Wabash Manufacturing was formed when owners Ron Riopel and Ernie Hunt merged their two companies in 1981. Before then, Hunt was running a machine shop in Westlock, Alberta, and Riopel had a welding outfit in Rainbow Lake, Alberta. The two joined forces when Riopel moved to Westlock to start a truck tank manufacturing shop and the gentlemen found that their interests aligned.
Hunt and Riopel started Wabash by building truck tanks in Westlock and providing equipment for the business in Rainbow Lake. They kept both operations running for a number of years, travelling back and forth, expanding their services and products. In 1993, Hunt and Riopel closed the operation in Rainbow Lake to focus all of their efforts in Westlock. Today, Wabash is the manufacturer of quality tanks, trailers, mining support equipment and a line of rural fire tankers. On the services side, the company provides repairs, supplies parts, and does service inspections.
“We have everything from design to delivery,” says Blaine Harder, sales manager. “It’s all done here. When we manufacture a van, we don’t get another company to make the fuel tank and another company to do the hydraulics. If you buy something here, you’re buying a complete Wabash unit.”
As a one-stop shop, Wabash requires highly skilled technicians in a variety of trades. Employing over 100 people on its 22-acre facility, Wabash staff includes fulltime engineers, METs, welders, mechanics, millwrights, painters, parts technicians and support staff that are trained and certified to industry standards.
Due to the number of engineers on staff, Wabash has been leveraging its ability to create speciality products. Harder says clients have noticed and, they are being called regularly to design and manufacture various items. “Customers come to us with ideas and we build what they want,” he says. “It’s been our customised products that have really carried us through the lean times. Other manufacturers are experiencing financial trouble, but we’re still getting calls to build new trucks for mining operations. When you have your own engineers and draftsmen, you find a whole other world opens up. We can design and build anything.”
Take, for instance, 30-inch mud flaps. Sounds like a negligible item, but wider-set mud flaps are necessary for tank trucks with significant gaps between the frame and the tires. In the 1980s, Wabash noticed the gap and wanted to remedy the problem. “No one would build it for us,” Harder says, “so we built our own dye and we sent it to a company in Edmonton who produced them for us. They would have built the mould themselves, but they said no one would buy them.”
As it turned out, the Edmonton-based company could not supply enough mud flaps to support Wabash’s needs. “We ended up importing them in shipments of 5,000 units,” Harder laughs. “Other companies have since followed that trend and make them now. But for years, we had customers who would buy brand-new trucks from our competitors and stop in on the way home to buy our mud flaps.”
Certainly, specialised manufacturing hasn’t meant that Wabash has digressed from the other services and products they provide, but when the market fluctuates, it’s nice to have a division to carry the business.
“Diversity is important in manufacturing,” Harder reasons. “Everything is cyclical. When there’s an excess of tank trucks, something else takes their place—pressure trucks, hot oilers or special equipment. When oil companies have to keep their older wells going, the servicing and repairs go up. There’s always a market for something. You just have to be able to follow that market flow.”
Spreading the word
Wabash Manufacturing has worked hard to maintain its reputation for quality products that meet clients’ needs. According to Harder, the company’s glowing reputation has been a significant factor in its success.
“Word-of-mouth is how most people know about us, which is great, because word-of-mouth travels faster than traditional advertising ever will,” he says. “We get to focus on customer service, which is really important to us, and that speaks for itself. We have gained a lot of business because of our service, and it snowballs from there. We have a 98 per cent return rate with our customers.”
Whatever it is Wabash is doing, it must be working. Harder goes on to say the company is gaining international attention. “We’re looking at products right now for oil fields in Saudi Arabia,” he explains. “We also have tanks that have gone to Cuba and South America. The equipment we manufacture translates very well in the global market. Alberta is certainly our base and it will continue to be a main focus, but we’re exciting about getting interest from different places.”
Expanding into the future
Wabash Manufacturing’s success won’t seem to relent. The company expands every two or three years, always on a needs basis. “As Wabash diversifies, we need more space to take on bigger projects,” says Harder. “Right now, our industrial park houses 12 buildings and 53 bays—but with the bays we have now, we need special trailers just to get the rock trucks out of the shops.”
“As each new project evolves, it creates new opportunities and more snowball effects,” he continues. “We build something, someone else sees it and we find ourselves building two, and then three, then six, then twelve. The possibilities are endless. And as we take in more of the international market, expansion will naturally follow. We’re in a good spot right now, and we’re thankful to those who have supported us along the way.” CB