Catering to Seekers of Aesthetics

At Moreno Valley, Supreme's Custom Work Keys Customer Satisfaction

The motivational mantra at the Supreme Corp's plant in Moreno Valley, California: THE RACE FOR QUALITY HAS NO FINISH LINE.

Supreme does not cut corners when it comes to quality. You do not find yourself on Forbes magazine's 200 Best Small Companies list for two straight years if your products and customer service are questionable. Nor do you bring in over $250 million in yearly revenue - leading a pack of competitors that includes respected names like Morgan Corp, Utilimaster, and Grumman Olson - and start out 2000 with your best quarter ever.

But Moreno Valley is a different animal. If you head east on Interstate 10 for 30 miles, you find yourself in Palm Springs, playpen of the rich. If you head west on I-10 for 75 miles, you find yourself in Beverly Hills, where stars are born. Image is everything - not just in Southern California, but in the entire West Coast region that the Moreno Valley plant services.

Supreme's manufacturing facilities - the others are in Goshen, Indiana, Cleburne, Texas, Griffin, Georgia, Wilson, North Carolina, and Jonestown, Pennsylvania - cater to the specific needs of their customers. And in Moreno Valley, they have heeded the call for a slick-looking product.

"I think our market is different out here," sales manager Mark McIntosh says. "The dealers and customers are a lot more aesthetically driven. They want everything to look like a Rolls-Royce when it arrives.

"They're very much into California custom and the West Coast idea: shiny and bright and new-looking. A lot of people here own custom cars, and they're the same way with their trucks. You'll see a lot more money spent on sign-writing and the aesthetic side of the vehicle. This is the first state I've been in where I've seen bright stainless-steel wheels on trash-removal trucks. You laugh, but you see these guys going down the highway and it shows they're very proud of their fleets."

Maintaining Appearance It's easier to maintain the pristine appearance of trucks in that region. Most of Moreno Valley's trucks are shipped to warm-weather areas where rainfall is not significant.There are no icicles hanging from the bumpers, no salt buildups.

Between January and the end of May, Supreme built and delivered 81 dry vans to Young's Market in the San Francisco Bay Area. They feature a 16' insulated aluminum body, .125" side walls, and an aerodynamic cone. But the real eye-catcher is the full-color decal advertisements on the one-piece sidewalls.

"They use these like billboards - a different one on each side," general manager Mike Oium says. "They didn't want any seams or rivets in the sign because they may change it next year and rotate them."

McIntosh says his service-body customers want a "dressier" unit with aluminum plating on the top of the toolboxes and stainless steel T-handle latches. On other units, they want a polished corner cap and rear frame.

"I won't say money is no object, but they seem to consume a lot more out here than they do at other plants," McIntosh says. "It comes down to weather. They don't have to clean them as often, and they stay shiny."

Supreme's West Coast buyers want the creature comforts. Their fleets are larger, and they cover a larger geographical area. A San Diego-to-San Francisco run may seem tame - after all, the driver is never leaving the state - but it's actually 514 miles.

"We have the largest geographical area of the Supreme plants," McIntosh says. "Although there are places that don't have a large population, we still have to deliver to those areas. That makes a difference. We work with people who aren't just a little out of state - they're a long way. I'd like to say they're used to big freight bills, but they're all concerned about freight. That's something we work with them on. That's one of our strong points.

"We have a large area and a diverse geographical area. We get no rain here, but we also have to build for the Pacific Northwest. You want to have low warranty use. Mike's been making sure the product that goes out of here doesn't come back."

Quality-Control Program Supreme instituted a quality-control program at the end of 1998 that features inspectors on each line and a manager who signs off on each truck. But Oium believes the feature that stamps Supreme as supreme is a "gate inspector" who has an office at the security gate and checks every unit that leaves the facility. He inspects not simply per specifications but also the welds, electrical connections, and cleanliness inside and outside the cab. The categories on his checklist include "wiring clipped/secured," "undercoating acceptable," "liner aligned/sanded," and "interior light leak test." In essence, Oium says, he is "the customer's eyes."

Sales have gone up 20% in each of the last three years. At the same time, warranty claims decreased every year.

"If your warranty (claims) and shipments went up proportionately, you could say, 'We're staying level,' " Oium says. "When the warranty goes down and the shipments go up, that's a good indication that we're putting out a good-quality product."

Supreme Corp offers a comprehensive line of truck bodies, including dry freight, parcel delivery, platform bodies, service vans, and insulated and refrigerated bodies.

The company, founded by Omer Kropf in 1974 with a $50,000 cash investment and $300,000 in bank loans, has prided itself on its self-sufficiency. All it needs is the chassis. It does the rest itself. Fiberglass panels used as truck sidewalls are produced at its Goshen plant. Most of the other components are manufactured at one of the regional plants.

That contributes not only to a streamlined production schedule, but also to a higher profit margin than its smaller regional competitors.

To provide sales and service, Supreme has expanded to include 10 locations: Woonsocket, Rhode Island; Louisville, Kentucky; St Louis, Missouri; Apopka, Florida; Houston and San Antonio, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Vallejo, California; Streetsboro, Ohio; and Springfield, Ohio.

Never Enough Space The Moreno Valley plant has 20 acres and 85,000 sq ft of manufacturing space - 55,000 in the main plant for four manufacturing lines, 25,000 in an adjacent building for three manufacturing lines, and the rest in an area that churns out eight liftgates a day and is called a "godsend" by Oium. In addition, a shed has been converted into a five-bay repair facility that services all models.

This is the third Southern California incarnation for Supreme's manufacturing facility. It started in Fontana in 1985, then moved to Riverside in 1990, then to Moreno Valley in 1996.

"We outgrew Riverside," Oium says. "There are even certain times a year where we are close to growing out of this facility. And that's after doubling our manufacturing size and lot acreage."

Moreno Valley is producing 30 bodies a day: dry boxes that account for 80% of production, three different reefers that account for 10%, and stake bodies for the final 10%.

The only Supreme product that isn't manufactured in Moreno Valley is buses. "One of the things Supreme prides itself on is that whether a vehicle is built in California or Pennsylvania, if both end up at the same location in the Midwest, you shouldn't be able to tell the difference," McIntosh says.

Supreme's primary customers are medium-duty and light-duty truck dealers, from one-ton Chevys to Class 7 Kenworths. The other prominent customers are leasing companies.

"Out here, there are a lot of large fleets," Oium says. "Instead of buying their vehicles, they seem to lease them. We do deal with a lot of the bigger fleets, but we deal with them through leasing companies. We have very few distributors - two in Washington, one in Oregon. Other than that, we're direct."

Strategic Locations Says McIntosh, "I think the distributors, where they are, are an advantage. They're strategically located in our outlying areas. The one in Seattle, Heiser Truck Body, is self-sufficient, very strong."

Oium says his Moreno Valley plant faces stiff competition from nine van-body manufacturers in Southern California, and from five service-body manufacturers on Supreme's Spartan model, which is available in 12' and 14' lengths and can fill the need for a cargo, utility or vending body, or parcel van. McIntosh says when it comes to the number of platform competitors, "I lost count a long time ago." Says Oium, "Competition breeds a company that will become more aggressive to be innovative. I think we've done that. We're trying to shorten lead times on the product and upgrade the quality."

EZ Access Van a Hit They believe they are on an innovative hot streak with the EZ Access Van that debuted at the National Truck Equipment Association convention in St Louis this year. It offers the comfort and interior space of a standard cargo van and the accessibility and convenience of a step van. They're calling it "the best of both worlds."

"You get the high cube in the back plus easy-access slide doors so you can jump in and out while working deliveries," Oium says. "We take out the passenger seat and take the passenger door off and have a sliding side door on the passenger side, just like a step van would have.

"That's become a popular product because there weren't really any innovations in the step van market in a long time. The dealerships like them because all of your front end, powertrain, windshield, bumper, grille, front end, AC, and radio is OEM product, right down to the driver's door and seat. So it's not like, 'I got it in a crash, now I've got to wait for a hood to come from Supreme or a windshield to be specially made.' "

It's available in lengths of 12, 14, 15, and 16 feet. Its features include 5/8" sidewalls, 1 1/8" laminated hardwood floor, 10-gauge steel wheelboxes, all-steel structure (galvanneal), protective .125" extruded aluminum hat section exterior rubrail, one-piece .032" aluminum roof with rafters on 16" centers, 3' formed crossmembers on 16" C/L, Todco full-width roll-up door with two-point slam lock and heavy-duty, 12-gauge treadplate rear step bumper painted black.

On a Chevrolet chassis, it has GVW up to 12,000; on a Ford, up to 15,000. McIntosh says the curtainside is gaining popularity among those who haul lumber, cabinetry, windows, doors or other oversize material because it combines the advantages of a flatbed with the product protection of an enclosed van body.

It features a tough extruded aluminum rail with a one-piece design that allows the support of the roof and a smooth channel for the curtain rollers. The rail channels feature Supreme's exclusive pivoting post, which is permanently attached to the unit, allowing the post to snap open - roll out of the way - then simply snap back into place.

Curtainsides, a Popular Unit The curtains, made of a PVC-coated polyester material that holds its color, are reinforced for easier operation, providing less billowing on the road. They open from either end and can be snapped in seconds.

"Our customers have found they have to do a lot less wear-and-tear repair on our units," McIntosh says. "We've beefed it up a lot. We matched the market and produced a unit about which people are saying, 'We like them, because we never have them in the shop.' We are the vendor of choice for some curtainsides from some of the bigger companies because they have less down time."

The Moreno Valley plant has streamlined its manufacturing lines to the point where it can run seven in the 85,000-sq-ft manufacturing building. The 25,000-sq-ft building is devoted almost entirely to fleet manufacturing, meaning that the other manufacturing operation is not jeopardized when the plant has large orders to fill.

Side-Wall Press One of the key improvements has been the installation a year ago of a side-wall press - the first Supreme plant to do so.

"What that does is not only give us speed, but eliminate 90% of the noise in the plant," Oium says. "You don't hear that here. You also reduce worker compensation injuries because you don't get carpal tunnel and wrist problems."

Oium says they try to bring the fabrication as close to the assembly line as they can to speed up the process. That also reduces wear and tear on the parts because they are not hauled all the way from the storage yard. For the smaller bodies - 16' and under - they also put the chassis on their transport system of carts and mount the bodies on them; so when they go out the front door, they're ready for predelivery service.

Says Oium of a 60' paint booth that is scheduled to be completed in October: "That will give us a lot more versatility on custom paint jobs on cabs and bodies. That'll be huge for us. That's a real big step."

The Moreno Valley facility has 200 permanent employees (70% in the plant line) and during the busy season - between January and June, when big fleets have one-way package for leasing companies - can have up to 450.

Their work-force stability is strong because there is an abundance of labor in the Valley, bordered by Riverside and San Bernardino. People don't want to drive 90 minutes into Los Angeles, preferring to spare their vehicles and their nervous systems.

"We're now becoming one of the most stable work forces in California as far as body builders go," Oium says. "We've become a volume-driven company, but the guy who orders one or two van bodies a year is just as important as the company that orders a lot at once.

"We feel that with a work force that's stayed for a couple of years and has experience, if a customer comes back and says, 'I want another one just like the last one,' there's a 90% chance that same person who builds that one is going to build this one. That helps a lot because we're not continually training new people."

McIntosh and Oium believe their plant is now positioned to increase an already-healthy growth rate.

"Our reps are hearing in the field that our quality is improving, that our lead times are improving and staying consistent," McIntosh says. "We weren't hearing that six or eight months ago. We were still in the logistics stage.

"We don't sacrifice retail orders. In other words, if the dealer is used to dealing with us on a one-on-one basis, there was a time three years ago when we were a great friend of his from July to December but not so much of one from January to July, when we build fleets. Whereas now we're able to make sure we don't drop the ball on the retail side to do the leasing side.

"We've always had long lead times for retail customers in the first half of the year. Now our lead times are shorter and stable, and we can be a consistent supplier to them."

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