Painful change

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You know, there’s such a great deal of shock over this that the grief hasn’t set in yet.” –Brandie Fuller, vice president of marketing, Great Dane Trailers

I hate stories like this – I really, REALLY do – for they’ve become all too common this year as we go through an economic restructuring of the worst sort.

As you know, Great Dane Trailers announced plans yesterday to close its Savannah, Georgia factory on January 9 next year, ostensibly as the company seeks to reduce capacity in the face of falling orders while modernizing its refrigerated trailer production processes. For now, Great Dane plans transfer production to two of its other refrigerated trailer plants in Wayne, Nebraska, and Brazil, Indiana.

Yet this is more than just a readjustment to factory capacity, for closing down this particular plant closes the chapter on a significant piece of Great Dane’s history. Built in 1919 for the Savannah Blowpipe Company, this factory became the launching pad for the very first Great Dane trailers – a place that took the lead in developing one of the first-ever factory finished refrigerated trailers.

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“There’s just so much history here that seeing it going away is hard,” Brandie Fuller, Great Dane’s vice president of marketing, told me yesterday. “It’s not about the factory itself; it’s about the people. We’ve had several generations of families working in this plant – fathers alongside sons and even nephews. It’s a community with a lot of memories.”

“It’s a sad day for us. A lot of family and friends are affected,” noted Phillip Pines, COO of parent company Great Dane Limited Partnership. “This plant has remained pivotal in the history of our company. Its closing is no reflection on the caliber of the people or their work. We have simply exhausted the ability of this plant to produce refrigerated trailers at a competitive price.”

It’s true you can’t ignore the reality of the bottom line in the trucking business – especially for the OEMs serving this industry – and a plant that’s well over 90 years in age has got some serious built-in shortcomings when stacked against the sleek, modern facilities being used to build trucks, trailers, engines, and other components today.

“This move is necessary to meet customer expectations, while being price competitive,” Pines added in a press statement about the plant closing. “Advancements in technology, both in the design and production of trailers, have placed increased demands on manufacturing.”

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Ah, but can you really replace something that’s so steeped in company history? Sure it’s just well-worn brick, mortar, and steel – but it’s the human hands within that gave the Savannah plant its own unique form of life. I toured it not long ago, talked with several of the workers there about making trailers for a living. The place had its own unique rhythm, a certain background hum and smell – that crackle of ozone from the welder’s torch, the click-clack of the riveting machines building trailer sidewalls, the shouts and high-fives for jobs well done.

Some 270 plant hourly and office employees are going to be affected by the plant’s closing – not a lot compared to some of the retrenching going on in transportation (DHL is shedding 9,600 jobs from its U.S. operations) but still a significant amount for the city of Savannah – a place rich in history and culture in its own right, from the mundane to the significant.

For example, Savannah – founded in 1733 – is home to the nation’s third largest St. Patrick ’s Day parade. The capture of the city by General William Sherman in late 1864 helped Lincoln win re-election. It also served as the notorious backdrop to the salacious book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt – a story based on actual events in the town – while providing the lush scenery for the opening of Tom Hanks’ great movie “Forrest Gump.”

[For fun, watch the trailer of "Forrest Gump" and look for the scenes where Tom Hanks is sitting on a park bench talking to people. Those scenes were filmed in the heart of Savannah and the city had to remove the park bench he sat on as tourists kept carving off pieces of wood for souvenirs.]

Walking through old Savannah is like taking a step back in time – a time certainly of more prejudice and less freedom, but also one where stately buildings, parks, and trees were more welcomed by urban dwellers.

Yet sitting as it does on a relatively isolated spit of land by a bend in Savannah River, this city isn’t the ideal location for a manufacturing business that needs easy access to lanes of commerce. Big containerships may move up and down the river frequently, but there are no port facilities for them in Savannah proper. Simply put, it’s become and ever-tougher spot for building trailers.

Though Great Dane’s corporate offices – which includes sales and marketing, design engineering, manufacturing engineering, research and development, retail accounting, MIS, corporate quality and customer service – are staying put in Savannah and won’t be affected by the plant closing, it just won’t be the same anymore either. “There was nothing like taking a customer next door to watch trailers being built; to show them how we did things; to let them see what we talked about for themselves,” Fuller told me.

Indeed, it’s just part of the change affecting all of transportation these days – and not always happy change, that’s for sure.

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