Towing the line

Schutt Industries brings its military-grade trailers to serious weekend warriors

Posted on Jul 31, 2018 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When Philip Gibbs, a general contractor based in Maryland, was researching adventure trailers online, the XVenture made by Clintonville-based Schutt Industries seemed to be what he was looking for — but it took him a little while to pull the trigger.

“I bounced it around for probably six to eight months, trying to figure out if this would be the trailer for me,” Gibbs recalls. “I finally talked to them on the phone, and they were so helpful and so cooperative it was easy to make the decision to buy something from them.”

Now, Gibbs’ XVenture goes with him on fly-fishing trips in North Carolina and mountain-biking trips along the mid-Atlantic coast.

“I’ve got a daughter that goes to college in Boone, North Carolina, and that’s one of the reasons I went to this trailer — there’s a number of trout streams and sort of rugged, off-the-beaten-path camping there,” Gibbs says.

Built for serious outdoor and off-road enthusiasts, XVenture trailers are just one example of product innovation that keeps Clintonville’s Schutt Industries growing.

Launched in 1998 by founder and CEO Jim Schutt, the company is evolving its experience of building heavy-duty trailers for the U.S. military to entice a new market of buyers while maintaining one-on-one service that attracts clients like Gibbs. That focus on customer service with an eye on product evolution helped Schutt grow into a company with 90 employees at locations in Clintonville and Shawano that generates about $20 million in annual revenue.

Military grade

Twenty years ago, Schutt worked for another local company “that was a good company to work for, but their insight going forward wasn’t the same as mine. They didn’t want to try new things — if it worked in 1950, they were really happy to stay with what they were doing.”

But Schutt had ideas for building equipment with newer, lighter materials, so he took his ideas down the road and opened his own company. His daughter, Terry Lamberies, was his first employee and today serves as the company’s general manager.

Some clients – including General Dynamics – already knew and worked with Jim, but others weren’t so sure about signing on with a small company. Lamberies recalls a time early on when Schutt was awarded a government contract, but the follow-up visit didn’t go so well. After the Army representative visited Schutt, he went back and told his supervisors “‘they’re in the middle of a cornfield so I don’t think it’s going to work,’” Lamberies says. “He was not impressed with the small facility that we had at the time. We weren’t in production yet, so we didn’t have the product to show him.”

Schutt not only managed to hang on to that contract, but also became one of the Army’s primary contractors for its light- to medium-sized fleet of trailers.

“Schutt has such a strong focus on customer satisfaction. We have customers that are buying trailers for the military, and we’re out there helping them test the trailer at the government facility, and those types of things,” says Mark Schutt, Jim’s son and plant manager.

While the company launched with a primary focus on building military equipment, it also has evolved a strong commercial side that began with equipment for utility companies and now has broken into the extreme off-road market.

“The advantage we have with commercial products is that you don’t have many customers in the commercial industry that fully intend to break your product after they buy it,” says Steve Schutt, another son and vice president of sales and marketing.

 

Schutt Industries’ market is still primarily military — about 70 percent — with 30 percent commercial, including utility customers and XVenture. Military clients include the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, Space and Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR), General Dynamics, Raytheon, L-3 Communications and Thales Australia.

“Over the years, it’s always been competitive,” Jim Schutt says. “We’ve always had to bid jobs, which I want to say helped our suppliers and they were good to us as well. As long as we could all be competitive, it worked well.”

Schutt Industries works with mostly Wisconsin-based suppliers, including Walker Forge, which is across the street.

Having the U.S. military as a primary customer offers some stability. In fact, Lamberies says that during the Great Recession when other manufacturers struggled, Schutt Industries had one of its busiest times, receiving a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to build light tactical trailers, which remains the company’s core product offering.

But the company always remains aware that those contracts could dry up, Lamberies says.

“Our intent was not to have all our eggs in one basket and to diversify,” she says.

Schutt dipped its toe into the commercial market by working with utility companies on products such as cable-reel trailers for large spools of power line. Next came its entry into the high-end off-road XVenture market, Lamberies says.

“It’s nice to have that to help us weather any ups or downs in the military world,” she says.

Medford Electric Utility is one of Schutt’s commercial clients, and manager Spencer Titera is impressed not only with its products, but also its customer service. He says Schutt was always on time with promised dates and delivered the equipment directly to the north central Wisconsin city.

“We bought two reel trailers and a pole trailer from Schutt Industries,” Titera says. “Their products are second to none — obviously military grade — so they will withstand any workload.”

 

Going off-road

Arequest for a trailer to be used for military jeeps opened a new possibility for Schutt Industries.

“The military jeep market trailers didn’t really take off for us,” Steve Schutt says. “When we looked at it, we knew we already had the design and the size of a trailer to fit that type of (consumer) vehicle.”

It was a natural transition to leverage that military-grade quality and build a prototype for the consumer market, Schutt says. In 2013, the company took its idea to SEMA, the premier automotive specialty products show in Las Vegas, which draws tens of thousands of attendees.

“It looked cool,” Steve Schutt says. “It had such a different, unique look than anything else we were doing. We knew it had potential, so we took it to (the show) to get feedback, exposure and to see if it was something.”

It was and the XVenture line was born. Schutt Industries took that initial prototype, refined it and had it in production about nine months later. It established a dealer network and sold directly to outdoor enthusiasts who prefer to spend their time overlanding — far away from the highways.

The trailers are assembled with military-grade Huck Bolt rivets — a type of mechanical fastener like the ones that hold airplanes together — instead of a welded construction. This allows for a little extra wiggle room when the trailers hit natural obstacles like rocks and uneven ground — exactly what serious off-roaders need. 

“A welded structure might fatigue and crack over time,” Steve Schutt says. “So it’s a significant advantage to our manufacturing, and very unique to how we produce our products.”

Steve Schutt recalls a client asking him if the toolboxes on the XVenture trailers were bear proof.

“We don’t really know — we’ve never had a bear break in or try,” he says. While the XVenture is not officially rated “bear proof,” it’s unlikely that one could get past the construction.

“People know it’s going to last when things are overbuilt — that’s the point,” Steve Schutt says. “Most of our stuff is very robust construction.”

Gibbs, the Maryland-based adventurer, was looking for that strength to bring along on his off-road trips. The trailer complements vehicles he owns, including a custom RubiTrux-outfitted Jeep and his heavy-duty GMC Sierra 2500, which is white, like the trailer.

“I’ve got five kids and I wanted to be able to take something to haul gear and camp — the trailer is very serviceable because I carry everything on the trailer,” Gibbs says. “That way, other people’s vehicles are lighter weight and we don’t have to overload them.”

Gibbs’ XVenture has a hot water heater, full galley kitchen with a 33-gallon water storage tank and hard-shell pop-up tent with a memory foam mattress on the elevated roof rack and the heavy-duty awning that he was seeking.

“I probably bought the trailer mostly for the awning and everything else that comes with it,” he says.

The XVenture trailer includes space in the cargo bed for a full-size ATV or motorbike and can include lighting systems that illuminate the trailer underneath and on the rack, as well as a refrigerator and freezer — “every bell and whistle you can think of,” Steve Schutt says.

XVenture trailers cost between $15,000 and $30,000 depending on how many extras consumers want to include.

 

Growing Schutt

Schutt Industries grew in part because of its adaptability to customer needs. In visiting one utility customer in Minnesota, Schutt leaders noticed “they were making all these modifications,” Lamberies says. “They were putting extra holes in. They were mounting different things. We’re like, ‘We could do that for you.’”

Now, the company needs to adapt to a changing employee market. Like many manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin, it struggles to find the skilled workers it needs, so it has been making changes such as reviewing its pay scale and benefit package and developing more training strategies.

“We’ve always had that as a part of our culture, that we were willing to train,” Lamberies says. “But I think now we’re seeing it more than ever where we really have to look at building people’s experience with the unemployment rate at the level that it is.”

The company recently donated a welder to Clintonville High School and participates in its school-to-work program.

“We would like to be a bigger player with the area schools so that maybe we can recruit some of those kids, or work with them if they’re going to tech school,” Lamberies says.

Keeping up with the future will continue to be a focus as Schutt develops new products and markets.

“It’s always hard to predict the government end of it, because they’re working on some huge programs that could go either way,” Jim Schutt says. “I do expect the company to grow and see different products happen, which is just the nature of the beast right now.”

Next up, Schutt is working on building military semitrailers for heavy equipment hauling, particularly for the military construction division, so trailers can carry bulldozers, excavators and the like.

“That comes with some great opportunities, but also some facility changes, and we’ll need different things to be able to handle a trailer of that size, whether it be overhead cranes, a larger paint booth and those types of things,” Lamberies says. “It’s a great thing for us to now step into that heavy trailer world.”

Another new transition will be Jim’s retirement — somewhere down the road.

“My goal was to stick it out for 20 years, and I made that,” Jim Schutt says. “Steve and Terry will do a great job, and I’ll always be around if they need me.”

Lamberies and Steve Schutt will continue in their leadership roles though they’re still working on exactly when, what and how things will change when their father steps away from the business. Both anticipate a smooth transition.

“We’ve all been the face of the company together, so that’s a good thing — it’s not like there will be a discontinuance or interruption of service,” Lamberies says.

“If you were to talk to our customers, they would tell you we’ve always gone beyond the call of duty,” Jim Schutt says.

Occasionally, they will have a client need something in the 11th hour, such as one defense contractor that didn’t realize it needed trailers to go with its trucks. “We always came through. That is our world,” he says.