Body Builders

Planning and practice guide truck manufacturer through its darkest hours to continued growth

Posted on May 1, 2016 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When a tragedy pushed Marion Body Works toward an existential crossroads, Curt Ignacio knew just the route that would steer the company to both survival and continued success.

He’d practiced it many times before.

“My father-in-law used to make us ‘practice dying’ until we got it right,” says Ignacio, recalling Vinson “Bud” Simpson’s penchant for detail and planning, and leadership’s attendance at a Family Business Forum of the same name.

While he injects that bit of humor into retelling the story these days, you can still see the emotional scars cross Ignacio’s brow as he recalls those tumultuous days when succession planning morphed from a practice exercise into tragic reality.

On Oct. 4, 2012, Marion Body Works Co-President and CEO Jim Simpson — Vinson’s son and Ignacio’s brother-in-law and best friend — was killed in a traffic accident in rural Shawano County. It was a Thursday afternoon and Ignacio and the rest of the leadership team knew they needed to move quickly to reassure employees, suppliers and customers the family-owned company would continue on.

Phil Florek, a member of the company’s board of directors, met Ignacio at 7 the next morning. Together, they shared the news of Jim Simpson’s death and the steps they would take to keep the company’s momentum moving forward. While many had already heard the news, they didn’t know what it meant for the company’s future.

“We got out there and we made the announcement that we have a plan and we are going to move forward,” Ignacio says.

Shortly after informing the employees, a similar message was shared with suppliers and customers. The consistent message was that while a tragedy had occurred, and the family was shaken, the company had a plan in place and would continue to build and deliver truck bodies and cabs to customers.

For Ignacio, the message was key. There could be no wavering.

“I am responsible for the families of more than 200 people in this community,” says Ignacio, who has since stepped into the CEO role. “The things you do affect their livelihood; you want to make sure that this company is still here.”

Planned precision

With the quick execution of the succession plan and a consistent message, Ignacio and the leadership team at Marion Body Works sustained the momentum and growth the company had been experiencing since the recession. In 2015, the company hit $50 million in sales, reached nearly 250 employees and broke ground for a new corporate headquarters for its campus.

“It was critical they had the plan in place. The ownership really feels a responsibility to the greater community,” says Mike Foley, a 27-year veteran of the company, who remembers the events of October 2012 all too well. “They had a consistent message that was key. Yes, there was going to be a void, but the company was not without a leader and would move forward.”

The plan and the messaging provided Ignacio with important tools at a critical junction for the company, says Greg Linnemanstons, president of Weidert Group, which began working with the company several months after the accident. The plan gave Ignacio — who had just lost an important business partner and best friend — step-by-step guidance while the message reassured customers and vendors.

“Jim had been the customer-facing part of the management team. Those customers want to know they will be in good hands,” . Linnemanstons says. “What they want to hear is that while there has been a tragedy, there is a plan, the projects are moving forward and these are the key people.

“It gave the customer and vendor confidence, but it also gave Curt confidence,” he says.

Build it better

A well-designed plan has been a hallmark at Marion Body Works for more than a century.

The company’s roots can be traced back to

1905, when it opened as a blacksmith shop supplying cattle racks and milk wagons to regional dairy farmers. The quality construction — along with the farmers’ penchant to keep them and make their own repairs — resulted in the company eventually exploring new markets for business.

The answer came in the form of all aluminum fire apparatus. With the techniques learned supplying the dairy industry, the company started manufacturing all-aluminum fire apparatuses in 1964 and were the first and oldest manufacturer to do so.

Vinson “Bud” Simpson bought the company in 1980 following a 25-year career with Trane Co. of La Crosse as well as being president and director at Marathon Electric Manufacturing Co. of Wausau. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer, Simpson quickly instilled his penchant for precision on the company.

An interesting bit of history was recently rediscovered by the company, an early technical paper written by Simpson regarding corrosion where aluminum and steel are joined, as well as best practices to avoid the problem and restore the integrity of the joint if it is found.

“We are going to put it in the new building once we move in,” Ignacio says.

In 1981, the company entered into a new business segment that started with a cold call on Oshkosh Truck by “Bud” Simpson and Don Wendt. They were given the opportunity to build — and continue building to this day —  wrecker and cargo body variants for the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck program.

A new opportunity 1996 (“another leg of the stool” as Bud Simpson would say) was to contract build all aluminum fire truck cabs for custom chassis builders. The company delivered its 10,000th cab to its first such customer in 2014, and continues to supply cabs to other customers.

With several production lines in continuous motion, it’s not unusual to see aluminum cabs being prepared for delivery to a major fire truck manufacturer, or a crew working on a custom truck body for a commercial vehicle. Or, perhaps another line is working on a unique looking truck body or cab created and fabricated for the company’s growing line of custom engineered vehicles — an option very popular with utility companies — all taking place within a few steps of one another.

The counter-cyclical nature of the various segments has generally kept the production lines moving and meant fewer lean business cycles. As Ignacio explains, it can often take 18 to 24 months for a fire truck to be ordered and all the work completed, which tends to make those orders less subject to the ebb-and-flow of the commercial business cycle.

“We could be doing better,” Ignacio says of the company’s performance. “We can always do better.”

The invisible touch

Growth has been a constant driver at Marion Body Works, though you can’t always see the changes that result.

In fact, you can almost miss the company entirely if you are not paying attention.

While the production facilities cover more than 60 acres of land in the city of Marion, most of the buildings are hidden from street view by a thick screen of trees along the adjacent roads. Until the construction of the new headquarters, the main point of entry was a small, used temporary classroom building that served as the company’s headquarters.

It belies the size and scope of the operation hidden behind it, which has been expanded several times as new product lines have been added and the company has grown from $6 million when the Simpson family acquired it to the $50 million mark in 2015.

Plan for growth

It was the tremendous growth that brought Ignacio to Marion Body Works, again, all part of a larger plan to ensure the company always had a dynamic leadership team in place.

In 1988, with the pace of company growth accelerating, “Bud” Simpson began to execute the succession plan for his eventual retirement. That meant recruiting his son Jim, and his son-in-law Curt, to senior positions with the company. Both were building successful careers elsewhere, Jim in Chicago and Ignacio in San Jose, Calif.

Ignacio’s first interview was in February, 1988. Despite the wintry weather, he came anyway. In part, it was his brother-in-law Jim who helped seal the deal.

“It would have been hard to follow his father had he not been here with me,” Ignacio says.

While the senior Simpson would not retire until 2003, he had already set the succession for the next generation. Ignacio would work a variety of assignments with the company and was named a vice president. In 1993, the board elected Jim co-president and chief executive officer and Curt co-president and chief operating officer.

It wasn’t just family succession the company planned for. As a founding member of the Wisconsin Family Business Forum, Marion Body Works was an active participant not only in attendance, but in practicing the advice provided.

“We have succession plans for every member of the leadership team and how we would handle things if one — or more than one — would leave,” Ignacio says. A case study by Wipfli noted how that preparedness paid off when a controller suddenly departed the company (which resulted in a Wipfli associate stepping in to bridge the gap until a suitable replacement could be found) just as the plan described.

Marion Body Works is an ardent supporter and true believer in the work of the Wisconsin Family Business Forum, says Meridith Jaeger, executive director. The company didn’t just attend the meetings, but instituted the things they learned about and practiced them.

“They had a plan, which I’m sure they expected was long-term, but it helped them through a critical time of stress,” she says. “It was important for the employees, customers, vendors and the community to understand how things would go forward.”

Culture of success

But there is much more to Marion Body Works’ success than a penchant for planning.

In addition to building a sound path for the company’s management and financial future, a unique company culture has also been forged. While the company  is almost always hiring, it’s more likely the result of growth than employee departure.

“This company has one of the best-gelled management teams that I have ever seen,” says Vincenzo Speziale, vice president of information technology and information systems. “It’s a serious company that brings its values to the table every day.”

Employee turnover is less than 1 percent, while the average tenure is 11 years. Inside one of the production buildings there is a sign designating members of the Old Faithful Club celebrating long-term service to the company, and there has been a steady stream of 50-year anniversaries.

Some of the credit certainly goes to the lifestyle of the surrounding area and how Marion Body Works fits into the community. It is certainly one of the destination employers for the region, and the company accommodates an outdoor lifestyle. Local fishing holes are within a few minutes’ walk and the company has been known to grant a half-day off to deer hunters who need a little more time to track a prize buck.

“If you like to hunt and fish, where else would you want to be?” Ignacio says.

While the company draws its workforce from a wide geographic area, the commute does not seem to be a deterrent. For some of the company’s professional positions such as engineering, it has had to recruit outside the region, but it fills most of its labor needs locally.

It can always use more skilled labor in areas such as welding, and has taken an aggressive stance for training its own. “We’ll teach you to weld and then we will keep you challenged,” Ignacio says.

Company leadership has also proven itself open to employee-driven suggestions for improving the production process. When Marion Body Works added its most recent production lines, it was employees who suggested the air and power lines be concealed in spaces under the manufacturing floor. The end-result was fewer exposed hoses and cords and a safer, more productive workspace.

“I think the family-owned aspect creates a much different experience,” says Nathan Nick, vice president of operations. “We are doing a lot to attract talent and we’ve had success finding people.”

Looking ahead

With the Great Recession and family succession in the rearview mirror, Ignacio and the leadership team at Marion Body Works are now focused on continuing to grow the company.

With defense spending contracting the past few years, the company has emphasized its cab and truck body business, particularly its custom engineered vehicle bodies. The company has also refined its production process and worked with customers on just-in-time delivery to avoid stockpiling expensive inventory.

It’s all part of living up to the company’s core values, which include the simple axiom “do what you say you are going to do.”

“You always have to be thinking about doing it better,” Ignacio says.