With its tin-roofed houses, fragrant pine woods, and abundant barbecue joints, Wilson, N.C., still evokes images of the Old South. But O´Brian Mfg. Co., an industrial-fabrics firm located just off Highway 301 north of town, has a firm grasp of the new economy.
Originally founded to serve the state´s then-burgeoning tobacco industry, the company has responded to changes in the local business climate by branching out into broader territory.
It was 1961 when Withrow O´Brian started making truck tarps for North Carolina´s farmers. At the time, tobacco was the state´s primary revenue source. Even then, though, the industry wasn´t a perfect moneymaker for the brand-new company.
His son Woody, now chief executive officer, says business fluctuated with the vagaries of farmers´ fortunes. "One year, a cotton or tobacco farmer would have a really good year and order plenty of tarps. Then the next year it wouldn´t be good at all, so we´d be stuck standing there with nothing to do," he says. "That was one of the reasons we switched."
O´Brian still serves local farmers by making hand tarps and covers, but the company has widened its scope. First, it added commercial and residential awnings to its repertoire. It also diversified into compactor curtains, or "diapers," for garbage trucks.
Then one day, a friend of Winnie O´Brian—Woody´s wife and the firm´s chief financial officer—suggested that the company ought to design automatic tarp systems for the waste industry.
The O´Brians took up the challenge, and the rest is history. A couple of decades later, automatic tarping systems make up 80 percent of their business, and they reckon that their company is the second-largest U.S. manufacturer of the systems.
The tarp-system units are simple in construction, but inspired in engineering. A giant pair of hydraulic arms unrolls a tarp from the back of the truck cab to the end of the container, neatly covering the cargo.
Drivers don´t need to risk injury by climbing all over the truck to attach the tarp; they simply operate a joystick. The O´Brians tout the systems as being versatile—they cover anything from a 10- to a 50-cubic-yard container. And they´re also easy to maintain, they say, since their hydraulics are enclosed and the arms rest below the level where they´re likely to get crunched by a container.