(Still) Made in the U.S.A.
|Randy Pulliam, president of Pulliam Enterprises and PullRite, is pictured next to one of his company’s SuperGlide fifth wheel hitches. All of the company’s products are proudly made in Mishawaka, Ind.|
Historically, almost everything in the RV industry was American made. That’s changed in recent years, however, as companies began sourcing products overseas, particularly to China, as a way to secure savings and achieve greater profits.
One company that has resisted that trend is Pulliam Enterprises, parent company of PullRite, which has proudly been making its fifth wheel hitches in Mishawaka, Ind., since 1978. Company President Randy Pulliam says that in the past his company contemplated having some parts made in China, but decided against it because of a number of potential drawbacks, including possible communication issues and fabrication details.
“Chinese workers might be just as skilled as our workers, and the work can be done anywhere as long as it’s being managed and the responsible thing is being done,” he allows. But he points out that China lags in taking responsibility for things like air and water pollution problems.
“We have to trust people that work for us, and they don’t always perform as well as we’d like,” says Pulliam. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that our quality is perfect. It’s certainly not. But we’re always striving to improve our quality. How much more difficult is it when you’re working with a language barrier and you’re thousands of miles apart from your product?
“Our engineers can walk out in the shop and they can design a part today, they can have it cut on second shift or third shift and they can have the thing fabricated the next morning and by the next day we could be looking at prototypes,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen that quickly, but it could if we wanted to do that.”
Tough Market Prompts Difficult Decisions
While PullRite has chosen to keep its production facilities in Indiana, Pulliam acknowledges that the company does face challenges from companies making less expensive products overseas. That challenge intensified after the economy – and the RV industry in particular – suffered a deep downturn beginning in late 2008.
“My speech to our employees when this whole economic thing went down was, ‘You’re not competing against your neighbor across the street for your job. You’re competing with a guy across the world for your job,’” he recalls telling them.
|John Millenberger makes a detail weld on the base of a fifth wheel hitch. PullRite officials believe RVers are still willing to pay a bit more for a quality American-made product.|
One of the difficult decisions that resulted from the Great Recession of 2008-09 was to reduce the number of PullRite employees. Despite the tough market conditions, Pulliam says remaining employees were committed to doing everything possible to keep the company’s operations in the U.S.A.
“They felt they could help us become more efficient and compete,” he says. “When you take your product overseas, you’re admitting you can’t compete. That’s hard to take. It’s like in sports, telling your opponent ‘You’re better than me’ before the game even starts. Well, sometimes that’s true but no one likes to admit it right off. And you don’t want to do it without trying.
“For us, we had to think about our customers,” he adds. “Every time we designed something and every time we built something, our customers had to trust what we did. Even though we recognize there are mistakes we can make and have made, I can walk out in our plant and I can look at what we do and how we do it.”
|Press operator Bob Robinson stands at the computer press former. PullRite relies on a combination of high-tech machinery and skilled workers to produce its hitches.|
A Two-Part Strategy for 2010
To stay competitive in a tough market, PullRite has adopted a two-part plan of attack. One part is to redouble efforts to get dealers to help their customers recognize there are a number of factors involved in buying a hitch beyond price point.
“Unfortunately, in many consumers’ minds, fifth wheel hitches are generic. They’re painted black, they go in the back of the truck and you pull a trailer with them. So when the consumer is buying a new trailer they don’t spend a lot of time shopping different brands or different features and benefits of hitches,” explains Steve Koehn, vice president of sales and marketing for PullRite.
As a result, education is key. Koehn says PullRite has found that customers are usually willing to spend a bit more to buy an American-made product – particularly one that’s built better with better features and benefits – if someone will simply take the time to explain how a better-made product can help them better enjoy their RVing experience.
“Consumers in general would rather have better products, happier camping experiences and fewer problems and hassles,” he says. “If dealers take the time to explain to customers that there are choices to make when it comes to buying a hitch, and that the cheaper one may not have as many features and benefits as the one that’s a little more money, they’re much more inclined to spend a bit more on a better designed hitch.”
Beyond increasing customer satisfaction with their towing experience, the benefit to dealers is being able to make a larger profit on the hitch they sell, Koehn says.
At the same time, PullRite recognizes that many customers are price sensitive and has responded accordingly. In early 2010 the company introduced two new models – the Model 2100 Super Fifth Wheel Hitch and the Model 2700 SuperGlide hitch. Notably, the Model 2700 automatic sliding hitch for short bed trucks has an MSRP of just over $1,000, putting it on par with manual sliding hitches made overseas.
“The unique thing for us about these two hitches is they fit what we call industry-standard rails,” Pulliam says, noting the rest of PullRite’s product line uses a different mounting system, making the company’s hitches always the odd one out because of its mounting system.
“It basically allows us to market to all those people who’ve bought everybody else’s hitches over the years and would like to upgrade but didn’t want to go to the added hassle and expense of having a reinstall,” he says.
A History of Innovative Ideas
PullRite’s ability to use industry-standard rails with its new hitches is just the latest in a long line of innovative developments pioneered by the company, which was founded by Pulliam’s father, Andrew Pulliam
|A fifth wheel hitch undergoes stress testing. The company has long been known for producing high-quality hitches.|
Andrew Pulliam didn’t start off as an RVer. But some time in the 1970s he took his family on vacation in a rented Winnebago motorhome. At one point, while traveling down the road, a truck and trailer passed by as if the motorhome was standing still. Being curious, he caught up with it and sure enough it was a fifth wheel RV; the first one he’d ever seen.
And from years earlier, during his days as a pipefitter in the oil industry, he remembered a hitch he invented that pivoted near the axle, and how he’d made a conventional travel trailer tow as if it were a fifth wheel. When he returned home he got busy building a prototype. It worked as well as a fifth wheel, but it was for a conventional travel trailer.
He tried to get a hitch business started, but in rural California there was no manufacturing nearby so it didn’t work out so well. Besides, he didn’t really know much about marketing to the RV industry, so his invention sat idle for some time.
Years passed and Andrew Pulliam eventually retired, but didn’t stop working. He had installed one of his hitches on a friend’s van who was driving to Indiana to pick up a travel trailer. Being retired, he went with the friend to Indiana to show him how to hook it up. In Indiana, Dick Klinger, who owned Holiday Rambler, and Mahlon Miller who worked for Klinger and who is now an owner of Newmar, saw it, and encouraged Pulliam to start building them.
“So we decided to move,” says Randy Pulliam, who now runs the company with his sister, Lynda Hampton. “It was kind of an adventure.”
The family packed up and moved to Indiana and started into the hitch business just as the second oil embargo hit in the late 1970s.
“It wasn’t a good time to go into the hitch business – or the RV business at all – but that’s when we started,” Pulliam says. But he says they did it largely because of the encouragement of Miller and Klinger. More years passed and the company grew, earning a reputation for quality products.
Pulliam says his dad was always a problem solver. He had a knack for mechanical things and being able to envision how to make them. And a problem arose when people tried to pull fifth wheel trailers with new-style short bed pick-ups.
“When short bed trucks came out and got so popular, he doodled out a little piece of paper and said, ‘I think this will work,’” Pulliam says of his father. “I told him he was crazy, that will never work. But we built a prototype and I’ll be darned if it didn’t work. And then when we built it and it was so big and so expensive, I said ‘We won’t sell very many of these.’ But today that’s our best seller.”