Still trucking at 75

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A frame is flipped over on a hoist so the rest of a new truck can be built on top of it on Friday at the Peterbilt factory on Airport Road in Denton.
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Peterbilt Motors marks milestone in Denton

Salty Rose was hired at Peterbilt Motors Co. in Denton as a welder on the production floor in 1987.

After work, he would leave his Peterbilt name badge on his shirt when he went out to dinner near his home in Gainesville so everyone could see where he worked.

“I would wear it with pride,” he said.

Rose, now a production manager at the local Peterbilt manufacturing plant, said workers take just as much pride today in building Peterbilt trucks, and that’s why he and so many others have stayed with the company so long.

This week, Peterbilt will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Thursday and kick off a yearlong series of events. Thursday has been proclaimed “Peterbilt Motors Company’s 75th Anniversary Day,” and Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs read a proclamation at a recent City Council meeting lauding the company’s numerous charitable efforts and its strong employment record.

It’s the largest private employer in Denton, with more than 2,200 employees between the manufacturing plant and world headquarters, said Darrin Siver, Peterbilt’s general manager.

“Seventy-five years is a milestone achievement,” Siver said in an e-mailed response to questions from the Denton Record-Chronicle. “There is a great deal of pride throughout our company. We celebrate not just 75 years in business, but 75 years as an industry leader.”

The company has transferred all manufacturing and the company headquarters to Denton over the years, and has continued a tradition of giving back to the community, officials said. Most recently, the company made a donation of nearly $400,000 to the United Way of Denton County, the company’s largest in five years. The company has helped coordinate drives to create holiday stockings for soldiers and has worked extensively with Carter BloodCare and the University of North Texas.

“We are fortunate to have a workforce that has a lot of civic pride and gives back to the community through various charitable acts,” Siver said in the e-mail. “As a company and as individuals, there is a strong focus on community service and charity.

Advancing over the years

When the Denton plant opened in 1980, it had just 92 employees in the 450,000-square-foot plant that still houses the manufacturing operation.

Today, much has changed inside with the processes and production. Although the iconic trucks are still largely built by hand, robots were added to the assembly process in 1997.

“The product has changed a lot,” said Doug VanZuiden, human resources manager. “The technology is light years ahead from where it was even 12 years ago simply because of the electrical systems, the computer systems. The things that are in the truck are way different than they were 12 years ago, but the people are the same.”

The facility now completes an average of 121 trucks per day.

While the plant has been up and running, the company has re-engineered the product three times in addition to making numerous production changes, said Landon Sproull, chief engineer.

“The truck itself, if you look back to 25 years ago when I first started my career, the investment was small, our production rates were small and our company profits were small,” he said. “Over these 25 years, we’ve essentially been able to grow our business to three times the size of where it was.”

The company, owned by PACCAR Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., made modest gains in Denton during the 1980s, when manufacturing was split between Denton and Madison, Tenn. In 1990, the company invested an additional $1 million to expand a training facility in Denton, adding 9,800 square feet, according to Record-Chronicle archives.

Problems arose in 1992 with the Madison plant when the workers union went on strike, which resulted in the transfer of about 275 jobs to the Denton plant.

In 1993, the company moved the division headquarters and all engineering activities to Denton from Newark, Calif. The move brought 225 jobs to the area and added $6 million in payroll annually. By 1995, the company had 1,500 local employees, according to the archives.

Employment levels have fluctuated over the years with the market and demand, but even during lean years, Peterbilt maintained its integrity with its employees, VanZuiden said.

When he was hired 12 years ago, he was warned that the market could change in the next six months, but the company’s reputation drew him in and he remains today.

“One thing I really appreciated from Peterbilt was they were very upfront about it,” he said.

Looking ahead

The first robots were used in the assembly process in 1997 to apply glue to portions of the cab, Sproull said.

Now, robots completely assemble the cab of the latest truck model and paint it, Rose said.

“The main assembly chain and everything hasn’t changed, but just about everything else around it has, from the product to the way we deliver the materials to the line, to doing things that make the plant safer and quieter,” VanZuiden said.

Even with growth and production changes, the culture and mindset of the company and employees have stayed the same, Rose said.

“I think we’ve been able to grow but been able to maintain the tight family that we have,” he said, noting he has seen his co-workers’ families grow up and start families of their own.

“The general culture has stayed very much the same,” Sproull said. “We are focused on productivity improvement and providing the best quality product for our customers.”

Quality remains at the forefront, VanZuiden said.

“One thing PACCAR is big on, we’re always investing back into our business to make it better and better,” he said. “Better safety, better quality and a better investment in the products.”

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889.

On Twitter:  @JennaFDuncan

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