Benson Manufacturing Grows to Become Flagship Business of International Industries

Oct. 1, 1999
Building dump bodies and trailers for haulers in the coal fields of West Virginia is where Benson Truck Bodies Inc got its start to later become the growing

Building dump bodies and trailers for haulers in the coal fields of West Virginia is where Benson Truck Bodies Inc got its start to later become the growing flagship company of Benson International Inc.

In 1962, Benson Truck Bodies began building dump bodies and trailers in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, where the company has its corporate offices and a 78,000-sq-ft plant. Benson Truck Bodies was purchased by International Industries in 1985 when its name was changed to Benson Manufacturing.

Benson International is the parent company for several subsidiaries that include trailer manufacturing plants, service centers, retail parts outlets, and a financing company. Benson International is owned by International Industries Inc in South Charleston, West Virginia.

International Industries is a conglomerate with holdings in the lumber, coal mining, and trailer manufacturing industries. International owns Kanawha Coal and International Lumber, a company that harvests hardwood timber in the Appalachians.

"Benson Manufacturing is the flagship company of Benson International," says Larry Whitt, executive vice-president and treasurer of International Industries.

To expand its presence in the trailer manufacturing business, in 1990 International Industries started International Trailers Inc (ITI), in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. ITI has a 38,000-sq-ft plant where it builds steel and aluminum dump trailers, 35- to 70-ton lowbeds, and live-floor transfer trailers.

"In terms of company growth, a big year for us was 1998," says Greg Hayes, director of marketing for Benson International.

In 1998, the size of the Meyersdale plant was tripled. Another division of Benson International, Benson Manufacturing LLC, opened and began building aluminum dump trailers at a 36,000-sq-ft plant in Pikeville, Kentucky.

Manufacturing Plant Expansion The same year Benson tripled the ITI plant size, the company purchased May Metal in Allen, Kentucky, and renamed the company May Truck Bodies and Trailers. May builds steel dump bodies and trailers at its facility.

To service the haulers in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, Benson Truck Bodies Service Center was opened in 1992 in Lousmanville, Kentucky. Another service center and parts facility, Leader Trailers in New Philadelphia, Ohio, was purchased in 1997.

Each service center does preventive maintenance and repair work on all makes and models of trailers, says David Cooper, general service manager at Benson International. Service centers have tractors that pick up and deliver trailers to customers. This service is often used by large truck fleets that have maintenance contracts with Benson.

To market used trailers traded in on new equipment purchases, Benson International started Mid-Ohio Valley Equipment (MOVE), which only does trailer sales, and is located at the main plant complex in Mineral Wells.

MOVE was needed because a large volume of Benson's business is with major truck fleets that replace many trailers at the same time. MOVE was started to assist trailer dealers with accepting trades on large fleet deals. The used trades are also sold by Leader.

Central Management System In mid 1998, all the companies were brought under the central management of Benson International. Altogether at its various locations, Benson has 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space on a total of 60 acres.

The Kentucky manufacturing plants are located near major highways and the market areas for the products they build, says Dave Westfall, vice-president and treasurer. Many of the trailers and truck bodies built by Benson's other plants are sold east of the Mississippi River. In the last two years, sales increased in the western United States and Canada.

Benson has significant penetration in the national market for flatbed trailers purchased by large truck fleets, Westfall says. A truck fleet in Des Moines, Iowa, has 1,100 aluminum flatbed trailers built by Benson with more on order.

"We accommodate fleet customers this large by taking trades, financing, and maintaining their new trailers," Westfall says.

Recently, to keep pace with an increased demand for its trailers, Benson invested in new equipment and facilities.

An investment was recently made in warehouse storage space and a new $500,000 computer system purchased from Computer Associates. The Manufacturing Knowlegde (MK) system is designed specifically for trailer manufacturers.

The new computer system will tie together the different subsidiaries of Benson International. Benson will be better able to manage its subsidiaries so it can function more as a single corporate entity.

A virtual private network (VPN) will give salesmen with laptop computers the ability to obtain price quotes and financing for customers from Benson's corporate offices in Mineral Wells. Using passwords, salesmen and other employees can access Benson's VPN over the Internet.

Dealer Network Sales Benson's trailers are sold through a network of 55 dealers, says Bill Gibson, national sales manager at Benson Manufacturing. Most Benson dealers are located in eastern states, but some are located in the west and in Canada.

Sales of platform trailers have increased because Benson's dealers target truck fleets that make large purchases. Because of its sales efforts on all product lines and plant expansions, Benson expects to be among the top 25 trailer manufacturers in 1999.

"We function as a support mechanism for our dealers," Gibson says. Besides assisting dealers with trailer sales, regional managers are product specialists. Sales managers are each assigned to specific products that include aluminum and steel dump trailers; aluminum flatbeds and drop-deck trailers; specialty aluminum flatbeds such as B-trains; aluminum and steel dump bodies; lowbed trailers; and moving-floor trailers.

"They are responsible for developing the product and being experts in that product," Gibson says.

Aftermarket Parts Sales Besides trailer sales, Benson's dealers sell retail parts, says Warren Kosicki, director of aftermarket parts. Benson has established an aggressive dealer wholesale parts program to assist them in this area.

Benson also sells retail parts at five company-owned locations. Plans are to open three more retail parts outlets by the third quarter of 2000.

The parts outlets have tollfree phone numbers and salesman that visit customers regularly. Meeting customer needs requires moving needed inventory between parts outlets with four 24-ft vans that make deliveries in a five-state region.

About 85% of parts orders are delivered the same day, Kosicki says. Benson makes a high percentage of these deliveries because it anticipates what customers need and stocks those parts.

To service dump body hoists and other hydraulic equipment on trucks, Benson stocks wetline kits complete with all the hardware necessary for maintenance. The manufacturer maintains close working relationships with parts vendors to ensure the parts it needs most are always in stock.

Inventory Management Benson recently added 20,000 square feet of warehouse space because it needed additional storage due to sales growth and acquisitions, says Bill Lewis, purchasing and materials manager at Benson. Because of the company's growth, inventory control demanded more attention.

Recently Lewis and Kosicki began coordinating customer parts deliveries with pickups for Benson's central purchasing office in Mineral Wells. Benson's 24-ft vans make pickups and deliveries on the same routes saving time and fuel.

The central purchasing office of Benson International buys parts and raw materials for all its manufacturing plants, Lewis says. Large purchases are made of the aluminum for building flatbeds and dump trailers to assure future supplies of raw material at a fixed cost regardless of price fluctuations.

In February, Benson purchased a large supply of aluminum extrusions, Lewis says. The extrusion supply was supposed to last 12 months but was depleted in August because of Benson's busy production schedule.

As of September, Benson used five million pounds of aluminum to build trailers, Lewis said. Currently, Benson is building 70 to 100 flatbed semitrailers a month.

Because the company purchases only quality parts for its manufacturing process, Benson is able to reduce the cost of its warranty work. In the long run, using inexpensive parts for manufacturing trailers raises costs for warranty repair work.

Benson's parts sales, trailer dealer network, and business strategy have brought positive sales results. In 1998, sales increased more than %50 to $70 million.

Dump Body Installers Part of the reason for higher sales was because of the increase in manufacturing floor space. Another reason is because Benson is doing its own dump body installations at its manufacturing facilities in Mineral Wells; Meyersdale; and in Pikeville and Allen, Kentucky.

"We have a turnkey operation for dump body installations," Hastings says. "Dump trucks can go straight from our plant to a job site."

In 1999, the company installed 150 dump bodies for Mack Truck, which won a bid from the State of Pennsylvania. In 2000, Benson will be building and installing all the dump bodies for the state contract. Benson could build up to 200 dump bodies for the new contract.

Mack and other tractor OEMs ship chassis directly to Benson's plant for dump body installations. Benson truck bodies are often used by Mack for government contracts.

"Mack recognizes our reputation for being a reliable partner," Hastings says.

In addition to the dump bodies, Benson installs central hyraulic systems on the truck chassis to operate dump body hoists and other equipment. Turnkey installation of hydraulic system components and dump bodies is more convenient for tractor OEMs filling state contracts.

Truck body and hydraulic system installers are trained by Benson, Westfall says. More experienced installers train new employees on mounting dump bodies and equipment.

Experienced Craftsmen Several of Benson's shop employees have more than 30 years of experience building and installing truck bodies and equipment. Because of newly hired employees, the average age of Benson's workforce has become younger.

The employee base has grown in response to an 80% increase in sales in the last four years. Most of the increase is from the sales of new truck bodies and platform trailers.

"The older employees impress on younger ones the importance of quality workmanship," Westfall says. "Our employees are craftsmen, like fine cabinet makers."