THE EMPLOYEES of Dynaweld Inc were stunned. The company's president had just died in a plane crash during the week of the Mid-America Trucking show.
Repercussions from that fateful day in March 1998 continued to rock the trailer manufacturer for more than two years, as the company struggled without John Bauer's leadership.
In October 2000, the Bauer family sold the business. The new owners only had the company a brief time, closing the doors of its Aurora, Illinois, operation following bank foreclosure.
“In early December, the bank called me to help collect open receivables,” recalls Chuck Vaccarello, who had served for years as Dynaweld's chief financial officer and operations manager. “I did that until the first week in January.”
By January 2001, an investment group had been formed to acquire the assets of the drop-deck and tag-along trailer manufacturer. The group was the successful bidder at the auction, and it hired Vaccarello to serve as president of the new venture — American Trailer Manufacturing Company.
The challenges for the group, however, were only beginning. First on the list was finding a place to call home. Management's original idea was to lease half of the 160,000 square feet that Dynaweld had used. However, the building's landlord had already lined up another tenant for the entire building and was not interested in American Trailer's proposal to only lease half of the property. Furthermore, the new tenant was in a hurry to move in, and American had only six weeks to gather up its newly acquired assets and move on.
The group's lead investor found the property that eventually became home for American Trailer. Formerly used for hydroponic agriculture, the building was vacant. It had no overhead cranes, no suitable electrical system, no compressed air. But it did have space — the right amount of vacant space — and American quickly went to work converting the facility into a trailer manufacturing plant.
Located in DeKalb, Illinois, a little further out Interstate 88 from Chicago than the Dynaweld location in Aurora, the facility took shape quickly.
“We got out of Aurora in six weeks,” Vaccarello says. “A O Smith, a company down the street from us, rented us space to store trailers loaded with steel, along with some finished goods. They had a fenced secured yard that our new location did not have at the time. We put tarps on the trailers and left them there four months while we got the plant ready.”
Perhaps the biggest project involved in converting the building was the crane system. Because the foundation was unable to support the load, the company had to pour concrete pods for crane supports.
“It took from June to August just to install the cranes,” Vaccarello says. “We spent $130,000 just putting support beams in place. Once the beams were in, we could start laying out the rest of the plant.”
Because of the limited electrical service that the building originally had, American brought in a crew of electricians to upgrade the power. At the same time, the company was installing its air compressor and running air lines to the production stations.
The American Trailer operation is significantly smaller than what the ex-Dynaweld employees were used to.
“Laying out the plant was a challenge,” Vaccarello says. “The Dynaweld facility in Aurora had 148,000 square feet. We had to squeeze what we had there into the 58,000 square feet we have here.”
American bought the rights to all Dynaweld designs. However, some of those products are not being offered, at least not yet. The company did not have room for all the equipment that Dynaweld had in its Aurora plant.
“What would not fit in our plant, we had to sell,” Vaccarello says.
Management decided to focus on the production of hydraulic detachable trailers rated up to 60 tons, fixed-neck lowbeds, tilt-bed, pintle-hitch trailers, and tag-along trailers.
At least during the early stages of its life, American is not producing the mechanical detachable trailers and the hydraulic beavertails that Dynaweld manufactured.
Refining the finish
Included as part of the Dynaweld assets was the company's paint system. To get it operational, American had to dismantle it from its location in Aurora and reassemble it in the new facility.
The company has two paint booths, both 68 feet long and 15 feet wide. Installation included cutting out new holes in the roof to accommodate the ventilation system.
Although American uses the Dynaweld paint booth, the company made changes in the finishing system. American has standardized on a two-stage polyurethane coating that Vaccarello believes provides a superior finish.
Setting up vendors
American's timing for starting production was less than ideal — in the midst of one of the trailer industry's worst downturns and just after the events of September 11.
When it came time to set up vendors, American obviously had to prove its viability.
“It was tough getting credit terms as a new manufacturer,” Vaccarello recalls. “But by the time we started production, we had accounts with 75% of the vendors Dynaweld used. Within three months after we started production, all but two suppliers had done so.”
The company also has been busy setting up its dealer network.
“Success in this business comes from good dealer representation.” says Dale Taulbee, sales manager. After a year in production, the company had a network of 22 dealers with a total of 37 locations. The dealers are concentrated in the Midwest.
A new web site (www.amertrailer.net) assists dealers in marketing American trailers and in getting specifications to customers and prospects.
The new manufacturer is partially staffed with ex-Dynaweld employees. The Dynaweld office manager, the plant manager, and assistant plant manager joined Vaccarello in getting the new company running.
“Sales manager and engineer were two key spots we had to fill,” Vaccarello says. “Our acquisition included the finished goods that Dynaweld had left, and we were able to sell about 25 units even while we were working on setting up the plant.”
American found its sales manager in Dale Taulbee, formerly the southwest district sales manager for Dynaweld. The company turned to nearby Northern Illinois University for its engineer.
With its core staff in place and existing inventory being sold, the company began looking for employees to manufacture trailers. Of the 25 employees in the plant, three had experience at Dynaweld.
“We held a career day that we promoted through the local chamber of commerce and through a temp agency,” Vaccarello says. “We got over 100 applicants and hired more than we needed because we knew there would be some attrition.”
It was a busy day for the American staff, as they interviewed applicants once and sometimes twice, along with administering welding tests.
Getting the plant ready
By the time the hiring was completed, American was wrapping up a long list of tasks to provide the new employees a productive work environment. These included:
A new parking lot and fence.
Installation of three overhead doors to streamline material handling.
A “tune-up” for the seam welder. A year of sitting idle had built up rust.
Refurbishing the plasma machine, which included a precision alignment of the tracks on which the gantry travels. This ensured smooth operation of the machine and accuracy of the cuts.
Improved lighting. American installed three skylights and additional light fixtures and replaced black welding curtains with translucent oranges ones in order to brighten the inside of the plant.
The plant became operational in September 2001 but took the fourth quarter of that year to really ramp up. American manufactured 80 trailers during the last three months of 2001.
The result of the company's efforts is a plant that produces everything in bays. Seven bays are dedicated to the production of tag-along trailers, while five bays are set aside for the assembly of detachable goosenecks. Four bays build the necks for the detachable trailers.
“The design is really flexible,” Vaccarello says. “There's nothing magic about the bays — we can adjust the mix as needed.”
The first trailers the plant produced were tag-along models. But by January 2002, American was using it to build some detachables. The company now builds between two and three tagalong trailers for every detachable gooseneck trailer it produces.
“We wanted to perfect our tagalong trailer first,” Vaccarello says. “That's the trailer that Dynaweld was built on.”
Similar, not identical
American trailers will be similar, but not identical to those that Dynaweld built. The new company has made a few upgrades to the product in an effort to position it at the high end of the market. These include:
Two-stage polyurethane paint.
Thicker flooring (two-inch planks instead of two-inch nominal).
Hendrickson suspensions with five-year warranty standard.
American built approximately 240 trailers during 2002 — its first full calendar year in business.
“We are paying more attention to detail,” Vaccarello says. “Nothing will be shipped without extensive inspections and road testing. We are going to succeed in our market by establishing a reputation as a top-end producer.”