Making fifth-wheel trailers in the prairie community of Smith Center, Kan. (population: 2,100), presents both challenges and opportunities for privately owned Peterson Industries Inc.
"Because we aren't in Indiana, we don't fall into the trap of building another 'me too' unit," said Peterson President Bryan Tillett. "We are forced to be innovative and operate as efficiently as possible. The bad thing is that everything we purchase has to be freighted to us, most of it from Indiana. It's a real challenge to keep our costs in line."
The company was founded by Leonard and Blanche Peterson, and their son, Vaughn, in 1966. Vaughn remains CEO and chairman of the firm.
Peterson's primary brand is the Excel Classic, which is built in lengths ranging from 27 feet to 35 feet. Peterson's upscale fifth-wheel line is the Excel Limited Edition, which is offered in length ranging from 30 feet to 37 feet.
Through the years, the company also has manufactured Class C coaches and fifth-wheel trailers. Peterson built its last motorized unit in 1981 and in 1996 stopped producing travel trailers. "There is not a big enough demand in the high-end travel trailer market," Tillett said. "We couldn't generate enough orders to build them efficiently."
Focusing only on fifth-wheel trailers, Peterson builds about 450 units a year. "We are small enough so that a lot of our competitors don't pay attention to us," Tillett said. "We can be a little more innovative and not get everything knocked off by the guy down the street."Among Peterson's innovations is Excel's own "Drop Z" chassis, that originally was designed to allow more storage space. The "Z" is created by dropping the frame 10" forward of the front axle."We had no idea at the time of the benefits," Tillet said. "It made a difference in towability. It put the chassis closer to the ground so there is less wind turbulence and a lower center of gravity."Also, when the company began producing the Excel with a fiberglass exterior, Peterson designed its own positive pressure lamination system."We started researching the market and found the vacuum bonding has a failure rate of about one percent," he said. "We wanted to do better than that. We use an industrial urethane adhesive on every stud. Then, we lay our fiberglass on the sidewall and run it under a huge hydraulic press until it is dry. We've built about 5,000 sidewalls, and we haven't had a delamination yet."
Peterson also was among the first manufacturers to adopt a flush-floor slideout and was an pioneer of central air conditioning. The only LP fireplace in the industry is offered as an option in some Excel models, according to Tillett.
The dual-axle Excel rides on a leaf spring suspension system with standard shock absorbers and is equipped with heavy duty 12-1/4" by 3-3/8" brakes rated for 8,000 pounds.
Because other companies aren't nearby to provide components, Peterson relies on its own workforce for aspects of the manufacturing process that typically would be jobbed out.
"We manufacture our own frames, our own access doors and our own cabinets," Peterson said. "We have a sewing department, and we even make our own mattresses. That helps keep us from being quite so volatile in the down markets. When the market is down, we can refocus our help on building component parts that we'll be able to use lately."
The result, Tillett said, is Peterson, whose workforce totals 150 employees. The company has not laid off a worker since 1979.