Fruehauf relaunches U.S. trailer production

June 6, 2022
After 25 years, 'foundational' brand back in business as new Bowling Green facility gears up for 5,000 units per year

BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky—For the first time in 25 years, Fruehauf is building trailers in the U.S. A company executive referred to the June 2 ribbon-cutting event here as a "back to the future" moment, while the governor called the century-old brand "foundational" and "one of the most important businesses in the entire history of commerce and trade."

On hand to witness the launch of the next chapter of the historic business were state and local government representatives, Fruehauf dealers, customers, and industry suppliers—along with a lot of news media—who gathered under a tent outside the new 125,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility in the Kentucky Transpark industrial area. An initial $12-million investment will create nearly 300 jobs, according to the company.

The new business traces its legacy to August Charles Fruehauf, credited with inventing and commercializing the semi-trailer. Founded in 1918, the original Fruehauf Trailer Company grew to become a massive, global, vertically integrated conglomerate building products including defense and marine equipment. Subsequent financial challenges led to the sale of various divisions and to bankruptcy following the 1996 trailer industry downturn. Wabash National bought the remaining trailer business in 1997.

Now doing business here as Fruehauf Inc., the company is owned by Grupo Fultra, a Mexico-based corporation whose transportation brands include Fruehauf de Mexico, which has produced trailers since 1965.

"After the last couple of years, we deserve good days—exciting days, days of hope, days that move us into the future," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said. "And that's exactly what we are celebrating today."

In addition to explaining the historical significance of the plant opening, Beshear suggested that Fruehauf's invention has allowed Kentucky to become "a logistics capital" in the U.S., geographically located "within reach of 60% of the country's population in a one-day drive."

Indeed, Bowling Green's location on the I-65 corridor and proximity to key customers was critical in placing the new facility here, explained Tom Wiseman, Fruehauf Inc. president.

"When we first announced that we were bringing the Fruehauf product back into the U.S. market, it was amazing how many 'Fruehaufers' contacted us and were very appreciative that the product was going to be built and offered again here," Wiseman said. "It makes it a much easier job from a marketing standpoint and meeting customer expectations."

But even though building the facility and getting it up and running has taken less than a year since the site was selected, the effort has hardly been 'easy.' Along with COVID, supplier, and labor challenges, Bowling Green was struck by a devastating tornado earlier this year.

"But you know what, it all came together," Wiseman said, and he pointed to a trailer, unit number 17, parked nearby. "Luckily, we were able to start production, maybe only a month or two behind what we had originally targeted. And here we are today, in celebration of product that's been rolling out the door."

Wiseman and Don Brown, VP of engineering, both began their careers with Fruehauf in the 1970s. They've since worked in the trailer industry in various capacities, with various companies, before teaming up to re-launch Fruehauf's U.S. production—and that combined experience and expertise has been crucial to the startup effort, Wiseman noted.

"This is a full circle for us—it's like checking that box," Wiseman said. "We're building a team here with both experienced and junior employees that are learning the skill of trailer building. We are very excited about it."

The facility is a good example of why the North American "common market" and NAFTA (now USMCA) is "a great agreement," noted Fultra Chairman Eugenio Clariond.

"Today is a major step of a long-term commitment to Fruehauf in North America—we are here for the long run," Clariond said. "We expect to continue investing in the development of people, our products, and the communities that surround us where we operate, and as well establish a nurturing, long-lasting relationship with our customers, dealers, aftermarket partners, and suppliers."

With a planned capacity of 5,000 trailers per year from the Bowling Green facility, added to an expanded capacity of 8,000 trailers in Mexico, the combined trailer output is "on target" to make Fruehauf a "top five" manufacturer in North America, added Fultra CEO Jorge Martinez.

"We are committed to continue investing and developing our brand in the region with a long-term outlook," Martinez said. "At its core, Fruehauf stands out for two reasons: First and foremost, for highly engineered products designed to last; and, just as important, for always delivering on our commitments.

"We are honored to be the stewards of these great traditions, and are committed to upholding these core values as our North Star."

For additional coverage, including plant and product details, see the print edition of Trailer/Body Builders magazine.