Wabash Mfg. Inc. didn’t start out with global ambitions, but shipping its products overseas to places like Mongolia and Cuba has insulated the transportation equipment manufacturer against economic downturns.
“We have had steady growth, mostly due to a diverse product,” says Dave Mortensen, Wabash’s general manager. “It doesn’t matter, boom or bust, we are always busy.”
Product diversity for Wabash is a result of shifting focus to custom manufacturing of transportation equipment. Based in Westlock, a town of approximately 5,000 people 90 kilometres north of Edmonton, the company was formed in 1981 as a merger between two small businesses. Wabash was an oilfield services company in its early days, but switched focus to manufacturing in 1989.
Now the privately owned company – with more than 100 employees – designs and manufactures custom trucks, support vehicles and equipment for the mining and energy sectors, as well as municipalities. Its jobs have ranged from firetrucks and sand spreaders to tank trucks and equipment for hauling dangerous goods. Many of the custom jobs are for transportation equipment to operate in harsh climates, and Wabash focuses on making equipment user-friendly, low maintenance and functional.
“Clients will throw a strange idea at us, and we will tackle it,” says Mortensen. “We are prepared to bring on new ideas and train new talent. So much of this is uncharted territory, all you can do is keep an open mind.”
Because the company focuses on custom solutions, new customers often come through referrals by satisfied clients.
“It’s a small industry and the word gets out,” says Mortensen, noting the company made its first global shipments because of connections within Canadian mining companies who began working overseas.
Word is also getting out about the innovation and capabilities of the region north of Edmonton.
“Because (Wabash) deals globally, it not only puts them on the map, but it puts our region and Alberta on the map,” says Troy Grainger, executive director of Grizzly Regional Economic Alliance Society (GROWTH Alberta), a regional economic development alliance of 10 municipalities in north central Alberta that includes Westlock. He says Wabash is one of several manufacturing companies that are located in the region, which is primarily dependent on forestry, tourism, oil and gas, and agriculture.
Mortensen says the region has attracted more industry due to the cost-effectiveness of operating outside of a major urban centre.
“There is a lot of potential here for growth,” he says. “It is getting the word out and having a place where businesses can go and grow. Westlock is a great place.”