May 30, 2017 11:30 AM, EDT

Trailer Production Stacking Up at Stoughton Trailers

Stoughton Trailers

Stoughton Trailers' boost in production and its expansion into the trucking market is written all over the landscape on Brodhead, Wis.’ southeast side.

The lots around the company's 300,000-square-foot semitrailer manufacturing facility are filled with new, 53-foot trailers marked for pickup by customers.

And the 17 acre grass lot across the street from the Brodhead plant is chock full of new semitrailers, too. A crew of Stoughton Trailers yard drivers spend their days in snub-nosed semitrailer tractors, moving around the new trailers like puzzle pieces, readying them for final customization and setting them up for customer pickup.

Some of the hundreds of trailers have company names emblazoned on decals that show the world who owns them—Stoughton Trailers customers that include Amazon and Schneider.

Schneider ranks No. 7 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

In the last year, Stoughton Trailers has been ramping up production amid a flurry of new contracts with companies that needed to boost their stable of trucking trailers. Recently, the average week at the Brodhead plant brought eight hours of production overtime and 160 to 170 new semitrailers, CEO Robert Wahlin said.

Between Stoughton Trailers' three plants in Brodhead, Evansville and Stoughton, the company is building “a good click ahead” of 400 trailers a week, Wahlin said.

RELATED: Stoughton standardizes components, plans new refrigerated trailer for 2018

 In Brodhead, an aerial photo the plant appears to be surrounded by 53-foot piano keys or dominoes, parked closely together in neat rows. Those trailers sit in temporary storage on site and on an adjacent parcel Stoughton Trailers bought earlier this year from the city of Brodhead.

They're staged — ready for pickup whenever carriers for companies such as Amazon are dead-heading through the area with an empty semitrailer tractor.

“This hasn't happened in Brodhead, specifically. We haven't seen this. We have never produced as many trailers there as we have recently,” Wahlin said.

In fact, he said, the plant's production boards have contract work running out through the end of the year. That's more trailers for the staging yard.

Wahlin said in the years coming out of the recession, Stoughton Trailers began to pursue new companies and companies just branching into freight delivery, such as one of its newest customers, Amazon.

Some of the companies were in need of building up a fleet, while other existing customers were coming out of years of hunkering down through the recession, and they needed new equipment — namely, new trailers — to replace aging equipment.

Stoughton Trailers in the last few years has begun to broaden its craft from its main product, dry goods semtrailers. It's added lines of livestock trailers and grain truck trailers.

And the company plans to begin production of freezer trailers at Evansville and Stoughton, possibly later this year, Wahlin said.

All told, the company had a 15% jump in growth in 2016, and it's now projecting another 10% in growth this year. That's as other producers in the semitrailer manufacturing industry have seen their growth taper in the last two years, or in some cases, falter into the negative, according to industry analysts.

Like a canary in an economic coal mine, trucking can be among the industries first and hardest hit by economic shifts.

“Trucking tends to have an exaggerated response to the economy. When things go bad, they go really bad in trucking. What we've done is we've added several new products, and that helps smooth the curves a little bit,” Wahlin said.

“As the economy swings up and down, the economy stops selling and moving dry goods. Picture things like couches, furniture. But food and beverages tend to be steady, and with quite a few new products along those lines, that will help us.”

The new contracts, the company's diversification and the resulting surge, have spilled over to a need for new hiring, and Stoughton Trailers has grown from a decimated workforce of 250 in the Great Recession doldrums of 2010 to its headcount now: 1,600 workers split among its three locations. The company plans to continue hiring over the next 12 months to bring on 150 new employees, Wahlin said.

Wahlin said Stoughton Trailers is hiring for all its major production positions including welding, painting, machine operators and also for supervisory positions and manufacturing engineers.

He said it's been a challenge to keep pace on hiring because the labor market in Rock, Dane and Green counties has reached historic lows in joblessness, with unemployment rates reported last month in those counties of 3% or lower.

In a trend that's showing up in other area industries, some of the Stoughton Trailers' newer workers are commuters driving in from much farther than in the past, Wahlin said.

The biggest challenge has been training workers fast enough to meet demand. Wahlin said it's created new in-house programs, such as a virtual welding course that teaches new welding hires processes the company uses. The trainees learn through computer programs that use electronic “virtual reality” welding helmets and motion detectors geared to give them feedback as they learn.

Wahlin said Stoughton Trailers' corporate forecast remains bright enough that it's in preliminary stages of planning a new, 110,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Stoughton, Evansville or Brodhead. The company hasn't selected a site.

“We're in the competitive process to understand what could be the best location. That's a little farther out, but that, too, is something we have our eye on,” Wahlin said.

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