It's said that where there's a will, there's a way — and that's the mantra for the owner of Phoenix-based Progressive Industries. Bob Wilson sees himself as a David in an Arizona valley filled with Goliaths. And following David's example, this small competitor is holding its own in the business battleground of manufacturing custom trailers.
“Progressive manufactures custom trailers for buyers who are very particular about design, construction, and the finished look,” says Wilson. “Our customers want a hand-tailored trailer that is manufactured to their exact specifications.
“When I started this company, I assumed there would be lots of trailer buyers moving expensive recreational items, which is a large percentage of our business. But that's not by any means our total customer base.
“Commercial customers are designing their own trailers to fit their specific requirements, as opposed to purchasing a stock trailer and retrofitting it for their needs.”
Progressive has a reputation in the western US as a manufacturer that crafts trailers for classrooms, product demonstration areas, fair/vending trailers, and other applications where a premanufactured trailer might not be able to handle the job.
While many trailer manufacturers want to build every aspect of a trailer's interior and exterior, Progressive follows an unusual manufacturing model — subcontracting specialized manufacturing procedures when necessary. It's a manufacturing model that's successful and profitable, and it delivers repeat customers to his door, Wilson says.
“We provide a turnkey trailer that is specifically tailored to the customer's needs,” Wilson says. “We are successful because manufacturing the trailer to the highest standards is our primary goal, not reaping the highest profit margin from each procedure that we perform.
“In part, a key to our success is that we don't do procedures where we lack in-depth expertise. We will build out an interior without hesitation if we can make exactly what the customer needs; however, we won't try to coach the customer into letting us do something where we think special expertise should be used.
“An example of a subcontracted build out project would be a highly sophisticated electronics package. Some special procedures and installed electronic devices are required for that application. We work with experts in that field to meet customer expectations while adding value to the trailer.”
Progressive first adds value by helping customers to determine exactly what they want in their trailer, and then in building the best trailer for their needs.
“We work with the customer to craft the exact trailer that they want,” says Wilson. “You won't hear us say, ‘Oh, you just want an enclosed race car hauler. Sure, we do that all the time. What color do you want?’
“We spend time with the customer during the design phase. If the customer wants a workbench, we want to know how much weight he's going to place on it, whether he plans to mount a vise on the bench, and what chemicals might come into contact with the surface of the bench.”
The next largest value-added addition for the customer is the box-tube frame that Progressive uses for every single trailer that they manufacture, Wilson says. “We use the box-tube structure for the chassis and trailer framing as opposed to a common technique of post, hat, and roof bows that are used for many production trailers.
“When I worked in the Midwest, trailer manufacturers bought the base frame from a frame manufacturer and then manufactured the trailer on top of it,” says Wilson. “But it's hard to get good quality out of a frame shop. I wanted to build the best frame possible. That's why I use the box-tube material for the frame on every trailer manufactured.
“Many frames in production trailers aren't necessarily weak; however, in some situations they aren't strong enough for some particular applications that end users ask them to perform.”
Progressive performs various frame enhancements during the earliest manufacturing phase possible. If a trailer is sectioned-off or needs structural bracing, the company will manufacture an inner-frame structure for that division. An example might be a car hoist area where two cars will be stacked. Another example would be high-use parts of the trailer such as an office area frequented by several hundred people each day.
Items such as doorway frames are custom designed to fit applications of the trailer. “If the trailer is going to be opened several hundred times a day, that's going to require a different door system than a modified stock trailer,” he says.
Wilson says that Progressive adds value to a customer's trailer by using highly skilled craftspeople; so he is adamant about personally testing the craftsmen before hiring them. “Welding skills are very important for my technicians,” says Wilson. “That's a quality that makes our trailers what they are to the customer. I test each applicant while they perform several test welds made in different positions.
“Trailer manufacturers are having trouble finding skilled applicants,” says Wilson. “I have contacts back in the Midwest, and I've been able to attract some skilled technicians with trailer and body manufacturing expertise.”
Progressive excels at designing trailers, Wilson says. An example would be the Arizona Department of Transportation's (ADT) trailer capable of transporting a portable scale that's winched into a housing under the trailer's floor when not in use. The custom scale can then be lowered to the ground as a weight station.
When the ADT design was accepted, Progressive had demonstrated an ability to manufacture a frame that would handle the unusual requirement of two floors.
Other additions to the trailer include a work compartment outfitted with four workstations, a driver's waiting area, bathroom facilities, and a bunk area for overnight stays. A diesel generator provides continuous power when shore-power is unavailable.
“The 32-foot gooseneck trailer frame was designed to withstand the strain of several hundred people entering the trailer daily when it's in use,” says Wilson. “The trailer also required extensive electrical and communications wiring that had to be shielded and protected.
“They were very specific about electrical requirements and the importance of the communications system. It was designed so that the Arizona Highway Patrol and other law enforcement organizations could use the trailer as an emergency operations center.”
Wilson contracted the interior electrical and communications wiring to another company. “They understood where they could safely run the different types of wiring and what to shield so that computer banks and radios would operate correctly.”
He also contracted the interior build-out. “We found an office furniture manufacturer that had products capable of withstanding the punishment of daily use. We worked with them to manufacture the bracketing and fittings required to attach the furniture and fixtures to the trailer's interior.”
It's a technique that's paid off, Wilson says. ADT already has ordered four units from Progressive. “I believe our design and manufacturing techniques have withstood the rigors of ADT's daily use of the trailers. We are also doing some refurbishing work for them on other general trailers in their fleet.”
Progressive has built similar specialty trailers for other commercial customers. Most commercial buyers want trailer longevity. “In some situations, the trailer is purchased with grant monies or charitable donations,” says Wilson. “The unit has to last, and it has to be easily repairable. Plumbing and electrical junction boxes must be in easily accessible locations.”
One of the trailers requiring an extensive plumbing design was a 24-foot on-site dental unit manufactured for a dentist who subcontracts to state and federal governmental organizations providing assistance to Native American populations. The dentist has ordered four units for use on Indian reservations in the Southwest.
“This trailer had extensive fresh water, waste water, and electrical systems, as well as the air conditioning and heating systems,” says Wilson. “The frame needed additional strength to handle the weight of dental workstations and the pedestal dental chairs that were bolted into the floor.”
Dental workstations were directly supported by the trailer's frame. Additional side support designed into the trailer compensates for heavy cabinetry and anchor points for x-ray equipment bolted to the walls.
Not all of the trailers that Progressive manufactures are for law enforcement or medical services. Some are fun — at least for reporting on the fun.
“Creative Communications leases radio equipment for on-site broadcast,” Wilson says. “A local or national station will use their equipment to broadcast large sporting events. We worked with their radio engineers to design a 32-foot fifth-wheel trailer that could handle their requirements.
“The frame had to support a very tall, telescopic radio mast for broadcasting.” Wilson says this trailer was a classic example of designing for extensive electrical wiring requirements, heavy-duty cabinetry, and incorporating large storage bins — in this case to hold hundreds of feet of electrical cable.
“Many of the classroom and demonstration trailers have similar requirements,” says Wilson. “Customers want problem free operation and longevity. That's a strong point for this company. We will find subcontractors to handle some of the specialized wiring or interior build-out operations. Our customers find that a very attractive benefit. It's not just a trailer with a motor home interior.”
Progressive Industries is housed in a 14,000-sq-ft building in the heart of Phoenix's industrial center. The footprint includes a 1,500-sq-ft office and showroom area, a 4,000-sq-ft repair and service center, and an 8,500-sq-ft manufacturing facility.
Wilson acknowledges that his manufacturing facility is small compared to several of the powerhouse trailer manufacturers in the region. Nevertheless, that isn't putting a damper on Progressive's activities.
“Some of the bigger shops have possibly experienced some slowdown,” Wilson says. “We have been unscathed by the trailer market situation thus far. But a big part of that is because the shop size and the technicians allow me some flexibility in scheduling the work. That is a big help.”
Progressive has three main manufacturing areas — an outdoor area used primarily for initial frame set-up and welding, a paint booth, and an inside manufacturing area for finishing out the trailer.
Progressive's frame manufacturing shop is a large outdoor area with a canopy that stands 25 feet overhead. As Wilson overlooks the work underway in the outside part of the shop, he praises the Phoenix weather.
“You can't do this in the Midwest,” says Wilson. “At least not for very long. It's great to have the open shop. We do most of the frame set-up and welding outside. That's a strong attraction to the welders and to me.”
A P&H 10-ton bridge crane services the full length of the outside manufacturing area. Wilson says the 5-ton P&H block is more than ample for the shop's needs.
The outside shop area is filled with a variety of welding fixtures and setup equipment. Progressive uses Miller welding machines. “The quality of welding equipment and wire is very important to us,” says Wilson. “We use a standard .035 wire, but I have changed our wire brand several times. We've been happy with the Welco product so far.”
After the frames are completed, they are individually finished in a simple filtered downdraft paint booth. Plus, Phoenix's low humidity helps speed the drying process.
The interior area of the facility is used for frame-up manufacturing. After the frame is completed, the assembly is moved inside where the suspension and axles are installed.
Once the trailer's running gear is installed, the trailer is stall built according to the customer specifications. This includes the interior build-out for most of the trailers. Exterior surfaces are also added at this time.
Distributors in fun places
“Phoenix and the Southwest in general were growing like a wildfire when Progressive began,” says Wilson. “That situation continues. The market has helped us because there is a need for what we do.”
Wilson says that all of his dealers are located in what he terms the fun cities. “Everywhere there are toys to be pulled, that's where we are. That's the great thing about the Southwest, the sun shines all-year-round, and that promotes an environment where people want to go out and take their toys with them. I hope the weather holds like this for the next five years. As long as people want to take their toys out and play, that is a good thing for Progressive.”