Five years ago, when it started looking for new markets, Structural Composites of Indiana Inc. didn’t know the RV industry was going to tank the way it has over the past year.
But, as reported by the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, in coming weeks it will begin testing a new product that might enable the Ligonier company to do something most others in the RV sector can only dream about: grow its business and hire new employees.
Structural Composites and the Dakota, Missouri Valley and Western Railroad likely will begin field tests next week on fiberglass covers for coal cars.
Ken Baranowski, Structural Composites’ co-owner and director of sales and marketing, said he is confident the covers will attract wide interest from railroads.
“We have high hopes for the future,” Baranowski said. “We’ve put a lot of resources toward this.”
Coal is normally shipped in open rail cars. The curved fiberglass covers developed by Structural Composites are intended to make the cars more aerodynamic and contain coal dust.
A patent is pending on the covers, which have doors that slide outward from the middle.
Structural Composites is researching modifications to the covers so they can be used on cars hauling chicken feed, wood chips, municipal waste and other cargo.
In addition to RV parts, Structural Composites has made forays into the defense industry, produced parts for buses and trailers and made custom parts to resist corrosion.
But Baranowski said the new rail covers are the 10-year-old company’s greatest effort to branch out beyond RVs.
That effort started five years ago when Baranowski, 59, and his partner, Jim Fearnow, wondered how much longer Baby Boomers like themselves would continue to buy RVs.
“You get to a point in life where you say, ‘You know, I don’t need any more toys,’ ” Baranowski said.
But the partners didn’t foresee how quickly the RV market would collapse. “March of ’08 is when the bottom fell out of it and it fell hard,” Baranowski said.
The company went from 130 employees and $10 million annual revenue then to 30 employees and $6 million annual revenue now, Baranowski said.
But that could improve if the Structural Composites rail covers perform as well in North Dakota as Baranowski expects.
“We’re hoping to add a substantial number of people to the payroll,” Baranowski said.