I set aside much of my time to move throughout our building so I can work with managers to keep us on the same page,” says Shane Cossette, COO of TRS Industries, Fargo, N.D. “Something my dad instilled in me years ago was that not only is the customer always right, but it’s our responsibility to provide them what they want.”
Cossette is the third generation to take the helm of the family business that began as a tarp repair shop in his grandfather’s garage in 1983. Now the company is housed in a 69,000-square-foot facility that manufactures custom covers for industries including agriculture, trucking and recreation—in addition to providing repair services. At age 13, Cossette initially accompanied his father to work on weekends, and helped by doing odd jobs and cutting patches. “I liked working with my dad and grandparents,” he says. “By the time I graduated from high school I knew this was what I wanted to do—to keep learning about the industry and taking on more responsibility in the company.”
The products TRS takes on range from the very small to the very large, across market segments. On the small side, the company recently filled an order for a local company, making 12,000 sheaths to hold hunting tools—each approximately the size of a cell phone holder. On the other end of the spectrum, a few years ago Cossette’s crew manufactured a 200-by-400-foot tarp to cover a chemical spill on short notice. (For more, see Snapshot on page 25.)
Several years ago, TRS diversified its product lines to include manufacturing boat lift canopies. “The tarp industry is constantly changing,” Cossette says. “It’s affected by many things, whether it’s fuel prices, weather or something else. We’ve got three to four months during the winter during which we’ve
got to try to find other work to keep people busy.
“We’re about the only one of our competitors in this area that is so diverse, but it’s something that has really helped us,” he continues. “We build some of these products ahead of time during the winter so that we have stock ready when the season gets busy.”
Staying in tune with customer needs can mean partnering with suppliers to develop new products, as was the case when TRS worked with Seaman Corp. to develop a durable, cleanable tarp product for grain haulers. The problem TRS faced was that it took a long time for grain haulers to clean tarps between loads to prevent cross-contamination from different grains, as well as remove road grime. TRS and Seaman Corp. took an existing product and improved its performance by adding a coating. “We’ve built a tarp product that is not only flexible in very extreme temperatures, but one that is also easy to clean,” Cossette says. “We put a coating on the top and the bottom that cuts cleaning time way down and helps reduce cross-contamination as well.”
More than fabric
Using the right fabric for the application is only part of the equation, Cossette says. Proper installation is vital to products’ performance and longevity. “What we’ve learned from the very start, with the repairing we’ve done and our manufacturing and installing experience, is that when a product is installed correctly, we know it will last longer,” Cossette says. “Because of our experience with how our tarps age and our competitors’ tarps age, we’ve been able to develop better products.”
TRS warranties its fabrics from three to five years, even with highly abusive conditions—if its crew has installed them. “There are plenty of ways to install a tarp that aren’t correct,” Cossette says. “You can take the best tarp out there and in a high-pressure situation, if it’s not installed correctly, something’s got to give. It takes more than just good fabric to ensure longevity.”
In the 35 years TRS has been serving the tarp industry, the company has grown out of its space and expanded eight times, most recently in 2014. Cossette designed the floor plan of the most recent expansion to improve efficiency in the manufacturing area, including planning a centralized cutting area. “This space was a blank slate where we could spread out and not have any limitations,” he says. “We serve so many different industries, but the cutting area serves all of them. Having the cutting area in the center really helps our efficiency.”
The right people
Cossette expects himself and his staff to learn from their mistakes, and to build on that knowledge to prevent the same mistakes from happening again. His approach is to help staff address challenges as they come up, in real time. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and there’s not much I haven’t seen—and I feel like I’m teaching all the time,” he says. “I take things on as they come up because it’s hard to explain a situation that’s not there—especially with as much diversity as we have. We just break the project down to see where it could fail, or where it is failing, and find a way to improve it.”
Working together to solve problems also means empowering managers to take risks, Cossette says. He invites staff to brainstorm new products to help keep the company busy during the winter months. Most recently, some of the staff ideas have led the company to revisit old products. “We have been struggling to compete with Asian markets and imports,” he says. “But now we’re utilizing some of our automated equipment and processes to allow us to be more efficient than before so we can be more competitive in that market.”
Cossette acknowledges that finding the right people to work in the company is an ongoing challenge, but that the staff he does have is skilled and incredibly valuable. “Our managers have all moved up from within the company,” he says. “I think it would be difficult to hire somebody off the street even if they had experience in manufacturing. Learning the sewing industry is unique and takes time.
“With the skill and experience my managers and I have, we like to take on challenges,” Cossette continues. “We don’t turn business away very often—and that’s helped us grow.”