M H Eby Rides the Aluminum Revolution

Menno H Eby Sr did not have grandiose dreams when he started a woodworking shop in Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, in 1938.

Even after he doubled the shop size and started manufacturing livestock bodies, M H Eby Inc was still a modest operation. It was a place where his son, Menno Jr, would work on evenings, weekends, and during the summer to earn spending money. The son watched the father and saw his love for his work. The son began to view himself as a "manufacturing kid."

But it wasn't until Menno Jr returned from service in Vietnam in 1970 that he knew that was what he would do. After he had been home for awhile, his father's health deteriorated and he took over the business in 1972 with a staff of four.

His father died in 1974. And if he could see M H Eby now?

"He'd say, 'You're crazy, you've created a monster,' " Menno jokes. The "monster" is now one of the leaders in the design and custom manufacturing of trailers and truck bodies for livestock, grain, and farm commodities. It moved to a new plant in 1984 and has undergone several expansions, the latest of which will increase the size to 70,000 sq ft by the middle of this year. It also includes a plant in West Jefferson, Ohio, which completed an expansion in January 1999 and now occupies 30,000 sq ft.

Both plants also provide repair service and parts, sell and service Timpte bulk commodity trailers, and distribute a variety of truck equipment and accessories. The Pennsylvania plant sells and services Great Dane Super Seal Refrigerated trailers.

The "monster" is now a third-generation family business. Sons Travis, 28, and Nick, 26, are "manufacturing kids" too: Travis is manager of sales and marketing in the Ohio plant and Nick, based in Pennsylvania, is product engineer and currently is coordinating the company's computer systems.

Aluminum's Great Qualities M H Eby has ridden the aluminum revolution, utilizing its lightweight, corrosion-resistant qualities. The company produces goosenecks, bumper hitches, and a variety of possum belly, straight, and shallow-drop livestock trailers in lengths up to 53 ft.

Its newest product, a live-floor bulk commodity trailer, was introduced March 23-25 at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville.

One of the key features is an aluminum rear impact guard. By using more aluminum components than other companies,

M H Eby has designed a lightweight trailer. The trailer is available in lengths of 45-50 ft, widths of 96 or 102 inches, and side heights of 90, 96, and 102 inches and has these features: side post on 141/2-inch centers, .063 wall sheets, aluminum bogie rails on fixed suspension, stainless rear frame, cathedral rear header, double-lock rods, two-leaf, two-stage springs, and Shur-Lock roll tarp.

Options include double-wall sides, alternate suspensions (air ride slider, air ride spread or spread with rear slider), built-in or removable rear hoppers, and cord or cordless remote control for the floor.

The company marketed its products on a direct basis until 1990, when it brought on dealers. Now, the company has a network of 30 dealers.

"We look for dealers who are located in farm-oriented areas and try to find dealers who understand the ag market," says Darryl Breniser, director of sales and marketing. "We put an extreme amount of importance on service and follow-up after the sale. We want to support our dealers so we can mutually grow our business."

Two Plants, Different Focus The company has placed the dealer network in the hands of one person - Erin Varley, who is based in Ohio - and schedules an annual dealer meeting, alternating between plants.

Company executives believe the dealer network, combined with increased national advertising and a conspicuous presence at trade shows, is working. Even though the agricultural industry has been on a perceived downslide for over two years, they say their revenue has increased by 10-20% every year.

"The ag markets as a whole are pretty tough right now," Travis Eby says. "But if you really boil it down, we're almost in the food industry. So livestock and agricultural commodities have to keep on the move, regardless of what the commodity prices are. From that aspect, we're pretty fortunate.

"Plus, we put a strong focus on the commercial market. These people are using this equipment for their livelihood."

Although both plants are located in a rural environment - with the Pennsylvania plant in the heart of some of America's most fertile farmland - they differ in focus. In Ohio, it's on production. In Pennsylvania, it's more aligned to custom-made, niche-type products.

"Very often at a show, people will say, 'Well, do you have a lot in inventory?' " Breniser says. "When we tell them we don't, they kind of look at us and say, 'Gee, I never heard of a manufacturer that doesn't have a lot of inventory.' When you look at the production schedule, almost every order we build is sold. It has a buyer's name next to it."

Says Menno Eby, "Everybody likes to be into niche markets. Not everybody can. Not everybody has - and I'm not being boastful - the capabilities we have. Most people are set up to run production. You can't build special things when you're set up to run high production."

Satisfying the Customer Menno Eby says the company is continually presented with unique project requests and seldom turns one down. As he speaks from his office in the Pennsylvania plant, workers are in the shop with a trailer that is being produced for the Pig Improvement Co, which is based in Franklin, Kentucky.

PIC wanted M H Eby to build a trailer with onboard heat so that 8-lb baby pigs could make the trip from the nursery to their destination in frigid weather without suffering trauma that could affect their future value.

Given that the two companies have been doing business for a long time, it was not a request Eby was going to turn down.

So Eby's engineers, along with project coordinator Nevin Martin, designed a trailer that will maintain 701/4 F, simulating that of an onsite nursery. It has a 12-volt diesel-fueled system that is thermostatically controlled by sensors mounted inside the trailer. The driver can monitor the inside temperature of the trailer from the cab of the tractor. A digital read-out mounted on the driver's side radius of the trailer indicates the temperature of three interior locations at seven-second intervals.

The heater has stand-alone capabilities: three auxiliary batteries and fuel capacity that allow it to run for 75 hours if the tractor breaks down. The trailer has panels that can be removed to aid in temperature control and a storage compartment for panels when they are not being used.

"There aren't many companies that would tackle something like that," Menno Eby says. "But they're a good customer and we took it upon ourselves to do it."

A lot has changed at M H Eby over the past 62 years: the product, production techniques, and marketing strategies. But Menno Eby says the philosophy is still very much the same. He wants to do business in an "honest and forthright way."

Word Is Bond "You'd be amazed," he says. "A lot of times we take orders on a guy's word, on handshakes. We still believe our word is our bond. If we say we're going to do something, then we try to do it. I guess honesty, integrity, and maintaining that is very important to me.

"I'm not afraid to go to trade shows. I don't have to hide from customers. My salesmen go to trade shows and are greeted by old customers - that's a testament to what you're doing."

The 52-year-old president learned it from his father. Although they never were able to work together for a long time as adults, he was always observing his father. He noticed that everything he did, he did with passion - whether it was serving on the school board and building a new high school or being the fire chief and building a new fire hall or heading the building committee of his church.

"I guess if there was an influence, that was as good as any," he says.

For Travis and Nick, it has been much the same.

They grew up in the business. The trailer shop was their second home. As Travis jokes, "Bad habits get passed along, I guess.

"I think the biggest thing for me is satisfied customers," he says. "It's the challenge of taking an order and building something to a customer's special requirements, and when it's all said and done and the guy drives away happy, you can see him a couple of years later and he's still happy with the job you've done for him.

"I want to help grow the business for the next 20 or 30 years. I see a lot of open doors and a lot of potential for the company."

M H Eby now employs 180 people and has 90,000 square feet of production area in two different states, producing over 1,250 units. Its founder would never believe it.

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