2015 marks the 75th anniversary of Carlson Engineered Composites, and the 30th year since their current chairman, Neil Carlson, decided to significantly shift the company's operations and begin manufacturing fiberglass products on its own. And now, Carlson is expanding to a new facility in Alabama and growing faster than ever, combining an innovative process of production with an everlasting commitment to quality and on-time delivery. Arnie Milne, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, sits down to talk about the company's notable success in recent years, and why certain moves have them set up to not only compete, but thrive in the North American marketplace for many years to come. Steve Engelhardt reports.
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Carlson Engineered Composites began back in 1939, beginning as a small painting and decorating business in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “For the next thirty years or so, the company continued to grow to a reasonable size, but the work was only seasonal,” says Milne, adding, “The current owner at the time, Neil Carlson, wanted a steadier work load and started looking into manufacturing as a way of expanding the company to a year-round business.”
See, Carlson himself, outside of his painting and decorating business, had constantly dabbled in fiberglass-based projects purely as a hobby, driven by his interest in building everything from boats to racecars. “He was somewhat familiar with the method of fiberglass production and combined with the painting and decorating business he had, it seemed like a perfect fit.” And it was, as Carlson, under the company name Carlson Engineered Composites, decided to bid on a few local RFQ’s (Request For Quote) related to hydroelectric projects and upon selection, began a new chapter of the company that defines it today. For Milne, who was one of the original three individuals working in Carlson’s first production facility in Winnipeg, he says it was about putting a strategy in place to take the company to the next level, and “the rest took care of itself.”
One of Carlson’s biggest initial fiberglass partnerships came in 1986 when they landed a contract with New Flyer Industries, a Winnipeg-based manufacturer of buses. “They were an up-and-coming, but relatively small manufacturer at the time, and we were helping them with the manufacturing of the buses’ external body, much of which was made of fiberglass,” he says, adding, “And as they began to grow, we basically followed them in a proportionate manner.”
He says that New Flyer was initially producing one bus a week, which then became one bus a day, and now to where they are up to 40 buses in a single week. “Given the fact that we were supplying a majority of the parts for them, we grew pretty quickly as well and our success with them allowed us to evolve and receive demand from a greater portion of the transportation industry and beyond.”
Servicing the Customer
He says one of the defining moments in their relationship with New Flyer came over ten years ago when they were tasked with manufacturing the front end components for the company’s coach buses. “As we were going along we started to notice that with all the steel and the shaping and forming, the overall process was highly inefficient and it was an awful lot of labor work for only one part of the bus.”
So he went to his engineers to see if they could come up with a solution to this issue, and “they suggested that we turn the entire front into one piece made entirely out of fiberglass.” They took the idea to New Flyer, who lent them a frontend piece of their coach bus so they could mold it, and the rest was history. “They immediately saw the benefits of having an all fiber glass, one-piece front to their coach buses and have since expanded this method to their other models as well,” Milne says, continuing, “And at the end of the day that’s really our goal; to provide customizable solutions to businesses and always be looking to improve our processes along with their own.”
As the years went on, he says they made a number of additional investments into upgrading their machinery, including a new paint line that cost over one million dollars, to accommodate growing requests for customization. “Our mandate has always been about service, and we respond to both the customers’ and overall market needs as best and quickly as possible.” He adds that they later opened up an additional manufacturing plant in Minnesota to align with Buy America standards, and the presence of plants in both Canada and the United States led to additional partnerships with industry leaders like CNH (Case New Holland) and McMillan Industries.
For Milne, it’s been a long road since the original three-man shop in Winnipeg, but in 2015, Carlson Engineered Composites is quickly attracting more and more business and he couldn’t be happier. “Between our two sites in Winnipeg and St. Cloud, we’re sitting on about 250,000-square-feet of plant floor, and this year we are expanding yet again, to a site down in Anniston, Alabama.”
The idea for the expansion began last summer when Carlson’s biggest partner, New Flyer, announced their acquisition of Alabama-based North American Bus as a way of increasing their overall market share to over 50 percent of bus manufacturers in North America. “They initially had planned on continuing production of North American Bus’ models down there, but in the fall they decided to instead build their flagship Xcelsior® bus there,” says Milne, adding, “That immediately caught our attention, given our relationship with them, and we saw it as a huge opportunity to take our business to another level.”
He says that he and other senior leadership immediately hopped on a plane and jetted down to Alabama, to begin to identify a suitable location for the company’s next production plant. Once down there, they utilized the help of the Alabama Department of Commerce and eventually local economic development officials from Calhoun County where they determined the city of Anniston as their target location. “Everyone that we interacted with at the state and local levels there were extremely helpful in getting us what we wanted, and where.”
And for a company like Carlson, it was a ‘win’ all around because not only is the 60,000-square-foot facility relatively new and adaptable to just about any kind of plant setup, but as for the area itself, there aren’t a lot of other manufacturers around that they would be taking business or jobs away from. “We didn’t want to step on any toes, so it was great that we’re the only kind of company that does what we do in this area, which is only ten minutes away from the New Flyer plant,” he says, adding, “and then when you account for all the jobs we will be adding, it’s just been an extremely productive and rewarding move for us overall.” He says the Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT) department will be in charge of providing them with a future workforce for the plant, which he expected to be up and running by the end of April.
The expansion to Alabama represents Carlson’s ambitious outlook towards its market, but also reinforces its commitment to the customer. “It’s in our culture here to always be as innovative and helpful as possible to our customers, because as they go, so do we.” It’s a philosophy that has always been the standard at Carlson, and is one that looks to continue to facilitate success for the fiberglass manufacturer for many years to come.