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The recession of 2008-2009 hit everyone in the transportation industry on both sides of the border pretty hard—but better days are here again, even if that prosperity is the result of taking back lost ground. “Our industry was obliterated,” is the way Fred Seymour, president and co-owner of Canadian truck body manufacturer Multivans bluntly puts it. ”We’re still not fully recovered and Canada has lagged behind the U.S. The good news is we’re projecting steady growth over the next three years just as the result of getting business back to where we were before the recession.” Ouch.
Indeed, Multivans is poised to re-enter U.S. regional markets with expanded manufacturing capability to produce a full range of dry freight and refrigerated truck bodies. “We just hired our first U.S. sales rep and hope to hire a second shortly. We now have four distributors in the northeastern region of the U.S., and we hope to expand to ten by the end of 2016,” Seymour says. “We are focused on the areas around the Great Lakes.”
In anticipation of this growth, Multivans moved into a new 125,000 square-feet production facility located on 16 acres in Bolton, Ontario, its third move since Seymour and partner Steve Schafer bought the company in 1992. “Most truck body manufacturers are located in farmland areas,” Seymour notes. “That’s because you need the space to accommodate the traffic of large trucks driven into the facility to have the body assembled onto the chassis. We choose to remain in an industrial area, 25 minutes from the Toronto Airport, to be close to our primary customer base.
He adds that, “The move to a much bigger facility was a big leap for us, but it was something we absolutely had to do. Even if we weren’t looking to expand into the U.S., we were fully maxed out in our old plant with no room to change anything. It was just too congested with literally no extra available floor space. Our new facility is three times the size of our old plant. So, you can imagine that we had a lot of things to think about in terms of not only how are we going to best utilize this space, but also anticipate demand to run at capacity. ”
Now, instead of one assembly line, Multivans runs three, and expects to soon add a fourth. Each line is more efficiently dedicated to making a specific product type. And while much of truck body assembly is labor-intensive, it is one of the few manufacturers in the industry to have a robot for some of the operations. “There’s a lot of bolt-on manual work that is just the nature of how you can put a truck body on a chassis,” Seymour says. “But we do look to automate wherever we possibly can. For example, we now have the ability to weld five seams at a time on the floors for our reefer bodies; I’d say that we are one of the more advanced plants in North America in our industry.”
Standard and Custom Bodies
Multivans dry freight and cube vans are available in aluminum, heavy-duty FRP (fiberglass reinforced plywood) and Multiplate composite panel wall construction. Reefer bodies are in aluminum walls only. While most bodies are standard designs to fit on all OEM chassis, more than 3,000 options are available, with an engineering team that can design specific options for most applications.
In addition to the body itself, Multivans installs lift gates manufactured by all of the major manufacturers, including Waltco, Maxon and D’Hollandia, with high-strength galvanized bumpers being standard. “Canada and the northeast U.S. get a lot of snow, which means a lot of salting, which causes rust,” Seymour says. “A lot of our customers would just scrape the rust and repaint every couple of years, but I think everyone generally realizes now that the best way to deal with rust is to prevent it in the first place with full galvanized treatment.” Multivans introduced galvanizing on their bumpers 20 years ago and now don’t offer painted bumpers.
Similarly, the growing use of composites is to counteract the effects of fading and corrosion. “Some of our customers use colors such as yellow on their trucks as part of their brand identity,” Seymour notes. “The problem with that kind of color is it fades easily in FRP, with composites, the colors stay vibrant.”
Multivans also makes refrigerated (reefer) bodies that use 100 percent CFC free and environmentally friendly injected foam insulation. “In our old factory we had been outsourcing our reefer manufacturing. While we had a good product of our own, we could not justify the floor space to build them. Outsourcing allowed us to accommodate customers that relied on us for years to deliver bodies to them. But with our new plant, we’re building our own product again and are looking to gain additional market share as our productivity and capacity improves.”
Multivans employs 150 and gears up to 210 to meet seasonal demand. “Our busiest time of year is between February and July, where we do more than 60 percent of our business. The reason for that is the new truck models come out at the beginning of the year, and fleet owners also get new budgets at the end of December, so the bulk of the orders come in the first half of the next year.”
Seymour notes that when the business slows down, Multivans still retains more workers than it actually needs. “Good employees are hard to find,” Seymour notes. “We’re afraid that if we let people go when things get slow, we may not get them back when we need them. The labor market here is only fair, and the problem is that there is a trend away from seeing traditional manufacturing jobs as good careers. The fact is that skilled welders, for example, can not only make good money, but better salaries than your average office worker. The trouble is everyone is focused on computers and the trade schools aren’t as focused on ‘old-school’ manufacturing skills as they used to.”
Seymour claims that Multivans is the biggest truck body manufacturer in English-speaking Canada and probably the biggest in all of Canada in their core commercial products. Part of their recent growth is the result of the shakeout during the recession. “A lot of the top builders in the U.S. and Canada either shut down facilities or exited some commercial market segments, either geographically or with some products,” Seymour notes. “Meanwhile, some of the smaller builders decided to concentrate on refurbishment or higher-end niche products.”
Price, Delivery and Quality
Multivans survived because of its ability to meet the market needs for price, time-to-deliver and quality. “Look, everyone in this business has a quality product, or they wouldn’t be around. So fleet owners are looking for the provider that can deliver the fastest, but the main criteria is always going to come down to price. This is a highly competitive industry where a couple of hundred dollars can make the difference between whether you get the sale, or not.”
With its added manufacturing capacity, expansion into the U.S. is almost a no-brainer. “The market in Canada in our industry totals about $125 million. The U.S. market, around the Great Lakes, is close to $230 million.” Multivans is aiming for a slice of that market that is closer to home. “We’re a regional business dealing with regional operators, although those operators may still be part of a national company. That’s our strength, actually. When there’s a problem, and problems do happen, you are dealing directly with us, not some customer service center in Texas. Fleet operators appreciate that we are there to help them directly whenever they need the help.”