Craig Bennett, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., recently sat down with HDT Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge to talk about the company's 100 years in business.
Q: Utility Trailer is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and I understand it's still a family business. Tell us about how it was founded.
A: My grandfather and his brother were in the retail lumber business in Phoenix when a guy came in from Los Angeles with a load of lumber on a trailer behind his car or truck. And they realized he was hauling twice as much product. They asked him where he got it, bought the company and moved to Los Angeles. They changed industries. They built a business where they designed a trailer uniquely different for each customer. They built cattle trailers, a 'cow palace' to haul live cattle one way and cut meat the other way – the FDA doesn't like that anymore – lowbed trailers, tank trailers. They built a trailer to haul a whale. (Little Irvy, a frozen 20-ton, 38-foot sperm whale transported as a traveling side show by Jerry "Tyrone" Malone starting in the late '60s.)
There's a lot of product we don't do anymore for good reason – you have to excel in certain product categories to be successful in this business.
Q: But refrigerated trailers eventually became your main product offering. Tell me about those early refrigerated trailers.
A: Initially they were [insulated with] spun glass like you use in a house. You built a bunker in the front with ice and it would cool the produce – not very well. We evolved the mechanical refrigeration unit from there. When we first began they leaked oil and burned up and overheated, and you didn't know what the temperature was inside. Then we got into polyurethane foams, which were being used in the aircraft industry. We had to learn all about foams – how do you get two chemicals and put them together to grow to six times their original size and fill those cavities? We developed technology to apply foam to the truck trailer industry in the '70s.
Q: You grew up in the business. What was that like?
A: I started out in Texas. When I got out of school I started a dealership in Houston and started selling trailers retail, then moved on from there. I spent time in Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, all in the retail world, then I came to the corporate office in 1980.
Q: Did you ever think of doing anything else?
A: I did, but I didn't [actually do anything else]. I had an engineering degree and I thought about working for an aerospace company in southern California. But I decided it wasn't for me.
Q: What's the business like today?
A: The industry has been very cyclical, but since 2009 it's been pretty good. It's interesting; it's not a high-tech industry, yet now we have computers on trailers and refrigeration units and braking systems and roll stability systems. There's a lot of technology that goes into it, into the structure – and trailers do get abused now and then, so we have to do a little Sherlock Holmes work to figure out what really happened.
Q: Do you have some numbers?
A: We are building over half of all the refrigerated trailers in North America, pretty consistently. Dry van market share was 12.5% last year. Overall we had a 16% market share last year.
We have had the number one selling refrigerated trailer in North America for 20 years, the 3000R. We built a new factory in Virginia in the late '90s and developed a brand new reefer trailer – we took the 2000R and started with a clean sheet. It was stronger and more thermally efficient. Virtually every part and piece was new.
Q: While your dry van and refrigerated trailer market share is growing, flatbed is down and was only 6% of your production last year, and your flatbed market share was down to 11% from 16% in 2011. Why?
A: It's a very fragmented market. If you look at that segment, there's a huge quantity of suppliers who make a handful of trailers a year. They are probably the least sophisticated trailers, people keep them for 20 years. It's a workhorse and a good product for our dealers to have, but it's not evolving as fast as it probably should. And in our case, we sell a lot of flats in the ag business to farmers – there was no water in California, so we've lost a lot of that business.
Q: I understand Utility is the only trailer company with its own test track.
A: That's the advantage of the test track, to know how trailers really perform under various conditions. We had it when the factory was located in City of Industry and it was dirt. We closed the factory and moved it to Rancho Cucamonga and made it all concrete.
Q: Do you do testing to simulate abuse?
A: We run forklifts into the wall, we twist the trailer, we have a floor-testing device we created that just goes back and forth on the floor all night, stuff like that. We do thermal testing as well so we know how the trailers will perform, how it's going to degrade over time, how it reacts if you freeze it or if you heat it to 130 degrees.
Q: How have trailers changed?
A: They're longer, higher, and smarter. For the length they're stronger, they're lighter, and need less maintenance on the component parts. The component parts in our designs have gotten so much better, they don't have the downtime they used to. Upper couplers are an example. Used to be, in the Midwest they would corrode out in everybody's trailer in six, seven or eight years. Today we have a process [dipping them in corrosive-resistant coating] and they last virtually forever, for the life of the trailer.
Q: What kind of changes are going on now?
A: The industry continues to evolve. For instance, our roll door rear case is now 4 inches higher to get more cargo in easier – the door rolls up and stays in the horizontal position. Another example is the automatic lift axle we're showing here on our DX composite trailer if you're running diminishing loads. We have extended-wear aluminum floors, particularly for grocery people and other industries that use their equipment more than others. We have a 24,000-pound-rated floor on a dry van – there continue to be heavier loads, coils of steel and paper, that put more concentrated weight on the floor system.
Q: What do you think of the Walmart concept trailer, displayed at one of your competitors' booths, made of carbon fiber?
A: Carbon fiber is a strong, lightweight material, but on that trailer, it's on top of a plywood core – that's like a dinosaur, going backwards in time. Nobody will buy a trailer like that. It's a great concept trailer but I don't think it's a practical idea. You have to have something that's repairable, that's priced right, that's corrosion resistant. Carbon fiber doesn't meet the price criteria. And these things have a way of getting banged up and to put it in the shop … I think it's a brilliant marketing move, but we don't feel threatened by it at all.
Q: Obviously aerodynamics on trailers is a hot topic, with most people expecting the federal government to include tractors and trailers as a unit in its next round of heavy truck fuel efficiency regulations. What are you doing to improve aerodynamics and fuel economy?
A: We were the only trailer company to develop our own side skirt. We have been doing a lot more research. We're testing devices on the track, working with Peterbilt on their joint testing (of the EPA SuperTruck project). We do have to be practical. A lot of ideas are aerodynamically sound, but longevity-wise they don't make a lot of sense. There are thousands of patents that have been issued, a lot of rabbit trails and dead ends people have gone down. You need something that's practical, not too heavy, repairable and structurally sound, and integrated into the trailer design.
Q: I understand company personnel spent a lot of time going back through the history in preparation for the anniversary celebration. What were some of the things that surprised you?
A: We learned a lot of things, especially about doing business during World War II. The government controlled the materials and labor contracts, and you didn't have a business if you weren't a government contractor. So we became a government contractor. We built lots of bomb trailers and munitions trailers and all kinds of stuff.
Editor's note: Utility debuted a special museum trailer at the Mid-America Trucking Show last month. Called the Legacy Museum trailer, it features interactive screens, historical photographs, rare memorabilia and a 25-minute documentary film.