Pitts looks for boost from Dorsey purchase

Jeff Pitts knows he's delving into a bit of hyperbole when he describes his company's purchase of Dorsey Trailers Inc., one of the nation's best known truck trailer names that had fallen on hard times in recent years.

But he still thinks it's a pretty close analogy.

"It's like buying the Coca-Cola or Pepsi brand that's been there forever and went bankrupt and you're bringing it back," said Pitts, president of Pitts Enterprises, the Pittsview, Ala., trailer manufacturer that is Russell County's second largest private employer with 210 on the payroll.

MeadWestvaco, a packaging manufacturer with a paper mill in Cottonton, hovers around 1,000 employees. Both Pitts Enterprises and MeadWestvaco are in southern Russell County.

"Dorsey is a name recognized throughout the industry," Pitts said. "You'd be hard pressed to find somebody that's in the industry or drives a tractor truck or has any association with it that wouldn't recognize the name right off and know that it's steeped in tradition."

Gene Vonderau, safety and membership director with the Alabama Trucking Association in Montgomery, said Dorsey was a manufacturing "monster" in its heyday.

"I remember, I'm guessing 10 to 15 years ago, they were one of the major producers of semi trailers in the country. I think they took up most of the city of Elba," said Vonderau, noting there still are thousands of Dorsey trailers on the nation's highways. "They were great trailers."

Pitts' purchase of Dorsey, which closed June 14, was in the works for about 10 months. Wachovia Bank in Columbus handled the financing, he said.

The sale included Dorsey Trailer's 800,000-square-foot plant in Elba, Ala., a small farming community about 125 miles southwest of Columbus near Enterprise. All trademarks came with the deal.

Dorsey was purchased out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 4, 2000, according to documents submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In a separate December 2000 filing, Dorsey Trailers reported total assets of $12.2 million and liabilities of $33.2 million. For that specific month, it was bleeding red ink, posting a net loss of nearly $278,000.

The massive facility in Elba has been idle more than two years.

"That plant used to employ 1,200 people in the ’80s, around 800 people in the ’90s, and then leveraged buyouts and bad management took it out," said Pitts, who declined to disclose how much he paid for Dorsey's assets.

Still, he expects strong growth from the division over the next two to five years. Expectations are that 2,000 to 3,000 trailers per year will be manufactured in Elba over that period.

The prime focus out of the gate will be 53-foot aluminum-refrigerated trailers used to transport perishable foods, Pitts said. Retail prices through a network of dealers will range between $40,000 and $50,000. Open-top wood chip trailers also will be made in Elba.

"It's such a strong name brand," Pitts said of Dorsey. "We're not even open for business and we're several weeks behind on quotes. Our phones are being inundated for requests for pricing."

Management is already in place at the facility in Elba, Pitts said. David Dorsey, a third-generation member of the family that started the company in 1912, has been named general manager. Hiring of production workers is under way, with manufacturing expected to begin in three to four weeks. Pitts said he envisions 100 people on the payroll there within the first 12 months of production, with employment eventually rising to about 400.

"I foresee in the five- to seven-year range doubling our employment and revenues. We expect big things from this," said Pitts, giving credit to his work force and management for the growth Pitts Enterprises has experienced since being founded by his father, Andrew Pitts, in 1976. Andrew Pitts is now retired, with homes in Columbus and Highlands, N.C.

Pitts Enterprises started out primarily making log trailers. It has expanded into construction and heavy-haul trailers, such as those used to transport large bulldozers and backhoes.

Last September, the company launched a new division, Dynaweld Trailers, located in the former Morton Machine Works building off Victory Drive at 300 Jackson Ave. The facility has 40 employees, constructing heavy-haul and tag-along trailers.

Dorsey "offers us diversification. We're going to be building other lines than we're currently building," Pitts said.

The Pittsview company is affiliated with about 75 dealers in 35 states. About nine months ago, a regional sales manager in San Francisco was hired to go after business in the western U.S.

Trailer Body Builders magazine, a publication that tracks the industry, ranks Pitts Enterprises No. 22 out of 30 North American companies that manufacture products used by big-rig transporters. It reported that Pitts made 1,945 trailers in 2006, up slightly from 1,902 the year before.

If the Dorsey plant pushes that total close to 5,000 units annually, Pitts Enterprises could crack the industry's top 10 in production. Great Dane, Wabash and Utility are the top three companies in the industry by far.