Trailer Maker Stays the Course for the Long Haul

Mon July 18, 2005 - National Edition

Dust-covered and well-traveled in a warehouse off Orchard Street in Albion, PA, sits a signature orange lowbed trailer marking Rogers Brothers Corp.’s past. The trailer, circa 1927, was one of the first few lowbeds fabricated out of the 100-year-old manufacturer to its customer then-Niagara Mohawk Energy in New York state.

“The tires are the original rubber,” boasted third-generation company President Mark Kulyk, as he runs his hands over the frame of the 50-ton capacity mover. “This is one of a few still around.”

The well-worn trailer is only a hint of the rich history that has played a key role in the family-owned company’s success. From its early days its bridge builders to its billing on “Construction Equipment Guide’s Top 100” product list, Rogers Brothers has stayed its course for the long haul.

Located in Albion in southwest Erie County, Rogers Brothers, with 50 employees, is one of the largest employers in this rural borough of approximately 1,600. The company’s role in the community — from job creation to charitable donations — runs deep. So too is the company’s commitment to its customers and its product.

In its 100,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes a warehouse and factory, Rogers Brothers fabricates approximately a trailer a day — torching, grinding and welding steel into the tagalongs and lowbed, detachable gooseneck trailers used to haul anything from earthmoving equipment to monstrous 110-ton transformers. When a trailer comes off the assembly line with the Rogers logo, the company has the brand recognition few in the industry can claim.

Vice President and General Manager Jay Kulyk, a 14-year veteran of the company and son of retired CEO Lawrence Kulyk, touts the recognition as one reason the world renowned trailers have had such longevity. This is especially true, Jay explained, in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions where most of their customers are based.

“It all happened as New England was growing, Boston, New York, and all those areas …” he said. “As the highway system and the infrastructures grew up during that time, we grew up with them.”

So, too, did the recognition.

“It’s Cat, Mack and Rogers,” added Mark, Jay’s uncle who started in the family business 21 years ago. “I’ve had guys tell me. ’I knew I made it when I had enough money to buy a Mack truck or Rogers trailer or Cat excavator.’ And so, Rogers became, in some respects, almost a status symbol.”

Throughout the past century, the company has managed to weather many obstacles —

• an early fire gutted its original facility in the early 1900s;

• tornadoes ripped through town in 1985, tearing off a section of the company’s roof; and

• as well as work stoppages in the 1960s and late 1990s.

Still, the business has always, remained in the family’s hands. It is that history that Mark Kulyk is most proud.

“Throughout all those years, the business has been family-owned, and has been continuously run and coordinated,” he said.

Rogers Brothers was determined to succeed early on. In 1905, three brothers — Charles, Hugh and Louis — arrived in Albion with an entrepreneurial vision and the gift of steel fabrication to begin their bridge-building business. Relying on the blacksmiths in the area as their primary work force, the brothers set up shop across from the Bessemer Railroad.

The steel was used in many of the bridges spanning the Erie and Crawford county regions. The brothers continued to dabble in their trade, eventually building houses and barns. But it was the banner year of 1914 that they built their first commercial trailer for a telephone company that needed to haul poles. Little did they know that it would be in trailers that they would make their mark.

According to company records, the business grew with the road system, and war efforts of World War I and World War II. The commercial use for trailers came heavily from its patent for the Power Lift Detachable Gooseneck, which attached the truck tractor and the trailer, and became more viable with the development of an improved hydraulic system. Business was on track.

Rogers stayed on course as family members married —hence, the Kulyks ownership — and others sold their interest. The company added a plant in Delta, OH, which operated for 25 years manufacturing lowbed and high-bed trailers until 1993.

Today, the Albion-based product line includes its Ultima Series of heavy-duty haulers, Specialized Series of custom-built trailers, Blacktop Series for paving equipment, Tag Series and Fixed Gooseneck Series.

Fabricating these trailers is an arduous task. Initially, steel is torched and cut, then welded into I-beams to create the frame of the trailer. The metal is then shot blasted and finished. Each piece is moved to the jig, where like a puzzle, the steel frame is positioned upside down for axle placement and more welding. The gooseneck, which connects the trailer bed to the actual truck tractor, is welded separately, and then attached to the frame.

The trailer works its way down the factory floor to the paint shop for its trademark coats — red, orange, black or blue. Next is the wiring of brake lines and tires, finally it is on to decals and logo placement, where “Rogers” seal of approval is affixed.

A system of checks is in place to ensure the equipment works and the quality is met. The foremen, who serve as inspectors for their departments, take a major role in quality control of each and every trailer that Rogers sells. The trailers are inspected at each stage of assembly, and a detailed list of component part serial numbers is recorded.

Monitoring continues in the customer service department, where Rogers Brothers relies on its computer system to track the trailers as they move along the factory floor, keeping its customers updated on the status of their order.

“You don’t have to call down to the shop floor and ask them how serial number xxx is doing,” Jay explained.

The addition of daily production meetings with supervisors, salesmen, purchasing agents and production staff has enabled the plant to address possible problems head on, and keep the trailers on course for shipment.

The company also retains Erie Right-to-Know Consulting Services Expert Scott Grack to help with training and safety programs, and meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and regulations.

Still, despite keeping atop of training and technology, Rogers Brothers, like many manufacturers, acknowledges the difficulties of modern day events and the economy — inflation, gas and steel prices — on its production and its customers.

Challenges such as competitors with a “one size fits all” philosophy have emerged in the industry. It’s the age-old battle of quality versus cost where the shipping prices alone can be staggering. Shipping a lowbed to Tampa, FL, can cost approximately $2,400 in freight. For a $50,000 trailer, that is about 5 percent of the cost.

Mark said many of Rogers competitors are no longer family-owned businesses, but have been bought out by much larger companies that put standardization first.

“The big get bigger, and the smaller really have to maneuver through shark-infested waters,” he explained. “And that’s what we’re dealing with. We haven’t changed our philosophy, even though we’ve questioned it.”

States have clamped down on the regulations for loads on highways and bridges. With a federal weight law of only 80,000 lbs., each state has its own weight restrictions, which can be a headache for a supplier.

“States pretty much determine what’s wide, what’s not wide, what’s long, what’s not long,” Jay said.

“Be that as it may,” added Mark. “We still make our money trying to help a guy take his trailer across three different states with three different weight laws.

“If you get a permit in Pennsylvania, that doesn’t mean you can take it into Ohio. You have to get an Ohio permit. If you’re taking a load from here [Pennsylvania] to Texas, you’re going to have to eight different permits. And you’re going to have to meet the most stringent state regulations. That’s part of our business, it’s trying to get people from here to there as best we can.”

That’s why Rogers Brothers continues to specialize in custom builds. The business model doesn’t work when it comes to high-volume production and standardization of lowbeds in the long run. Lowbed customers, they said, have higher expectations than customers of more traditional high-flat trailers.

“People who buy high flats fully anticipate to trade them off every five years. People who buy lowboys don’t necessarily work that way; they want to keep their trailer longer,” Mark said. “You try to stay consistent. You try to innovate.”

Mark said he looks for insight from his father, former company President John Kulyk, for direction. When it looked as though the company was putting too many bells and whistles on the trailers, creating a bigger price tag, it was John who advised his son to get back to basics.

Cost reduction can be a challenge though. The price of flange material, which went up 300 percent from January 2004 to November 2004, has been a tough increase for the trailer industry.

China’s consumption of scrap and steel tariffs have driven up steel prices.

“People have a price in mind for a trailer. Well, now they’re hearing prices very, very high,” Mark said. “You get a small company like ours, who doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to buy direct from the mill, and to put it very plainly, if we used the same amount of money today to the buy the steel that we did a year ago, we’d only get a third of the amount of steel.

“What I’m painting is not a rosy picture,” he continued. “But I think it’s something that a lot of small, multi-generational companies in northwestern Pennsylvania can understand.

“We’re not toolmakers or craftsmen, but by the same token we’ve built a very good product that has a good reputation.”

Rogers Brothers relies on that reputation as the demands for trailers, sizes and weights change. In the past 20 years, the earthmoving machinery that the trailers transport has grown quite a bit, so the company is forced to adjust its product.

In 1984, the length of the deck — the flat section from behind the goose neck to before the tires — was a standard 18 ft.; the stretch was 20. Today’s standard can be upwards of 24, 25 or 26.

“It gets longer and longer,” Jay said. “The funny thing is the trailers we’re building now, with the same number of axles, and the same relative size gooseneck has a deck that’s four feet longer than it used to be. Those trailers weigh less than the trailers we built 20 years ago that were that much shorter.”

The Kulyks said with advances and innovation, they plan to expand their customer and product base. The company already has three sales representatives that cover each of the regions: Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. Because Rogers relied heavily on distributor sales in the past, the production tends to get front-loaded.

Mark wants to target other markets — trucking and government contracts — to keep production up in late fall and early winter. He also has turned to Gannon Small Business Development to look into government operations, and other possibilities.

No matter what, Rogers Brothers plans to stay on course.

“We’ve really been given a gift,” Mark said. We’ve been given a good facility, an excellent product, an outstanding reputation and a loyal customer base. We just have to be able to take that gift and take it to another level. And that’s going to be a challenge.”

Given their determination, the Kulyks will keep Rogers Brothers on course for the long haul.

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(This article appears courtesy The Manufacturers’ Association of Northwest Pennsylvania’s of “Business Magazine.”)