The nation’s economy and its effect on the cargo and specialty trailer industry were the focus of the 21st Annual National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) Convention and Trade Show Feb. 24-28 at the North Charleston Convention Center in Charleston, S.C.

About 1,000 people representing commercial trailer suppliers and manufacturers attended the gathering during which well-known economist and author Ben Stein was the keynote speaker.

Although suggesting that the U.S. economy will eventually turn around, Stein said the country’s current economic malaise could have been avoided. “We are in a genuine credit crisis caused by incredible incompetence by the banks and lending institutions and greed by hedge funds managers,” Stein said. “This didn’t have to happen had there been proper regulatory supervision.”

While attendance was down some from 2007, out-going NATM President Travis Eby of M.H. Eby Inc., Blue Ball, Pa., said the association was pleased with the number of people who attended. “We are happy with the turnout,” said Eby, who during the convention turned the association’s reins over to Michael Terry of Cimarron Trailer, Chicasha, Okla.

Other new officers are Vice President Mike Skoglund, Carry-On Trailer Inc., Lavonia, Ga., and Treasurer Christopher Baker, Trail-et Inc., Waupaca, Wisc.

“We had about the same amount of trailer manufacturers here that we had last year, but some of them brought less people,” Eby said. “Instead of bringing seven people, they might have brought three. But a lot of the vendors that I talked to were very happy with the quality of people who were coming through.”

Among those vendors attending was Andy Ackerman, president and co-founder of the North American Trailer Dealers Association (NATDA), a 2-year-old privately owned trade group that represents commercial trailer retailers and, effective Jan. 1, became an NATM affiliate.

“The trailer industry is not suffering (from the economy) nearly as badly as those in the recreational industry,” Ackerman told RVBusiness. “Fifty percent of our industry is commercial, so we still have that in-flow. And we are starting to see some recovery as President Obama focuses on infrastructure. The commercial side of our industry will come back very quickly.”

With regard to the affiliation agreement – a one-year-pact through which for-profit NATDA and not-for-profit NATM are testing the cooperative waters – NATDA’s approximately 1,300 members will receive NATM’s TRACKS magazine and have access to the organization’s technical director to answer questions that dealers might have. At the same time, NATM’s 1,002 members will receive the bi-monthly NATDA Magazine.

According to Eby, the affiliation is designed to make sure that trailer safety education reaches retail customers. “We were leaving it up to the individual manufacturers to get the point-of-purchase material to their dealer network,” he said. “It was kind of cumbersome.”

Now, safety material will be available directly to dealers through NATM. “We are trying to make sure that everybody’s best interests are looked after, and we thought that an affiliation between the two groups was the way to go,” Eby said. “We want to make sure that the trailer safety message goes from the manufacturer to the dealer to the consumer.”

Ackerman said that the affiliation will augment the services that NATDA provides to its members. “NATM does a fantastic job of providing safety and regulatory information for the manufacturers,” Ackerman said. “What we do is focus on helping dealers become more professional.

“NATM will be speaking at our trade show to educate our members about the NATM compliance sticker. It’s very important that dealers and the retail public understand that buying a trailer that doesn’t have the NATM sticker may mean that trailer is not safe or not legal to be on the road.”

After Thursday morning’s session Stein volunteered to join three other individuals in a panel discussion on a topic that is utmost in most business peoples’s minds these days: “Pulling Through the Economic Storm: Q&A about Trailer Financing.”

Participating with Stein in this thought-provoking session were Curt Myers, president and CEO of Fulton Financial Corp., Lancaster, Pa.; Matt Martin, senior vice president and Charlotte (N.C.) regional executive for the Federal Reserve Bank, and Stuart May, national sales manager of Trail Boss Conversions Inc., Bates City, Mo., and a 20-year veteran of the financial services arena.

While conceding that the economic atmosphere had changed dramatically for the worse more swiftly than even the finance community had anticipated, May said lenders have left the commercial trailer marketplace in much the same way that they have exited other fields, including recreational vehicles.

Yet, he added, there are lenders out there – and he declined to publicly mention names – that are considering expanding into viable markets like the commercial trailer sector. “And we need to encourage these lenders,” he said.

Echoing reports from the RV field, May said the consumer finance situation seems to have eased up some, but that wholesale finance is still a problem.

Stein, for his part, reiterated his chief message from his presentation earlier in the morning that the market would return to health in due time. But he also urged NATM’s membership to pull together statistics and demographics about their business – including the numbers of people it employs in various regions of the country – to present to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and agencies like the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help get credit flowing to the commercial trailer arena. “You may as well get your share by contacting people in Washington and getting the message out,” he said.

The same message applies for the finance world, which probably doesn’t realize that the commercial trailer business accounted for at least 600,000 units last year, stressed May. “Lenders don’t know the trailer business, so we need to educate them,’” he maintained.

Banker Myers said this is an excellent time for acquisitions and startups, assuming one has the fortitude and resources to pursue them. Likewise, he added, things probably aren’t going to improve until people decide they’re going to improve. “When things seem so bleak is probably when things are actually starting to turn around,” he said.

Meanwhile, Carl Maxey, general manager of Maxey Manufacturing, Fort Collins, Colo., received the Bill Bernhart Outstanding Member Award. Ron Yarnell of PPG, Braselton, Ga., was handed the Outstanding Associate Member Award. Greg Snyder of Car Mate Trailers, Leeper, Pa., got the Ed Freel Membership Award; and Michelle Brown, NATM assistant director, the Above and Beyond Award.