Soon celebrating 95 years in business, Blue Ox is preparing for radical changes.
The fourth generation of his family to head the company, Chief Executive Officer Mike Hesse’s accession to leadership in the footsteps of his father continues to advance Blue Ox’s mission to provide the best quality trailer hitches and outdoor products. Hesse, now in his third year as CEO, is leading the company into a new direction that honors Blue Ox’s roots while embracing new markets, products, demographics, and a new acquisition.
Blue Ox has rich roots in heavy machinery, having been founded in 1925 to manufacture roller mills and other heavy equipment for the agricultural sector. Over the decades, Blue Ox has expanded into towing equipment for outdoor vehicles such as RVs and ATVs, and the company is now moving to focus on the recreational sector and spin off its agricultural business.
A common thread through this change is the strong, unvarying concern for its clients at Blue Ox. “One thing that remains constant is our commitment to our customers,” Hesse remarks. “We’re always going to provide them with the highest-quality, most reliable products in the marketplace.”
Today, Blue Ox is the dominant company in recreational vehicle towing, manufacturing top-quality equipment such as baseplates, tow bars, trailer hitches, brakes and other accessories, from large to the very smallest. The company manufactures all its products in the Nebraska facility, ensuring ready customer access and a short logistical tail. So ubiquitous is the company that many customers simply refer to a trailer hitch as a ‘Blue Ox,’ a testament to the company’s market dominance.
Laurels, but not to rest on
Despite close to a century of manufacturing, Blue Ox’s leadership is hardly taking it easy, working passionately to navigate the changing trends of 21st century business. As an outsider, it’s easy to feel the predominant attitude in the company: one of ingenuity and innovation, stemming from its close ties to customers and their needs.
This precognition of customer demands is what seems to enable Blue Ox to design, manufacture and market its products to precisely answer those needs – which, in Blue Ox’s case, means ease of use. “In the market today, the consumer wants a product that’s reliable, that’s easy to deal with,” Hesse says. “That’s what we give to our customers.”
This ingenuity and responsiveness to customer demands is showcased in Blue Ox’s more recent product developments. Hesse relates how Blue Ox’s biggest customer complaint was that tow bars were not coming unlatched easily.
In response, Blue Ox came up with non-binding latches – which provide a safe, strong and stable towing connection, but also can be swiftly detached by the user. The latches and trailers also boast Blue Ox’s patented SwayPro weight-distribution system to reduce potentially disastrous sway. Unlike other trailer hitches, SwayPro uses spring tension rather than friction to reduce sway, making it reassuringly effective in any conditions – including snow or mud.
An additional development is the Patriot auxiliary braking system and family of related products, which have earned awards from MotorHome Magazine for Blue Ox. With an all-electrical design requiring no hoses or pumps, the Patriot system perfectly demonstrates Blue Ox’s requirement of ease of use. These awards add to Blue Ox’s ongoing list of recognitions from the magazine. The company has won MotorHome’s ‘Readers’ Choice Award’ for tow bars every year since the category was introduced in 2012.
Besides the new products, another recent development is an increased focus on exterior marketing. Hesse and Jeff Carlson, Blue Ox’s Senior Marketing Officer, relate how Blue Ox enjoyed a steady consumer base of agricultural professionals and outdoor enthusiasts in the past. But to expand its base, Blue Ox has cranked up marketing and customer information campaigns to a new level to better inform new customers on the company’s products.
The result, as Carlson reports, is a major win for the company. “As new consumers do their research, we want to ensure they have the details as to why Blue Ox can handle their towing needs. Through this campaign, we’ve seen that the need for Blue Ox products has never been higher.”
This marketing approach has taken shape through SEO (search engine optimization), video tutorials and hands-on marketing training for sales personnel. These measures, focused on improving customer education, help cater particular to picky millennial customers who like to be well-informed on product choices. Carlson confirms how the strategy of customer education has benefited Blue Ox. “If we can educate the consumer – which we have done an exceptional job of over the last couple years – and give them the tools necessary to come in and close that sale, you’re going to be way ahead of the game.”
It’s all coming together
But Blue Ox’s biggest development comes from a new acquisition. Blue Ox is now finalizing its purchase of Iowa-based Mad Ramps, which manufactures (as its name implies) truck-mounted ramps. “It allows customers to quickly and safely stow ATVs, Side-by-Sides and golf carts, etc., in the beds of their pickup trucks,” Hesse explains. Of course, that means that the need for separate trailers is reduced or eliminated.
By the company’s records, 25 to 30 percent of its customer base uses pickup trucks for towing. Given that Blue Ox already manufactures and sells 40,000 baseplates per year, this acquisition will allow the company to really round out the service it gives its customers.
Blue Ox has had a long history of working with Mad Ramps. “We have a very strong relationship with the owners of Mad Ramps,” Hesse explains, pointing out that Blue Ox was pre-selling Mad Ramps’ products even before the acquisition was finalized. He sees it as a mark of Blue Ox’s progressiveness, noting that this progressive attitude permeates all of Blue Ox’s employees. “It’s not just one person, or two,” he says, “it’s 150 employees moving forward, and that’s something that helps take us to the next level.”
A matter of culture
This company-wide progressive attitude is the product of a significant culture shift in the three short years since Hesse took the reins as CEO. By fostering company-wide communication, Blue Ox has created an atmosphere of open discussion to help employees understand the company’s goals. As a result, the company’s workforce is displaying a new and much more concerted drive towards the total success of the company, and everyone in it.
“We’ve grown more efficient in everything that we’ve done, and we couldn’t have done that without a culture shift,” Carlson says. Hesse agrees, noting that this communication has benefited Blue Ox as a whole. “You care for your customers, you care for your employees, and when you do that, it really does provide growth.”
But expansion, by nature, requires increased production. However, this is where Blue Ox’s Nebraska location unfortunately does not benefit its labor force. “The reality is, we live in an agricultural area that has an unemployment rate of well under two percent,” Hesse laments.
While Blue Ox has employed many of its workers for a long time, with several employees multi-generational, the company has had to bring in automation. Robots managing welding and manufacturing help make staffing more efficient and improve safety. This move, according to Hesse, has helped Blue Ox double its production capacity over the past three years while keeping employment steady.
Other improvements, such as LED lighting, improve workers’ morale. Carlson says that, in the end, these technological advancements are a net gain for the company. “We have the same direct labor workforce we had previously, we’ve just added capacity and ultimately added to the quality of life for our employees.”
While automation has increased production totals, hiring qualified employees remains a perennial challenge. Blue Ox is now working with local high schools and community colleges, particularly Nebraska’s Northeast Community College, to provide summer internships and foster the next generation of American skilled workers.
Carlson remarks how the shorter training time and higher salary provides strong benefits to future workers: “I think there is a shift in young people seeing you can go to a two-year school and essentially have as many opportunities as you do in a four-year school, depending on what trade you’re looking to do.”
As the company looks ahead to its next century, Blue Ox is using these developments to further expand its coverage. The company is launching its new Apollo line of trailer hitches, 15,000 pound tow bars for heavier pickup trucks. “There is no other 15,000-pound rated tow bar in the industry,” Hesse says with justifiable pride, saying that this development was triggered by Blue Ox’s acquisition of Mad Ramps. With new ATV ramps and trailers among the company’s product line, a heavier tow bar will be required, and who better than Blue Ox to anticipate this new customer need?
Additional products including new ATVs, Side-By-Sides and snowmobiles are also planned in 2020. “We’re going to continue to launch new and exciting products,” Hesse says. “We are looking to grow, and continuing to enhance the brand name that we have.”