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Manufacturers shift gears

Truck body and glass rack makers rumble through..


May 11, 2008
By Pat Bolen*

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Truck body and glass rack makers rumble through economy woes.

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Photo Courtesy Of Unruh Fab.

Under the looming economic downturn, truck body and glass rack manufacturers in the US are helping customers maximize the use of their glass carriers to propel sales. Glass Canada spoke to several companies for their thoughts on where industry trends are going.

“Record sales” is how Paul Schodorf, owner and president of Schodorf Truck Body and Equipment in Columbus, Ohio, describes 2007 for his company saying it was surprisingly good despite the housing slowdown. “We just had a great year, and so far this year is actually ahead of last year, which was ahead of the year before. But we do feel it’s starting to slow. We’re feeling the results of the slowing construction industry that started in the fall.”

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“February will probably be the first weak month we’ve had in 15 years… we build a quality product. Once somebody has ours, they don’t want anything else. There is a lot of repeat business for us.”

New diesel emission laws that were introduced in January 2007 have affected large truck sales, says Schodorf, by increasing the cost of every diesel engine by $4000 to $12,000. After the large amount of pre-orders for trucks in 2006 made it the biggest year in 15 years, the increased price in 2007 made it the slowest in 15 years, says Schodorf. “This year looks like it will be like that too for large trucks,” he adds.
Especially good for Schodorf were their small pickup and van lines as well as the one tonne truck with a 10,000 to 12,000 GVW (gross vehicle weight) that takes a one to twelve foot long glass body. “All three were equally strong,” he says, with vans popular in urban areas for more security and trucks selling well in more open areas. Although there is more demand than ever for better gas mileage, Schodorf says he has not seen a trend towards smaller trucks.

After making the switch to aluminum bodies several years ago, Schodorf says nothing has been introduced yet that is cost effective enough to replace aluminum. He adds that although aluminum and steel prices tend to be up and down, the trend recently is upwards with no down. “We’re seeing huge pressure on the price of raw materials going up which obviously has to do with the cost of oil.”

Despite the rising cost of fuel, Schodorf says neither the smaller shops it usually deals with nor larger companies have altered the way they do business. “What people tend to do is replace a vehicle because the used one is costing too much to maintain and it has become an unknown factor. They might have a payment on a new unit that’s predictable. On the new unit, they have a warranty, so they know what the costs are going to be.”

Schodorf says another trend in the industry are customers looking at one tonne trucks with 12,000 GVW over smaller 9500 GVW trucks since the heavy trucks have dual rear wheels and a longer product life because they are not being overloaded daily. “Some people might tend to get a larger vehicle that lasts longer, which we think is a smart move.”

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Photo Courtesy Of Collins Manufacturing Company.

There is also a trend towards gas engines, says Schodorf, since many of the advantages of diesel are no longer there. Although gas engines will get fewer miles per gallon, the overall cost of the vehicle relative to the amount of miles put on it will be less. He adds that life cycle costs are an important factor for any customer looking at a vehicle. “They should look at the life of the vehicle, what its demands will be as far as capacity… if they bought a van or pickup before, do they have to again? Not necessarily.”

The Mercedes Sprinter, which came out several years ago, took the industry by storm says Schodorf, but they are becoming hard to find and are priced over $40,000 without a glass rack. “They are starting to lose their value because they’re priced so high… but if you get the diesel and you’ve got twice the life and you can walk around inside it, you have a nice truck there.”

Goosenecks back in vogue
Monte Berger is national sales manager for larger glass rack bodies and trailers for Unruh Fab in Kansas and says there is not one product for the company’s larger market that is selling better than anything else. “We’re selling a lot of truck bodies, a lot of semi-trailers as well as the accessories and the ergonomics.”

Robin Donker is Unruh’s national fleet manager for pickup and van racks along with warehouse accessory (material handling) products. She says in the first quarter, the company is promoting its pickup and van racks and due to that, is seeing an increase in their sales of those products. For van and pickup truck sales, Donker says it is strictly customer preference depending on the unique needs of each individual glass shop. “If they have secure places to keep their vehicles, a lot of them prefer to work off the pickup rack. But if they have an insecure place where they leave their vehicles, then they prefer the van where they can lock their tools inside.”

One item Berger says the company is working on is gooseneck trailers to maximize every trip a customer makes. After being popular 20 years ago, he says they faded away but with rising fuel prices, “guys are having to build 20 to 24 foot tandem axle gooseneck trailers and they are putting a hitch on the back of their straight trucks that they’re already hauling glass with. And they are able to haul twice as much glass for the same amount of fuel.” Although most of the sales of the trailers have been in the midwest and Berger says he does not know whether it is an industry-wide trend, Unruh has sold quite a few in the past three or four months.

Another strong selling item for Unruh are semi-trailers with forklifts on the back with several sold in the past year after not selling any in the past 10 years. The advantage of the setup, says Berger, is better customer service. “They can take that forklift and unload glass and haul it in to smaller shops that may not have a forklift.”

Donker says after Unruh purchased the rights to Weathers Auto Glass a year ago, her focus will be on getting literature and brochures in customers’ hands, “and let them know those products are still available through us… by the time we got the tooling in and built the prototypes and made sure where we were going to be at, we are just now starting to promote that.”

Donker adds that 10 years ago, almost everything she sold was steel with only a small amount of aluminum, but in the decade since, it has been reversed. “Now, due to fuel consumption and trying to lighten the vehicle, everyone is switching to aluminum. So that has been the big change for us. Ninety percent of the pickup and van racks I sell now are aluminum.”

Although Berger says Unruh does do some work in Canada, and there have been requests from Canada to buy straight trucks, it was difficult to get a truck chassis across the border. “About the only way we could do it was to buy a truck in Canada, drive it down here, put a body on it and drive it back to Canada and that doesn’t make a lot of sense for anybody.”

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Photo Courtesy Of F. Barkow.

Go for gas
John Weise, owner and president of F. Barkow in Wisconsin, says the exchange rate has worked to his advantage and “stainless steel is still the best way to go.” He says the company sells a lot of van racks and a steel rack is $400 more than aluminum. “I think $400 is a lot of money but if you are talking about a life span of 10 years, maybe it’s not that much money.”

While Barkow is still heavily weighted in favour of gas engines, Weise says it makes sense for the added expense of diesel if a customer’s mileage is going to be 30,000 to 35,000 miles a year. “Then you recoup the added expense of the engine and the fuel. But if you’re below that, I think it still makes more sense to go with gas.”

Weise notes that despite increases in gas prices, the gap between gas and diesel costs has not closed much, due to the increased emission standards for diesels. “It used to be a diesel engine was roughly $4000 more than a gas engine. Now it’s probably closer to $6000 or $7000 more.”

Lise Mercure, co-owner of Bromer in Quebec, and Virginie Mercure, in marketing, say with a long lead time of up to six months fabricating their products, there was a large difference in price between the time the products were ordered and the time they were delivered due to the change in the dollar. Despite the rise, Lise says the orders are still there for Bromer although their profit is less than it had been.

Lise says the company was absorbing the cost of the rising dollar but has also tried to offset it recently with changes to its prices and by making its production more efficient. Bromer’s orders to the US are still strong, says Lise and its November and December were very good. “We were anticipating some reductions in the sales, but it’s constant.”

For 2008, Lise says she is hoping the Canadian dollar goes back down. “I don’t understand why it is so high. It doesn’t help the economy of Canada. We’re always researching new equipment so that helps us out too. Our customers know when they have a problem and need a solution, they give us a call and we work for them.”

“That’s what we’re good at,” says Virginie. “Developing new solutions and trying to find the right solution at the better cost for the customer.”

Bromer’s shipping rack with removable wheels was introduced in the US three years ago and despite not advertising it much, word of it has spread north of the border. “Recently, we’ve had a lot of calls for that,” says Lise.

“It is very versatile,” says Virginie who adds that the rack also fits what she describes as one of Bromer’s “star products, the patented pole system. We have it on every glass rack that goes on trucks. We have it also on the dollies, it is a way to secure the glass in a very easy and fast way. It is a very versatile rack that can go from the shop floor directly to the trailer. It’s a good product that we like and it’s getting more popular.”

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Photo Courtesy Of Unruh Fab.

Engaging the Canadian market
One of Bromer’s newest products is its automatic seaming machine that seams four glass edges or three different glass lites at one time. The machine can be applied to any line, according to the company.
“This is a product that we have a really good demand on,” says Lise. While most of the orders have been from the US, Bromer has had three from Canada recently. While Bromer has been hoping to bring one of its seaming machines to a trade show, Lise says they probably would not have any available due to the amount of orders.

While 80 to 85 percent of Bromer’s customer base is in the US, Lise adds that it is also enlarging its market in Canada. “For about two years now, we have more orders than we did before.”

Virginie says Bromer has acquired a lot of new customers for its van and pickup glass racks in the east coast provinces. “We’re getting a good response from them, so this is a new market in Canada that we are developing.” Overall, Virginie says vans remain more popular for security reasons and the Sprinter van, with its inside height feature, also remains popular.

Lise says while 10 years ago, Bromer might make a couple of van racks a week, “now production is three racks a day.” Customers are also looking for more options that will allow them to maximize both large and small vehicles. “The units are now equipped inside and out,” says Lise.

“The market is changing. You can see all the stone business, it has grown a lot. More of our clients in the glass industry are looking for stone as well. In the US, we have a lot of customers that use our pull out draw racks just to store the stone to have a display. Here in Canada, it’s popular but not as popular as it is in the US.” Lise adds that many customers are adding stone to their glass business. “It’s the same product, the same machine. You just change some parts of it and you can use it for glass or for stone.” -end-

*Pat Bolan is a freelance writer based out of Exeter, Ontario.


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