A very robust recovery

July 1, 2002
DONALD Anderson and Keith Brock are standing in a field in the northeast corner of Anderson Mfg Co's property. Their eyes are drawn to the mangled, rust-stained

DONALD Anderson and Keith Brock are standing in a field in the northeast corner of Anderson Mfg Co's property. Their eyes are drawn to the mangled, rust-stained wreckage of a few of their trailers.

Even now, more than two years later, it's hard to believe what happened in their sleepy little southwest Georgia town of Camilla, where the fertile soil yields abundant crops of peanuts, cotton, and tobacco. Their minds are flooded with memories of a tornado that charged through a four-county area, leaving 18 people dead and hundreds of homes and businesses flattened.

Anderson, the company's president, and Brock, the purchasing manager, gaze to the west at a tornado-created statue that stands sentry against the azure sky. A solitary, nearly branchless tree holds a heavy piece of sheet metal from one of the company's dump trailers. It is abstract art that might last as long as the tree does.

“It just baffled me that a tornado could do that much damage in such a short time,” Anderson says. “Something that took me 12 years to build was gone in a matter of seconds.

“I was devastated at the destruction of the facilities, but confident that we could rebuild a larger and more efficient facility. Anderson Manufacturing is a stronger, more profitable business as a result of rebuilding after the tornado.”

The right numbers

And the numbers back him up. Anderson Mfg, which produces a variety of equipment, landscape, and dump trailers for commercial, residential, agricultural, and construction applications, did $7.5 million in sales in 1999. In 2001, the first full year in the new facility, the company improved to $8.4 million — an astonishing number given that the industry was down by over 40%. By the beginning of 2002, Anderson was producing 130 trailers a week, or 40 more than it was before the tornado.

Anderson, who founded the company in 1988 at age 21, has managed to turn tragedy into triumph, with the help of a dedicated 60-worker force, most of whom stayed with the company after the disaster.

“We haven't slowed down a bit, and I'm still scratching my head over that one,” he says. “The only thing I can attribute it to is that we don't just build utility and gooseneck trailers. We are diversified. We build pretty much any type of trailer.”

Anderson has prescience that most executives could only dream of. Near the end of 1999, he had the feeling that something bad was going to happen, maybe because things were so good. Too good, he remembers thinking. He can't describe this instinct he had, but he decided to act on it.

In November, he was watching The Learning Channel and saw some devastating images of tornado damage. He thought to himself, What if one of those hit the shop? He called his insurance carrier and started asking questions: “What are my limits? What if a tornado was to come through here?” The answers he heard were enough to convince him it would be wise to increase his coverage by 30%.

Valentine's Day 2000 arrived with a vengeance, ripping the heart out of the four-county area, and most devastatingly in Camilla, a town of 5,500.

At around 12:30 a.m., two F3 tornados — packing winds of 155 mph and traveling about 1/8 of a mile and 40 minutes apart — jolted residents out of their sleep in Grady, Colquitt, Tift, and Mitchell counties. Anderson, who had left work at around 7 pm, lost power at his home in Vada, about 10 miles southwest of the facility. It was the fiercest lightning and wind he had ever seen — “unreal,” as he describes it. Unreal enough to get him to turn on the scanner to monitor the storm. He finally fell off to sleep at 3 am, but was awakened 30 minutes later by a phone call from salesman Gary Batchelor.

“The building … everything … it's gone,” Batchelor said, his voice shaking.

“What do you mean, ‘it's gone’?” Anderson replied.

“There are trailers everywhere. Trailers in the road. Trailers across the street. Basically, it looks like we got run over by a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer.”

Anderson and his wife rushed to the facility, finding the road blocked. They went in by foot, using a flashlight to find their way.

His first stop was the office, where he waded through three inches of water to retrieve the main computer, ultimately learning that his records were intact. It was still, quiet and incomprehensibly dark. He couldn't see clearly, but he could see clearly enough to notice large sections of roof missing, forklifts turned over, machinery strewn all over the property.

Other employees arrived and remarked that he seemed to be gracefully accepting the damage. He didn't know what to say. Mostly, he was numb. Everyone was pretty numb. The questions percolated in their heads: Were any employees hurt? How much did we lose? Now what?

A clearer picture

When daylight broke, Anderson finally realized the full impact of the tornado's fury. It had basically come straight through the front gate, sucking everything in its path into a churning blender. Anderson walked the grounds and saw 20-ft-long sections of concrete ripped up, including the I-beams. The only thing left standing was a 20-ft section of office space that had just been built. The other recent addition, an 80"×175" manufacturing facility, was gone. A total of 70,000 sq ft of building was in splinters. It was as if “the gates of hell opened,” said Robbie Hopkins, assistant coordinator of Mitchell County's emergency management agency.

Later, the complete picture of the devastation became painfully clear. One of the employees lost his stepfather. They mourned the loss and realized it could have been even worse.

“If it had come through during the daytime, 20 or 25 deaths could have easily happened right there,” Anderson says solemnly.

As the first day wore on, the reports started coming in: Some of Anderson's 10-ton tandem dual goosenecks, weighing 5,000-6,000 lb each, were found a half-mile away. Anderson had to drag them back with a bulldozer. A 10-ton commercial-duty trailer, weighing 6500 lb, was tossed 150 yards, turning it into a pretzel. Two 5000-lb trailers were found in a wooded area a half-mile away.

“There are probably still trailers out there in the woods,” Anderson says.

From a business standpoint, the tornado couldn't have happened at a worse time. Anderson, anticipating the busy season, had more than 300 trailers in finished inventory. He was able to salvage and sell only 30 of them. Only 50 of 500 tires in his supply were not damaged.

“Before this happened, if somebody had asked me what would happen if a tornado hit your facility, I'd have thought it would be the roof being torn off or half the building coming down,” he says. “But you would not believe the destruction. We had to replace 15 of the 20 welding machines. We had them mounted above the floor, and once you take a welding machine and drop it, it's useless.

“You had to have been here and walked through. Most people could not fathom the amount of destruction.”

What really puzzled Anderson was the pattern of the destruction. A 3000-lb ironworker was picked up and thrown down and trailers were destroyed. But 60' away, a stack of five gooseneck trailers survived intact. This much Anderson knew: The tornado had some staying power. An employee's canceled check was found 80 miles away.

Looking back

The day after the tornado touched down, Anderson was sitting in what was left of his office. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and carloads of stunned onlookers streamed by. The enveloping darkness was filled with bursts of light from camera flashbulbs, turning his property into another stop on a rather macabre tour package.

Anderson couldn't help but think back to the humble beginnings of his dream. Back in 1988, he was employed as a welder, but he was weary of working for a company when he knew he had the entrepreneurial savvy to start his own.

He had built a few tow dollies and pulled them around to dealers in a bid to sell them. Most of them told him they weren't interested in them, but would be interested in buying some single- and tandem-axle trailers in the 16'-and-under range. The market was there, since customers in southwest Georgia had to wait up to six weeks for dealers in the area to receive a load of trailers.

So Anderson started his own company and produced single-axle trailers.

“If I could tell them that next week they could have a 10' trailer painted John Deere green, with 2' expanded metal sides, I could basically get their business,” he says. “That's pretty much how I started out — catering to dealers within a 75-mile radius.”

Total business in that first year: $75,000.

His closest competitor was 40 miles away in Tifton. He figured that he could double his business by adding tandem-axle trailers, and he was right: He added four new dealers. When he moved the company to a 14-acre spread of land about 10 miles to the south and built a new facility with an assembly-line process, business really took off with the addition of goosenecks and dump trailers to his product line.

“The first couple of years, every bit of money I made, I put right back into the facility,” he says.

Getting back to work

While he lost all of it, he also realized that it was nothing but bricks and mortar.

“To me, I still had my most valuable asset — my employees,” he says. “Without them, I really wouldn't have a business.”

A few of them decided not to return. Of the ones who did, 25% filed for unemployment and 75% were utilized in the actual cleanup, starting five days after the tornado, courtesy of Anderson's loss-of-income insurance. They acquired some scrap-metal dumpsters and went to work, supported by the Red Cross, which came in three times a day for two weeks, serving food and providing water.

He says the manual labor was nothing compared to the emotional stress of dealing with his insurance carrier. According to Anderson, the carrier claimed that it had no record of the changes he had made to his policy three months earlier, and also that his agent could not handle commercial policies.

“We had to inventory every conceivable part,” he says. “We had to dig parts out of the mud and count them. They were trying to prove I was underinsured. They bog you down to get you to take whatever they offer to you. I wasn't going to let that happen.”

In the end, Anderson was reimbursed for $1.5 million in damages.

Even before the tornado hit, Anderson had drawn up a rough sketch of the expanded facility he was intending to build in a few years, including a 150"×300" extension to the existing main manufacturing facility, which would allow him to do everything under one roof.

He turned to Georgia Tech's Economic Development Institute for help with the reconstruction. Field engineers assisted with the plant design of assembly lines, adding one to the previous three. They also helped develop bills of material, which helped the purchasing department to order only required material. Two new buildings were planned, one for assembly and the other for cutting and storage of steel. Anderson re-started its manufacturing process 90 days after the tornado. And in January 2001, the buildings were completed by Tyson Steel of Doerun, Georgia, and a multitude of contractors at a cost of $1.7 million.

Art Ford, south regional manager for the institute, says the main priority was developing a lean manufacturing system that would reduce throughput time and put Anderson in a situation where it wasn't building inventory, but instead building the order.

Lean manufacturing

“Donald's a hard worker and a very knowledgeable person,” Ford says. “He had an idea of what he wanted to do. We just provided some guidance to help him tweak his ideas. He's a very astute businessman. He's an example of somebody who tries to put out a quality product and takes the time and effort to get the equipment he needs. He's able to deliver what they want when they want it.”

Here are some significant changes and how they have impacted the company. Anderson believes they can help a company that wants to rebuild and upgrade, even if it's not after something as devastating as a tornado.

  • On the assembly line, trailers now move from station to station via chains (four per trailer) and hooks mounted on overhead rails. Previously, forklifts were used to move them. The versatility now allows Anderson to switch lines quickly. For example, two weeks before Trailer Body/Builders' visit, Anderson had shut down the gooseneck line for a day to build another style of trailer.

    “I never liked the idea of hanging trailers, because you're afraid of a chain breaking,” Anderson says. “But we worked with Georgia Tech, and with this system, you'd have to have two chains break on the front and the back. You can take any one of those chains away and the trailer's not going to fall. I figured it's pretty safe. These are good, high-strength, high-grade chains.”

  • Downdraft paint booths were built into the assembly lines, eliminating queue time and improving environmental safety. Anderson has tripled its capacity from one to three booths. Paint is pumped in with manifold systems and colors can be changed inside the booth.

  • Anderson previously had no overhead cranes, but has added two (4 and 7½ tons).

  • They are running 480-volt, three-phase electricity, which is more economical and efficient. All power lines are underground, eliminating exposed wires.

  • Sheet steel and angle irons are cut as required by assembly utilizing CNC cutting programs that minimize scrap metal.

Cutting scrap

Working on the SigmaNest program in his office, plant manager Steve McLendon says: “This program will tell us how much scrap we get off each sheet, cutting times, how much it cost us to cut that sheet. If you don't get a handle on the scrap with small pieces, the deficit gets much larger when you go to larger pieces.”

Says Brock, “You've got to know your true costs. I think a lot of small manufacturers really don't know what they are.”

  • Anderson paved virtually the entire area around the buildings, which has helped significantly in getting forklifts into the fab shop, reduced wear, and eliminated dust that damaged new paint jobs. Perhaps even more critically, trucks can now travel the entire circumference to unload steel. Before, there was only one way in and one way out, which created a bottleneck. The steel arrives bundle-cut from the mill, so there is no stacking by hand.

  • Steel is stored inside, and it's next to the jigs so that workers don't have to walk 20 feet to get it. It is moved around with a trolley system on all three manufacturing lines.

    “We used to have to go outside,” McLendon says. “Now everything's inside. We can inventory quickly. And in the summertime, the steel isn't so hot that you can't carry it, and in the winter it's not so cold that you freeze your hands. Guys will pick up an axle a whole lot quicker if it's in moderate temperatures than if he knows he's going to burn his hands.”

  • McLendon's office was built in the main manufacturing facility and elevated. “If he sees somebody getting low or needing a part, he can call on the radio and it'll be there before the employee needs it,” Anderson says. The space below the office is used to house specialty parts under lock and key.

  • The ceiling is 24" high, 6" higher than the old facility and the building is insulated, providing a cooler work environment. Lighting is halogen, as opposed to fluorescent.

  • The entire shop was piped for argon gas so that the workers don't have to change bottles.

  • The shop was fitted with 500-600-lb barrels of wire so that the workers don't have to change wire.

    “I know a lot of manufacturers say they don't want to put that much money in spools, but it pays for itself in increased production,” Anderson says.

  • Zirconium tips are now used on robotic welders. Anderson says they last five to 10 times longer.

  • A surge protector is saving 15% on welding gas. Called the GASAVER and produced by Smith Equipment, it eliminates wasted gas during torch start-up/shut-down and between flame applications, and also saves time by eliminating repeated torch adjustment. Normally, when a MIG gun is turned off, pressure builds up and is then released as a burst when the trigger is pulled. GASAVER controls the flow rate so that burst of gas is not released at the beginning of the weld. It is particularly cost-effective with the kind of short welds that Anderson uses. The GASAVER attaches to the MIG trolley feeder.

  • A retirement plan was started, along with an incentive program that gives a bonus to each production line.

  • The plant receives instant weather reports via radio from the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration's Storm Watch. If there are any severe storms headed toward Camilla, an alarm will go off.

Increasing production

Through these changes, Anderson has increased its weekly output to 130 trailers from 90, with the addition of only five new employees. Other benefits: a 27% increase in productivity; virtual elimination of overtime; and improved working conditions.

“There's less labor tied up in each trailer, so it's helped cut labor costs a few percentage points,” Anderson says. “It's a lot easier on my employees now, with the way we have it set up. It has helped increase production, but the biggest thing is that it has helped morale. They don't have to work as hard to get the production. I think that's a key to any business. We try to treat employees well. We pay a decent salary.”

Anderson estimates that the 90-day shutdown in 2000 cost the company $4 million in sales. That's a rather sobering number, but the final sales total for the year — $5 million — was a pleasant surprise to Anderson, given what he was staring at early that Valentine's Day morning.

“If you had shown up February 14, you'd have sworn it'd take six months just to clean the place up,” he says. “It shows what a group of people can accomplish if they put their minds to it.”

And now, because of the company's robust recovery, Anderson in early May completed the acquisition of a 90,000-sq-ft facility. Combined with 10 acres of adjacent land that Anderson had bought from the owner of a home that was destroyed by the tornado, the company now has 41½ total acres. Anderson says the 90,000-sq-ft facility will allow the company to increase its production by 30%. Anderson will continue to build two or three product lines at the present facility and move dump and heavy-equipment trailers to the new location.

“Right now, we're trying to run too many trailers through finishing, and it's bottlenecking,” Anderson says. “If you can have a trailer in stock or get it to a dealer in a quick turnaround time, that's the key. They don't have to tie their money up. We want to do over-the-road, semi-type trailers, but we can't do it in this facility.”

Anderson Mfg isn't defined by the tornado that wiped it out.

It is defined by what it did after that.

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.