HUGHES EQUIPMENT, like many companies in the truck equipment business, isn’t easy to characterize.
The Mount Vernon, Ohio, company clearly is a truck equipment distributor. But a recent tour of the company’s shop showed just how much custom truck body manufacturing has taken over in the three years the company has been in operation.
“My background is in truck body manufacturing, and I started the company with the idea of being a custom truck body manufacturer,” says Todd Hughes, owner of Hughes Equipment. “But truck equipment was critical to us because it gave us the cash flow we needed to get started, and it helped us smooth out our workloads. Plus, it provides us with products that we can’t build nearly as easily as we can buy them.”
Having a couple of truck body lines to distribute is also important because they form the basis of some of the custom truck bodies the company sells. For these types of jobs, Hughes Equipment can start with service bodies from Stahl or flatbeds from Blue Ridge Manufacturing and convert them to custom bodies that are too specialized to be built on a high-volume manufacturer’s assembly line.
“We buy what we can and build what we can’t,” Hughes says.
The most popular body that Hughes Equipment produces is the hauler body—a platform with a gooseneck hitch and underbody storage compartments.
“These have generated a good bit of response,” Hughes says, “especially from the horse market. We displayed at a horse show in Columbus recently and sold several.”
The emphasis on truck body manufacturing is certainly understandable for someone with Todd Hughes’ background. He spent a major portion of his career at Stahl, first as engineering manager and then as product manager for Stahl’s SST trailer. He served as plant manager of the company’s Cardington, Ohio, facility when Stahl decided to close it in 2010. But even after the closure, Hughes did some contract sales work for Stahl while simultaneously working to start Hughes Equipment. The company’s ties to Stahl remain. Hughes Equipment occasionally builds custom bodies for Stahl—typically one-off orders that are not feasible to produce on the assembly line.
Starting Hughes Equipment was almost like producing a company out of thin air. When Todd Hughes opened for business in 2012, he had virtually nothing tangible—a desk in the basement and permission to use his father’s barn to build bodies and install truck equipment.
“We worked out of my dad’s garage the first year in business before we found a suitable building of our own,” he recalls. “My dad sure was glad to get his barn back.”
Much to his dad’s delight, Todd Hughes found an 8,000-sq-ft building a short drive outside Mount Vernon. The building was constructed for an entrepreneur to build hot rods. It served that purpose for six years before the owner decided to retire.
Hot rods and custom truck bodies have a fair amount in common. Both are low-volume processes that require service bays, some light fabrication and paint. The building was already plumbed for air and had the proper wiring Hughes needed to power his welding equipment.
Equipping the shop
One of the most useful things that came with the building was a vehicle lift.
“This works great,” Hughes says. “We had been using a forklift to place the body on the chassis, but this is so much better.
The paint booth occupies one of the shop’s five bays. Three of the bays typically are used for upfits, but at 60 feet deep, each bay has plenty of room to work on more than just a single truck.
One thing normally found at a truck body manufacturing facility that is missing at Hughes Equipment: fabrication equipment. Sure, the shop has a small press brake and some saws for cutting extrusions, but CNC cutting tables and other elaborate equipment are not to be found.
“We outsource most of our fabrication,” Hughes says. “Some of our fabrication requirements can be eliminated by ordering our material cut to size. When we need more than that, we farm it out. We design the parts here and send the AutoCAD drawings to a local fab shop to produce them.”
Another Stahl connection: the fabricator that Hughes Equipment uses is managed by one of Hughes’ former co-workers at Stahl. In addition to performing laser cutting and other fabrication services for Hughes Equipment, the company also produces parts for Stahl.
A platform for truck bodies
An old-time marketing strategy offers customers with “good, better, and best.” While not exactly the same thing, Hughes Equipment’s best-selling truck bodies are platforms with three levels of sophistication.
The basic platform body is also the foundation for much of what the company builds. Want to go up a level? Hughes Equipment offers a body with built-in B & W hitch that gives it the ability to tow gooseneck trailers. The top of the line is the aluminum utility hauler body that has integral compartments much like those of a service body.
“We offer steel models, but most of what we build is made of aluminum,” Hughes says. “There is a segment of the market that does not accept rust. And no matter how you treat the steel, it’s eventually going to rust”
After three years in business, Hughes Equipment is now selling nationally. And sometimes the phone calls from distant customers come as a surprise.
Hughes tells about a custom truck that his company recently built for a customer in North Dakota. Why would someone skip over multiple other companies that are closer in order to buy from an unknown company 1,200 miles away?
“It’s what he wanted,” Hughes says. “He saw an ad that included a picture of one of the bodies and wanted one like it. He enlarged the picture until he could read our logo on the truck and then searched the internet until he found us.”
Truck equipment continues to have a role at Hughes Equipment.
“We certainly are involved in the snow and ice control business,” Hughes says. “We are a dealer for Buyers Products and an installer for Boss and Meyer. We can deliver a complete package.”
The company also handles Stahl truck bodies and Freedom flatbeds by Blue Ridge Manufacturing, Tommy Gate and Anthony liftgates, and Green Wing trailer side skirts from Ridge Corporation.
A manufacturer of custom truck bodies for light- and medium-duty trucks sells trailer skirts?
“Yes,” Hughes says. “It’s a nice addition to some of the work we do. We got the idea recently when we converted a flatbed gooseneck trailer into a van. There is a niche for van trailers around 30,000 pounds. And those trailers can use some aerodynamic devices.”
Hughes Equipment has changed in its brief three-year history. By most accounts, the company is still small. Hughes Equipment has a crew of five in the shop and Julie Brewer—another former Stahl employee—as the office manager. But Todd Hughes sees the new company begin to mature.
“I’m pleased at how becoming an upfitter has helped us grow,” Hughes says. “With that growth, we have been able to do some of the things we are doing now. We now are beginning to get into repetitive jobs. Not everything is a one-off order.” ♦
For more information: www.hughes-equipment.com