Turning tech into trailers

How a custom trailer manufacturer wins business and influences judges

How Many trailer customers will pay almost a half-million dollars for a single trailer that they have never seen?

If you answered “nobody,” you are only partially right. It depends on what your definition of “seen” is. In today's digital world, it's possible to “virtually see” what you are buying — even when the product is a highly customized trailer. For some customers, that's good enough, especially when the customer lives half a world away.

In its early years, Transport Designs slugged it out with other trailer manufacturers in the 20th century, but the company now uses technology to bring itself closer to customers and to set itself apart from its competitors. The company has done that with sufficient effectiveness to win last year's Small Business Excellence Award from Dell Inc.

What kind of technology does the company use? Frankly, nothing that is out of the reach of most small businesses. And with only 11 people employed there, Transport Designs certainly qualifies as a small business.

The company's approach to using technology isn't simply a matter of acquiring software that needs a supercomputer to operate. Transport Designs just tries to buy basic software, keep it up to date, and use it creatively. The company uses simple tools such as e-mail, digital cameras, and CAD software to communicate closely with its customers, making it possible for customers to monitor the progress of their custom trailer order without ever having to leave their computer screen.

In doing so, the Montoursville, Pennsylvania, company has carved itself a niche — producing one-off trailers for customers around the country and around the world.

“It's a common problem,” says Steve Mattie, president. “A customer says to himself, ‘Hey, I'm interested in having these guys build me a trailer, but I'm in California. How am I going to deal with a manufacturer in Pennsylvania?’ The answer is, he really can't unless we digitally send him everything he needs.”

One of a kind

Customers of most types of trailers can get a pretty good idea of what they want by looking at what's on the road or on a dealer's lot. But that's not the case for customers who want mobile electronics labs or living quarters trailers equipped with granite countertops or zebra wood cabinets.

About half of the company's business comes from building specialty trailers. The other half consists of converting Class 8 trucks into heavy-duty motor homes or offices such as mobile command centers.

“We started in 1988 as a manufacturer of light-duty trailers,” Mattie says. “But we never could get the volume to be competitive with the big companies from Elkhart. To be successful, we had to offer what the big companies didn't.”

In the mid-1990s the company came upon the idea of converting Class 8 trucks into personal-use vehicles. It was the step that led the company into its present market.

“I'm not saying that we were the first to do this, but I honestly can't think of anyone who came before us,” Mattie says. “And for a time, we had the market all to ourselves. Then others began doing it at a much lower price, and we went from 100% market share to almost zero. We had to do something.”

The something Transport Designs decided to do was to greatly improve quality and flexibility. If the customer wants cabinets made of plywood costing $700 per sheet (the current going rate for zebrawood), that's what the customer gets. The company began to specialize in building trucks and trailers that no one else offers, and increasingly relying on technology to gain efficiencies along with customers.

The $25,000 surprise

It was the practical use of technology that set the company apart in last year's Dell's Small Business Excellence Award competition.

“We were the only manufacturing company to submit an entry,” Mattie says. “Everyone else was some sort of tech company.”

An e-mail from the National Federation of Independent Businesses inspired Mattie to at least submit an entry.

“It took about three hours to answer all the essay questions that they were asking,” Mattie recalls. “I almost quit.”

An independent panel of judges culled the entries, eventually whittling the field down from more than 1,200 to 11. The plan was for the judges to present Dell with 10 finalists, from which Dell would select the winner. However, they could not agree on who should be cut. The judges had Transport Designs ranked 11. Dell viewed the company differently. The computer giant picked Transport Designs first out of the 11 finalists.

“Dell really liked the idea that a company with only 11 employees is using technology so effectively,” Mattie says. “Our per-capita use of technology was actually higher than companies in the tech industry.”

The company's reliance on technology impressed the judges.

“We couldn't do what we do any other way,” Mattie says. “It's how we can show a customer in Australia what his trailer is looking like. And if he doesn't like what he sees, we want him to tell us, because we can change it.”

Long distance marketing

The customer in Australia is not hypothetical. Transport Designs routinely sells in Australia, the U K, and Western Europe. The Internet literally has opened the world to Transport Designs — and vice versa.

“Our trailers are popular in Australia and in the U K,” Mattie says. “Something that we might sell for $18,000 is being resold in Australia for $30,000.

The market in Europe is a different story, and not just because of a slow market. Transport Designs has had success selling there in the past but is finding things more challenging now.

“The European Union is getting weird about goods made in the United States,” he says. “Things that we sell in Australia and the U K are rejected by inspectors in Europe.”

The Internet also helps the company sell trailers in the United States. Transport Designs recently build a heavy-duty custom motor home for Leonard Davis, a former all-pro lineman, who at 354 pounds is arguably the largest player in the National Football League. When Mattie asked him how he found out about his company, the football player cited a blog on a Web site.

Keep it current

Mattie has advice for companies that use computer software.

“Keep it current,” Mattie says.

He recommends downloading the 30-day trial versions of software and forcing yourself to use it during the trial period.

“A lot of companies don't like to make the change,” he says. “But at the end of the 30-day trial period, you should be able to discover enough new things to do with the program that the upgrade cost will be worth it. You can do s much more. We have found that to be true — most recently for our AutoCAD program. AutoCAD 2010 is a major step forward.”

He also suggests being responsive to customer requests. That includes e-mails.

“I always try to process e-mails within hours after I receive them,” Mattie says. “Last year I responded to one that seemed unfamiliar. I answered it anyway and then did a Google search to see who it was. I discovered that it was the head of Dell's small business division just checking us out.”

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