HEADING north from the Texas border into Oklahoma on US Highway 75, you go 20 miles to Durant, then take State Highway 48 north for 17 miles through the wind-whipped prairie.

You reach Coleman (population 250). You know that because you see the massive sprawl of Sundowner Trailers Inc unfolding on the west side of the road. Sundowner pretty much constitutes Coleman.

In fact, you could take all of the town's residents and put them inside Sundowner's 545,000 sq ft of under-roof space, and you'd still need another 378 people just to get the job done each day. Sundowner was the largest employer in the three-county area until a Super Wal-Mart came into Durant two years ago with a payroll of 750 employees.

Most of Sundowner's employees live in the three biggest towns that define the triangle that surrounds Coleman: Durant to the south, Atoka to the northeast, and Tishomingo to the west. Nothing much happens in Coleman when Sundowner shuts down for the day. It's that small.

“It doesn't make all the maps — just those really detailed ones,” says Sundowner secretary/treasurer Jerry Shipman with a wry smile. “But it's a great place to raise kids.”

These days, Sundowner is known as the industry leader in Living Quarters trailers, having produced over 660 of them in 2003. But it also has a 55-trailer product line that includes horse, stock, and cargo and sport utilities in GVWs from 6,000 to 30,000 lb, along with a network of 68 dealers throughout the United States and Canada.

Shipman says he believes the company is the largest horse-trailer manufacturer in the US — a position that likely will be strengthened by the March completion of a building that will house 45,000 sq ft of additional production space on the 190-acre property, taking their total production space to 358,876 sq ft.

“People will tell me, ‘Geez, you're an overnight success,’ ” says Shipman, an original board member of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers. “Well, it's been 28 to 30 years, really. We'd like to think we've done a good job in that period of time. We've made some mistakes — like every company — but we've learned from them.

“I don't think that early on, we envisioned having half a million square feet of manufacturing facility and having 630 employees, or anything like that. Early on, our goal was to produce as good a quality trailer as we could.”

Discerning a need

Back in 1976, his father, the late Wayne Shipman, owned 400 acres in Coleman and was working as a salesman in the automobile industry. He told his sons, Larry and Gary, who had worked in the trailer manufacturing industry, that he believed there was a measurable need for another trailer manufacturer.

“If you build 'em, I'll sell 'em,” he told his sons.

Larry and Gary borrowed $10,000, poured a concrete floor in a hay barn on their father's property, and went to work. John, the youngest of the four brothers, joined them.

They purchased five acres from their father, then another five, then another 10, then another 20 from a landowner who had frontage property on State Highway 48.

The Shipman brothers found themselves working past sundown in order to meet pressing production deadlines on their stock trailers — a situation that spawned the name “Sundowner.” Sometimes, they'd even see a sunrise after falling asleep in the trailers and spending the night there.

They did every manufacturing process, from the original welding construction to painting, trim, and finishing. That original building, located toward the back of what is now a complex of many buildings, is still in use.

Jerry joined the business in 1980, first helping with production and later working in purchasing.

“We were putting everything we earned back into the business,” Jerry says. “That's been the way we looked at things: The business comes first. Take care of the business and the business will take care of itself.”

Gary became vice president, and was primarily responsible for research and development of the steel trailer division, also serving as a consultant in retail sales, dealer relations, and marketing. Gary's specialty, the steel trailer, was Sundowner's “bread and butter” for many years, built with high-quality galvanized materials and finished much like automobiles, with careful attention being given to construction and finish — even to the extent of using the same paint (Akzo-Sikkens) that was used on Mercedes and Lexus automobiles.

The aluminum trailer and then the 727 series trailer replaced the steel trailer as Sundowner's top seller, and the steel ultimately was phased out of Sundowner's production line.

Of the four brothers, Gary was the horseman, and his first-hand knowledge of both horses and the trailer business provided strategic direction to management. But in 2002, he retired from Sundowner to pursue other interests, including Sundowner Sports Arena, an indoor/outdoor rodeo arena built in 1999 that hosts pro rodeos, bull riding, youth rodeos, open rodeos, team roping, barrel racing, team penning, cutting horse shows, horse sales, livestock shows, and concerts.

“It's been quite a journey,” Jerry says. “For the most part over that time frame, we grew steadily — some years 10%, some 50%. I wasn't really pleased when we grew 50%, because it's very difficult to maintain your quality and do all the right things if you have that kind of growth.”

Living Quarters option

A key milestone came when the company introduced a Living Quarters option in its trailers — illustrating the maturation from a concrete-slab-in-a-hay-barn company to one that is sophisticated in its offerings and determined to meet customers' needs.

In addition to offering an area for transporting horses, the trailers include a bedroom area, kitchen with a stove and refrigerator, and a bathroom with a shower.

In 1996, Sundowner began production on the “Slide-Out” version of the Living Quarters trailers, with the sidewall section of the trailer expanding to give more living space when using the trailer.

The Living Quarters are manufactured and installed in Elkhart, Indiana, by Sundowner Interiors Inc, which is expanding from 43,000 sq ft to 76,000 sq ft.

“We started out manufacturing that product line here,” Jerry says, “but after a couple of years, we realized that the bulk of the RV supplies — the ACs, the heaters, those component parts we were using — were all coming from several companies in Elkhart, Indiana.

“We started working with T R Arnold & Associates, one of the third-party administrators that makes sure Living Quarters trailers are compliant with RV laws. We bought part interest in what was Journey seven years ago, and it's called Sundowner Interiors now.”

Says Tuff Kidder, president of Sundowner Living Quarters, “Anyone can say that their products are high-quality. But actions speak louder than words. When we build Living Quarters units, we use the best suppliers and manufacturers of RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association) — approved components to furnish our living areas. We've had years of experience with thousands of units on the road. We know how they hold up.”

Sundowner initially built its Living Quarters trailers with less expensive components from the RV industry. After monitoring customer feedback, the company started producing trailers more along the lines of upscale motor homes.

They feature hand-rubbed hardwood custom cabinets and crown molding, solid surface counter tops, and sinks and tables with complementing ceramic tile for the kitchen and bath. Surrounded by padded vinyl walls, the new living quarter area includes hardwood pocket doors to the bathroom and also the bedroom area for maximum privacy.

The living area has state-of-the-art flat screen digital televisions (available in 10" to 42"), strategically placed indirect lighting that enhances the designer light fixtures and infinity ceiling lighting, a new convection microwave oven, spacious double door stainless steel refrigerator, and icemaker. The tack room has a built-in washer and dryer.

The new look is available in all 15 of Sundowner's living quarter floor plans, which include five new innovative designs: the Ranch House's cowboy-sized quarters with comfortable Western appeal; The Lodge's casual cabin retreat with a rustic flair; Equine Manor's luxurious English appeal for first-class travel; The Loft's sleek, contemporary sophistication; or the Hacienda's Southwest atmosphere with old world Spanish charm.

Most of Sundowner's customers fall into two groups: show-horse aficionados and trail-riders.

“The showhorse people might be in Ohio one week and Oklahoma the next,” Jerry says, “and they may have to travel all night and arrive at 2 am. They can better take care of themselves and their horses if they park right there at the showgrounds and get a little shuteye.

“Trail-riding is really growing in the US. It's really convenient for them to be at the trailhead. Then you've got some who are big on endurance rides — like from Denver to California.”

Expansion

The burgeoning popularity of the Living Quarters trailers was one reason why Sundowner decided to build the 45,000-sq-ft expansion.

“We'll restructure our production line,” engineering manager Vic Cook says. “Right now, we have most of it in the other building. Our big problem is that we go in a door and out a door. When you go out a door, you wind up with a queue, and a lot of trailers sitting in it. Our production rate is six weeks per trailer from the time it's ordered.

“By speeding up the lines and cutting our queues, we anticipate we can produce a trailer within two weeks of when it's ordered.”

That comes on the heels of 1997 construction that added 200,000 sq ft of manufacturing space and doubled previous production capacity. The new space accommodated an assembly-line process allowing each phase of trailer manufacturing to take place as it is conveyed through each work area — thus eliminating the former time-consuming process of moving the trailer between production bays. That dramatically reduced work-in-process inventory and allowed a quicker response time to customer orders.

The most recent expansion will open up the fabrication building and all of the parts manufactured there — the floors and walls — that must go through the powder-coating system. They'll never have to go outside or be racked, thus streamlining production.

Sundowner was one of the first in the industry to utilize powder coating and SunCoating.

The company's powder-coating system sprays electronically charged powder onto the trailer frames to help prevent wear, corrosion, and chemical action, and also to add a high-gloss finish that is not only beautiful but durable and resilient. Sundowner's SunCoat is a two-part, spray-on protective liner similar to truck bed liners that is extremely durable and provides protection to the horse compartment of the trailer.

“Powder coating is so much more scratch- and chip-resistant than painting,” Cook says. “It stays on the product longer and coats more evenly. There's no waste, and it's EPA-safe.

“Material goes into a shaker, and a vibrator shakes the powder off into a recovery trough. An electronic eye gauges the part as it comes through and tells which nozzle needs to be turned on to fully cover the part. There are two stations on the back side. It goes through the dryer at 375 degrees. There's a cool-down area between the dryoff oven to the environmental room. By the time the part gets to the ramp, it's cool and cured out.”

Equipment

Sundowner uses several NC brakes for its fabrication building, and has three plasma tables where it builds all of its own doors and windows based on Sundowner's design.

It also has purchased three robotic welding systems and very accurate computer-operated cutting systems, helping to maintain accuracy of component parts, ensuring consistent welds, and allowing better utilization of personnel.

“We have several different layouts on our die tables,” Cook says, “so we can put different assembly parts on there and weld them out. We'll run a number of different types of parts on that one robot.”

In the door-assembly area, once all the parts are plasma-cut, they are brought in and the doors are built. They are put in a rolling rack. Once the rack is full, it will be rolled out to the production line.

The extrusion and storage area contains extrusions that Sundowner designed especially for its trailers.

In the small-parts area, several TIG welders do the finish welding.

Cook says one of the significant aspects of the shop is that many of the machines were designed by the employees — the jigs and the special equipment.

“They know how to use it and improve on it,” he says. “Each time they built a floor, they had to do a lot of turning and lifting, so they designed a jig with air bags. They'll put the floor planks on there and snap them together, put side racks on and put air bags up and get air pressure to force it all together so they can weld out. We also have a conveyer that lifts up and moves the floor off to the next stage.”

In the R&D building, trailers are tested by a machine that simulates a road trip — “a very rough road trip,” Cook notes.

“Every new model is kept in the tester for two to three weeks to identify any areas that might be weak or might have more stress-related areas,” Cook says.

The engineering department has 12 employees, and it stays very busy. One day, Gary Shipman came in and said, “Can you change these saddle racks so that the saddles don't slide off?” A team of engineers worked for two days to get the profile of the saddle set up in the CAD program, and now the interiors have a slide-proof rack.

Customer service

Shipman says Sundowner has a “commitment to customer service” that is a major component of its success.

He says it has been important since the very beginning of the company, with management keeping a sharp focus on customer needs and creating value.

It shows in letters like the one from Keith Ostrand: “We could have gotten everything we wanted at a lower price from any of the other brands, but in comparing quality and feature-to-feature, we kept returning to talk to you. We crawled under trailers, went through them and could only see the shortcoming in the design, workmanship and durability of their products. After considerable investigation we opted to stay with Sundowner. I guess once you've had the best, it's hard to settle for less. I feel proud pulling my rig knowing that it's the best in class.”

Shipman says one way Sundowner is accomplishing customer satisfaction is through the warranty program. All Sundowner trailers have an eight-year, limited structural warranty, the longest in the industry. The company believes it is the only trailer manufacturer offering a three-year hitch-to-bumper warranty.

The company's mission statement goes like this: “Sundowner will effectively serve its customers, community, employees, and shareholders by efficiently producing and selling quality products in a way that allows profitability and growth objectives to be achieved.”

Some of the company's initiatives:

  • Dealer Council: This body is composed of Sundowner dealers who are selected by their peers to represent the entire dealer network in addressing issues of concern to the dealers and Sundowner. The company believes it has been a vehicle of unity among dealers as well as a conduit for ideas and suggestions originating from both Sundowner and its dealers.

  • Sundowner University: Periodically during each year, the company hosts a weeklong program for dealers and associated sales personnel consisting of a series of instructional seminars on Sundowner products and proven sales techniques.

  • Educational Scholarship Program: It is offered to qualifying employees and family members to assist with their college education.

  • Summer Work Program: It's designed for area vocational and technical students to participate in while attending high school and college. After graduation, some of those skilled workers then come back to Sundowner and are hired on full-time — some already with as much as three summers' experience.

“We wanted to make an upscale product,” Jerry says, “but it's just as important that we have happy customers and employees. It really makes me happy when I walk around the plant, because most of the employees have smiles on their faces. They say they enjoy their jobs, enjoy working here.”

For Shipman, that slab of concrete in a hay barn seems like something out of another lifetime.