Mickey completes its first century

Jan. 1, 2005
WITH the ringing in of the New Year, Mickey Truck Bodies completed a yearlong celebration that commemorated its first 100 years in business. When Will

WITH the ringing in of the New Year, Mickey Truck Bodies completed a yearlong celebration that commemorated its first 100 years in business.

When Will Franklin Mickey opened his High Point, North Carolina, blacksmith shop in 1904, wagons delivered cargo. Commercial trucks would come later.

The new blacksmith shop did not generate nearly the stir that the two brothers from Ohio caused in North Carolina by successfully flying an airplane at Kitty Hawk a few months earlier.

Orville and Wilbur left North Carolina a long time ago, yet the blacksmith shop that Will Mickey started remains — but in a form that Will Mickey could never have envisioned.

The company's product line has become a little more complex since Will Mickey was forging horseshoes and repairing wagon wheels. The company manufactures a wide range of specialized truck bodies and trailers, including ambulances, hazardous material bodies, rescue vehicles, beverage bodies and trailers, along with refrigerated and dry-freight vans.

For Will Mickey, repetitive work may have been shaping steel with multiple blows with a hammer. But two generations later, much of today's repetitive operations are being performed with robotic welding and CNC fabricating equipment. Although the advantages of such equipment are well proven, buying the new technology was a major commitment.

“Our turret press cost us more to buy than the plant did when Mr Mickey bought it,” says Dean Sink, president and CEO. “There was some concern about how much money our new Amada was going to cost, but it paid for itself within a year.”

When Carl Mickey, the founder's son, began working for the company, it had only four employees. Today, the company exceeds that in the number of locations it operates. In addition to its manufacturing plants in High Point, the company has service centers in Bloomington, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Howell, New Jersey; Ocala, Florida; and Thomasville, North Carolina. But beyond that, Mickey Truck Bodies is producing products globally through a series of manufacturing partnerships. Mickey has international partners in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Hungary, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

All in the family

Throughout its 100 years in business, Mickey Truck Bodies has had several names but has always had family ownership.

Will Mickey started the company near the turn of the 20th century, and his involvement with the company spanned into the 1950s. Carl Mickey worked at the company after school and during the summers before becoming a fulltime employee in 1938. Carl Mickey is still involved with the company, but his son-in-law Dean Sink and son Carl Jr are responsible for daily operations. They, too, have had lengthy careers with the company. Both have been part of Mickey Truck Bodies for more than 20 years.

Under the family's guidance, Mickey Truck Bodies has grown from a small blacksmith shop to an international manufacturer of truck bodies. Here are some of the steps the company took along the way:

  • early 1900s: general blacksmithing, including sharpening picks, axes, and rotary lawnmower blades.

  • 1920s: Adding wooden floors and sidewalls to pickup trucks, making them better suited for transporting ice and produce.

  • 1930s: began producing entire truck bodies, primarily for furniture delivery. The open-top design relied on a tarp to protect the furniture from the elements.

  • 1940s: began manufacturing enclosed steel bodies. National Bohemian, a beer distributor in Baltimore, Maryland, was one of the first major customers for this design. The first plant was constructed — a 5,000-sq-ft building.

  • 1950s: The Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company begins distribution into the Southeast and selects Mickey as its exclusive source for truck bodies. Mickey develops its design in which the truck frame is dropped from behind the cab to the rear axle. In the 1950s, Mickey employed approximately 20 people. Meanwhile, the company designed furniture delivery bodies with a deck over the cab. Using trucks instead of railroads, furniture manufacturers could get their product to market in half the time.

  • 1960s: Mickey introduces its roll-up door design for beverage bodies. The company opens its present plant in High Point.

  • 1970s: the first beverage trailers were introduced using a combination of steel and aluminum. The company also built its first aluminum beverage body. The building that serves as company headquarters was built, as was today's van body plant. Export sales begin, with bodies going to Canada, Panama, and Saudi Arabia.

  • 1980s: Steel beverage bodies, which Mickey offered for 40 years, are no longer produced. New designs include ambulances, all-aluminum beverage bodies and trailers, and specialized bodies for transporting batteries and hazardous materials. The company also opens its first remote location to service, repair, and refurbish its products.

  • 1990s: expanded the service/refurbishing concept to five locations. Production changes included a 33% increase in the capacity of the beverage body plant, an expansion program for the van body plant that would double van body capacity over five years, and completion of a 12,000-sq-ft paint facility. Also during the 1990s, the headquarters building was expanded by 10,000 square feet to provide more room for engineering and research and development departments. Export markets expanded to include Europe and South America. By the end of the decade, more than 500 people were employed at Mickey Truck Bodies.

  • 2000s: Production enhancements include a computer-controlled foaming press for insulated van bodies, an Almega robotic welder, and a new CNC plasma cutter. Product changes include refinements to its line of full-service vending bodies, introduction of the Thermal Bear refrigerated beverage trailer, the new Route Saver trailer, and a cutaway van body.

A look ahead

Despite its 100-year history, management prefers looking into the future. But it will do so using the principles that have taken the company to where it is today.

“Even now, we aren't interested in being the biggest,” Sink says. “We just want to be the best. That's a philosophy that goes back to the early days of this company.”

Management plans to continue placing value on relationships — with customers and with employees.

“Our employees understand that ultimately it is our customers who pay the bills — management just signs the checks,” Sink says. “That says a lot about the types of products we must produce and how we serve our customers. It means that each of us must provide a good, solid day's work. But we can't expect our employees to provide that level of work without having some fun, too. We have fun here, and we let our employees know how much we appreciate them. That's why 25% of our employees have been here 10 years or more. We are going to need their expertise to carry us through our next 100 years.”

A blacksmith grows up

Looking back over nine decades of bending metal

By Carl Mickey
(as told to Bruce Sauer)

I WAS never interested in anything other than this business. As a kid, my father had a blacksmith shop. I worked in it summers and after school. It was a four-man organization, and I was a “go-fer.”

The place had a dirt floor, and it was a great job. I really enjoyed it.

I helped a black fellow on the forge. His name was Uncle Jewel. We called him Uncle Jewel because he was a good man. He called me “Sonny.” When he was a kid, he had been a slave.

We were working on farm wagons and repairing anything, anything on the farm. We were a repair shop, a good little shop.

Back then, all of the blacksmith shops were close to the feed stores. People would come in to buy feed, and then they would go to the blacksmith shop to get repairs.

We repaired a lot of wagon wheels. The wheels were wood with steel tires. When we began to build truck bodies, we would take those used wagon tires to reinforce the corners of the bodies. That was our transition from the wagon business into the truck body business.

All of our truck bodies at first were made of wood. We made a lot of different bodies, but High Point was a furniture town, and we made a lot of our bodies for the furniture industry.

I was born in 1920, and the Great Depression started with the stock market crash in 1929. When the economy collapsed, Papa lost the house, the car, and the blacksmith shop. Everything.

Papa had to move his business around. During that time, we moved to three different locations. He took in a partner because he didn't have any money. The partner was able to put him into another shop behind a house. The company was called Mickey & Matthews Repair Shop.

All of this happened before I went into the service. I was about 21, and I had a lot of big ideas. I didn't want anyone telling me what to do, and I was able to buy out Mr Matthews. We agreed on $200, and I paid him $5 to $10 per month. I changed the name to Mickey Body Manufacturing Company.

I didn't know how to price stuff. Since I didn't know, I asked the owner of a welding shop how he did it. He told me to double my labor rate and to mark up the material whatever I could. Labor back then was 50 cents per hour.

That's what I did, and I started losing customers. But I stayed with it, because I knew we had a good blacksmith shop. My idea was that if someone wouldn't pay me what the job was worth, they could take their business elsewhere. I never wavered. If someone didn't want to pay the price, I would send him someplace else. I knew I was doing right. The old boys that I sent them to aren't in business anymore.

My first shop was 30 ft × 40 ft. The next one was 50 ft × 100 ft, and it had a cement floor. It was the first shop I ever had that had a cement floor. But we didn't have the money to buy any machinery, so I made my own at night and on weekends. Hydraulic press brake, hydraulic punch, a good air compressor, an apron brake. They are still here.

The air compressor I made had an automobile engine. Man, you could spray with it as well as you can with the ones they have now. Used to, you couldn't buy air compressors, so we made one.

My theory was that if you didn't have the money for machinery, you would build it. You could use that machinery to make money to buy new equipment.

We used that equipment to build wooden produce bodies, flatbeds, stake bodies — anything anybody wanted.

I used to be able to tell whether we were making money or not just by looking at a few things:

  • Dust on material. If it sits there long enough to gather dust, you know it's not moving.

  • What people are doing when you first see them. Are they working, or are they talking?

  • Good housekeeping. It promotes quality. If your place looks like a junkyard, people will behave like they are in a junkyard. But people don't so much as drop a cigarette on the floor when they walk into a well-kept shop. If you take care of the little things, the big things usually take care of themselves.

Business was growing, and we bought some acreage here by the cloverleaf. Didn't need it at the time, but I bought it. After we found out that the acreage was going to be too small, I bought another place. That was about 1960, somewhere in there.

I never did care about office work. The only time I could be a good manager was when my back was to the wall. Back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, we went broke. We owed more than our inventory and receivables, and that makes you flat broke.

Our accountant told me not to worry, that we had been in business a long time. All we had to do was declare bankruptcy, and we could work things out. But my pride wouldn't let me do that. We owed everybody. I promised my creditors that I would pay them, but I didn't know when. They told me they understood.

In two weeks, we cut $1 million in overhead. We closed one building down because it was producing truck bodies that we were selling for less than the cost of labor and material. I told the salesmen of those bodies to go to their customers and help them find where they could get a truck body, because we weren't going to build those kind any more.

When we closed that plant down, we rented the building to Hatteras Yachts. We rented the office to the City of High Point.

I went through the entire company asking myself, “If I didn't have this, would I buy it? If I didn't have this employee, would I hire him?” When you go through the shop like that, you are surprised at how you can clean house. We aren't talking about whether an employee is a good man or not, but whether or not we had to have him.

We cut a lot, and what we kept had to run smoothly. I was always looking at our jigs and equipment, and I fixed them when the shop wasn't in production. Carl Jr was just a kid back then, but he and I would work Sunday mornings at the plant. We would work until it was time to go to Sunday school. After Sunday school was over, we would come right back to work. That's how sincere we were about getting this place back to where it needed to be.

When I was broke, it put a knot in my stomach. But I always knew we could pull it out, because the customers weren't mad at us. It was me that was mad at myself. It took about a year before we were able to get everybody satisfied.

When we were members of the Truck Body & Equipment Association, there were 11 members building beverage bodies. Today, none of them are doing business under the same ownership. But we are still running our own company. We don't let any stock get out, and no one who doesn't know a thing about running this company can come in here and start telling us how to run it. I've turned everything over to my son-in-law, Dean Sink, and my son Carl Jr. When we go to lunch, that's the board.

Now somebody wants to buy this place every day. I'm exaggerating, but I do get offers about once every week. One of the first things I told Dean and Carl Jr was that before you ever consider selling, think about this: you are happy; you are your own boss; you aren't making a mint of money, but you're comfortable. What else would you do if you sold it? Are you going to be happy just sitting there counting money? No, you would be unhappy for the rest of your life.