Making many vans one at a time

Jan. 1, 2004
THERE may be more than one way to skin a cat, but there are more than 130 ways to build a van trailer. That's how many standard models Kentucky Trailer

THERE may be more than one way to skin a cat, but there are more than 130 ways to build a van trailer.

That's how many standard models Kentucky Trailer offers. Of course, each of them can be customized if that's what the customer wants.

Building them one at a time may not be the dream scenario for most plant managers, but it can be an effective approach to the market place. As it does every year, the Louisville, Kentucky, manufacturer will build enough of these low-volume orders to rank high on Trailer/Body Builders' annual list of top trailer manufacturers.

“The more irons you have in the fire, the more choices you have to pursue when the market slows down,” says Larry Hartog, president. “People know us as a moving-van manufacturer, but we shouldn't be pigeonholed as that. We are involved in a lot of markets, and we are looking for more — niche markets that may not be big, but have the potential to be profitable.”

In 2002, Kentucky acquired Trailer Technologies of Walled Lake, Michigan, a company that arguably produces van trailers that are even more specialized than those that Kentucky manufactures. These include auto transporters and expandable display trailers.

“For several years prior to the purchase, we had been selling them trailers for them to customize,” Hartog says. “It was a way for us to enter the high-end custom trailer market without alienating similar customers.”

It was Kentucky's first acquisition, and it required the company to make several changes.

“The biggest challenge for us was managing a remote location,” Hartog says. “We are out in the plant constantly here, walking around and seeing things that need to be done. We don't have that luxury when the plant is hundreds of miles away. We had to become more disciplined and more clear in the way we drew lines of authority. Also, we had to make a conscious effort to export our company culture — to do things in Walled Lake the way we do them in Louisville. That's something we never had to do before.”

In 1936, Kentucky Trailer was known as Kentucky Wagon Works. Its campus produced a variety of products and brands, including Dixie Flyer automobiles and Old Hickory trucks.

When the R C Tway family bought Kentucky Wagon Works out of bankruptcy that year, the company was still building wagons. The big attraction for the family was not the company's product line, but rather its railroad connection to the coalmines of eastern Kentucky.

World War II changed the company significantly. It became a major supplier of truck trailers for the war effort — eventually specializing in vans.

“We used to build a lot of different types of trailers,” Hartog says. “As overall demand increased, we did not expand — we just narrowed the types of trailers we manufactured.”

That is changing. The company's current chairman, Robert C Tway III, has turned the day-to-day operation of Kentucky Trailer over to the leadership team he put in place when he retired in 1997.

“We've got a new look now,” Hartog says. “We aren't getting rid of our old image. We're just expanding our capabilities and are beginning to make our customers aware that we have a broader product line.”

New projects

Examples of the broader product line Kentucky offers:

  • Low-profile vans. For the first time in decades, Kentucky built an order of van bodies last year. The order, built in conjunction with Marmon Herrington, used a front-wheel drive conversion combined with an axleless suspension to drop the van body floor to just above the ground, making it easy to load refuse containers for the City of Los Angeles.

  • Art transporter. How do art collections get moved from Point A to Point B? Kentucky built an insulated, climate controlled trailer designed to keep artwork at a uniform temperature and humidity throughout the trailer.

  • Golf cart transporter. This specialized van trailer acts like an auto transporter, providing a series of ramps and three separate levels for carrying golf carts between PGA events. A 50-ft trailer can haul 30 golf carts. The 53-ft version can carry 34.

  • A 74-ft van for transporting van components. Ford Motor Company needed a trailer for shipping bodies for Econolines from one plant to another. The trailer was equipped with an automated conveyor system for loading and unloading the parts. Total market: 12.

Love it or leave it

It takes a special type of person to engineer the products Kentucky makes, Hartog says.

“You either love it here or you don't,” he says. “If you are the type of engineer who wants to design something and then see a million of your design manufactured, this is definitely not your place. Whether it's the engineer or the guy in the plant, our employees have to be the type that enjoys working on multiple projects at the same time.”

The same holds true for those who produce Kentucky trailers. They are people who enjoy doing something different every day, Hartog says. “We can't just hire someone to do the same job over and over. To do what we do, we have to employ skilled craftsmen. Our engineers respect that, and they work together with our plant personnel to plan the production of the custom trailers we manufacture.”

Kentucky uses AutoCAD 2000 to design its trailers and MAPICS to control production flow. But for a company that manufactures more than 1,000 trailers annually, Kentucky has relatively few sophisticated jigs, fixtures, and machine tools.

“There are really amazing things about our plant,” Hartog says. “One is the lack of automation. The other is the flexibility of our supervisors to adjust production to match our order flow. A lot of times, our supervisors work next to those they supervise. We only have two final inspectors. Everyone takes ownership of their work.”

OEM service shop

In 2001, Kentucky opened a service facility a few miles from its plant. The five-acre site also is home for the company's 15-van rental fleet. The repair operation and the rental fleet both operate under the Kentucky Trailer Services (KTS) banner.

“A lot of our customers bring in a trailer for us to service when they pick up a new trailer,” Hartog says. “These usually are customers based fairly far from Louisville. It's important to them that we do their service work. Having a dedicated facility has helped us grow our service business.”

The building has 10 service bays and employs between 10 and 15 people. Two of the service bays have pits, which makes it easier to service the underside of trailers — particularly those such as moving vans that have limited ground clearance.

The shop also is equipped with scaffolding that makes roof repair safer and more efficient.

Until the company opened KTS, Kentucky repaired trailers in its plant. The new building, located off the main campus, frees up space that had been used for repairs. It also can be used for special projects such as the recent truck body order for ultra-low-floor trucks.

“We stock parts for all major brands of trailers,” says Rick Richardson, manager. Because of its affiliation with Kentucky Trailers, KTS has a somewhat different mix of products in its inventory. One of its best sellers — doors for belly boxes.

A lot of parts for moving vans flow through the company's new service operation, and a lot of moving vans come out of Kentucky's manufacturing plant. But management wants the public to think of the company as far more than a moving van manufacturer.

“Don't pigeonhole us,” Hartog says. “We are more than that. Especially if our customers approach us early with their ideas, we can provide them with a custom solution that is also cost effective.”

What's new at Kentucky Trailer

  • New logo
  • Bought Trailer Technologies, Walled Lake MI
  • New facility added to its 130-year-old site
  • Developing a marketing program to communicate the breadth of models the company produces
  • Transitioning from family-owned to professionally managed company.
  • Kentucky Trailer Services — a company-owned repair shop.