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Delphi Body Works.

Delphi Body Works

There are few manufacturing companies in Indiana, perhaps even in the United States, that can claim a direct influence on historical advancements as varied as mail delivery, education, national defense, social welfare and urban growth. And even fewer Indiana companies can claim to have used that influence while prospering for 143 years.

Delphi Body Works - the state's oldest manufacturing company still operating at the same site and building essentially the same product - can make those claims. But it won't make them too loudly. That would be inconsistent with the company's personality.

Located in Delphi, just one block east of its namesake city's lone stoplight near the intersection of Indiana 25 and U.S. 421, the quiet manufacturer of utility equipment doesn't credit its longevity to technology, sophisticated marketing or aggressive innovation. The key, says its president, Richard Bradshaw, simply has been commitment, customer responsiveness and the ability to change.

"Any company that has existed a long time has either had a perfect product or has had the ability to adapt," explains Bradshaw, the fourth generation of his family to head the privately held business. "And this company has had a lot of people who have looked at what was needed in the market and found a way to meet those needs."

The seeds of that philosophy were planted by the company's founders, a pair of blacksmiths named Dunkle and Kilgore who in 1848 began building steam engines. When their customers expressed a need for wagons and specialized equipment to help mount and transport the steam engines, Bradshaw explains, the founders responded. And as demand for the Indiana-built wagons grew, he says, production of steam engines was phased out and the company was renamed Delphi Wagon Works.

The change of direction proved successful, and the company enjoyed modest growth through the late 1880s. But when competitors began invading the wagon industry, a local farmer and landowner named William Bradshaw was brought into the business for financial support and eventually assumed sole ownership.

As competition grew fiercer, the elder Bradshaw began seeking new markets, his great-grandson says. Among those he discovered was the federal government, which asked Delphi Wagon Works to develop a "buggy" for the delivery of mail to rural areas. The prototype, which was manufactured in the early 1890s, had specially reinforced axles and large wheels for traversing the unpaved terrain of the U.S. countryside.

The advent of free public education opened another market later that decade, Bradshaw continues. By the turn of the century, he says, Delphi Wagon Works was producing and shipping what apparently were the nation's first horse-drawn school buses. The company continued to build school buses for the next 30 years, eventually changing its name to Delphi Body Works following the introduction of gasoline engines, Bradshaw says.

In the 1930s the company changed course again when it was approached by the U.S. Army to develop transportation for President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and other social welfare programs. The specialized vehicles - which allowed for the storage of tools and mechanical equipment - captured the attention of several utility companies that had a need for similar products. "We got into the utility business through the back door," Bradshaw says.

It was a door leading to many opportunities, however. As urban growth increased demand for electricity and other utilities, Delphi Body Works found its niche, and since 1934 the company has been building, mounting, selling and servicing truck-mounted utility accessories almost exclusively. The only foray into other markets occurred during World War II, when the company temporarily produced machined parts for airplane landing gears.

The market that Delphi Body Works currently serves is relatively large, encompassing more than 200 investor-owned power companies, telephone companies and city and regional utilities in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky. But the Delphi manufacturer's share of that market has become, by choice, relatively small. The company now provides equipment to about 20 companies, Bradshaw says, including PSI Energy Inc., Indianapolis Power & Light Co., Northern Indiana Public Service Co., Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Co., Detroit Edison, Louisville Gas & Electric, Illinois' Commonwealth Edison and several cities.

"We've spread our market geographically, but narrowed it in terms of product," Bradshaw explains. "There are new competitors that can create products less expensively than we can, and that's why we focus our products toward the areas that other companies don't want or can't serve as efficiently. We've become more specialized every year."

The latest example of this transition is Delphi Body Works' acquisition of the bankrupt Olmstead Utility Equipment Co. in Olmstead Falls, Ohio. Purchased in May this year and moved to Delphi in June, the company was one of only two manufacturers of a specialty product called a vertical tower, says Bradshaw. Used primarily by city utilities, railroads and highway crews, the insulated work platform is a natural complement to Delphi Body Works' existing line of specialized utility equipment.

Only about 40 to 60 such platforms are sold each year, but Bradshaw expects his company to capture the market. In coming years the new product could represent up to 20 percent of Delphi Body Works' annual sales, which currently top $6 million. "No big company wanted the business, but it was perfect for us," he says. "And if a company wants one, they'll have to come to us to get it. We have the capability to build every machine that's sold."

Bradshaw's confidence in his company's new product is a reflection of his attitude toward sales and customer service. "Our sales strategy is kind of like a fixed poker game," he explains. "We usually know what a customer wants and needs before they send us product specifications, and then we try to load the deck so that they know we have the best quotation," Bradshaw says. "Because we never have the lowest quotation, that's the only way we can sell - if we don't know what they want, we haven't done a very good job."

Delphi Body Works' sixth sense about its customers' needs stems partly from its unique approach to sales training. "Our policy is that we don't put anybody in sales who hasn't had considerable experience working on the factory floor," Bradshaw explains. "They need to know our products from the ground up, and know what we're capable of providing when a customer asks a question. If a customer says to them, 'Can you do this? they'll know because they've done it."

Continuing to nurture that relationship after a sale is just as important, Bradshaw adds. The company delivers its finished products personally, training the utility operators on the uses of the equipment. A service manager also offers training on general maintenance and repair. "Customer service is critical he says. "We'll work with out customers from the time they plan on buying a piece of equipment to the time it dies or needs rebuilt - and everything in between."

A parallel philosophy defines the company's relationship with its 50 employees, who average 45 years of age and 13 years on the job. "It's very important to us that we hire and keep qualified people," Bradshaw says. "We pay them as well as anybody in the country."

Similarly, the company refuses to invest in technology that might eliminate jobs. "We have a 75-year-old draftsman that knows more than any computer. I can find," Bradshaw explains. "We're better off putting our money into people than into expensive equipment."

Bradshaw, who took over the business in 1980, believes strongly in empowering his employees. It's a lesson he learned during 13 years in the Chicago school system as history and economic teacher. "We have two rules here - everyone participates and everyone has fun," he says. "It's the same attitude I tried to instill in my students."

Bradshaw's fundamental guiding principle is one he inherited from his father, Charles, who continues to serve on the company's board of directors. "We need to know who our customers are and what we can do for them," he says almost reverently. "That may be a small company mentality, but it is a mentality that every good business person must have."

And it's also an attitude that should help Delphi Body Works write another 143 years of manufacturing history.

PHOTO : Delphi Wagon Works changed its name after the advent of gasoline engines.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Regional Report: North Central
Author:Nelson, Eric
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Slip-sliding ahead?
Next Article:Old Hickory Furniture Co.

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