By: Marilyn Odendahl
MIDDLEBURY — In the rubble of a financial collapse, Matt Arnold spied a gem.
The president of Look Trailers, Inc., in Bristol bought the trade name and assets of Pace American from a bankruptcy auction in November 2011 and is relaunching the brand, the production and the company. Arnold’s optimism about the future of both businesses – planning to triple production in Elkhart County over the next 18 months – comes from growing up in the cargo trailer industry.
“We’ve been in the industry a long time,” he said. “We understand what dealers want. We’re trailer guys.”
Inside the Pace manufacturing facility on Harter Drive, enclosed trailers roll down the line from one station to the next. Workers cluster around the units, unfurling yellow tape measures, attaching fabricated parts and checking the alignment with the tape measure again while the sounds of screw guns and Johnny Cash drift around them.
About 120 Pace American trailers have been completed since production resumed in January. Arnold emphasized the cargo trailers emerging from the facility are Pace products and not a cheaper unit with a Pace name slapped on it.
The reputation for quality established by the first incarnation of Pace American is what motivated Arnold to purchase the company. Dealers had easily sold Pace products, customers were loyal to the brand and the economic recession created a disruption in the market that gave an entrepreneur like Arnold an opportunity.
Growing up, Arnold worked in the cargo trailer plant owned by his father and rotated his way through a variety of jobs like driving forklifts and welding. The appreciation he gained for the industry he put into practice by starting Look Trailers in early 2010.
Sales rose at a quick pace. In fact, Statistical Surveys, Inc. has recognized Look Trailers for having the largest percentage market share increase during 2011.
“I think this is a relationship business,” Arnold said. “You have to have a good relationship with dealers. That’s important. Dealers have to trust you.”
Pace American was founded in 1986 and operated from five manufacturing facilities across the United States, including the campus in Middlebury. The entire company was bought in 2010 by Sun Capital Partners, Inc., a private investment firm based in Florida who excitedly declared the purchase presented the “attractive opportunity” to work with the Pace team to build upon the company’s “operational capabilities and its relationships.”
However, a year later, the plants were shuttered. The 200-plus employees in Middlebury were initially told they would be called back to work in two weeks but the call never came and Pace American landed on the auction block.
Arnold described his first visit to the Pace facility as “spooky.” There were coffee mugs, jackets, personal photographs left by the employees who thought they were going to be returning a short time later.
Eventually Arnold began calling the displaced workers and offering them jobs. He wanted the former sales representations and production crew members who know the Pace product and understand they are building units for customers.
“People make the company,” Arnold said. “People aren’t commodities. People who have time in the industry and know what they are doing are valuable.
Arnold has plans to add two more production lines to the Pace plant and a third line to the Look facility in the next 18 months. Along with that, the two companies are expecting to create 100 new jobs in Elkhart County by the end of the year.
In addition at Look Trailers’ operations in Georgia, Utah and Arizona, Pace American units are being added into the production schedule and 105 new jobs will be created at all three locations combined.
Walking between the units on the production line, Arnold admitted opening Look and relaunching Pace has caused a lot of late nights. But, he added, “it’s starting to pay off.”