IN THE WAKE of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, social analysts theorized that Americans would rethink their priorities.
They'd make more time for family and friends. They'd treasure “authentic experiences.” They'd seek escapes that provided the structure for bonding and kindness. They'd travel regionally rather than internationally, going to places that were regarded as “safe.”
In retrospect, it was the perfect formula for the horse trailer industry.
Ron Hubbard, sales and marketing manager for Diamond G/Dream Coach Trailer Co, certainly wouldn't want to say that the company “benefited” from 9/11, but it's clear to him that the horse trailer industry grew after that, instead of being knocked on its heels as the rest of the trailer industry was.
At Diamond G/Dream Coach, the sales growth was 39% in the fourth quarter of 2001, followed by growth of 42%, 58%, 62%, and 57% in 2002. While the company has not maintained such a dramatic rate — it was 36% in 2003, 49% in 2004, and 31% in the first quarter of this year — there has never been a yearly, or even a quarterly, decrease.
“The inexpensive steel-frame trailers took a hit after 9/11, but anybody in the upper niche had growth,” Hubbard says. “I've talked to a lot of our competitors, and it's pretty much across the board.
“With the upper-crust person, the economy doesn't tend to affect their personal-lifestyle decisions. And in addition to that, the life decisions made as a family became in tune after 9/11. These trail rides and horse shows were an opportunity for mom, daughter, dad, and son to have quality family-time situations, instead of going their split ways. It reinforced the importance of the family and for that relationship to be closer.”
The company manufactures 32 trailers a month in its 39,000-sq-ft building in Purvis, Mississippi — everything from bumper pulls to nine-horse goosenecks. Hubbard says Diamond G/Dream Coach considers itself to be the “Rolls-Royce” of the industry not just because of its quality, craftsmanship, and service, but because it builds exactly what the customer wants.
Diamond G/Dream Coach makes a series of production-line trailers, but it focuses its efforts on high-end trailers — the majority of which are custom fabricated to customer specifications. Its all-aluminum trailers sell for up to $150,000 and provide a home away from home for equestrians transporting their prized horses.
“Four or five years ago, most of the industry went to an approach of, ‘We're going to make three or four models, and you figure out what will work for you,’” Hubbard says. “But if somebody calls us and says, ‘I want a purple roof and flashing lights, and I want my living quarters this way,’ we do it. We build it to your tastes, not ours. There are only about a half-dozen companies that do that — and they haven't gone to the extent that we have in service or offering features.”
He says that 90% of their clientele are high-end professionals: doctors, lawyers, general managers, CEOs. And 90% of them are women. He says that even in situations where a man is making the purchase, his wife is making the final decision 99% of the time.
“She's asking, ‘Is it going to hurt my horses? Is it user-friendly for my needs?’” Hubbard says. “We spend a lot of time on the exterior and interior aesthetics of the trailer. The horse industry is a case of, ‘Mine's bigger. Mine's fancier than yours. If yours is bigger and better, I'm going to go get a bigger, better one.’ So we'll try anything to please them.”
Trey Guin, owner of Town and Country Trailer Sales and Rental in New Caney, Texas, has been a Dream Coach dealer since 1999 — one of 30 in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. He doesn't sell another kind of aluminum trailer.
“Structurally, I like their hinges and doors,” he says. “Put it this way: In six years, I've welded on one trailer — and that's because it was a stock trailer, not a horse trailer. The owner had so many cows in there that a horn went through the roof of a 7' tall trailer. The guy was probably overloading the trailer to begin with. The warranty work on these trailers is little to none. If I had to make a living on my warranty work on them, I'd go broke.”
Guin says that it's not just the trailers he's selling; it's a relationship. He says he and Diamond G/Dream Coach vice-president Scott Graham aren't business associates as much as friends.
“I deal with some other big-name manufacturers, but how many of their owners are programmed into my cell phone?” he asks.
Scott and his father, J R “Junior” Graham, started building horse trailers in August 1996 as Diamond G Trailers. In August 1998, Hubbard and 15 other dealers around the country contacted the Grahams about the possibility of building a specifically designed product for a private-label trailer, with the Dream Group LLC marketing and distributing them through a special type of dealer network to the retail customer.
In April 2001, the Dream Group LLC was merged into Graham Fabrication Inc/Diamond G Trailer Co, creating a larger and strong entity now known as the Diamond G/Dream Coach Trailer Co, which handles all facets of the business, including design, construction, sales, and service.
Better mouse trap
“We tried to make a better mouse trap,” Hubbard says. “We looked at several brands of aluminum horse and livestock trailers, took their good ideas and improved on them and took their bad features and got rid of them. That's where we're at today. We're not going to sell to everybody. We're not looking at volume. But we're going to sell them the best. And we're going to service the consumer once they have purchased a Dream Coach. We're not perfect, and we're not trying to say we're perfect. But we're going to stand behind them and take care of them.”
In an effort to refine the aesthetics of its trailers, the company recently added 10 Lincoln Electric Power MIG 300 Pulse-on-Pulse welders and is using them on many applications instead of Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welders or the company's old Metal Inert Gas (MIG) welders.
Sixty percent of all welds on a Dream Coach trailer are visible to the end user, so the company believes it's important to maintain high quality weld integrity while making every effort to deliver an attractive weld-bead appearance.
Graham says the company's previous MIG equipment caused problems with excess smoke, birdnesting (or wire tangling), high levels of spatter, and low travel speeds.
By switching to the Power MIG 300 with its complementing Python push-pull gun, the company has been able to take full advantage of Lincoln's Pulse-on-Pulse MIG process, a Lincoln Nextweld innovation. By using push-pull feeding, along with Pulse-on-Pulse waveform control, Diamond G/Dream Coach is eliminating many feeding concerns and improving the overall quality of the welds.
“If you're welding something thin with a normal MIG welding machine, it gets hot,” Graham says. “You have to continually trigger the weld machine, clicking it on and off, making the wire come out, because the more you trigger it, the cooler it keeps the metal.
“The pulse welding triggers it for you. It feeds the wire fast and slow, fast and slow, in a pulsating motion. It enables you to weld faster because the wire is pulsating and not just coming out straight. Typically, with an older MIG machine you have the amperage turned up so high — 18 amps and on up. With this new machine, you can turn it down to 13 amps. It has computerized settings. If you're welding mild steel or different alloys of aluminum or stainless steel, you just tell it what to do.”
A high-quality weld
He says Pulse-on-Pulse welding reduces heat input for cleaner welds and less smoke. Not only does the process clean as it welds, but it also produces a decreased amount of spatter and enables Diamond G/Dream Coach to weld thinner materials without burn-through.
Because the Power MIG 300 is able to produce such a high-quality weld, Diamond G/Dream Coach has been able to convert some of its former TIG applications to MIG without compromising appearance. Graham estimates that the increased travel speeds MIG provides allows the company to cut 10 hours out of the fabricating time for each trailer. And with a total of 450 trailers produced at the plant each year, it adds up to quite a substantial reduction in the cost of labor. Graham hasn't made exact calculations, but he's extremely pleased with the results.
Graham says the distinguishing features of the Dream Coach trailer are a three-point, V-shaped aerodynamic nose design, providing for greater wind deflection and more usable interior space; a stronger frame; and corrugated sidewalls that are the thickest and heaviest in the industry.
Most components of the trailer — besides glass products, vents, mats, tires, and lights — are manufactured on site by the company's 65 employees. More than 50 different aluminum extrusions, which range from 30' to 40' in length, are cut in-plant and welded into place. Graham compares the process to fitting together many different pieces of a puzzle, with the extruded shapes cut, bent, and placed on the trailer.
Employees are divided into teams working in service bays. Each bay is responsible for one particular area of the trailer's manufacturing.
With more than 70% of the trailer manufacturing process dependent on manual welding, Graham needed a reliable machine that could create consistently high quality welds. This wasn't an easy task due to the challenging nature of the welding at the Company — thin aluminum, all-position work, and tight space requirements. In addition, imperfections and burn marks in the polished aluminum composing these trailers can't be easily masked.
Lincoln Electric's Jerry Simmons demonstrated the Power MIG 300 to Graham, who says he “fell in love” with it. There were no other comparable machines on the market at that time — or at least he wasn't aware of any — so he began converting immediately.
He didn't need to reconfigure the plant. He simply took some older machines out of service as he installed the new ones.
It takes the company's 28 welding operators approximately 30 hours to complete all the welding on an average-sized trailer. Welds can range from ½" long to the full length of the trailer (up to 44'). The aluminum utilized is 6061-T6 alloy in thicknesses from .080" to .250".
Seventy-five percent of the trailer production is completed using the Pulse-on-Pulse MIG process, while TIG is used specifically for the thin, square exterior door frames.
Graham says the new machines are particularly effective on the front and rear roof caps.
“With TIG, you have to mash a button with your foot,” he says. “The roof cap is 8' to 10' in the air, so you have to get on a scaffold with the foot and hand controls, and it's slow. With the new MIG, you get on a scaffold or our OSHA-approved platform with just the handle of the machine in your hand. We've saved 2½-3 hours a trailer on that part.”
And if that wasn't enough, the company is spending less down time in troubleshooting problems.
“Which enables us to spend more time building trailers and enhancing our bottom line,” Hubbard says.