Parker power

THEY can't make hydraulic dump trailers fast enough at Parker Trailer Sales Inc in Mt Pleasant, Texas.

Chalk it up to Mother Nature's nasty carnage.

When four hurricanes blasted Florida in a six-week span starting August 13 — the first time since 1886 that four hurricanes hit the same state in the same year — over 70 people were killed and insured losses topped $23 billion. The cleanup is still going on — as Parker Trailer has discovered.

Sales manager Rodney Hunt says they built more hydraulic dumps between August and November than they had in the previous two years.

“They're still calling, begging for them,” Hunt says. “I don't have a dump on the yard I can sell. If a guy comes in off the street and wants to buy a dump trailer, he has to wait 14 days, because everything I'm building has been sold.

“A man called an hour ago, wanting two of them taken to Port Charlotte. They see them up and down the road, ask you for a price, pay for them and say, ‘Bring them to me.’ They know they're going to work. They'll talk to somebody who has them and ask them how they work, and 99% of the time, the answer's going to be, ‘Man, they're the best thing that ever was.’ They get on the phone and call you and order one … or two … or three.”

Most of the trailers are the 16' tandem-dual model, and they're headed for Pensacola or Panama City — the area of the Florida Panhandle that caught the eastern quadrant of Hurricane Ivan when it cut a swath with winds of 140 mph.

“We can't get enough of them built,” Hunt says.

Market demand

Parker Trailer has specialized in hydraulic dump trailers since introducing them to the market in 1989, according to 41-year-old owner Roy Parker. He says in response to some customers' requests, he decided to sketch out a design for a hydraulic dump trailer, along with Hunt and Allen Roberts (no longer at Parker).

“We wanted something easy and user-friendly — something a three-quarter-ton pickup could pull,” he says. “We didn't have any competition that was building them anywhere in the country. Even companies that were bigger than us weren't building them.”

Hunt says he, Parker and Roberts made a frame, bought a hoist from Crysteel Manufacturing Inc and “took it from there.” In five days, they built a 10' prototype. They had to make just two adjustments on the trailers they built after that: They had gotten a 39-degree angle — short of the 45-degree angle they wanted — so they moved the hoist 3” to the rear; and they switched from panel sides to hot-rolled smooth-plate sides.

“I figured they would be pretty good,” Hunt says. “I knew they would work. It was just going to take some time — eight, 10, 12 months. If they worked on a truck, they'd work on a trailer.”

Roberts left shortly after the first trailers were produced, so Hunt started building them by himself. Parker didn't have to buy any new equipment — a cutting torch, welding machine, and grinder did all the work. Hunt continued to fill orders by himself until the company hired help.

At that time, the company was located on Airport Road on the south side of town, in a small shop on two acres of land. It was so cramped that every morning they had to tow trailers out onto side streets and park them, then reverse the process at the end of the day. But production really took off in 1991 when Parker bought 50 nearby acres and built a 200-ft-long facility on land that used to be the Pleasant Drive-in Theatre. He expanded the work force and watched the business double.

The early days

Parker always loved welding and painting. His first job, at age 18, was working for Terry Cameron at Cameron Trailer Sales in Mt Pleasant. He installed axles and floors on trailers and painted them. After Cameron shut down his company, Parker started Parker Trailer Sales in 1984 and ventured into the realm of boat trailers.

“I didn't want to get into competition with him,” Parker says, “but he gave me the names and numbers of the customers I knew when I worked for him and said, ‘You know these guys. You've been dealing with them all along. Build them some utility trailers.’ I contacted them and started selling utility trailers. It was a much better deal for us. So we got out of the boat trailer business and built strictly utility trailers. For the next one or two years, I'd take a load of trailers to San Antonio every Friday. We had enough trailers to keep us busy.”

Parker owned a 30' × 40' sheet-metal shop and employed just one other person — Hunt. The days were arduously long, and they'd produce one or two trailers a day in the range between 16' and 20'.

“He (Hunt) was a heckuva welder,” Parker says.

By the late 1980s, Mt Pleasant was booming and was well on its way to becoming what some call “The Utility Trailer Capital of America.” Parker's competition included Texas Bragg, Hatfield Trailers, and Sam's Trailers.

Mount Pleasant had a healthy economy based on agri-business, industry, tourism, and wholesale and retail trade. The trailer business was helped greatly by its location on the Interstate 30 corridor connecting the Dallas Metroplex, Tyler-Longview, Texarkana, and Shreveport, Louisiana.

“The big thing was the availability of parts, tires, lumber, and welders,” Parker says. “McKelvey's Parts had everything from A to Z that we needed for trailers. They've been good to us, having the parts we needed. With two of them here (McKelvey's and Mt Pleasant Trailer Parts), there was competition and the price stayed low.

“We were doing business just by word of mouth. They found us. I've never had anybody in outside sales since Day One. Mt Pleasant was the capital of utility trailers. People were going to come here and shop.

“I never had a dream that it'd be as big as it is now. I was just looking at it as a day-by-day, week-by-week job. It got to where we could buy some steel direct, a few parts direct, and we just kept growing.”

Move to MIG

In 1987, Parker made a decision that changed the course of his production process. Despite skepticism, Parker Trailer became what he says was a significant player in the development of utility trailer makers' use of MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding, also referred to as GMA (Gas Metal Arc) welding.

“At the time, they said it wouldn't work because of dust in the shop area,” he says. “ ‘The work area has to be dust-free,’ they told us. Tim Townsend, a gentleman who sold me one of my first welding machines, told me it would work. We bought a MIG machine from him — an SP-200 from Langdon Oxygen — and went that route. We had some crackerboxes — some regular stick welders — and used them a little, but the MIG welding was so much nicer, cleaner, and neater.

“It's kind of funny, but one of our biggest competitors called me up one day around 1987 and said, ‘If you ever want to make any money, you need to take those MIG machines and thrown them out the back door and buy some more stick machines. Crackerboxes are the only way you're ever going to make any money.’ I'll never forget that because it wasn't long after that that he went strictly MIG.”

MIG welders are usually referred to as wire-feed welders, with the word metal referring to the consumable wire electrode used in the process. The wire and the weld joint are shielded by an inert gas, and the wire electrode that is continuously fed into the arc and weld joint acts as the filler rod.

Unlike stick welding, MIG weld-quality results are affected by more machine-controlled variables: the current generating capacity of the welder, the thickness of the material to be welded, the thickness of the wire electrode, speed of travel, type of shielding gas used, flow rate of shielding gas, and the preparation of the joint.

“We found that it produced a much better weld,” Parker says, “and that it was a lot quicker and a better all-around welding procedure. We showed our customers how our trailers were built, and that we didn't have a grinder to it and how you could see the pretty weld, how it wasn't grinded back off and the flux wasn't all over it.”

Parker followed with the hydraulic dump trailer in 1989 and began doing custom work on any trailer of any size. The new facility in 1991 allowed the company to expand its business, and within a year, Parker had increased the length of the manufacturing plant to 500'.

Booming business

These days, Parker Trailer has 185 employees and is building 7,000 trailers a year. The breakdown: 2,000 single axles (8'-12'); 500 hydraulic dump trailers; 200 goosenecks; and 4300 tandem axles (3500-lb series up to heavy-duty bumper pulls).

“It should be a record year for us, despite the problems steel prices have caused,” plant manager Kerry Whitaker says. “We raised our prices 11% — a 3% surcharge and then an 8% increase — but steel prices outpaced the increases.

“I'm going to be optimistic and say it's going to be a good year. We'll meet our quotas on manufacturing. It'll be better than last year. That was a bad year — the worst I've seen in awhile. You couldn't get steel in a lot of places. And in the places you could get it, it was like a piece of gold. Everything just went crazy. I've never seen steel at $250 or $270 a ton and then $500 or $550 a ton four months later. The people who thought they could sit it out … I feel sorry for them.

“Some people pretty much had to shut down. I just cross my fingers and hope it doesn't do anything to trailer manufacturers. Our trailer's 90% steel.”

Whitaker says the company has been trying to find different ways of operating. He says that in June, he switched all his custom builders back to piecework.

“We're still running the same amount of production with about 16 welders,” he says. “Between going up 11% on the price and cutting back on labor, we've knocked $6500 off the payroll. It means some guys don't have their jobs, but they left on their own. I didn't fire them. I always said I wouldn't go back to piecework because I didn't want to lose that control that you have on an hourly system. With piecework, they're their own boss. So far, it's worked well.”

Parker also has branched out by purchasing 13 acres on I-30 and establishing the Performance Trailers Factory Outlet, offering a full line of Featherlite trailers, Performance Trailers by Parker, and trailers by Pace American, and Forest River.

“It's been one of the best things I've ever done,” Parker says. “We wanted to get on the interstate and get some of the market there. It's a heckuva location. All of my competition is out there. We let them do the advertising and we do the selling.

“I wanted to get into the retail end of horse trailers and enclosed trailers. We never really handled anything in the aluminum line in horse trailers. Hooking up with Featherlite has been very good for us. They build a great product and we've done well with them.”

Says Whitaker, “I don't think there's a Featherlite dealer within 100 miles of this place. We're getting a lot of people who didn't even realize there was even a Featherlite outlet there.”

Horse clientele

Sales director Lisa Westmoreland says the outlet is catering to horse clientele who are looking for everything from spot trailers to living quarters trailers.

“We get some people from east of the Mississippi who are coming to Fort Worth to show, and we catch them on the way back,” she says. “Featherlite is a beautiful trailer. Their motto is, ‘Safe, secure, and smart’ — which is really important to the horse enthusiast. There's the old joke: ‘Some of them treat their horses better than their kids.’ ”

The outlet is carrying over 100 trailers on its lot, including horse trailers by Featherlite, cargo trailers by Pace American, Work and Play trailers by Forest River, and motorcycle trailers.

It also has what Westmoreland says is one of the few indoor showrooms in the country. The building — purchased from Ronnie Narrmore, who constructed over 90% of the buildings on Parker's primary property — is the former Orange Blossom Special, a legendary honky-tonk that was in business for over 30 years and hosted Willie Nelson, Pat Green, and other country-music stars.

“If the walls could talk … ” Westmoreland says as she walks through the showroom.

Parker says he spent more than a few nights in the Orange Blossom.

“Sure,” he says. “Had to. It was the only place to go around here.

“Anybody that's a local person who goes in there now says, ‘Man, I can't believe it looks like this’ or ‘I didn't realize there was this much room.’ ”

Parker is always looking for new ways to serve his customers and expand his offerings. This is his company's 20th year in business — and that's saying something, considering the competition he has faced in Mt Pleasant, with an estimated 50 trailer manufacturers within a 25-mile radius. He can't even count the number of companies that have come and gone.

“It seemed like every year, a couple would spring up in the springtime and fall back in fall,” he says. “That was pretty much the scenario. There's more competition by far now — fewer companies than at the peak in the early to mid-‘90s, but a lot more production. The companies that survived are doing well.”

Count Parker among them.

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