Tribune Business Weekly: Sustainable power fuels Utilimaster’s growth

Utilimaster has hired more than 300 workers in the past four months, bringing its work force in Wakarusa to more than 850 as the company provides more environmentally friendly vehicles to large distributors.

“We added a second shift to support the strong business environment,” says President John Forbes. “We build commercial vehicles in the categories of walk-in vans and truck bodies. Over
the last several years, we’ve produced 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles per year for local clients (Zikers) as well as national fleets (Frito-Lay).”

Utilimaster will host a production kickoff Oct. 25 for its latest new product, the Reach van, which was developed across five years in collaboration with Isuzu Motors. Isuzu provides the
chassis and powertrain; Utilimaster, the body and the final assembly. John Knudtson, Utilimaster’s vice president of product development, says the Reach offers a right-sized four-cylinder diesel engine for the package delivery business that typically has engines larger than necessary.

The four cylinder, 3.0-liter engine is less than half the next-smallest diesel engine available in the United States, and the body is lighter and more aerodynamic than most walk-in vans.

The design increases fuel efficiency by 35 percent on vehicles that travel some 20,000 to 40,000 miles per year. It also reduces the carbon footprint of each vehicle by more than 10 tons per year.

Increasing Internet sales are accelerating the package delivery business, and growing customers are looking for more sustainable ways to power the vehicles, Forbes says, adding that the focus
has fueled much of Utilimaster’s growth.

“Our growth this year is a combination of our work in the green vehicles market as well as support from the package delivery clients like FedEx and UPS,” he says. “Our clients are more focused than ever on improving fuel economy and vehicle performance, as well as decreasing the environmental impact of their fleet.

“Our market response is to be working with power train and chassis partners to develop green alternatives for our customers.”

In addition to the Reach, Isuzu’s first entry into the commercial van market, Utilimaster is building more than 200 units for Frito-Lay this year that are electric vehicles on a truck body format. More than 200 for Purolator in Canada are hybrid electric. Utilimaster will convert more than 100 vehicles to liquefied propane gas for Schwan’s home food delivery service.

The success in alternative propulsion builds on the 38-year-old company’s longstanding experience, including a decade in the specialty field. In some cases, Utilimaster assembles parts that others supply; in others, it does the conversion in-house.

“There’s been many firms with green solutions starting operations in Elkhart. Nationally, green vehicles solutions are receiving attention,” Forbes says. “In the meantime, we go about our
business, increasing our product offering in the green solutions field.

“As new technology is introduced in the future, Utilimaster can help these startup firms with assembly as well as introducing them to our customers' needs."


-Gene Stowe, Tribune Correspondent