Wheeling into the Future With Trenz

Back in 1984, a young buck fresh out of high school in Butte, Montana, packed his belongings into a ratty old ’59 Chevy truck and headed west. Rescued from a local back yard, the truck cost $200. It finally fired up after being dragged down the road for four blocks. "Hey, that truck ain’t even gonna make it to California," Don DeBerti said as his son Doug headed west. "I don’t know what you’re doin’."

"We want to be free . . . free to ride . . . free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man . . ." – Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels, 1966

Well, the truck made it to California, depositing young Doug DeBerti in the agricultural community of Bakersfield. Granted, Bakersfield wasn’t the cultural Mecca most people normally associate with Southern California, but compared to Butte, it was a thriving metropolis.

The young DeBerti descended upon Bakersfield with little more than the shirt on his back and a large dose of desire to succeed. But job opportunities for an 18-year-old still wet behind the ears were few and far between, so Doug made ends meet by flipping burgers at the local bowling alley. He soon worked his way up the employment food chain to pumping gas at the Shell station, and eventually landed a job as a roughneck on an oil drilling rig.

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Flash forward to 1990 and another Chevy truck. "I bought a Chevy in 1990 and couldn’t find anything for it, couldn’t get anybody to work on it," explains Doug. "So I started making parts and building trucks in my garage, making lowering kits for them."

Business was good, so Doug moved the work from his garage into a little shop and founded California Truck. "I’d get up real early, work my other job, and be at California Truck probably from 10 o’clock in the morning ’til 8 at night," recalls Doug. "I just kept doing that for about four years, until finally California Truck started taking off." At that point, Doug quit his "day" job to concentrate on his own business.

"It all started with four Visa gold cards," Doug explains. "Seriously. I went out and got every card I could get to start California Truck. I went out and applied, I don’t know, for ten of them, all in one day. I sent them all off and got four back, and that’s what I started with, four Visa gold cards. And I still have them. I don’t have any lines of credit, but I still have the cards."

Now, in an area like Bakersfield, where agriculture and oil are ways of life, trucks are the vehicle of choice for much of the population, so California Truck thrived, eventually expanding to a second retail store. Doug and crew would bring a truck in from the dealer, lower it, lift it, put on custom wheels, tires, paint, you name it, anything to dress it up or make it unique.

Custom grills were one of the more popular items, and that’s what took things to the next level for Doug. At that time (and even today) most aftermarket grills were made to fit several vehicles, not just one. They were a compromise, fitting some vehicles well, and others not so well.

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Doug decided there was a better way to do it, and began fabricating his own custom billet aluminum grills in a tiny 500-square-foot shop. Each grill was carefully designed for a specific vehicle, and each one fit perfectly. It soon became apparent that a market existed for such high quality accessories, and Doug saw a future. He sold his two California Truck stores and formed Trenz Manufacturing.

"I had no machining background, nothing," Doug says. "I just bought a Haas mill, hired a guy and, bam, we just jumped into making certain things, like license plate frames and Chevy bow-ties (the Chevrolet bow-tie logo)."

Ernie Waldo, Chief Operations Officer in charge of machining, came on board at Trenz about the same time as the machining. "They’d had the mill for probably 3 or 4 months," he says, "but it really wasn’t up and running yet. They were trying to get everything going, getting pallets, and tools, and this and that. I came on board when they probably had three or four products running, and then we just kind of took it from there. I started learning to program, and how to do 2D and 3D, and how to do the parts. From there, we just kept going."

"When he came here, he didn’t even know what a milling machine was," Doug quips. "Now he can run all the machines. We went from zero products for milling and turning, to more than two thousand."

Over the years, that small shop expanded to include four Haas VF-3 vertical machining centers, a turning center, a CNC waterjet, a robotic welder, a complete polishing department, an in-house powdercoating operation and much more.

Today, Trenz is a major player in the automotive accessories aftermarket, manufacturing everything from custom billet grills, to billet interior kits, exhaust tips, pedal kits, hitch covers, bumpers, license plate frames and even billet steering wheels, motorcycle wheels and Yo-Yos. They are one of the few manufacturers licensed by GM and Ford for aftermarket parts and novelties.

Much of the company’s success can be attributed to the uniqueness of their products, and their philosophy of same-day shipping.

"We have our own style," says Doug. "I don’t like to copy anything, and I refuse to. If it’s going to look like somebody else’s, I’d rather steer off and make something else. I like our stuff to stand out, right down to the license plate frames."

"The standard license plate frame always has the holes through the center, and then they’re countersunk," explains Ernie. "Well, we spent the extra time to put the bosses on the back: They’re threaded from the backside, so you have a perfectly smooth license plate frame. We’ve never taken the shortest path."

"License plate frames have been out forever," adds Doug, "but to make one with no holes . . . What is the street rod guy going to pick, really, when it comes down to it? And that’s how we sell our product. It’s not, ‘Oh, you’ve got to buy everything of ours,’ it’s just, ‘Buy a little bit.’ And that’s kind of been the way we’ve attacked business. If there’s a cheaper price on a license plate frame, there’s probably a reason. No big deal. If you ever need one, here it is, and here’s what’s different."

"And we ship same day," emphasizes Ernie. "That’s our strong point. One of our big philosophies is to ship same day, because there’s always a cheaper price. But the thing is, we make a really high-quality product, we do it at a reasonable price, and we ship same day on 95-97% of all our orders."

According to Doug, Trenz has been growing at a rate of 50% each year since the company’s inception. That growth, he says, is the result of always reinvesting the profits back into the company. But a major expansion is on the horizon for Trenz, and it’s going to require some additional funding.

"I’m not dealing with the little numbers anymore," Doug says. "I’m dealing with big stuff: a couple-million-dollar building. If we’re going to make wheels – motorcycle wheels or truck wheels – we have to pay for the machines, the building, the labor."

To finance the expansion, Doug opted for outside capital. "I sold half the stock in Trenz to four investors – they’re local here in Bakersfield – because that’s the only way I could do this expansion. What we’re doing right now is a six month ramp up, and then the plan is to start exploding the company.

"We want to be the supplier for anything that’s aluminum; we want to be the sole supplier for grills and aftermarket accessories. We at least want to have something for everything: every car, every truck, street rod, motorcycle, even into bicycle stuff. We want to be tiered off into every little area."

A perfect example is the company’s line of steering wheels. Carved from solid billet aluminum, they have the adapter built in, so there are no unnecessary screws showing. The customer can choose one of Trenz’ existing designs, or pen a design of his own for a totally unique, one-off wheel.

"Our style is different," Doug continues, "completely. Right down to our steering wheel. You know how long steering wheels have been out. There’s not another steering wheel even close to ours. These weren’t made to sell 50,000 a month. If we sell one a day, I’m happy, because they’re a lot of work, and they’re unique . . . and they’re expensive. But they’re expensive even before you start carving."

"Most people would have never tackled that steering wheel project," Ernie comments. "That project was a lot of money before the very first steering wheel was ever made. There are six lathe operations and four mill operations just to make that steering wheel, so you can imagine the time that’s involved. But we run bunches of 100, or 200 to 300 to a certain stage, and then we do the next stage, and we do the next stage. So that when we’re ready to do the final design, it’s a one-day turnaround."

To maintain the one-day turnaround, Trenz needs equipment they can rely on. Their chief concerns are reliability and service. "Our biggest concern with any equipment we buy, right now," explains Doug, "is how are we going to fix it if something happens?"

Both Doug and Ernie say they’ve been extremely satisfied with their Haas machines.

"Haas claims 98% uptime," remarks Doug, "it’s a fact. And every mill or every lathe we get from here on out, as long as Haas has what we need, we’ll buy Haas. What really pushes me in that direction, is that when we have had a problem, either we’ve been walked through it over the phone, or the parts have been here the next day, or one of the service guys has been here. And that means more to us than anything."

Ernie explains Doug’s philosophy: "If you make a promise that something is going to happen, it better happen. If it doesn’t . . . We’ve put a machine out in the parking lot and told them to come take it away, because it didn’t do what they said it would do. The Haas has done exactly what it was supposed to."

The Trenz line of products is quite varied, and ideas for new products come from a variety of sources: employee brainstorming sessions, customer requests or simply asking, "What can we make to fully utilize this machine." But, sometimes it’s a just harebrained idea.

"Have you seen our 5" ball cover?," asks Doug. What he’s referring to is a polished aluminum trailer ball cover that looks just like a standard trailer ball – except it’s huge. "Okay, those guys thought I was stupid. Am I right?" he asks Ernie. "And then, even after they got it all polished up, they said, ‘Here’s your ball (sarcastically).’ And then I go to the beach with it, and I’m not kidding you, one out of two people would stop and – they’d even get out of their trucks – and ask, ‘Where did you get that?’ or ‘What do you tow with that?’ Everybody wanted one."

"The one real fortunate thing is that we have a creative staff, and everybody has some input," says Ernie.

"We’re good listeners," Doug adds. "If you have something to make, we’re going to listen, and we more or less let people run free with what they’re making. Instead of me saying, ‘Alright, make them just exactly like this,’ we let everybody work freely. You get to see what kind of talent everybody has, and it makes their job fun, too."

The latest addition to the Trenz line is a collection of design-your-own products for American-made motorcycles. Basically, they’ve taken their custom billet steering wheel concept and applied it to motorcycle wheels, brake rotors and drive belt pulleys. The customer comes up with a design, and that design is cut into both wheels, then duplicated in the brake rotors and pulley, as well. These one-off items are marketed under the DeBerti Wheels moniker.

"We’re kind of separating that line a little bit," says Doug. "We wanted to do something different. It’s your wheel: You either have a design or we have a design, and we build it. Nobody else is doing that, and that’s what we like to do. We like to make something different. So when you walk up and see someone’s bike, you know just by looking at that wheel where it came from."

"If you spend a lot of money on a bike, which a lot of these guys do," explains Ernie, "you don’t want to have the exact same wheels as Joe Blow. These guys are always wanting something custom, and they want it unique to their personality. They like the fact that they can buy a set of DeBerti wheels, and they won’t be identical to everybody else’s at the next bike show.

"The steering wheels are another good example," he continues. "We have 28 steering wheel designs, and there were a couple that I would have bet my lunch money, that there was no way anybody would ever want one. But yet, we sold them, because somebody’s personality said, ‘That’s the coolest wheel I’ve ever seen,’ and that’s what they wanted. The same thing applies to the motorcycle wheels. You can make a wheel that’s unique for you, for your personality, that fits your bike. And it’s yours; we’re not going to reproduce it for anybody else. What kind of price can you put on that?"

Part of Trenz’ new expansion includes gearing up for a line of production motorcycle wheels in addition to the custom one-offs. Like the design-your-own wheels, these will be one-piece forged billet wheels, but they will be on the shelf and ready to ship.

"It doesn’t cost us a lot of money to make one-off wheels," says Doug. "But it costs a lot of money to come up with a production wheel where we’re making 50, 60, 70 wheels a week. With this investment deal, we’re able to do that. We’re going to come up with 10 styles of wheels and offer them next-day in every size possible. That’s probably a half-million-dollar adventure, just to say that."

Also planned is a line of one-piece forged aluminum DeBerti automotive wheels. Like all the other Trenz products, these wheels will be unique.

"There are 130-some manufacturers that bring wheels into the US. They all make the same thing, just a little different design. There’s only one wheel company that has no competition; they’re the only wheel company that makes a one-piece forged wheel. So, why go in there and compete with 130-some companies?" asks Doug. "It’s going to be a pissing contest for price, right? Well, that’s why when we do the automotive line, it’s going to be light-duty truck and up, and they’re going to be one piece forged. Are they going to be more than the other guy’s? Absolutely. Are they going to be available next day? You bet. But they’ll be a full production wheel, and they’ll go with a strong name, and we’ll build our reputation off of that."

"We keep going back to same-day service," Ernie adds, "but that is a very serious point to make. It’s a lot of money, because we have to have inventory sitting in stock to make that promise. And if we make that promise, we have to keep that promise. But, nevertheless, it’s really nice to know that when you order something, you’re going to get it – the next day. And that you’re going to get a good quality product.

And if somebody wants a one-off set? "Sure," Doug says, "I still want to be open to that. We’re going to continue doing the one-off stuff.

"Production wheels, one-offs, license plate frames, there are so many accessories for bikes. The biggest thing I’d like to push is the wheels. If I can get the wheels out there next-day, and a good one-piece forged wheel like we have right now, I think we’re going to be so busy doing that, I don’t think we’ll need anything else. There’s going to be a handful of other things that we’ll throw in, but our biggest concentration is the wheels – next day."

To maintain their "next day" reputation, Trenz has been investing in the latest CNC equipment, and bringing as many processes in-house as possible. In this way, they can better control quality, cost and delivery time.

Trenz currently uses four Haas VF-3s for their machining. Each machine is equipped with a Midaco manual pallet system for quick job changeover and interchangeability. Many more machines, both mills and lathes, are planned for the upcoming expansion. "We’ll have eighteen mills within five years," explains Doug. "I have them spec’d out as VF-3s, because of the way we interchange the pallets, but that may change. If we hit something that’s high, high, high production, then I may go with one of the big boys and eliminate two smaller ones."

Nine Haas lathes are also planned for the expansion to handle the extensive turning work for the production steering wheels, motorcycle wheels and truck wheels. At present, the raw forgings are turned down to net shape by an outside vendor. The Haas lathes will allow Trenz to bring that process in-house.

Doug explains, "I get the forgings, have them turned down to net, we pre-polish them and then we mill them. That will change. That will come in-house. The new Haas lathes will handle it.

Trenz currently runs production 16 hours a day in two shifts, but Doug says that will increase to three shifts by the time they move into their new building. Future plans call for extensive automation: robotic welders, automatic loaders, bar feeders, automatic polishing equipment and even a fully automated powdercoating system. But that doesn’t mean people will lose their jobs, Doug assures. "They’re just going to be put someplace else. In our growth plan, we will have 287 people working here in year five, if we stay at a 90% growth.

"You know what makes this company so successful?" asks Doug. "The whole success? The employees. Without a doubt. The guys here are what makes the shop. When it comes right down to it, we couldn’t even come close to what we’re doing without the guys that we’ve got. We have a good crew. "