IT TOOK 40 years, but the little welding shop in Monroe, Wisconsin, has built itself into a truck equipment operation that is international in scope.
In an open house held May 17-20, some 2,500 customers, employees, and suppliers helped Monroe Truck Equipment (MTE) celebrate the success the company has experienced during 40 years of business.
The event began with "Employee Appreciation Day" in which employees and their families were bused in from company locations in Green Bay, Janesville, Marshfield, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Joliet, Illinois. Employee Appreciation Day alone attracted more than 800 people.
The remaining three days were dedicated to truck dealers, end users, fleets, and other customers. While some drove to the event, MTE also provided a shuttle service to bring customers from outlying areas. Visitors were taken on two-hour tours of the 300,000-sq-ft headquarters and the separate 50,000-sq-ft shop in Monroe where the company builds such specialized products as crew cabs and armored cars.
Among highlights of the tour: * A combination truck equipment shop and manufacturing plant that is now more than three times larger than the original facility that opened in 1988 with 92,000 square feet.
* A truck equipment shop with 26 work bays.
* A parts department that carries an average inventory valued at $1,000,000.
* A new automated powder coat line that provides corrosion-resistant finishes primarily to the company's line of snow and ice control equipment, but also is used for some specialized truck bodies.
* Manufacturing of snowplows, spreaders, scrapers, and heavy-duty wings. Details on these two operations will be included in the September "Snow and Ice Control Issue" of Trailer/Body Builders.
* An engineering department equipped with computers that are linked directly to an automated flame cutting table. A staff of 14 work in engineering-nine on the first shift and five on duty from 4 pm to 2 am Monday through Thursday.
* A separate building at the 65-acre site for warehousing, painting, and installing pickup accessories. Details on this operation will be included in the October "Aftermarket Parts Issue" of Trailer/Body Builders.
International Sales MTE has been sending trucks into international markets in recent years, primarily through its truck modification center. The company opened a 30,000-sq-ft shop near the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, specifically to serve as a modification center, but the company also does some modifications at its old facility in Monroe. The 50,000-sq-ft Monroe facility served as the company's main shop until the company moved into its current headquarters in 1988.
MTE has delivered trucks to countries as diverse as Barbados and Kuwait. As a result of the company's ability to install right-hand drive, MTE has shipped trucks from Ireland to South Africa.
Other common modifications include the conversion of Freightliner, GM, International, and Mack chassis to all-wheel drive-either 4x4 or 6x6 applications. The c ompany also converts standard cabs to crew cab models.
"We are on invoice with GM on our crew cabs," says Rick Rufenacht, vice-president of marketing and sales. "When someone buys a crew cab from a GM dealer, our work is invisible on the customer invoice. It is as if GM did the conversion itself."
Reclaiming the Old When MTE built its new headquarters in 1988, the company vacated the old shop. In recent years, however, the company has occupied an increasing amount of the facility. MTE now uses the entire building. The conversion shop, as MTE calls it, is used for three main functions.
Truck modifications. Common tasks include outfitting chassis with dual- or tri-steer capability, dual drive, and crew cab production.
Much of the conversion shop, including all of a mezzanine level, is set up for crew cab conversions-primarily GM 3500 HD and medium-duty chassis. Using OEM parts and fixtures designed by MTE, the company assembles the crew cab to factory specifications. Company personnel trained at the GM plant in Janesville to learn how to assemble crew cabs.
Downstairs, workers cut the old cabs and reinstall the new ones. Frames are cut and stretched 37 inches to make room for the longer cabs.
The conversion shop has a cab and body prep area. A high-pressure phosphate system removes oil, grease, and dirt while chemically etching the surface for improved adhesion of primer and paint. The area beneath the mezzanine is used for producing the right-hand steering popular with refuse collection trucks.
Fire apparatus manufacturing. MTE produces a variety of vehicles for fighting fires. On the smaller end of the spectrum, MTE outfits pickups for fighting brush fires by installing tanks and pumps. Larger trucks include pumper/tankers equipped with tanks ranging from 1,500- to 3,000-gallon capacities. MTE uses polypropylene tanks with steel or aluminum exteriors. The company also builds steel tanks on a special fixture that enables the welder to position the tank so that he does not have to weld overhead.
Armored car production. The conversion shop offers models on trucks with GVW ratings as light as 11,000 pounds. These are designed for serving automated teller machines. The bodies installed on chassis rated at 15,000-lb to 23,000-lb GVW are route trucks for banks, supermarkets, and businesses. The company also installs bodies on heavy-duty trucks (GVW ratings above 33,000 pounds) for hauling coins.
"We sell some trucks to the major armored body companies, but most of what we sell goes to small business owners who may have just a few trucks," says Scott Wilson, modification center sales manager.
MTE expects to produce 75 of these trucks in 1998.
Multiple Sales Staffs Keeping a facility busy the size of Monroe Truck Equipment requires a major marketing effort. While the company has one marketing department under the direction of Rufenacht, major product areas have their own sales staffs.
The truck equipment sales department handles the sales of bodies and equipment mounted on light, medium, and heavy trucks. Typical installations are dump bodies, stakes, service bodies, platforms, and municipal snowplow trucks.
Truck accessories are sold through a separate sales department. Common lines include running boards, bedliners, bumpers, grille guards, toolboxes, leather seats, and such special services as custom painting and striping. MTE markets its truck accessories and services to truck dealers and retail customers.
MTE has a third sales staff that specializes in trucks sold on a shipthrough basis. These trucks and chassis move from the GM plant to the MTE modification center, and then back to the GM transportation system for delivery to the customer.
Marketing is more than just selling. The marketing department also identifies potential products, promotes company products and services, and teaches customers how to use them. MTE conducts frequent training sessions that include classroom learning and hands-on experience for truck dealers and truck customers.Looking BackHere are some of the highlights of the company 's 40 years in business:
* Richard Feller started Monroe Machine & Welding in 1958. For the first two years, he was the only employee. Forty years later, the company employs 750 people, including 450 in Monroe.
The company originally was a welding shop, offering repairs and custom fabrication for local farmers, cheesemakers, contractors, and manufacturers. Feller and his wife Gloria lived next to the shop to be accessible to customers.
* Three years after its start, Monroe Machine & Welding moves into a new 2,800-sq-ft building.
* A tornado destroys the shop in 1965, but the company reopens two months later in a 9,000-sq-ft facility.
* Monroe Machine & Welding began distributing truck equipment in 1965. The decision to get into the truck equipment business was an outgrowth of the repairs Feller was doing for local customers. He started by distributing farm bodies.
"People came to me to get something that they couldn't get locally," Feller recalls. "At first I bought truck bodies from other distributors. I didn't mark them up. I only charged for my labor. After that, we added pickup racks and pickup covers. Dump bodies are our biggest product now, but we didn't begin selling them until 1972."
* MTE hired its first salesman in 1968-after 10 years of being in business.
* The company branched out from Monroe in 1976, acquiring Casper Mobile Equipment in Green Bay and Nichols Truck Equipment in suburban Milwaukee.
* An order from the State of Illinois for 200 dump bodies and hydraulic systems required an addition to the 27,000-sq-ft shop in 1978. After 20 years in business, the company has 62 employees and operates in a 50,000-sq-ft shop.
* The name of the company is changed to Monroe Truck Equipment in 1979 to more accurately describe the nature of its business. The same year, MTE opened its fourth location, building a new facility in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
* In 1984, MTE opened a new 38,000-sq-ft branch in Joliet, Illinois.
* MTE began manufacturing tailgate salt spreaders and underbody scrapers in 1986. The company also offers specialized fabrication.
* In 1988, MTE moved into its present building. The company now employs 265 people.
* Also in 1988 GM selects Monroe Truck Equipment to operate a truck modification center in Janesville, Wisconsin-the sixth MTE location.
* By 1998, employment totaled more than 700 people, up more than 350% since 1991. In addition to the current locations, MTE plans to have new shops operating in Flint, Michigan, and Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota, by the end of the year. By moving to Flint, MTE will continue to be close to the production of GM commercial trucks. The truck manufacturer is relocating production of its 3500 HD and medium-duty trucks from Janesville to Flint.
"The Twin Cities location will not be a full branch," Rufenacht says. "It will help us with our chassis pool business. We will sell light truck accessories and serve the dealers there, but we will not cater to the municipal market."
MTE will open its Twin Cities location with a 40,000-sq-ft facility and will start its Flint operation with a 50,000-sq-ft building.
New Management Feller founded the company and remains active in it. However, day-to-day operation of Monroe Truck Equipment is in the hands of three principals: Dave Quade, president; Rick Rufenacht, vice-president of marketing and sales; and Greg Krahenbuhl, vice-president of equipment sales and installation.
"Truck equipment is a different business now than it was when I started," Feller says. "It's much more technical. These fellows are very familiar with the technical side of the business, and they have a lot of good ideas for moving the company forward."
Quade joined MTE in 1982 as a comptroller. Two years later he became vice-president and a shareholder in the company. He has served as president since 1995.
Rufenacht has been with the company 13 years. After a three-year stint as an inside salesman in the accessory and truck equipment sales department, hewas named head of marketing. He led the effort that enabled MTE to become a bail ment company for Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, and GMC, and a truck modification center for GM.
Krahenbuhl joined MTE as a welder and equipment installer in 1973. After serving as a shop foreman and shop superintendent, he became a shareholder in the company in 1989.
Getting It Right Management has several objectives for the company. One of them is to continually find ways to improve quality. The company is striving to achieve QS 9000 certification. The reason: truck equipment customers have increasingly high expectations regarding quality, and the chassis manufacturers with whom MTE works closely demand it.
"One of our goals is to handle similar transactions in a similar fashion," Quade says. "We are striving for more uniformity in our systems. And with two more locations opening this year, it will be important to implement what we have learned at our other locations. Particularly for distributors that operate multiple locations, it is important to do the same thing the same way every time-throughout the company."
One way Monroe Truck Equipment is becoming more uniform is by having employees use the same database. The company is close to having its entire sales staff outfitted with laptop computers equipped with an automated sales quotation system.
"All we have to do is put in the specs," Rufenacht says. "The software is able to work up a proposal-even for trucks that have detailed and complicated central hydraulic system specifications."
Monroe Truck Equipment uses management software developed by Spokane Computer Inc of Spokane, Washington.
"The system has made things a lot easier for us and our customers," Quade says. "Spokane has customized their software to make it more effective for us. But the big challenge has been to develop our flow of information manually. With that done, a computer can track things."
Keeping Track The company also uses technology to keep track of the hundreds of trucks that are on the premises at any one time.
"We used to be able to memorize the status of each truck we had in the shop," Krahenbuhl recalls. "That's just not possible anymore."
MTE uses a handheld scanner to read the vehicle identification number of each truck at least twice-when the vehicle arrives and when it leaves. That puts the truck into the company computer system. With that information and subsequent updates, it is possible to field phone calls from customers and provide accurate status reports without putting them on hold.
"We put the system in place mainly for our bailment trucks," Krahenbuhl says. "But it also has good reporting capability. It tells us details about the types of bodies we are installing, what their specifications are, and the specifications of the trucks on which they are mounted."
Reaching Out The 40th anniversary is over. The fact that MTE provided transportation for some of the people who attended the company's recent open house is typical of the way the company operates.
Monroe, Wisconsin, is 100 miles from Milwaukee and 120 miles from Chicago. One of the challenges MTE has faced is convincing someone more than 100 miles away that the company will treat them and their truck well. MTE hires retired farmers to pick up and deliver customer trucks. Between 60 and 75 farmers provide that service.
"We work hard persuading remote customers that we will take good care of their trucks," Rufenacht says. "The retired farmers that pick up and deliver for us have been around machinery all their lives. They know what it's like to maintain equipment. Our drivers have helped us gain the trust of our customers.
"We always have gone a long way to get business," Rufenacht says. "We are located in a town of 10,000 people. The population of the entire county is only 30,000. Distributors in major metropolitan areas have their customers right there. For us to grow, we have had to reach out. We don't take business for granted."