An organization like TTMA certainly is bigger than any individual, no matter how accomplished and respected they might be.
That’s not to say a person can’t be representative—an exemplar, even. I’m thinking John Rust, recently retired VP of engineering at Trail King, has been an ideal chairman of the association.
I say this as someone who’s only been covering the trailer industry for TBB since 2017. But Rust’s farewell words at this year’s convention-closing banquet captured so much of the heart of the organization that I can’t resist sharing them here in some detail.
For starters, I should note that I don’t quite buy Rust’s self-deprecating assessment of how he ended up leading TTMA.
While he portrays himself as a simple farm boy from North Dakota, Rust started his engineering career designing nuclear power plants for the Navy at Westinghouse Electric. Critically, he learned to compete both within a company that boasted 3,000 engineers and against the “hated” global industrial giant, General “bleeping” Electric.
That rivalry was “part of the culture,” and it was a lesson he took with him when, after 16 years, he had a “a now inexplicable desire” to return home “to the frozen tundra of the Northern Plains.”
While the competitive culture at Trail King wasn’t quite Westinghouse vs. GE, “we didn’t want a competitor to beat us out of single deal—it was almost more personal,” he continued, and light-heartedly called out specialty trailer rival “blankety-blank” Talbert Mfg.
In 2010, under new ownership, Trail King dispatched Rust to TTMA’s convention as the company’s representative.
“I knew what TTMA was—I had the binder full of recommended practices and technical bulletins on my credenza, but I didn't really appreciate how they accomplish what they do,” Rust said. “So I go to my first engineering meeting. I look around the room and see all of my competition. Oh, hell no! I remembered my Westinghouse training: I'm not going to say a darn thing.”
Immediately following the meeting, hoping “to beat a hasty retreat” to his room, Rust was intercepted by “the late, great” Charlie Fetz, then chief engineer at Great Dane. The two spent an afternoon in the sun, “chewing the fat.”
“I learned that Charlie is basically me—well, with 30 years’ experience in the trailer business and widely respected by the entire industry and government officials,” Rust recalled, again drawing laughter.
Since then, Rust has looked forward to being joined by a “rotating cast” of fellow engineers each spring, to bask in the sun—“for some, for the first time in months.”
“We're all just similar folks, working in the same industry, dealing with similar issues in the marketplace and government regulations,” he said.
Then several years ago, TTMA Engineering Manager John Freiler asked for a volunteer to be the next vice-chair of the committee—and suddenly everyone in the room focused on the technical bulletins they otherwise prefer to avoid.
“Finally, I couldn't take the long silence anymore and I volunteered,” Rust said. “That was the last time I had a beer before the engineering meeting.
“But it turned out to be a great experience for me, one in which I learned more about dry-van RIGs and SIGs and greenhouse gases than a low-boy guy should ever be forced to. But I also got to lead some great discussions by some very smart people that led to great outcomes.”
Despite his increased participation in TTMA efforts, to be considered for chairman “seemed a bridge too far,” Rust explained.
“I've been on the board since my first convention, but I hadn't really been on the board,” he said. “The board members are, for the most part, presidents of companies, lifelong leaders. That's not me. I'm an engineer in the office. Or maybe under the stairs—toss me down some jerky and leave me be.”
So how much is true? Was Rust really that hard-core engineer happy to toil away in a back office? I’d like to think so, because then that says so much about TTMA: A bright but reticent “farm boy” could’ve been chewed up and spit out in a similar situation. But, in this industry, he was welcomed and encouraged. By competitors. And we’re all better for it.
Of course, the real punchline is that somewhere in this year’s banquet hall was a young engineer who was intimidated by Rust’s accomplishments, and by the easy way he addressed a gathering of hundreds of industry peers. Then someone at the table introduced themself.