Since its founding more than 60 years ago, Morgan Olson has set the pace for high quality, aluminum walk-in van bodies used in a range of industries that need to bring their wares and services directly to their customers. David Soyka walks right in to report on how this Michigan manufacturer delivers.
Most successful companies are founded upon a unique idea: A revolutionary, industry changing concept no one else thought of. Even the pioneers are sometimes unaware of how they’re changing the world.
Case in point: Morgan Olson. Jimmy Olson, who was the commissioner of the New York State Liquor Authority before World War II, founded the company, the original – and still leading – producer of aluminum walk-in vans. Here’s how he got started changing the delivery truck concept: He knew a Brooklyn laundry owner who complained that his steel delivery trucks were too heavy and much too vulnerable to corrosion from moisture and cleaning substances.
True, Olson wasn’t involved in the trucking industry – so he didn’t know much about trucks – but the laundry owner’s complaint gave him a great idea: a delivery truck made out of aluminum (instead of steel). It would be lighter and more resistant to moisture and corrosion.
Olson partnered with one of the founders of what eventually became Northrop Grumman to make the first aluminum “walk in” (so called because a driver can conveniently stand and walk about without bending over in the storage space provided by a full-height cab and the low step-up from the curb).
World War II roadblocked production. But in 1946, the business (then in its first year and known as Grumman Olson) received initial orders for 450 vehicles.
In 1963, the company moved to Sturgis, Mich., site of its current headquarters and a 375,000-square-foot manufacturing facility situated upon 120 acres. From then until now, the business experienced several significant milestones. For instance, in 1984, it was awarded its largest contract – a nice deal with the United States Postal Service that commissioned the company to produce more than 150,000 vehicles. (Interesting footnote: most of these vehicles are still in service.)
In 2003, J.B. Poindexter & Co. brought the company on board (by now, it was known as Morgan Olson). With this move, Morgan Olson became part of North America’s largest truck body company.
ECONOMY DRIVES DIVERSITY
Today, clients served by Morgan Olson are involved in parcel delivery, baking and snack foods, laundry and uniform, newspapers, utility and specialty vehicles (e.g., mobile store or mobile emergency command center).
Like most manufacturers, Morgan Olson has recently faced the challenges of a tough economy. But Regional Sales Manager Royer Allman says the road into the future appears considerably smoother. “We’re definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he notes. “However, there was one benefit in the economic downturn: It made us explore new opportunities.”
During times of economic uncertainty, he points out, customers become conservative, holding off major purchases as long as possible. They tend to favor repairing what they already own. “That led to us starting a whole new refurbishment business, where we take an older van and completely restore it, including engine, transmission and brakes,” Allman says. “Aluminum van bodies usually last at least 20 years under normal wear and tear conditions. It’s a testament to the quality of the aluminum body that even after long-term years of use, you can save thousands of dollars when you refurbish its mechanical understructure and extend its useful life by another decade.”
Morgan Olson also diversified its product line. “We put our bodies on the chassis built by different manufacturers, including Freightliner, Workhorse and Ford,” he reveals. “We re-established a relationship with Ford to provide our customers with additional options and features they could want from that specific manufacturer.”
The company is also using the “Sprinter Chassis” developed by Mercedes-Benz for a newly introduced product.
THE ULTIMATE DELIVERY VEHICLE
The Sprinter chassis – distinguished by best-in-class turning radius and interior height – is an integral part of Morgan Olson’s new Ultimate Delivery Vehicle (UVD), which is yet another Morgan Olson industry innovation. Standard features include a reinforced cargo bay with a pine floor and fully lined pinewood sidewalls, pre-painted white aluminum body, a 10-inch rear step bumper with pooched surface, roll-up rear door and complete body undercoating. Optional features include fiberglass fairing with tall “cab to cargo” access door, translucent roof, hardwood flooring, hydraulic lift gates, 36-inch curbside slider door with two-step aluminum step well, and a 12-foot by 24-inch wide slider ramp.
One of the major advantages of the Sprinter chassis, beyond room to handle just about any cargo, is increased fuel efficiency. “As an aluminum vehicle is lighter than steel, you get better fuel economy. But the Mercedes 3.2-liter diesel engine gets between 18 to 22 miles a gallon, compared to between the seven to nine miles per gallon of a conventional gas engine on a comparable vehicle,” explains Allman. “That’s already a significant expense savings. As gas prices continue to rise, the savings will become even more significant.”
EXPLORING NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Morgan Olson has also developed a van body for a next-generation all-electric powered walk-in van based on the Freightliner (FCCC) chassis. “We’re also working with hydraulic hybrid drive chassis as an alternative to the fuel-driven chassis,” Allman reports. “Just like the automotive and truck industry in general, we’re actively considering new technologies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. This would lower customers’ operational expenses and reduce the impact on the environment.”
Allman notes that fleet owners are also looking for improved safety features, and he offers an example: the increasingly popular back up cameras in its vans. “Everybody wants a van that delivers efficiency in storing and transporting goods, but they also want to ensure the safest possible ride.”
Similarly, interior storage systems ensure safety for the operator. The modular systems are easily reconfigured to improve ease of accessibility and to accommodate new product lines. “Ergonomics and load space efficiencies are continually evolving, and anything we can offer that makes it easier to get goods in and out of the van contributes to the better health and well being of the operator, which leads to higher worker satisfaction and long-term employee retention,” indicates Allman. “We work diligently with customers to identify and improve these key areas.”
Morgan Olson employs more than 500 people, and the company combines sales representatives and dealerships, as well as a direct sales force, to market its vans throughout North America. As far as technology, the company is the only van manufacturer that utilizes a fully automated conveyor system, one that employs precise laser cutting technologies to assemble vans for both fleet and one-off retail lines.
“We also have a complete in-house metal shop,” describes Allman. “We don’t outsource anything other than the chassis. Our capabilities allow us to achieve tighter tolerances with improved efficiencies. Coupled with our lean manufacturing practices, we’re able to provide the highest level of quality for every order, whether we’re fulfilling multiple units for a national fleet of thousands of vehicles or a single vehicle for a smaller business operation.”
Morgan Olson consistently delivers on that quality promise. That’s how it built its reputation.