In 1932, four brothers established a manufacturing company that built items such as farm wagons, snow plows and, later, truck bodies.
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Their enterprise survived, evolved, grew, diversified and then honed its focus.
Today, the enduring company is the recognized industry leader in refrigerated transportation solutions. Dan Harvey describes how the Wisconsin-headquartered company got there.
In business for 80 years, Johnson Refrigerated Truck Bodies is a renowned refrigerated transport industry leader. Headquartered in Rice Lake, Wis., the company has advanced the concept of refrigerated truck bodies, coming up with innovations that increase a customer’s fleet quality and durability. Indeed, its ground-breaking all-electric refrigeration solutions are designed to last many years, nearly maintenance free.
The company’s forward path included achieving a significant position. “Today, we are the only temperature-controlled, fiberglass composite producing OEM in the marketplace,” reveals Mayo Rude, vice president of sales and marketing for this pioneering enterprise. “Most competitors construct a dry-freight product and only insulate it to carry a perishable product that needs to be insulated. But Johnson focuses only on insulation. We’re the experts.”
And Johnson will build its products from the ground up, as the company relates. We’re not talking about a retrofit – where a dry freight body is redesigned to be become a refrigerated body. Rather, a Johnson truck body is of virgin birth, meaning it came into the world exactly as it is, and is not a reincarnation of something someone else produced.
SEAMLESS PRODUCT DESIGN
Custom designed, these products ensure quality construction impervious to conditions such as heat and moisture.
“How we construct is how we provide advantages,” relates Rude. “Consider the fiberglass exterior. It acts as the first barrier to ambient conditions. It blocks heat from the truck body because it is not a heat conductor. Also, there are no riveted seams. Thus, we don’t allow the passage of heat and moisture.”
Compare that to what competitors provide: “Most will have a sheet-enclosed construction that involves an aluminum exterior skin that’s riveted to the inside of the body frame, a design that allows for heat and moisture infiltration into the insulation and, ultimately, into the truck body. This results in a higher failure rate of the body.”
Competitors’ solutions are also energy inefficient. “Their solutions must run more frequently and use more energy to maintain interior temperature,” says Rude.
Johnson Refrigerated Truck Bodies has resolved dilemmas in several ways. “One solution is our thermal brake design,” Rude informs.
Comprised of a strong composite, Johnson’s carefully engineered thermal brake is placed between the steel frame, and the interior wall and roof panels. “This creates a non-conductive barrier between the structural components and the interior panels,” explains Rude, adding that the company deploys FRP principles – which refers to fiberglass reinforcement – into the design of its products. “Deployment doesn’t allow for transfer,” Rude stipulates.
The tubular steel cross sill structure is completely encapsulated to a truck’s interior walls. This lowers bed height by as much as four inches. With the proprietary, non-conductive, strong, fiberglass/polyester pultrusion, no metal can conduct heat from the outside into the body.
Added to this is the company’s Arctic Therm® interior liner. This patented seamless fiberglass liner is a 1/8-inch, thick cross-linked polyester thermoset fiberglass resin with a chopped fiberglass strand that measures more than a quarter-inch in marine-grade plywood. The polyester resin used in the composite complies with the 21 CFR 177.2420 sections that deals with articles, or components of articles, intended for repeated use in contact with food. The resulting panel is exceptionally strong.
“You’re looking at 2,200 pounds per square inch,” says Rude. “This psi offers puncture resistance and is seamless.”
EXTENDING PRODUCT LIFE
Complete sealing, Rude reveals, is an important consideration in all industries that Johnson serves. “One of the ‘outlaws’ of our own industry is ‘outgassing,’” he characterizes.
A foamed product ‘outgasses’ when it loses its integrity, or degrades. Gasses used to insulate are released.
“Our innovations prevent that from occurring. This leads to greater truck body longevity, from an insulation standpoint, and it maintains thermal efficiency throughout the body lifespan,” describes Rude.
More than just focused on truck bodies, this company also produces all-electric refrigeration systems. Its AE system provides all-electric reliability, particularly for small- and medium-sized truck bodies. “Typically, in our industry, companies produce systems that run on diesel fuel,” says Rude. “Our AE series cuts expenses, as well as reduces emissions. Legislation has led to increasingly stringent controls, which can be problematic for the smaller and mid-sized companies that we work with. The AE system provides a solution. They’re not going to get fined.”
Another company series is the EMX, which takes AE to another level. It pulls power off of the truck chassis to power electric refrigeration and an active evaporative blower to maintain temperature. The series handles to most complex requirements.
“These two series, when coupled with our offered truck body, makes for a winning combination,” says Rude, about the company’s recent successes.
“All that I have described indicates an organization always very good at identifying market trends and, in turn, recognizing where business needs to go,” says Rude. “This led to business growth.”
Such identification dates back to 1932, when four Johnson Brothers (Herbert, Morris, Henry and Hugo) established what is now known as Johnson Refrigerated Truck Bodies. The oldest brother, Herbert, started the business in Rice Lake, Wis. As the Johnson Welding & Manufacturing Company. Early manufacturing ventures included farm wagons, snowplows, and general freight truck bodies.
“Then, in the early 1940s, the founders added the retinning of milk cans to the business,” narrates Rude. A name change accompanied this new direction. Johnson Welding & Manufacturing Company became Johnson Truck Bodies and Retinning Service. Morris Johnson built the retinning business to a peak output of 1,500 cans per day, making Johnson one of the largest retinners in the world. But as times changed, so did the company.
“Bulk milk pickup made can usage obsolete, so the retinning part of the business was sold in 1965, and the Johnson brothers began focusing on the manufacture of truck bodies,” says Rude.
But success in the retinning business allowed for significant capital investment. “This led to new products that met new needs in the emerging dairy market,” says Rude.
MOVE TOWARD FIBERGLASS
That sector was pushing forward at an inexorable rate. Henry and Hugo Johnson developed new and better truck bodies. Constructed of oak and steel framework and walls, these first bodies were very heavy. But by the early 1950s, the inventive Henry Johnson experimented with usage of fiberglass-reinforced plastic. This made it possible for the company to manufacture one-piece roofs, walls and liners that were lighter in weight, exceptionally strong, and corrosion resistant.
Early insulation proved a challenge. After years of tests and development, Johnson purchased one of the first three foam-dispensing guns used in the United States (1950). Inserting urethane foam between the fiberglass exterior and interior truck body walls led to the development of the most advanced thermally efficient insulated truck body for perishable products.
The company continued innovating, which made it an attractive acquisition for the Great Dane Company, the current owner. But the Johnson family remains attached: third-generation family member Ron Ricci retains a leadership position (he’s Morris Johnson’s grandson).
PRODUCTION FACILITY – JUST ONE
“Right now, we only manufacture in Rice Lake,” informs Rude.
But that one site is quite large. “The campus consists of six buildings that total 145,000 square feet that reside on about 13 acres,” he describes.
The site has been enriched with money and technology. “Throughout our existence, Johnson has made many capital investments,” relates Rude. “In 2005, we installed a state-of-the-art paint facility.”
TO THE TUNE OF $2 MILLION.
“Then, in March 2012, we placed a high-pressure foam injection system, a heated clamshell foaming fixture for sidewalls, end wall and roof panels,” continues Rude. “It’s the best system of its kind available. The addition has greatly added to our product line. But it didn’t cost as much as our paint facility, as it only cost about three-quarters of a million dollars.”
Still, that’s a considerable amount of money, and Rude justifies the substantial investments: “It comes down to how we view the market, and how we observe trends, and how we react to the trends,” he says. “Looking at all of that, we realized we had to place ourselves at the industry’s cutting edge. Making substantial investments would be the best way – maybe the only way – to provide our market territory with the best product.”
Investment also goes into research and development. “We’re strongly active in R&D,” says Rude. “This, combined with our engineering resources, helps us develop the cutting edge products that, in turn, help the marketplace address needs related to reducing operational expenses. Our all-electric refrigeration system cuts down on fossil fuel dependency. We have been able to greatly diversify our client base with our products.”
The company, he says, has been involved with several markets throughout the years, and the list is ever growing. “We got our start in the dairy industry, and that led us into fluid milk, milk products and fresh juices that need to be refrigerated while being delivered,” Rude recalls.
Service (involving custom-engineering of truck bodies to meet exacting refrigerated delivery requirements) has expanded to include numerous markets: beverage, convenience store, direct store delivery, food service, floral, frozen food, ice, ice cream, meat, medical, poultry, produce, seafood, and vending.
“We’re also very big in the home delivery market, with companies such as Schwan’s Food Service,” reveals Rude. “Also, more and more, grocery stores are getting into home delivery. So that provides us another big opportunity area.”
Recent economic circumstances compelled such expansion. Explains Rude, “In general, our industry has struggled through the recent tough economic times. For us, that meant a reduction of orders in our traditional channels. But the circumstances forced us to look at new markets. In fact, 2012 proved to be one of our best years, as far as sales in new markets. We keep seeing opportunities emerging. For instance, one of our newest customers produces growing chambers. Such chambers hydroponically create livestock feed. This has become a hot area, because of the recent drought.”
WISE APPROACH TO FLEET MAINTENANCE
Looking forward (but with a glance backward), Rude says, “The all-electric refrigeration and the composite thermal efficient truck body represents the best combination for companies that want to reduce operational expenses.”
The company’s acquisition by Great Dane, he adds, provided more opportunity to increase service capabilities – as well as to work with sister companies. “Great Dane has a large network of dealers and company-owned facilities – with more than 80 locations in Canada, the United States and Mexico – and we’ve been able to tap into it. That enabled us to develop FleetWise, a new national service.”
FleetWise is an authorized service repair program that connects customers to a nationwide network of Great Dane branches and participating dealer locations, according to the company. Services include FRP/fiberglass repair, bumper and sub frame repair, door/hardware repair, insulation repair, lift gate installation, ramp installation, welding, painting, metal fabrication, decal installation, lights/wiring/electrical work, body swap/ mounting, and preventative maintenance.
“A client no longer has to bring a truck all of the way back to Rice Lake,” indicates Rude.
This means less downtime and enhanced ease of doing business and, ultimately, maximized return on investment.
“We are a customer-driven organization, and this has led to the ‘Voice of the Customer’ program that has helped us identify needs in both existing and emerging markets,” says Rude. “That is one of the main reasons that we’ve been able to survive. So, as we move forward, we will continue expanding our sales and service distribution channels.”