|Metamorphosis Through Creative Management
Three years ago, Ultra-Fab lost one of its biggest customers because of its poor on-time delivery performance. Last year that same customer Camping World -- honored Ultra-Fab as one of its most reliable suppliers.
What brought about that dramatic improvement?
According to Darryl Searer, president of Ultra-Fab, it was a combination of elements including a restructuring of the company. Three years ago, Ultra-Fab was owned equally by Searer, and his brothers Larry and Craig. At the same time Darryl also owned and managed MHS Supply, a regional warehouse distributorship in Elkhart, In-diana, and therefore he could only provide passing attention to Ultra-Fab. In August 1997 MHS was sold to Northwest Trailer Parts, freeing Darryl to focus more attention on Ultra-Fab. In the mean time, Larry who had been president decided to leave the company so Darryl and Craig bought his shares of the business.
Darryl wasn't surprised back then when Camping World dropped Ultra-Fab's "Chock & Lock" product line because of the lack of performance. MHS was also a customer of Ultra-Fab and Darryl couldn't get product on a timely basis either.
When RV News visited Ultra-Fab to talk with Darryl and Craig in Elkhart, they were obviously proud of the company's turnaround and the Camping World recognition. Darryl said, "Last year we were one of only three of their suppliers that had 100-percent on-time delivery with a 100 -percent fill ratio. That was with our Traileze II wind deflector product line. That recognition is significant because three years ago we lost their business be-cause we couldn't service them on a timely basis. We went from a company that made quality products but was not reliable as far as delivering on time to becoming a supplier that has almost a perfect record. And that turnaround came in only a year and a half."
In the last 18 months Ultra-Fab has made some major investments in computerization and equipment in the plant and that has contributed to the company's increased performance.
Craig Searer, who is vice president, said, "The machinery has helped, but a lot of the credit goes to our new computer system and software. It lets us build to a forecast. Before we were only guessing about what we would need. Our product priorities were set by who was hollering the loudest, and that's what we would build. With this new system the computer actually generates our work orders for production, months in advance, so we know what we have to build and put into stock for the coming month's business."
Ultra Fab has three areas of focus. First, the Ultra-Fab assembled product lines that include a multitude of lines for the RV aftermarket. Second, the Power Mover, a multi-faceted machine that does everything from moving fifth-wheel and travel trailers around a dealership to helping companies unload trucks. And finally, the "job shop."
"When the company started in 1958 it was a job shop," Darryl explained. "We made then and still do today parts for somebody else, and the part doesn't have our name on it. This software allows us to do job shop costing, planning and ordering and it also allows us to produce our Material Require-ments Plan (MRP) for our brand name product lines. So we can take our products that we want to stock and sell, plug it in one side and plug the job shop requirements in the other side. It's the only software we could find that would do both."
Interestingly, Darryl and his father started the company that evolved into Ultra-Fab in 1958 while Darryl was in high school before Craig was even born. The original company was Elkhart Rivet and Register. Darryl moved on to other opportunities such as a long career with The Dometic Corporation where he was vice president of sales and marketing, and then to MHS Supply which he subsequently purchased.
Remembering those early days in business with his father Darryl said, "At that time all we did was make floor air registers for recreational vehicles and manufactured homes. We assembled them for somebody else in the basement of our house."
In 1960 they bought a factory, a building next door to their current location. It remained Elkhart Rivet and Register until the early nineties when the name changed to Ultra-Fab. That's when they bought their first product lines. Until then Elk-hart Rivet and Register remained a job shop. After Dometic acquired A&E, several product lines in that acquisition were being spun off and were acquired by Ultra-Fab. The products included a tongue jack, a fifth-wheel jack, a tire hoist, and the Traileze wind deflector.
Shortly after that Ultra-Fab acquired several other product lines from Automatic Equipment Manufacturing Co. These inclu-ded a vented tailgate for pickup trucks, the Rock Stopper (renamed Chock & Lock), the Quick Stand which is used on light duty boat trailers and a step line although that product has not been pursued. The sleeper in those acquisitions was the Power Mover.
Darryl said, "Automatic knew that this product had potential, but they were not prepared at that time to devote the engineering time to perfect the product."
Since Ultra-Fab was looking for ways to diversify, the Power Mover gave them an entrée into other industries.
Darryl said, "We didn't want to put all of our eggs in the RV and manufactured housing industries' baskets. And we didn't want to put all of our eggs in the job shop basket because our success is no better than our customers' success. The Power Mover has virtually put us into many different industries."
In the last 11 months Ultra Fab has sold the Power Mover to 15 major companies such as Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Honda, Toyota, Bell Helicopter, Fleetwood, General Electric, and Boeing Aircraft.
Searer continued, "These are names everyone recognizes. And we haven't scratched the surface yet. We are going after material handing distributors. If they sell lift trucks and pallet jacks we think the Power Mover fits into those product categories."
When Ultra-Fab acquired the Power Mover line there was basically only one model, the 5700, and it had some shortcomings. Ultra-Fab has improved the original 5700 and added a model 5900 to the mix.
Darryl said, "When we got the Power Mover from Automatic Equipment, they said they knew it was not user-friendly and needed a lot of engineering. When you ran the Power Mover, you needed an extra hand two hands weren't good enough. We did a lot of engineering to get the smaller units to where they are today.
"We upgraded the basic design. We added a battery charger to make it more user-friendly. Now, all you do is plug the extension cord in, while before you had to remove a door and hook up a charger to the battery inside a compartment. We added a battery level indicator so operators can see the battery life remaining on a charge. And we added foam-filled tires.
"In addition there were some problems with the differential on the design we originally ac-quired which caused a lot of differential failures. It was over-rated and under-built. The differential today is not causing problems. As a matter of fact, we have only had one differential failure this year. That was on the small unit the 5700."
And then last year Ultra-Fab introduced the powerful and versatile 7900, nick-named The Brute. The 7900 is designed for RV dealers and manufacturers to move fifth-wheel trailers around the lot.
As far as the future and potential new products, Darryl told RV News, "I think we are going to concentrate on the Power Mover. There are so many markets we can go to.
"And we already have another unit on the drawing board, a model that would be between the 5900 and 7900. There are certain jobs out there that neither the 5900 nor the 7900 can do. Right now we have several customers that I know we could sell that new model to, and we think that it has a lot of other applications in other industries."
Darryl expects that product to be introduced within a year.
"The Power Mover is the most exciting thing that we are doing now," Darryl added, "not that we are turning away from our RV and manufactured housing products. They are doing very well. We are seeing growth in virtually every segment of our business."
Since 1990 Ultra-Fab has averaged 20 percent growth per year.
Besides the new equipment and computerization, Darryl and Craig believe that a basic change in the management focus of the company played a significant part in the company's turnaround.
Ultra-Fab has adopted the "Team Concept" made popular by companies such as Saturn.
Craig explained, "The team concept is getting people in-volved with what's going on here. They realize that the reason they are here is not because Darryl and I are here, but because our customers keep coming back. It's not us telling them what to do, it's the customer."
Ultra-Fab is divided into three teams - the Power Mover team, the brand name assembled products team and machine operations (the job shop) team.
According to Craig, Ultra-Fab's team concept is based on four goals and team leaders have the responsibility to make sure these goals are accomplished. First, meeting the completion date on the work order. In other words, getting the products out on time. Another is to not only get the order out on time but to do it right the first time. Another goal is making sure the information that goes into the system is correct. If the information input is sloppy, the output will not be accurate. And finally to create an attitude within the team to continue to improve, not only the product itself, but also the process of how it is built.
Craig added, "We are customer-driven by the work orders."
The team concept program is tied to an incentive package that lets the entire workforce share in the company's financial success.
So a lot has gone into bringing Ultra-Fab to where it is today. But Darryl and Craig are not about to relax simply because the company has improved so much in a short time, and Camping World recognized that improvement through the company's performance.
Craig said, "We are not where we want to be, but we are on the right track. What we find is that the more we get our people involved, the easier, faster and more efficient we become in moving orders out the door.
"Over the next two or three years, I would like for us to complete orders on time for everybody, regardless of who the customer is."
Darryl and Craig make a harmonious team and provide leadership that is paying dividends for Ultra-Fab, both today and in the future.
Ultra-Fab Products, Inc. RVN