Our Story – Full

With a manufacturing goal of building 300 No. 301 trailers its first year of operation, the Dooly County fabrication shop had all but reached its quota Aug.1. “We’re becoming somewhat limited on production slots,” Hill acknowledged. “Thirty more trailers, and we’re sold out.”

Thanks to the success of Phase One of its business plan, Advanced Trailer is already gearing up for Phase Two – establishing a service division to repair and maintain its peanut drying semi trailers, he said. Plus, the company is continuing to refine its product designs and expand its fabrication activities.

Yet the road to Dooly County – and Advanced Trailer’s successes there – did not come easily. “When I look back at January, and see the hurdles we had to overcome … well, they say luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” Hill said, adding drily, “We’ve been really lucky.”

The company began in 1995 as a semi trailer dealership. The following year, a man purchased 100 trailers from Hill, explaining that he wanted to try drying peanuts with them. “That was my introduction to the peanut business.”

Initially, Hill only handled trailer sales, not conversions. Business boomed. In 1997, he recalled, he started selling semis to Birdsong in West Texas. Early in 2000, a customer in the Southeast asked Advanced Trailers to build them a semi and ship it to them. “That’s how we got started in manufacturing trailers,” Hill said.

It also marked the beginning of a trend. More and more trailers were being converted in Texas and shipped to peanut growers in the southeastern U.S., he said.

In 2002, the company built its first fully-converted trailer for drying peanuts. The peanut industry quickly embraced it. “It was a very good year,” Hill recalled.

Others also took note as converted semis climbed in popularity. “That’s the hottest thing in the industry,” said Joe Cook of Cook Industrial Electric Company, Inc., the parent company of Blueline Crop Dryers, which began producing dryers in 1982.

In the late 90s, Cook’s expertise took him to West Texas, where he was instrumental in the semi trailer plenum design that has been the industry standard since 1998.

“Both the 40 percent open flooring and the 84′ x 17″ opening were initiated by us and first tried by our customers in West Texas in 1998,” Cook said. “Curing peanuts on converted semi trailers has become more than just a trend over the past 10 years.

“Where practical, curing peanuts in 25-ton batches offers significant advantages, the most important of these being more uniform drying, generally faster drying times and greater safety on our highways.”

Yet, even though the semi craze began in West Texas, Cook said, the future of peanuts in that region seemed uncertain. “The Southeast is where the growth is,” he said.

Meanwhile, by February 2003, Advanced Trailer was fully committed to converting semi trailers to dry peanuts. “We used our knowledge of semis and the suggestions of what our customers wanted and redesigned our trailer to make it unique. We beefed up the specifications,” Hill said. The resulting “super-trailer” more than pulled its weight in the marketplace.

“We were blessed with sales, but we didn’t have the infrastructure to build a large number of trailers,” he said. “Initially, we farmed out our labor. But we found we couldn’t control quality, or timeliness or expense. We learned some valuable lessons.”

By May of 2003, Hill realized Advanced Trailer would have to change its business model if it were to survive. He began assembling a “dream team”, considered by many to be the best in the industry for trailer repair and fabrication.

Although Advanced Trailer faced substantial losses by the end of 2003, the company absorbed them and moved ahead with its new game plan.

“We had decided we had to be in the southeast, so we began meeting with different economic development organizations,” said Hill. “Georgia was very aggressive. The state offered excellent incentives.”

A fortuitous meeting between Hill and Cook led Advanced Trailer to Dooly County. “The economic development team in Vienna was amazing. They took really good care of us,” Hill said. As soon as the deal was signed, Advanced Trailer’s management team moved to Georgia to oversee preparation of the building, while Hill signed a deal with the railroads to purchase 2,500 trailers.

“We are so grateful that our customers have been so supportive and have stuck with us,” Hill said. “We owe our success through our relationships with our customers.”

In fact, improvements and innovations in their design are customer-driven. “We are constantly listening to our customers on how to make our trailers better quality, easier to operate and safer,” Hill said. “Safety is something we’re real serious about.”

So when one of their customers “almost had his teeth knocked out” by the conventional swing-door trailer design, a rear gate model was designed, said Hill, adding, “We’ve only sold one swing-door since it came out.” With the plant in Vienna up and running, Advanced Trailer has turned another corner. “Now we’re putting all our equipment through our own quality control. We control everything, painting, assembling, delivery – and we have not had any problems with the product or with delays in delivery since then,” Hill said. “In fact, we’re delivering ahead of schedule.”

The company is acquiring additional equipment that should both give it even more quality control and help keep the Dooly County facility busy even during the off-season. “We’ve been farming out some fabrication for components, but we want to build entire trailers,” explained Hill.

“When we have our own fabrication shop in house, it will improve the quality of our parts and the timeliness of getting those parts. Plus, we want to keep jobs here. If we develop quality employees, we don’t want to lose them.”

The company is also broadening its scope to include servicing the customers after the sale, Hill said. “We have hired a trailer mechanic and we are moving him here from Texas. We‚ll have an on-call service truck and we‚ll be offering a complete inventory, inspections, service, repairs, and maintenance.”

To accommodate its continued growth, Advanced Trailer is now planning an expansion. “We’ve already outgrown our 80,000-square-foot facility in Vienna. We’re looking at expanding our current building, or building a separate one near it,” Hill said.

Advanced Trailer isn’t the only business with a vested interest in the growth of converted semi trailer for peanut drying. Buying points, for example, are making infrastructure changes to handle the bigger hauls and other differences between semis and old-fashioned wagons.

“I‚m betting a lot of money on the trailers,” said Larry Cunningham, general manager of R.L. Cunningham and Sons. “I don’t know if they’ll ever completely replace the wagons.”

“But I‚m seeing a lot of farmers now with six- and eight-row combines able to harvest a lot more peanuts. And the new peanut program is not restricted by areas or quota pounds, so we’re seeing a lot more economics of scale.”

It’s a lot easier pulling 25 tons of crop from the field with a semi than hauling smaller loads using wagons, Cunningham pointed out. That’s not the only benefit the converted semis offer.

“It’s a lot safer pulling a trailer than a wagon with 10 tons of peanuts, no brakes and a lot of momentum,” he said.

The downside, for him, is the large investment in his facility he’s making in his facility to unload the trailers. “A new hydraulic dumper that lifts the truck, trailer and all, costs $215,000,” Cunningham said. Less costly options are available, such as a larger version of the cable hoist used now, he said. But regardless of the type of unloading equipment they pick, buying points are likely to come up with some way to handle the semis.

“The little red wagons do pose a serious safety issue,” Hill said. “They have no lights, no brakes and they’re not inspected. Semi trailers are required to be inspected every year. There will be a day when the government says wagons are dangerous.

“We want the peanut industry to be profitable, but we want it to be safe, too.”