MANY trailer manufacturers are bracing for a decrease in demand, but Brandon Truck Equipment Inc sales manager Jack Belley doesn't believe the bear market will extend to dump bodies.
The proof of the company's bullish outlook? He's standing in it.
Brandon, which has become one of Canada's leading manufacturers of dump bodies since it expanded its welding and steel fabrication operations in 1992, completed the construction of a 25,000-sq-ft facility in May and has been cranking out about four dump bodies per day there since the first week of November. The goals are to produce 10 per day during peak time this year and to expand its US market far beyond its 50-dealer network.
When Belley gets in his car and drives to the old facility, which the company still uses to manufacture and store parts, his odometer clicks just two kilometers. That's the geographical difference between them in the quaint town of St.-Gabriel-de-Brandon, located 115 kilometers north of Montreal. To Belley, the two facilities feel like they're hundreds of kilometers apart, because in terms of space, modernity, creature comforts, and energy efficiency, they are not in the same galaxy. In the province of Quebec, they have a word to describe the emotion Brandon's employees are feeling: incroyable.
"Unbelievable," Belley says.
There's another word that also fits: abasourdissant. The difference is amazing.
"How can I describe it?" Belley says. "I think they have done everything out of nothing. That's the big part of it. All the people that were here, they had to work very hard to obtain what we're experiencing now. Everybody's happy."
Coordination Required The old building, built in 1908 and first used as a tannery, is dank and dark, with cinder-block walls enclosing its 14,000 sq ft. When Brandon centered its entire operation there, you could add two words to that description: cramped and noisy. They were producing up to 5 11/42 dump bodies a day in carefully choreographed chaos.
"We had to coordinate everything, because we didn't really have enough space to manufacture a large volume of parts, so we were manufacturing the parts we could and putting them on the dump and getting it out," Belley says. "All the small machinery was on the other side of the room, and the dumps were built where the machinery is now."
Now, it is used to produce virtually every part that goes into a Brandon dump body - some parts are plasma-cut for them elsewhere.
"There are 15 people working here, but it's like a new facility for them because they were all crowded together, and now they have space," Belley says.
Meanwhile, the other 50 employees work in a facility that is nearly twice as spacious and still has that alluring smell of newness. Even after that is gone, the efficiencies will remain.
The facility has a 60' no-fume paint booth and sand-blast area, allowing Brandon to paint one dump body while another one is drying. The temperature is controlled by 20,000 ft of tubing under the floor that serves as a network for moving hot water, which Belley says provides more economical heating. All wiring for the machines is constructed overhead to reduce clutter and provide a safer workspace. And virtually every machine was designed and built by the employees - including a press brake, jigs, and scissors lift.
Employees Offer Their Ideas "All the employees bring up their own ideas and work on them," Belley says. "They're quite bright about that. They build their own cylinder, their own press. Everybody has an idea, we listen to them. Every week, we have a meeting with employees and put down on paper what we think we can do to increase our manufacturing and do it faster."
Brandon was the first business to occupy a spot in the new industrial park, located on Provincial Highway 348, just south of the center of St.-Gabriel-de-Brandon, a town of 8,000. The company purchased 300,000 sq ft of land and constructed the building to accommodate further expansion without knocking down walls. And expansion is expected.
Brandon was started 50 years ago by Louie Rainville and his son, P.E., the grandfather and father, respectively, of current president Daniel Rainville and his brother, Luc, the secretary-treasurer.
When Daniel and Luc assumed control of the company, they decided that they wanted to find a way to build a new product during the winter welding slowdown.
"Luc used to work in truck equipment, and I used to work in dump bodies for a competitor," Daniel says. "We decided that with his experience in installation and my experience in dump bodies, we'd put our knowledge together and manufacture them."
From 50 to 2,000 Dumps In the first year, they produced 50 dumps. (For the record, the very first one went across the border to a company in Manchester, New Hampshire.)
Last year, they produced more than four times that during the peak month of March, and finished the year with 1,200 produced. That capped a two-year period in which they increased sales 50% each year.
This year, the goal is 2,000 dumps.
Belley says that even if the economic outlook is not rosy, it is an attainable goal because he believes the US market will grow, taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate.
Brandon's foray into dump-body manufacturing in 1992 coincided with the depreciation of the Canadian dollar against its US counterpart. Around that time, with a lot of unused capacity in the economy and inflation falling below the target range, the Bank of Canada used lower interest rates to seek easier monetary conditions. Increasing concern about a budget crisis at both the federal and provincial levels and softening commodity prices were reflected in downward pressure on the currency. While all that was going on within Canada's borders, US interest rates were rising in 1994, followed by the Mexican peso crisis in late 1994 and early 1995 that led to a flight into US dollar assets.
The Canadian dollar stabilized a bit through 1996 due to a strengthening of commodity prices and higher short-term interest rates that were evidence that fiscal problems were less severe. It was trading in a narrow range around 73 cents to the US dollar.
Currency Weakened in '97-98 But in 1997 and 1998, the currency weakened despite low inflation, moderate economic growth, and favorable government finances. The problem was that commodity prices dropped as the crisis in emerging markets intensified. The US dollar was a safe-haven currency during international crisis. The Canadian dollar reached an all-time low of 63.11 cents in August 1998, and although it has recovered somewhat, it was trading at 65 cents as this year began - which is still a very favorable rate for US buyers of Brandon dump bodies.
Brandon already is shipping 75% of dump bodies to its dealers in the US. Belley says it goes far beyond the exchange rate.
"At the beginning, American dealers liked the exchange rate, but in the last five or six years, they've been seeking quality," he says. "Americans like a lot of Canadian products because of quality - quality of welding, quality of materials, and quality of service."
What's different about a Brandon dump body? Belley says it comes down to these qualities:
- One-piece floor construction. "Our under-dump is built on long members," Belley says. "There aren't any cross-members, so mud won't stay under the dump. In the US, most of them have cross-members." He says the long members are specially designed for strength; the 90-degree interior fold assures the capability of heavy-duty equipment.
- A tailgate latch system that reduces warranty claims. "We have one of the best latch systems," he says. "Our competitors are trying to copy us. We use a double-action air cylinder, while our competitors are using a booster to open and close the tailgate. Instead of closing from bottom to top, it closes top to bottom, so it's very secure. The door doesn't open on the road."
- Quality welding. "All of our welders weld in a zig-zag style to get a real nice finish," he says. "It's important to us how it looks after it's painted."
- A muffler system that is expanded on the corner post, preventing exhaust on the side of the dump that could damage the paint finish or cause rust.
- An asphalt bumper eliminates the thread of the rear extension. The angle allows easy access in and out of the paver without even bringing the body down. (Please turn page)
- Side posts are built for endurance and appearance. Typically, Brandon's bodies have one more on each side than their competitors do.
Leading the Way The two most popular models in the US, especially in New England and the Great Lakes region, are the HD and FHA.
The HD comes in a standard length of 9' to 20'; side heights of 30", 36", 42", and 48"; tailgate of 42", 48", 54" and 60"; one-piece floor construction; 89" interior; 96" exterior; 3/16" mild steel sides and front; 1/4" 190,000 PSI floor and tail gate; 8" x 1/4" mild steel longmembers; and a weight of 4,831 lb for 15 11/42'x48"x60". Main options: cylinder; 30-35-ton and 40-45-ton installation kits; canvas coverall; mud-flap brackets kit; installation cab shield; 10" long members; body prop; and 4" or 5" heat and spring boxes.
The FHA comes in a standard length of 10' to 20'; side heights of 36", 42" and 48"; tailgate of 48", 54" and 60"; one-piece floor construction; 89" interior; 96" exterior; 1/8" 190,000 PSI on sides and front; 3/16" or 1/4" 190,000 PSI floor floor; 3/16" tailgate; 8"x1/4" mild steel; 4,323 lb for 15 11/42' x 48" x 60". Main options are the same as HD, with addition of 50-ton installation kit, 54" side height, and mud flap brackets kit.
Belley says Brandon takes pride in its custom work.
"We listen to the customer," he says. "People will ask, `Can you add a post? Can you do my cab shield a little higher?' We want to do the best for them. We keep our standard features, but we will listen to them to make sure we satisfy them."
Brandon hired a new engineer this month and empowered him to develop new products and find better methods of production that will save time.
Gearing Up for Expansion The whole idea is to gear up and take advantage of the benefits of the new facility. Brandon does not sell direct. It sells only to its dealers. Belley's job is to establish more dealerships. He's working to expand into Florida, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. And he wants to expand his 20-dealer Canadian network to 35 or 40.
To do it, he canvasses the opinions of his current dealerships and does direct mass mailings to repair shops, dump installers, and truck equipment houses.
"People hear a lot about us," he says. "Every year, we have people calling us and saying, `We heard about your product. We would like to be a dealer for you.' People know us. We put a lot of ads in magazines. We go to the NTEA Show and North American Truck Show every year. We're planning to do more shows.
"Dealers will talk to a lot of people and say, `They have a very good product. They have very good service.' Our reputation is very good."
And buoyed by the addition of a spacious and efficient facility, it's only going to get better.