History and Mystery

July 1, 2001
DICK Lehnert pulls out a brown envelope and sifts through the parched black-and-white photos inside. He sees a Baltimore Electrotype Co work wagon from

DICK Lehnert pulls out a brown envelope and sifts through the parched black-and-white photos inside. He sees a Baltimore Electrotype Co work wagon from the late 1800s, a Wilmington, North Carolina, police patrol wagon from 1901, trucks for Peter Wheat Bread, Rice's Home Delivery Baked Goods, Fairfield Western Maryland Dairy, and Iroquois Brewing Co.

He pauses with the Rice's Home Delivery photo and says, “That was our biggest business.”

Who made these trucks? Sure, it was his company, E Lehnert & Sons. But who were the employees? Who was Mr Woolfriend, whose $15.25 paycheck topped the $71.66 payroll for the week ending Dec 31, 1915? And who provided the service that netted $355.02 in what apparently was a booming week in 1898?

“It's astounding,” he says. “It's kind of hard to realize what has really happened until you look at this. You don't know what inflation has done until you get into these kind of treasures.”

Lehnert closes the log book and a thin layer of dust scatters.

He has taken this trip before and he will take it again. The photos and log books tell the fascinating story of a company that was at the forefront of the transportation business and is still around to tell about it.

But not all of the story. For Lehnert, not enough of it.

The intriguing mystery is not how the company has survived, because the family has always aggressively sought to capitalize on new markets when the existing ones dry up — taking them from horse-drawn carriages for bakeries and milk-delivery companies to tunnel wreckers and landscapers' trucks.

What Lehnert can't figure out is when it all began.

The company thought it was celebrating its 150th anniversary last year, because the city of Baltimore gave it a Century Honor Roll of Progress in 1950. But early this year, Lehnert learned that the city's operational records showed evidence that the company was in existence in 1846. But even that knowledge does not nail down the actual founding date. It could be a few years before that. Lehnert might never know.

What he does know is that this is the industry's oldest family-operated company.

“We've never had anyone question us and say, ‘We're older,’” Lehnert says. “It's not like somebody comes out and says, ‘Here's the record. You have to beat this one.’ Knapheide goes back to 1848. But we're not going to start a fight with them. I don't want to do that. They're much larger than we are.

“We're just another operating company in the transportation business. That's what it all boils down to. The advantage is that we're in Baltimore, one of the older places in the country. Nobody has been able to tell us exactly when we started. That's the cute thing.”

The oldest picture Lehnert can find is from the 1870s. He may never find an older one, but one of the daughters of his brother, chairman Ed Lehnert, is going to continue the investigation.

“The big problem we have had is we have moved too many times — five,” he says. “Each time we've moved, a lot of the records have disappeared. It's just too much. We've never had sense enough to take them and keep them in any type of special boxing.

“It's a shame in that respect. What you throw away today often becomes a collector's item. It's the old deal with trains. One of my friends collects the little model trains. One of the ones my father bought years ago was special — we find out now that nobody else even had one like it. But when we moved out of an old house, dad got rid of the model train.”

A Slice of History

Luckily, they have kept enough of the historically significant items to create a captivating time line. They still have a postcard written from a customer to the company on April 16, 1904. It reads: “Gentlemen, we are in receipt of your letter and tried to find where you are located, as all our records were destroyed and our truck needed repairing. We are sorry not to have heard earlier from you, as we placed the truck for repairs about a week ago. We will keep your letter for future reference. Yours truly, Lapsley and Brothers Co.”

Why would Lehnert keep a seemingly nondescript record of correspondence? Because Lapsley's records had been destroyed on Feb 7 in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which to this day is considered to be Baltimore's worst disaster (although some would cite the cloak-of-darkness exit of the NFL's Colts that was orchestrated by owner Robert Irsay). The fire burned for over two days and consumed 140 acres, destroying nearly every major downtown building and causing over $100 million in damages.

Part of the Lehnert's history is documented photographically in Baltimore's Museum of Industry, along with Noxema, the famed Orioles hot dog, and the Esskay Corporation, which was one of the largest independent meatpacking and processing companies on the Eastern Seaboard. The museum also contains one of the company's original truck bodies.

It's a testament to the company's historic significance. But what Lehnert really needs is his own curator.

“It'd be nice if we were a large enough company that we could say to someone, ‘OK, your job is to stay here and make sure we have everything documented,’” Dick says.

The company was started by the Mulmeyer family that had emigrated from Germany. One of the first products was a Conestoga wagon that required two months and four artisans. The wagon was sturdy enough to carry loads of three to four tons on rough roads over the Alleghenies to the Ohio Valley. That wagon remains the logo used to identify the company and its products.

One of the Mulmeyer daughters married Ernest Lehnert, a Lutheran minister, and the company ultimately became E Lehnert and Sons in the 1870s, but only one of Ernest's three sons — Emil Richard Lehnert — wanted to stay in the business.

During that time, the need for large freight wagons decreased as the railroads grew. The company added repairs to the manufacturing specialty and later became a full-service center with blacksmiths, wheelwrights, painters, letterers, and apprentices. Around the turn of the century, the company set up a service facility for the major freight companies.

With the end of World War I, motor trucks were becoming more commonplace, and the trend became to manufacture more bodies and special equipment.

Emil's only child, John Edwin, took over in the 1920s and had two sons: Charles Richard and Edwin Bergner, known now as Dick and Ed. During the Depression, their father kept the business alive with a foray into boat-building, crafting wooden performance speedboats with the same woodworking machinery he used to build wagon bodies. For a period of time during World War II, manufacturing stopped because of shortages in material and personnel. When the war ended, the company started specializing in truck equipment.

From Father to Sons

Dick always was fascinated by the business. He started in the paint shop in 1946 at age 16, learning to paint and weld. Dick finished college in 1951 and then served in Germany during the Korean War. When he came back, he was driving a Sahara Beige '53 VW Beetle with a sliding roof — which they used to call on two of the company's largest accounts as Dick prepared to take over for his father and assume the title of vice-president.

On the third day, his father handed him the Yellow Pages and said, “All the rest of the customers you need to know are here.” There were no great words of wisdom. With that, Dick assumed the helm at E Lehnert & Sons, joining Ed, who had become bookkeeper in 1950. Their father had thrown them into the water as relative babies in the business. They would either sink or swim.

It took Dick a year to sell his first truck body — to WB Cassell, which produced frozen foods and salad oil. It was a 14' body — the front section was refrigerated, the body hauled salad oil — that Dick designed and delivered.

“I was proud as punch,” Dick says. “All I had done was call on them for a year, but they had enough faith in me to let me do the whole thing. And we kept them (as a customer) for years.”

One day, Dick was driving when he saw a church bulletin board on the side of the road. He looked at the slogan — EXPERIENCE IS A VERY POOR TEACHER; THE TEST COMES BEFORE THE EDUCATION — and the message really hit home. So Dick, who had a bachelor's degree in organic chemistry from Johns Hopkins University, returned to take advertising and accounting classes.

He realized that he would have to be a self-starter. So he immersed himself in researching new business avenues and making numerous phone calls.

Breaking Through

One of his first breakthroughs came in the rendering business. In those days, scrap meat would be shipped into Baltimore by rail or semitrailer to be fabricated into cuts (with the fat combined with coconut oil and tallow at the Proctor & Gamble plant to make Ivory soap). Within two years, E Lehnert & Sons was supplying all the rendering bodies in the Baltimore area.

In the years that followed, the company found a way to tap into an eclectic array of income-generating projects.

In the 1950s, it built the city's first cruise patrol bodies.

In the 1960s, someone from the city morgue called and said, “Come on down, we need your help.”

“They were picking up dead bodies, and they smelled like the devil,” Dick says. “So I designed them a truck body that was separate from the front, and I put AC in the cab.”

In the late 1970s, Mayor William Donald Schaeffer decided he was going to attack the spiraling crime rate by lighting up the city. Lehnert was awarded the contract to provide the aerial buckets that reached those lights.

In 1979, Trans/Air was started in Pennsylvania as a division of E Lehnert & Sons. Trans/Air tapped into the market for the city of Washington DC, providing the air-conditioning units for the city's buses. Trans/Air grew rapidly into a position of power in the Mid-Atlantic states and was split off three years later into an independent company that is now run by Dick's son, Charles Richard Jr.

E Lehnert & Sons has been building tunnel wreckers for the city for over 20 years, first for the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and then for the Fort McHenry Tunnel, which was completed in November 1985, linking Fort McHenry — where Francis Scott Key wrote the words for the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812 — with the Outer Harbor. When there's an accident or fire in one of the eight lanes of the 7,200-foot-long tunnel (the widest underwater tunnel in the world) — or in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, which opened in 1957 and underwent a major rehabilitation in 1986 — the cars obviously don't back out, so a wrecker has to be designed to get in from the opposite direction and go to work.

Lehnert designed an 11' wrecker with a 96" wheel base, 40-ton wrecker boom, 400-gallon water tanks, and fire apparatus. The front has a 30-ton winch that will drag out anything that can't be moved quickly.

“It's absolutely incredible how big and bulky it is, but yet so tiny,” operations manager Dan Marsh says.

Landscaper Bodies

To capitalize on the 1990s lifestyle change, the company designed a “half-and-half,” multi-purpose body for landscapers. It's a 96" van box with a 7' by 8' stake body and 10-ton hoist. In the front part, the landscaper can carry his weed trimmers, gas cans, repair blades, rakes, and shovels. In the back, he can haul a load of mulch. It also has a hitch on it to allow for a trailer with lawn mowers.

“That industry wasn't even around much before,” Dick says. “Now people are buying big houses with big lawns. The husband and wife both work, and they want somebody to take care of it. They created a need. And when they created that need, the landscapers needed equipment to take care of it.”

Someone approached Dick recently and asked, “How come you're still around?” He told him, “Because we changed.” He believes that as long as you're willing to change, you'll survive. The company motto: “Progressing With Transportation.” E Lehnert & Sons has produced everything from covered wagons to the wheels and tires on some of Baltimore's historic cannons.

“We used to build dairy trucks for home-delivered milk,” he says. “When was the last time you had milk delivered to your home? That was done away with. We had to change or we wouldn't still be in business.

“There's many a company out there that's no longer in existence. It's one of these things where you can't keep building the same thing or doing the same thing. That's one of the things we learned a long time ago: Find an industry that's growing and try to become the supplier to it. Stay with it until it dies off and then go on to the next one.”

Invisible Momentum

Dick says the company is riding an invisible but very palpable momentum. It has a solid core of thousands of customers who have been loyal for years.

The most daunting challenge is predicting the industry's direction. That's one reason why Dick last year ran for a trustee position in the National Truck Equipment Association.

“To be up on it, you have to be constantly watching it and hope you can find out where the industry's going,” he says. “I have no idea where this industry's going right now — and I don't think anyone else does. It's changed. Ford came out with its chassis pool and now Chevrolet's not following suit. They're coming out with a completely new method of marketing. You just have to keep watching.”

A few years ago, an employee at Trans/Air gave Dick a book that has profoundly altered the way he approaches the business.

It's called The Goal — a remarkably simple title that obscures the powerful motivational and operational messages espoused in this 1985 novel by Eliyahu M Goldratt and Jeff Cox. They created a character named Alex Rogo, who runs a manufacturing plant struggling to overcome production bottlenecks created by management's erroneous suppositions and ill-advised policies, and by conflicts between the marketing, accounting, and production departments.

Rogo battles to transform the plant by analyzing — with the help of Jonah, a gracious management guru — what is happening on the shop floor and enacting far-reaching organizational change.

For Dick, the key sequence comes when Rogo approaches an employee and asks, “How many tons of steel do you put out in an eight-hour shift?” The employee says 50. So Rogo writes a huge 50 on the floor. A worker comes in for the next shift and asks, “What is that 50 for?” He is told that's what the day crew produced. So he says, “We can beat that.” So the night crew produces 55 and writes that on the floor.

“It just hit home,” Dick says. “People don't realize that it's all about throughput. Now, you've got to keep your quality up — no question about that. But can you make the quick delivery?

“Most people in today's market want quick delivery. That's why the chassis pool came into existence. The object is to be able to call up and say, ‘I want a dump truck mounted up.’ You say, ‘OK, fine and dandy.’ You just drive one to the guy. But it's not customized. The chassis pool people are only interested in turning the same thing out, plain vanilla. The customer is on the end of this thing, and he doesn't want plain vanilla. He wants a chocolate sundae with a cherry on top. So that's what we do.

“We try to customize it to give quick delivery. So if we're supplied a chassis, we'll get it out in the same time, at a lower figure, and customize it to the individual. I don't think the chassis pool system is working well. I think there's a problem. I can't define it, other than to say it appears to have raised the cost and it doesn't give the customer what he really wants. But I think the big boys up in Detroit decided they wanted to deal with one person, rather than 10 or 20.”

Counting Throughput

Dick latches onto the idea of throughput as the rate at which the entire organization generates money through sales for a product or service — representing all the money coming into an organization.

“What really counts is what goes through the shop on a daily basis,” he says. “So you don't get bogged down in trying to do one highly profitable item that ties your shop up.”

The Goal has sold more than 2.5 million copies. It has elicited reviews such as this one from Business Week: “Goldratt's system, in essence, forces production managers and workers alike to coordinate their work with an underlying principle in mind: that ‘bottlenecks’ … are what ultimately constrain the manufacturing environment.” Count Dick among the ardent devotees.

“I started reading it and couldn't put it down,” he says. “There are very few times I can say I couldn't put a book down. I had to keep reading it. You could see the whole thing unfolding. It just tied in. It's beautifully done.”

In their current building — which they have occupied for 31 years — Lehnert has 10,000 sq ft of shop space, serviced by eight bays: five for installations, three for service. It's not just efficient. It's clean.

“I hate a messy shop,” Marsh says. “I just hate it.”

Outside, the company has five acres, including 4,000 sq ft of warehouse space that is devoted mostly to snowplows, toolboxes, liftgates, hoists, and van equipment. Lehnert handles Danzer-Morrison Inc utility bodies, Tamaqua Truck and Trailer Inc dump bodies, Grumman Olson van bodies, Monroe Custom Utility Bodies Inc, Parkhurst Mfg Co Inc stake bodies, and Heil bodies.

Marsh says the 8' Danzer-Morrison toppers are a “big seller.”

“People will see one come in and say, ‘I'll take it. I need a service body. I need to get on the road right now,’” he says. “They're prepainted white, with front and rear glass and a ladder rack. We try to take away the choice in painting, because that just ties you up. They'll take it in white.”

Twenty-five percent of the company's business comes from dealer sales, 68% from retail sales, and the rest in parts. Dick says he uses the dealer business to generate new retail business.

He says direct mail and direct selling are the best techniques, and have been over the years. The old United Airlines commercial is etched in his consciousness: The owner of a company schedules a meeting with his executive staff, hands out airline tickets and says, “You need to travel more. You're not making enough personal calls. We lost a customer to someone who was.” Somebody asks him where he's going and he says, “To call on a customer.”

“That's the best darn commercial ever,” Dick says. “That's exactly the way I feel. People buy from people. They much prefer talking on a direct basis. We've picked up two good dealerships by doing that. You don't have to make a lot of calls — once every couple of months. There's no substitute for personal calls.”

Outlasting Customer Base

E Lehnert & Sons has been around so long that it has outlasted many of its customers, including Esskay, Goetz, and Sealtest Dairy. Some, like Kunzler Packing Co in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, still remain.

It's likely that E Lehnert & Sons will be around for as long as it wants to be. But who will be guiding the way? Dick is 70, Ed is 75. There are three sons, but none are interested in carrying on the family legacy as the seventh generation.

Dick has two sons: Charles Richard Jr, who runs Trans/Air Mfg, and Edwin Emerson, who has a master's degree in fine arts as a sculptor and wants to be an architect.

Ed has one son: Eric Karl, an Army Major who has a BA in chemistry and is working in research for the military.

Ed's 37-year-old daughter, Gretchen, is the president. Dick says she has become very proficient at running the company, but doesn't really enjoy running it. “And there's a secret to running it,” he says.

Her dedication is unquestioned. Last August, with Gretchen preparing to deliver a baby, Dick said, “We'll find somebody who can take over.” She said, “No, I'll be all right.” Four days after she delivered Gwen, she showed up at work with her. Dick told her she was mandated to stay home for six weeks, but she didn't listen. She put her baby in a bassinet and went about her business. And it worked out magnificently.

“I just didn't know what else to do,” she says. “My husband went back to work. It was me and her, and she's asleep. There are pictures of me with this building when it was being built. I've been on the payroll since I was 16.”

“I've got pictures of her and her brother in two Baltimore Gas & Electric buckets — they're shaking hands up in the air,” Ed says. “They were kids, but they knew how to work those buckets.”

“Yeah,” Gretchen says, “it's part of me. Basically, that's why I came back too quickly. I've been here 20 years. It's part of my identity. I don't exist elsewhere. It's not only family. It's part of me. It's a weird situation. You your family day in and day out. My dad will say to me, ‘Come visit your mother sometime. I know you don't want to see me because you see me every day. And I didn't want to go see my father either, because I saw him every day.’ That's really the way it is. But when we're here, we're working.”

Gretchen is pregnant again. She will deliver another baby when Gwen is one year old.

“It'd be nice if she had a boy this time,” Dick says, “but you never know. The cute part is that I've seen signs recently that say, for example, ‘George Smith & Daughter.’ It's no longer just ‘& Son.’”

Dick says there are grandchildren who are mechanically inclined, but the oldest is just 14, so it will be at least 10 years before he could take control.

Ed says the Lehnert name probably will always be on the company. If the company is sold, it would be sold with that name.

But to Gretchen, all the talk about the future is pointless. She glances at Dick and Ed and says, “They won't go. They're too stubborn.”

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.