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Trailer manufacturer M.H. Eby Inc. moving quickly

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Brothers Nick Eby, vice president of engineering, left, and M. Travis Eby, president, are the third generation to work at M.H. Eby Inc., the Lancaster County-based manufacturer of livestock transportation equipment, started by their grandfather, Menno H. Eby Sr., in 1938. File photo
Brothers Nick Eby, vice president of engineering, left, and M. Travis Eby, president, are the third generation to work at M.H. Eby Inc., the Lancaster County-based manufacturer of livestock transportation equipment, started by their grandfather, Menno H. Eby Sr., in 1938. File photo

It is after the storm at M.H. Eby Inc., where the past few years have brought many changes, but it is not calm.

"Some days it feels like the wheels are going to come off," says President M. Travis Eby, explaining that business has been so brisk that employees are being stretched. "We're very blessed. We always say that, hey, these are good problems, but nevertheless people get frustrated."

Eby estimates that the economy's fall in 2008 cut the 75-year-old trailer-making company's business nearly in half. At the time, he was vice president of operations, working under his father in the family-owned business, and he says laying people off was dreadful.

"I like to hire people. I like to create jobs," Eby says. He has had a chance to do that, as the business first recovered and then grew further. According to Business Journal records, its revenues were about $52 million in both 2010 and 2011, then surged to $68 million in 2012.

But, Eby says, memories of having to let employees go are keeping the company a little cautious about hiring even as it is experiencing success and aiming for further expansion.

Eby, 41, has been president of the company for going on two years now, and he says there are also a lot of managers and other key personnel who were brought on as the need grew and haven't been with the company very long. Nationwide, there are about 250 employees, and the company has about 20 percent of the market in both commercial semitrailers and smaller trailers.

"We want to continue to grow without betting the farm, so to speak," he says,

emphasizing his admiration for the way his father handed over the reins but remains involved and willing to advise without interfering. "We certainly need to expand our plants — everything's getting very tight — but we'll be working on organizational issues, to make sure that our organization can keep up."

The growth has been partly the result of some targeted decisions, Eby says, but much is also attributable to the fact that the farmers who buy Eby's products have had some good years. Despite drought that hit a lot of the country, farmers "still managed to get a pretty good corn crop out of the ground."

"Because of the price of corn and getting high yields, our farm customers have done very well, and we've benefited from that," Eby says. "Our customers have money to spend."

However, he said, the drought may have repercussions in that a lot of cattle went to slaughter rather than being held back as usual to calve, which means fewer cattle this year and less demand for trailers to haul them.

But that brings up the initiatives that the company has been taking. It has three manufacturing plants — here and in Ohio and Iowa — and third-party dealers across the nation, and it is venturing into factory-owned dealerships as well.

On the product side, the company is investing in engineering and research and development as it refines its line and does much custom work.

"Our customers want their trailers lighter and lighter so they can haul more," he says, explaining that trucks have gotten heavier because of some regulatory issues, and the price of diesel fuel is rising. His brother, Nick, an equal partner in the business and vice president of engineering, is passionate about building stuff, and it shows in their innovations, he says.

Pam O'Toole Trusdale, executive director of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers, notes that M.H. Eby didn't just survive in a time when NATM's membership dropped from 1,000 to 750 because of closures and consolidations.

"Most of these (surviving) companies are like M.H. Eby — family owned, they've been around for a long time, they're strong, family-based companies, good values," O'Toole Trusdale says. "The ones that were strong survived the economic downturn because they've got a good business, a good solid base."

The Ebys have been active in the association, she says, and Travis Eby in particular pushed hard for a compliance program that has made the industry better and safer.

David H. Zimmerman, chairman of the East Earl Township board of supervisors, agrees that the company is good to work with.

"We've been very happy and thankful that they've been in the township," Zimmerman says. "They provide jobs, and it's the kind of business that relates to the agriculture community with business in building trailers, and our township is still huge in agriculture."

The business is so valued, Zimmerman says, that the township made a zoning exception "so they can keep operating and expand the business where they're located."

"We need the businesses," he says. "They're certainly an outstanding one."

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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