Stoughton Trailers growth could indicate US is recovering from recession
BRODHEAD, Feb 24, 2012 (The Janesville Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Some people think Stoughton Trailers is a canary in the economic coalmine.
"If you look at our history, sometimes we're leading into an economic downturn," President Bob Wahlin said, "but sometimes we're leading out of that same downturn.
"We hope that's the case."
Stoughton Trailers laid off hundreds of workers at it Brodhead, Evansville and Stoughton plants in the early stages of the recession. Now, it's hiring.
While the downturn of the last few years has been unprecedented, Wahlin sees production and manufacturing coming back on a national level.
"As that happens, trucking picks up; people are more aggressive in replacing their fleet, and consumer confidence picks up, (which means) more freight to move," he said.
"Hopefully, the trailer industry picking up is a sign of greater success happening," he said.
Stoughton Trailers is receiving orders from companies gearing up for the next shipping season of summer into fall and the holidays. The increase means a ramp-up in hiring at Stoughton Trailers, but Wahlin said he doesn't want to give the impression that everything is great.
The company, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, manufactures conventional and intermodal transportation equipment. Intermodal domestic freight transport uses containers that can be moved between rail and truck.
Stoughton's main product is the dry van, which is the box-and-chassis combination that makes up the box-shaped semitrailers commonly seen on the highway.
The Brodhead plant, where standard fleet trailers are produced, was built for speed and efficiency, Wahlin said.
The Evansville plant builds a redesigned intermodal container and chassis.
The company's corporate headquarters and a trailer manufacturing facility are in Stoughton. The company is hiring for shop floor positions at all three locations.
Stoughton Trailers' last peak was in about 2006, when the company employed 1,200.
By the end of 2008 and into 2009, "the trailer industry more or less stopped," Wahlin said.
Trailer sales dropped more than 85 percent from the recent peak.
"That's not just the Stoughton Trailers trailer. That's industrywide," he said. "With that type of drop, things just shut off. We had to reduce in the short term like never before."
The company only had enough work for about 250 people.
"We don't expect things to be that bad again," he said, noting that those were unprecedented times.
Stoughton has been steadily building back up since 2009. At the end of 2010, the workforce was a little under 500, and the number grew to 800 by the end of last year.
By the end of summer, Wahlin said the company hopes to have 925 to 950 workers.
"Hopefully we can continue that ramp-up path, and things are looking positively for us to do that, but right now we can only commit to adding that many positions," he said.
When the economy took a dive worldwide, people stopped buying and tried to squeeze another year or two out of their equipment, he said.
"Part of what's driving the current demand is now that's catching up with people," he said. "That coupled with freight tonnages is trending very positively, and companies are ready to get back into their usual equipment replacement cycles, and in fact, most of them have some catching up to do."
Stoughton is filling orders for Family Dollar now and does a lot of work for UPS and larger fleets seen on the road. The company also works with all kinds of decaling seen on the sides of trailers.
The company redesigned its container built in Evansville to compete with overseas companies. Because it's a new product, orders aren't consistent yet, he said.
After reopening the plant last year, the company shut it down after Christmas until now. Most of the workforce was diverted to the Brodhead and Stoughton plants.
"We're doing everything we can to re-enter that market (of containers)," he said. "It's still a very difficult environment."
A 'healing process'
In response to earlier stories about Stoughton Trailers, some current and former employees complained on The Gazette's website, gazettextra.com, about working conditions and what they claimed was a lack of respect for workers.
Wahlin said downsizing a company from 1,200 people to 250 is painful for everybody.
"We're still healing from what happened the last few years," he said.
The company tries to bring back workers who were laid off, but Wahlin said some have gone in other directions, he noted.
Stoughton Trailers is working on changing its culture, he said.
"That's not an easy thing to do -- not something that happens overnight," he said.
Management took advantage of the downturn to educate and train its workforce, particularly managers, he said. Classes in lean manufacturing, leadership, ergonomics, safety, quality, "you name it" were held, many at the plant through a partnership with Madison Area Technical College.
The manufacturer also has "significantly increased" its automation and use of robotics in the last few years.
"It's a physical job, hard work, and our employees work very, very hard," he said. "That type of environment may not be for everybody."
A normal week for plant workers is 40 hours, but orders have forced overtime because the company doesn't want to hire too many workers too soon, Wahlin said.
Restoring pay and benefits cut during the recession also is a priority. The company has been increasing benefits "periodically as conditions continue to improve" and is "getting close" to pay increases for many shop floor employees, he said.
___ (c)2012 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.) Visit The Janesville
Gazette (Janesville, Wis.) at www.gazetteextra.com Distributed by MCT
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