Stellar Industries is building for its future by adding 21,000 square feet of manufacturing space on to its fabrication building.
Although Stellar Industries is a young company by all measurements, it has become a household name in the specialized truck-body arena. That seems impressive when it's understood that Stellar sells most of its equipment into the population-rich areas of the United States and that Garner, Iowa, is geographically located in the farming center of America. But the population-rich areas harbor the demand for the service bodies, cranes, tire trucks, hooklift loaders, and the other allied products that Stellar manufactures, such as air compressors, mobile welding equipment, and battery boosters.
“Our company needed more space,” says David Zrostlik, president of Stellar Industries. “This additional space is necessary today so we can be more competitive tomorrow. The space, which is currently in its final stage of construction, will expand the preassembly area in the manufacturing building.
“After some reshuffling, this will allow us to consolidate all of our cutting, sawing, bending, and welding operations in one building,” Zrostlik says. “The body will be completed in one shop, from start to finish. Then it's taken to the paint, assembly, and installation department. We will be able to gain some efficiency. However, our biggest motivation was that we just needed more room.”
Gary Bomstad, Stellar's vice-president of manufacturing operations adds, “We absolutely needed more room for the manufacturing operation. We have been steadily expanding the number of units sold for all of the different types of products that we manufacture. We stay focused on the truck equipment industry. Our initial product focus was designing and manufacturing hooklifts, but we have since expanded into the tire service truck and mechanic truck manufacturing business, which requires numerous preassembly parts.
“That's why our sawing, cutting, and other forms of metalworking are so important to our operation. The added space allows for the metal-working tools to be consolidated,” Bomstad says. The new addition also allows some storage of raw materials. Stellar has fairly new metal-working equipment, so the company didn't need to purchase much new machinery for the new addition. “We just needed to arrange it to improve our workflow,” he says.
The nuts and bolts of Stellar's manufacturing operation are similar to those of many companies that build service trucks, with a few exceptions. Stellar builds different product lines along with several smaller allied products that are used for installation on the finished Stellar products, as well as for retail sales through body distributors.
“We build the cranes that we install on our service bodies and our tire trucks,” says Bomstad. “We also assemble our own air compressors and retail them as a separate product available from Stellar. We keep a tight grip on moving all the materials needed for the different Stellar products through our two main buildings — the fabricating building and the installation building.”
Stellar's manufacturing operation is orchestrated among three buildings. Each houses separate functions that are necessary to the manufacturing of Stellar's different products. Two buildings are very close to each other, but the third is several hundred yards away from the main manufacturing buildings.
The buildings house three basic operations. One building is used as a raw material storage and preassembly facility. The second building is used as a welding/fabrication area, and the third building is used as an installation and assembly facility.
“We store a lot of steel at the plant. And because it's Iowa, we store it inside,” says Bomstad. “The steel is shipped in and we apply a special rust-preventive coating. That keeps it in manufacturing-ready condition for us.”
Inside the preassembly building, bridge cranes assist in moving the materials. “We have two full-width and full-length, three-ton bridge cranes. Look down the main aisle and you'll see a lot of jib cranes. About 40 of these are dispersed between the two main manufacturing buildings. We don't want material or product to be man-handled during the manufacturing process.”
Stellar operates three band saws — two 1993 HEMs and one Ellis. “The HEMs have a 16-inch-width capacity. One is CNC based, and the other is manually operated,” Bomstad says. “We also have the 12-inch-width capacity, Ellis band saw, available for individual piece work or smaller jobs.” One dedicated operator on the CNC HEM makes sure that the saw-cut, preassembly material moves smoothly through the process.
For shearing, a 1993 Atlantic with a 12-foot-width capacity works well for Stellar's needs, Bomstad says. “With that tool, we can cut up to a 1/4"-thick plate without any shearing problems. That's just what we need for our manufacturing operation.”
Stellar has two relatively new Atlantic press brakes. A 250-ton brake will handle a 12-foot steel sheet. “We also have a 100-ton that will work with a 10-foot steel sheet. We use both for our forming work,” Bomstad says. “They are CNC operated. Both machines have dedicated operator teams. Because of the type of truck bodies that Stellar manufactures, we perform many varied forming operations.”
Many of the steel parts that are used to manufacture Stellar products are cut from steel plate. For this work, Stellar has two plasma cutting machines — one capable of having multiple torches added to the crossbar. The ESAB and Wiedimatic, CNC-controlled cutters, can cut 1/4" plate easily, Bomstad says.
“Once all the materials have been cut or formed, the pieces are stored or used immediately to start the manufacturing of our products,” he says. “Our new building addition will allow us the luxury of assembling all the pieces formed and the products they are going to be used for, in one shop.”
Most of the assembly for the manufacturing operation uses jig tables that have been produced by Stellar technicians. Products manufactured vary in style and content. Assemblers and welders are tested on their welding and fitting skills before they are hired.
“Welding, assembling, and installation skills are valued in this type of operation,” Bomstad says. All of the shops are equipped with ESAB and Lincoln welding equipment.
After the body has been welded, it is moved to the paint prep area in the preassembly and manufacturing building. The product is cleaned using several different compounds, because many of the products that Stellar manufactures include both steel and aluminum metals. A high-pressure wash completes the process before the product enters the paint booth. The products are then baked to insure complete drying of the finish materials.
Following the assembly of the body and allied equipment, the completed product is moved to the installation building. During this step, an installation team will mount the body to the customer's chassis.
Then in many cases for Stellar's products, technicians begin adding other components to finish out the truck. This includes installing compressors, load gates, completing the hydraulic hookups, or any other customer specifications. “Some of the products are shipped out for dealer installation, and we also bring them into this shop for a complete quality control check.”
Stellar is quite adept at the development of new products. In some ways it's even possible to say that the whole foundation of Stellar has been built by management looking ahead.
Stellar Industries built a highly recognized nameplate by aggressively marketing its name and its product. David Zrostlik doesn't plan on cutting the company's marketing budget — if anything he will increase it. His reasoning? Zrostlik believes the industry is experiencing a soft market.
Investing heavily in advertising and trade show exhibits is the best way to gain market share, he says. “Stellar isn't an industry-household name just because it manufactures a great product. It's because we make the company visible in every industry-specific show that we can. We take our product to the industry shows that our customers attend. We like to think that we do that more aggressively than anyone else.
“We put our faces directly in front of our products,” says Zrostlik. “We also want our customers to look, touch, feel, and play with the equipment. We think that brings home how our products differ from our competitors. It stresses the kind of value that they get for their money.”
Zrostlik knows that every company trying to gain market share has to manufacture the best possible product, but that's only part of the equation.
“In today's world, it's not enough to make a great product in a timely fashion. Having several hundred units of the best manufactured product sitting on your yard isn't going to do the company any good. The company has to get those products in front of the customers who buy them.”
Zrostlik uses trade shows to reach different customer groups. About 50% of the shows attended by Stellar are involved in the industries where the Stellar product is sold directly to the end user. Zrostlik says that the tire industry is one example where the company markets products directly to the end user. Historically, the tire industry has purchased the tire service bodies directly from the manufacturers. Zrostlik doesn't see that changing in the near future.
As a board member of the National Truck Equipment Association, Zrostlik understands the important role of equipment distributors. “There will always be a need for complicated truck-mounted equipment in our mobile society,” says Zrostlik. “We need our distributor base to help us market our product. For that reason, it's important to participate in trade shows that not only cater to our end user markets, but also to our distributor audience.”
Nevertheless, according to Zrostlik, that's also where the danger can be. “Even if the general economy might be in a downturn, there can be segments that are still going to do quite well. Because trade shows aren't a fixed cost, many companies will cut the number they attend during a slow year. We just don't want to walk away from any show that might provide us with some buyers for next year.
“It can be expensive to go to a trade show,” he says. “We examine the source of sales and analyze how show attendance reaches those buyers. We want to know whether buyers see us at trade shows. We have to leave Garner to be seen. I don't think too many forestry or railroad executives are wandering around Iowa to find new equipment.
“Every trade show that we attend is evaluated upon our return. We determine what benefit, if any, the show has provided to us. We take those evaluations seriously because the shows and exhibitions are expensive. And we will drop a show if it isn't providing the benefit that we need to continue our participation,” says Zrostlik. “But I don't think it's prudent to reduce our participation or cut our budget because of a softer economy.”
Every Show Gets a Grade
Stellar Industries attends more than 30 trade shows yearly. That takes a great deal of preplanning and coordination to move equipment, booth set-ups, and people to a show location. “At most shows we want an area large enough for at least one piece of equipment,” says Donna Popp, communications manager and exhibit coordinator for Stellar. “If an industry show is worth attending, we will make an impact with our equipment.
“The bottom line is the final question. Is the show worth the expenditure? We do a good job focusing on what shows are important to us and which ones might not be beneficial.
“The sales managers responsible for a particular brand or type of equipment have a meeting and discuss the exhibition, the attendance numbers, the type of attendees and leads received and, most importantly, the value that Stellar received from attending,” says Popp. “We want to go through that process as soon as possible. We want everyone to have a fresh recollection of the events. In those meetings, the group really analyzes prospective customers who attended the show, whether they spent time looking at our product, and if there were any sales generated.
“We coordinate the advertising agenda for the upcoming year, which is partially driven by the exhibit schedule and the feedback received from the sales group. We place advertising in about 30 trade and association publications every year along with doing some direct mailings. We also operate what we think is a sophisticated web site.”
Popp explains that Stellar handles all marketing and communications in-house. “We do it all here, from purchasing space, doing our own artwork for the piece, including any needed photography, to monitoring its effectiveness.” These efforts also extend to Stellar's web site.
“We manage the site architecture and produce all of the web site information in-house,” Popp says, “and we keep it all up to date. We think the Web is becoming a very important resource to help buyers obtain information. We want to make navigating through our site as friendly as possible in an effort to keep them coming back regularly. That's why doing the work in-house allows us to closely monitor it and change it very rapidly if necessary.”
Stellar's management has learned to adapt to a rapidly changing future, while continuing to make wise budgetary decisions that have been very beneficial for the company's infrastructure. The present management learned some of those lessons from their founder as a handed-down trait. “In the mid 1980s, my father, Francis Zrostlik, bought the building where our main office is located,” Zrostlik says. “That was a long time before anyone ever thought of creating Stellar Industries.” Perhaps he was just looking ahead.