“Keep it simple” is a maxim often employed during the planning of projects, and it very well could be the basis of Merritt Equipment Co.’s business. The Colorado-based company is a leading manufacturer of livestock, commodity and gooseneck trailers, as well as aluminum accessory products, and it maintains a steady business by focusing on quality in its products, operations and relationships with customers. Not that this is easy, but a simple and straightforward focus on quality has kept Merritt Equipment strong for the past 60 years.
“Our products are known for their quality – we are very sensitive to our customers’ quality requirements and we always have been,” President Everett Merritt explains. “We’re not big on buzz words over here, we always fall back to the basics. I’ve always been on the production side of the business, so I understand our products inside and out and believe in what we produce. I believe the long-term success of this company rests in the products themselves.”
Merritt’s parents founded the business in 1951, and for its first 10 years the company focused on the production of truck bodies and train trailers. Eventually, the operation evolved to include the manufacture of steel-sided trailers, steel-sided frameless trailers and aluminum trailers, and by the 1970s, Merritt Equipment also was producing truck accessories. From its launch until 1965, the company worked out of “a small, two-bay shop” in Oregon, Merritt says, but then it expanded and moved to Northern California, and then it followed the cattle market to Denver in the 70’s.
“In the 1960s, the cattle market was primarily active on the West Coast, but in the 1970s that industry began moving east toward the Corn Belt,” he explains. “We opened some branches in the 70’s, but when the market slowed in the early 80’s, we closed the branches and moved the headquarters to Denver.”
All of its production is done in Denver, but three years ago Merritt Equipment opened a second office in Nebraska. “That is strictly a sales office in Nebraska, not manufacturing,” he says. “These two locations put us in the center of our market, and the Nebraska office is within 500 miles of anyone in the cattle market, which allows us to better serve our customers.”
Merritt Equipment primarily serves the transportation and agricultural markets, and its products are available through a large dealer network. Its commodity and gooseneck trailer dealers are located throughout the United States and Canada, and aluminum accessory products are available through all major truck and trailer dealers. In addition, the company sells its livestock trailers through its own sales force at locations in the United States and Canada.
Merritt explains the company’s new product development efforts are ongoing, and customers’ equipment needs differ depending on the state in which they operate. Primarily, state standards vary in terms of a trailer’s axis, suspension and length. What remains consistent across every market, however, is the strict importance of quality.
“The mandate to maintain and improve quality is driven as much by our customers as it is by our internal standards,” Merritt says. “We are very receptive to comments from our customers and dealers, and good enough is never what we settle on. Our reputation is the result of the high-quality products we deliver, and our quality extends the products’ lifecycles, which increases their value. We believe that if we fail to meet our customers’ lifecycle needs, we will fail completely.”
Quality and Durability
Merritt stresses that the focus on quality never falters, even in a recession. The slow economy of the last few years didn’t affect Merritt Equipment as much as other manufacturers, but it had to build its business to maintain a good sales volume.
“We felt some effects of the bad economy, and it wasn’t easy – we expanded our custom work quite a bit,” he says. “Communication is a big part of staying on track. We met with our sales team and said, ‘Sell, sell, sell.’ Internally, we met with our people and asked them to ask what they can do to help the company, and then figure out how to make that happen.”
Merritt meets with the entire company once a week to discuss the state of the business and its goals, as well as any concerns. “Management and the employees have to act as a single team – if they are separate, a company won’t function correctly. Teamwork equals quality, it’s that simple.”
He explains the company is improving its operations in a number of ways – it is tracking labor to find ways to speed up its processes and is providing more cross-training to employees. It also implemented software that connects the sales department with production to improve productivity. In addition to expanding its custom business, Merritt Equipment plans to enter the oil market by “somewhat diversifying” its product line, and improving its operations will aid in those goals.
“Farmers did well last year, so the commodity trailer market is good, and 2011 was a good recovery year for new truck sales, which supported our accessories business,” Merritt says. “We know how to respond to cycles.
“The quality and durability of our product will enable our growth,” he adds. “The expectation from our customers is that we deliver the best quality, no exceptions. Our quality is not just a sales pitch – in the last 40 years, our products have become more lightweight but allow for more payload, which helps our customers to make more profit. Quality is the only thing we know – I don’t know how to sell cheap products.”