New Location for 80-Year-Old Company

Some 80-year-olds may not get around as well as they used to. That's not the case with Hulet Body Company in Detroit.

The company, now in its fourth generation, recently moved into a larger plant, expanded its production, and is in the process of serving a greater geographic area.

When Alex and Morris Letvin (the "let" in "Hulet") and two other partners started the company in 1919, its primary business was replacing the canvas roofs that were common during that period. Hulet, however, was quick to offer custom bodies for this relatively new replacement for the horse-drawn wagon.

That combination of repair service and manufactured products has been part of the company's history. It is reflected in its current 55,000-sq-ft facility, where truck body manufacturing shares floorspace with repair bays.

"Our history as a repair shop has helped us design truck bodies," says Tom Letvin, president. "We know what works and where the failures occur."

In its new location, Hulet produces between 300 and 400 vans per year-most of which are built with at least something out of the ordinary.

"Sure, we offer a standard van body," Letvin says. "But the more options the customer wants, the more attractive we become as a manufacturer."

Hulet manufactures van bodies in virtually all common lengths, but the sides are where the company really offers variety. Customers have requested (and received) side-door openings up to 12 feet wide for swing doors and have bought vans with 14-ft-wide roll-up doors on the sides.

"Customers could have bought curtainside vans to get that much access," Letvin says. "But they can see the advantages that large side doors offer-greater strength, more security, and faster opening."

Interior configurations are another area that can vary greatly. Letvin recalls a recent order the company completed, which called for the entire interior to be lined with diamondplate. Special hold-downs on the floor and logistic tracks in the sidewalls are other frequently requested items.

New Location Since moving into its new plant three years ago, Hulet has been using the additional floorspace to increase production. The plant now has a second roofing station and another station for sidewall production.

The acquisition of a special hoist from Maxon Industries' Benwills line of automotive lifts has sped up the mounting process. The hoist straddles the completed van body. Adjustable spreader bars fit beneath the body and hold it steady while it is lifted and the chassis backed underneath it.

"It really has helped our mounting operation," Letvin says. "We plan to buy another one for the shop. We transfer a lot of bodies from one chassis to another, and our shop could put one to good use."

These are but a few of the changes Hulet has completed or planned for its new location. While the company is new to the building, the building is far from new to Detroit. The federal government built the structure in 1941. Letvin is not sure what the original purpose of the building was, but with its thick, solid concrete walls, he knows it was built to last.

"We gutted everything," Letvin recalls. "We redid the walls and restored the woodwork to its original appearance."

Under One Roof The move gives Hulet the efficiency of having its entire operation under one roof. The company had been using all of its 19,000-sq-ft Detroit facility for van body and trailer repair and was manufacturing van bodies at a plant in Elkhart, Indiana.

"Our service business had grown a lot in 1990 to the point that our manufacturing operation was getting squeezed," Letvin says. "So we began distributing van bodies for Delta Truck Body."

With the move to its present location, Hulet shut down its manufacturing operation in Indiana. The company also ceased operations at its previous facility in Detroit. However, Hulet still stores some inventory there and sometimes uses the facility for special projects.

Hulet has not been a big fan of moving. After a brief stint in its original location, the company's second facility served as home from 1924 to 1968. After 44 years in the same spot, Hulet got almost 30 years of service from its next location.

The length of time spent in these facilities is significant considering the way the company has changed over the years.

"In the early years, bodies used a lot of wood," Letvin says. "The back half of the plant was a complete blacksmith shop, and the other half was a wood shop. We could make truck bodies out of trees if we had to."

Technology was changing when Abe Letvin, the second generation, began working at Hulet in the 1930s. Abe Letvin brought to the company something that was relatively unusual in the depths of the depression-a college degree in mechanical engineering. He put that knowledge to use in helping the company manufacture truck bodies from steel instead of wood.

Hulet began manufacturing insulated van bodies, using cork as an insulation material. The new product gained acceptance among a relatively new industry-ice cream delivery. Hulet also produced service bodies designed for use by America's growing utility industry.

The material of choice for van bodies changed again-this time to aluminum.

"When utilities began to buy standard bodies, we stopped manufacturing service bodies," Letvin says. "We made up for it by building up our service and repair business."

In 1975, the company began a five-year period in which it served as a truck equipment distributor. In response to market conditions at the time, the company continued to strengthen its service and repair operations. By 1990, shop requirements were sufficient to take over the company's facility-even with a 6,000-sq-ft addition built the previous year specifically for trailer repair.

"It's good to get our manufacturing and service operations back under one roof," Letvin says. "Plus, we now have the capacity to produce enough van bodies for us to expand our market. We are setting up a new distributor in western New York. Our core market is Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But we know there is a need beyond that for custom vans."

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