Keeping Roads Safe with Efficiency

Swenson Products

Swenson Products is a pace-setting manufacturer of specialized truck bodies, salt spreaders, and liquid de-icing systems in North America. When Abei Schmidt Holding Group (ASH) acquired Swenson Products in 2015, they saw some very special opportunities…

The Abei Schmidt Holding (ASH) Group is a leading developer of special purpose vehicles and attachable equipment worldwide with about 1,800 employees. Through Swenson Products, the company saw a way to expand its geographical reach into North America and advance its portfolio of industry-leading winter maintenance products.

Since 1937, Swenson Products has specialized in snow and ice control equipment, providing a variety of solutions to keeping roads, sidewalks, parking lots, and airports safe for winter travel. Located from the beginning in Lindenwood, Illinois the company was acquired in 1974 by the Dickey-John Corporation in Auburn, Illinois. In 1982, it was purchased by the Louis Berkman company in Steubenville, Ohio before it finally settled, in 2015, with the ASH Group.

Open doors
Throughout its extensive history, Swenson has grown steadily in size, volume, and number of employees. Currently, it employs about 150 people in this small, rural town with a population of only a few hundred and where the Midwest work ethic is particularly strong. The open door leadership style helps foster the family atmosphere that distinguishes Swenson, which is important since the entire staff spends an important portion of their lives at work with the company.

“We focus heavily on employee culture, even more than skill or education. We are proud of the Midwest work ethic and proud of what we do both in the entrepreneurial side of our business and the ingenuity side of our products, as well as employee contribution in both of those,” says William Hintzsche, Vice President of Operations at Swenson.

Employee satisfaction? It grows as the company grows and prospers, because of the solid wages and benefits that growth provides. The result is that the staff develop a strong interest in the quality of work that is done at Swenson, and this also significantly helps the retention of employees. “We can’t solve everything at the management level or the marketing level, it has to come from the entire team working together to develop solutions for the cost drivers in today’s market,” says Hintzsche.

Refreshing transparency
The level of transparency and open communication at Swenson is refreshing for the employees and this also relates to its dialogue with the ASH Group. If the management is expecting a visitor from the parent company, it fully involves its employees, briefing them in advance and, afterwards, in monthly meetings, reviewing what was seen and discussed during the visit. As well, any plans for change or improvement are presented at the meetings and praise for work well done is passed on as well.

In today’s manufacturing world, this focus on integrity in dealing with the staff is essential to a company’s progress and growth. Swenson takes good care of its employees, not only in the good times but also in the bad, because it understands that all businesses have slow periods. A mutually beneficial and loyal relationship between employer and employee is well worth the investment.

This openness with employees equally applies to Swenson’s relationship with its customers. “We’re transparent with our customers, we let them know where we’re at on a product with cost and delivery, whether it’s good or bad. There are times where we can deliver early and there are times that deliveries get pushed due to the volume or the weather,” Hintzsche says.

Municipal and government
Customers for Swenson’s products all over North America and Europe come primarily from governmental and municipal sectors. The company frequently deals directly with a state’s Department of Transportation for heavy volume contracts, and it also has distributors to provide equipment to townships and villages with smaller budgets. Swenson also regularly supplies airports with solutions for the removal of ice and snow on runways.

To gain more insight into what the end user requires, Swenson recently successfully opened its own truck upfit center in Center Grove, Illinois, capable of creating total truck packages. “Part of the development with our truck center is to get close to the end users and the customers, trying to understand their expectations,” explains Hintzsche. “Too much today we deal off of specifications and written documents and not the communication and the relationship with the person operating or using this equipment, and there’s a lot of translation lost without that.”

Advanced technology
Though Swenson’s existing distributors could feel intimidated by the new truck upfit center, the intention is not to compete with them, but to serve the market better and stay informed as technology continues to evolve. As older generations of truck drivers retire and younger, less experienced drivers take over, the need to bring more advanced technology to the industry may well become pressing. Swenson uses the feedback to help its development team produce essential, innovative new products that are in high demand.

As a vertically-integrated manufacturing operation, the main challenge for Swenson is controlling manufacturing costs. It performs most of its work in house and utilizes minimal outsourcing. The steel for manufacturing enters the plant at one end, and the finished product emerges at the other.

Community engagement
Outside the factory walls, Swenson is heavily vested in its small village and is a large contributor to local institutions. It’s well respected for its generosity within the community, including the donation of computers to the elementary school and truck equipment to the fire department. The company also distributes some of its research and development products to surrounding counties and towns during the snowy season; mostly equipment with particularly low operating costs.

These costs – the ones involved in keeping roads and highways open and safe – are everybody’s concern. The government spends a large part of its budget every year removing snow and ice from roads and then repairing salt damage to infrastructure, urban water sources, and nearby trees. And then there’s a salt shortage and winter road maintenance becomes even more expensive.

Bringing on brine
The benefits – cost effectiveness and efficiency – of using salt to reduce car accidents and injuries are clear, and Swensen found that the most efficient method is to apply salt in the form of brine (mixed with water). The optimum ratio of salt to water for melting snow and ice is 70/30. The saturated solution melts ice faster and sticks to the road better, causing less damage to the environment. “The direction we’re going in the future with brine is getting the roads safer and doing it faster, with less material,” says Seth Faber, Product Manager at Swenson.

Another way to increase efficiency and cost effectiveness is spreading the salt solution more evenly to reduce wastage. An automatic system that senses where the salt needs to go is more reliable than a manual spreader operated by the driver. Swenson has incorporated this latest research and development into a smart spreader that melts ice faster at a lower cost and improves road safety overall. Its EVolution spreader optimizes the use of salt and can save 35 percent of salt costs throughout the winter.

Consequently, with the support of its parent company, Swenson has set out to inform the global market of the new, sustainable products available for winter maintenance; products that are better for the environment and use less material.

Global resources
Being able to collaborate with experts across the global resources of the ASH Group is highly valued by Swenson and its customers. “We are two decades away from having a century of experience in this, and then when you think about the parent company and the brands and facilities they have under them, we probably have centuries of experience in snow and ice,” says Faber.

Among the numerous large competitors in North America, particularly in the Midwest, Swenson sets itself apart with its strong family values and its constant customer focus.

Swenson’s high standard of integrity towards both its employees and its customers has enabled its many accomplishments. Its passion to understand the end user and increase efficiency using innovative products drives improvement in its manufacturing operation and in the whole winter maintenance industry.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 18, 2019, 4:13 AM EST

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