Towmaster Inc may have made its reputation as a trailer manufacturer, but the Litchfield MN company is making a name for itself as a truck body manufacturer.
YOU DON'T ALWAYS KNOW for sure what the response will be when you run a help wanted ad.
When Towmaster Inc was looking for a sales manager three years ago, the company eventually got an entirely new product line — and the people to build it, sell it, and install it.
Towmaster was strictly a trailer manufacturer when the company was seeking someone to manage its sales efforts. But somewhere during the job interview, Tim Erickson and Towmaster management had an epiphany. What if Towmaster got into the truck body and equipment business?
“As a favor to a friend, I was looking into what the sales position was about, but we began to brainstorm about getting into truck equipment,” he says. “A number of the people at Towmaster already knew us, which helped make the process move quickly. It was really a no-brainer.”
“We had been looking to diversify,” Towmaster's Janelle Johnson says. “This was a good fit.”
After three and one-half weeks of analysis, Towmaster decided to hire Erickson and six of his present and/or former coworkers. The seven people brought with them the sales, design, and installation experience Towmaster needed to move into a completely different business.
“We would not have done it any other way,” Erickson says. “It was a great fit for all involved. Towmaster already had the manufacturing space that we needed. We did not have to buy any major machine tools in order to begin manufacturing dump bodies. Towmaster had a laser cutting system, robotic welders, and other machine tools.”
Erickson says Towmaster needed only to engineer the products and outfit the shop with additional welding capability, along with ironworker, saw, and other miscellaneous tools necessary to install the dump bodies onto the chassis. Presto, the trailer manufacturer became both a truck body manufacturer and an upfitter.
Towmaster started in the truck equipment business in July 2008. Three months later, the first complete plow truck rolled out. Erickson and coworker Tom Gertgen came over to head up the new operation, with both specializing in sales. They also brought with them a service manager and four technicians.
“Towmaster really had all the manufacturing capabilities in place,” Erickson says. “We just needed to bring in the upfitter mechanics and a manager. From there, it was just a matter of the seven of us getting things going.” “I worked in the engineering department of this facility back in the early 1980s, when it was Palm Industries,” Erickson says. “So in a way for me, it was like coming back home.”
The trailer manufacturer is enjoying a boom in the body building business. As of mid-December, the company has booked production slots into October.
Much of the business involves state and municipal snowplow trucks. The company manufactures the dump body and complements it with the snow and ice control equipment built by Little Falls Machine.
“It's fair to call us a truck equipment distributor,” Erickson says. “Technically that's how we bill ourselves to the public. We offer them turnkey products, and we align ourselves with the best value equipment in the marketplace. We build partnerships with our suppliers as well as our customers. Part of that involves committing to single lines of truck equipment. We don't sell multiple lines.”
Towmaster sells a lot of the Palfinger product line, including service bodies, hoists, mechanics bodies, and Eagle Lift liftgates. Other lines include Mailhot telescopic hoists, Falls snow and ice products, Swenson spreaders, Force America control systems, Whelen lighting, Liftmoore cranes, along with Aero and Pulltarps tarpaulins.
Since getting into the truck equipment business, Towmaster has noticed a crossover effect among the people who buy trucks and trailers.
“It has surprised us as to how many of our snow and ice control customers buy Towmaster brand trailers, too,” Erickson says.
Getting the word out
One of the company's most successful marketing tools has been the Towmaster Expo, an annual event that has held each year that it has been in the truck equipment business.
The key, management believes, has been the educational element that the event offers.
“Because truck equipment was new to Towmaster, it was important for us to show our expertise,” says Gertgen, a sales specialist for Towmaster's truck equipment operation. “Plus, by focusing on training, we make it easier for fleets to justify sending someone to attend the open house. Budgets are tight, and it's difficult to get fleets to authorize travel to something like this unless there is an educational component to it.”
Towmaster has assembled a group of experts from its suppliers to conduct the seminars offered at the event. The company also has had representatives from Allison speak on automatic transmissions. Truck manufacturers also have sent representatives.
The event, which included exhibits for 20 companies last year, attracts local customers, area truck dealers, and public works personnel. Erickson credits the quality of the educational sessions for attracting the crowds.
“It's mainly an educational experience, not just a day off from work. The bonus is being able to see the equipment, ride in it and drive it. It's been well received because at a time when fleets have had to cut back, they can't afford just to send someone over to our place to eat a hotdog.”
“We have held two so far,” Gertgen adds. “The one we held last July attracted about 250 people. We are planning for 500 when we hold the next one July 17.”
Expanded parts, service
The addition of truck bodies and equipment has boosted the parts operation at Towmaster.
“The parts store existed for the trailer portion of the business,” Erickson says. “People could come in off the street and buy Towmaster and other parts. But we really expanded our parts business when we got into the truck equipment business.”
The service side of the business was even more impacted by the move into truck equipment.
“We always did service work on the trailers that we sell, but the trailer business does not involve service to the extent that truck equipment does,” Erickson says.
The building the company needed for truck body installations already existed. Formerly used as a service shop at a time when Towmaster operated a fleet of trucks, the building was easily converted for use as a truck equipment facility.
Transitioning was also easy for the manufacture of the truck bodies.
“We rearranged the plant to create space for truck body manufacturing,” Johnson says. “In doing so, we also improved the efficiency of our trailer manufacturing.”
Ready to work
The Towmaster plant was quite capable of manufacturing truck bodies when the decision was made to go that route. Built in 1994, the facility had been more than doubled in size. The most recent addition was in 2008 — a 64,000-sq-ft project.
Towmaster has five lines for manufacturing trailers — including fifthwheel trailers, tilt-beds, drop-deck utility trailers, pup trailers, and large deck-over models.
The plant also was well equipped. The company already had a laser for fabricating parts from steel up to a half-inch thick. A high-definition plasma cuts thicker material.
The addition of truck bodies and equipment is but the latest expansion of a product line that was launched in the early 1970s. Founder Harlan Palm, owner of Palm Industries, needed a way to transport the skid loaders that his business required. He answered that need by designing and building trailers specifically for that purpose. Palm initially subcontracted the manufacture of the trailers.
In the years that followed, Palm began building a variety of products, including a belly dump trailer for hauling asphalt. He added a line of deck-over tag-a-long trailers, marketing them under the Palm Manufacturing. He also developed a line of attachments for skid loaders.
In 1994, Palm established separate companies, one for trailers and another to manufacture skid loader attachments. Towmaster Inc was set up in Litchfield, Minnesota, to produce the line of trailers.
The Towmaster plant has grown significantly since its start in 1994. The most recent addition was finished in 2008.
Towmaster markets truck equipment in Minnesota and adjacent counties in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. But on the trailer side of the business, the company ships to all 50 states, along with Canada and Mexico. Towmaster has shipped some trailers overseas.