say about how long that momentum would last.
“The Dynaweld plant went really well, and we thought we could do the same with Dorsey,” Pitts says. “But the market was starting to soften, even as we were trying to ramp up. The downturn did have a silver lining, though. It has given us the ability to ramp up slowly and to get our processes in place, to establish our way of doing things and get our company culture in place.”
Pitts says the company has about 100 employees in Elba now and has been hiring steadily in order to keep pace with increasing demand.
“Our backlog doubled between October and December,” Pitts says. “And things have really been picking up since December. One other silver lining from the downturn has been the availability of people who want to work. Some of the ones we have hired need to be trained, but we also have been able to hire a lot of people with experience building trailers.”
Trailer dealers were a key to the success Dorsey enjoyed during its prime, and Pitts is looking to dealers to market the brand — particularly refrigerated and platform trailers.
“We have talked to a lot of dealers,” says Trey Gary, vice-president and chief operating officer of the Dorsey operation. “A lot of dealers are telling us that they need a dry-van and reefer line.”
“We have had to rebuild the dealer network, but we are committed to reconnecting the Dorsey brand with dealers,” Pitts says. “We aren't going after the big three trailer manufacturers, but we want to offer dealers a trailer that they can compete with — trailers built the way the customer wants.”
Pitts cites examples of the highly customized vans that Dorsey manufactures, including mobile welding classrooms, trailers that serve as offices, and living quarters trailers for migrant workers.
“We have had success getting solid dealers on board,” Pitts says. “Some people have been watching and waiting to see what we are going to do. We have made it through one of the toughest markets ever, and we are getting traction now.” ♦