Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

March 5, 2012

WHO WE ARE: Exporting Elkhart County

GOSHEN — When Rod Cook drives down a highway, he can’t help but notice vehicles he helped build. Every time Bill Malone walks through a big box building supply store, he knows his company’s products are there. If Brian Roe and Mark Wert were to visit New York City and take in views of the skyline, they would see the towering office buildings that contain the furniture created by their company.

These men are all part of a continuum of rich manufacturing heritage in Goshen that reaches back to when blacksmiths pounded out horseshoes and hinges for the city’s earliest residents.

Supreme Corp.

Cook is the general manager for Supreme Corp. The vehicle customizing company has an extensive manufacturing complex on the city’s south edge along C.R. 38.

Cook has worked in several of Supreme’s plants spread across seven locations nationwide. More than 1,700 workers earn their living in the plants. They build delivery trucks, buses, trolleys and armored vehicles on chassis supplied by automakers.

Cook said when he sees a commercial truck or bus while traveling, he looks it over pretty good. “You always pick them apart and say ‘We do it differently,’” Cook said.

And one of his favorite things to do is look for Supreme products on the big screen.

“I like to look for them in the movies,” he said. “You say, ‘Oh that’s a Supreme truck.’”

The company’s products are in use all over the world, Lisa Gurson, Supreme’s marketing manager, said.

Visitors to Universal Studio’s new Transformers thrill ride in Orlando, Fla., will travel in the park to the ride on two Supreme buses. Anyone using the Interurban Trolley in Elkhart County will ride on a trolley bus made in a Supreme factory on C.R. 38.

As Dave Kauffman recently looked over the trolleys under construction on the production line in the plant, he liked what he saw.

“I was involved in building the first one,” Kauffman said. “So all these are kind of my babies.”

Each trolley has a little different seating layout, and colors and trim are often customized. As he stood next to a trolley with a bright white paint job that was heading to Puerto Rico, Kauffman reflected on all the skills required to produce a trolley.

“Having a mechanical background,” he said, “is a big plus.”

Workers also need to have knowledge of electrical systems, fasteners and how to work with composite materials. And it also helps to have an eye for colors when special orders come in, like the one going to Puerto Rico, he said.

Kauffman’s pride is echoed by the crews working on the line.

Robert Miller of Middlebury was carefully tracing a cutting template on the front of a trolley. He was preparing to make a cut in the very expensive front of a trolley for placement of the destination sign.

The detail to quality is very important to Miller.

“If I do it I want to be proud of it,” Miller said. “I don’t want to see it down the road looking like crap.”

Gleason Industrial Products

Bill Malone’s office is just a few steps inside the front door of Gleason Industrial Products within Goshen’s historic manufacturing corridor along the Marion Railroad line. Small tires used on hand trucks were piled on chairs. Papers and reports were on his desk. Across the room was a woolly, warm winter hat with a giant red communist star on the front. It looked like a prop from the 1980s Cold War movie “Gorky Park.”

Malone picked up the hat on one of his trips to China. China is a player in how Gleason employees in Goshen manufacture the extensive line of hand trucks the company sells across North America and in some European countries.

In 2008 Gleason won a trade dispute with Qingdao Taifa Group of China. Gleason had filed an antidumping petition in 2003 with the U.S. Department of Commerce, charging that the Chinese government-owned company was selling hand trucks at less than fair market value in the United States.

That win resulted in U.S. companies importing the hand trucks having to pay a 383.6 percent “dumping duty,” on the Chinese products. In essence that ruling helped level the playing field for Gleason workers in Goshen.

As a result of that complaint, the company now purchases wheels for its hand trucks from China, according to Malone, who is vice president for production.

“The primary thing we import are wheels,” Malone said. “When we were doing our dumping trade suit we were unable to protect the wheels. Hand truck wheels are too generic and can be used for other products. In order to stay alive we had to shut down our wheel plants and start importing wheels. We are still buying wheels for what the raw material used to cost.”

Gleason is a good example of how companies that evolve survive. Opening in 1891 as Goshen Manufacturing, the company made wooden ladders, step ladders and wrought iron furniture. Those lines were phased out over the years as consumers changed their buying habits. In 1965 Gleason purchased the company and moved the hand truck manufacturing business to Goshen from two other plants.

Now the company is expanding into manufacturing weather caps for heavy equipment. The caps are mounted on top of heavy equipment exhaust stacks to keep rain and debris out of them. Gleason customers for the caps include Caterpillar and after-market supplier Tenneco.

About 130 employees work in three shifts to fill orders for Menards, Fastenel, Bosch, Grainger, Canadian Tire, Home Depot, UPS and Ace Hardware.

The Goshen workers produce about 500,000 hand trucks each year, according to Malone.

Gleason Industrial Products has a long history in Goshen and Malone said it takes constant attention to what’s happening in the manufacturing environment worldwide to protect the company and its jobs.

“If a company doesn’t use its full rights and resources to fight off the imports,” Malone cautioned, “they are not going to be around.”

BriMar Wood Innovations

As many Goshen-area companies struggled to keep their doors open during the recession and downturn, the owners at BriMar Wood Innovations were working to manage their company’s growth.

President Brian Roe and Vice President Mark Wert said they work hard to never turn away a request for an order of office furniture their plant makes.

“There is not much we won’t embrace to provide a solution to our customer,” Roe said.

And some of those customers are high-profile. Marcraft Apparel and Hearst Corp. employees in New York City’s iconic skyscrapers use BriMar office furniture every day, according to Roe.

“We have been very blessed,” Roe said. “We have experienced growth every year that we have been in business. We were able to grow our company 20 percent last year.”

The partners founded the company in 2004. By 2009 BriMar was listed as one of Inc. Magazine’s 500 fastest-growing private companies.

“We attribute a lot of that steady growth to our diversity, being able to do paint and veneer and solid wood and having different industries and being able to satisfy them,” Roe said. “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket. We were able to increase volume in other areas if one area drifted off.”

The clean and orderly woodworking factory that has the sharp scent of freshly cut hardwoods, is laid out to get the best flow of materials through the plant, Wert said. And that flow will become even more efficient due to a piece of equipment being built in Germany. The company is investing a large amount of money in a new Holzher edge banding machine that will speed up production and reduce mistakes that have to be reworked.

“The labor efficiencies we will gain from that machine will allow us to pay for that machine in 12 months,” Roe said. “That is important for us to understand because it makes for a good investment.”

Seventy employees unload, trim, cut, sand and veneer the hardwoods that arrive by truck just-in-time for production. And employees are valued for their woodworking skills and other talents, Wert and Roe said.

“We embrace an apprenticeship-type of plan where we take a few of our younger folks who have expressed an interest in woodworking and what we do and they become a kind of apprentice,” Roe said. “It has given us good results.”

Just beyond Roe’s office door is the company’s small conference room. Hanging on each wall are thank-you’s, photos and newspaper clippings from local teens mounted in display cases. They are representative of the support BriMar has given to local athletes, the 4-H Fair and mission trips.

“It is a good feeling to give back to our community,” Roe said. “The blessings that have flowed to us, we want to continue flowing them back to the community.” z

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