By Eric Peterson | Dec 08, 2020
Salt Lake City, Utah
After working for (and waiting out a non-compete from) a competitor, Harling co-founded Sterling ATM with his business partner, Steve Binder, in 2002. The company grew into one of the leading manufacturers of ATM enclosures in the U.S., but that market presented a problem.
The "project-based business" saw peaks and valleys in production as orders were largely tied to banking mergers and rebranding initiatives. "How do you manage that type of volume fluctuation?" says Harling.
The need for steadier sales led Harling to take a hard look at Sterling's capabilities with fiberglass, millwork, and metal fabrication. There was no easy answer.
But Harling landed on an answer through a hobby. "I'm an avid mountain biker," he says. "I love Salt Lake City, but I hate it here two months of the year. I hate January and February." His salve: frequent winter getaways to southern Utah to pedal the trails with his wife.
Harling wanted a trailer for the trips, but a hunt for a small teardrop model was "underwhelming," he says. "It seemed everything I looked at was built to be disposable."
Then he connected the dots between Sterling's core capabilities and his dream trailer. "With our design capabilities and our production capabilities, I can make a way better trailer," says Harling. "That's how Bean was born."
Using the 140-employee Sterling as its contract manufacturer, the startup began designing and prototyping in early 2017 and had its first sales by the end of the year. Three years later, Bean is Sterling ATM's biggest customer.
"Here's this company [Sterling ATM] that's struggling to be a good manufacturer, that's struggling with fluctuations in monthly sales, that has zero experience with consumer products," says Harling. "We had the audacity to design, build, and market our own trailer. If we're not the fastest-growing small trailer manufacturer in North America, I'd be surprised."
In early 2020, the company was shipping one trailer a week. That increased to one a day in the second half of the year.
Harling says it's all about making a better trailer. "The RV industry builds a disposable product," he says. "That's the ugly truth of the RV industry. People have just gotten used to it."
Bean's design blocks water, dust, and debris, and makes for a longer-lasting product. Harling credits "talented engineers" and other employees who are avid outdoors people and know that a truly durable trailer would need to withstand a good deal of abuse.
"We just built something that would be durable where they take their trailers," says Harling. "They take their trailers on BLM roads and forest roads -- washboard roads that will rattle anything loose. Because we had a fiberglass plant, we thought, 'If you don't have any seams, you can't have any seams open up with vibration.' Really, what makes Bean unique is the one-piece fiberglass shell -- think of a boat hull upside-down."
"Following the Sterling ATM model, it's basically standard product with some level of customization," says Harling. "Most of [the manufacturing] is in-house. . . . [O]ur axles, windows, and doors are, but everything else is done in-house."
Harling says the sizzle is nearly as important as the steak. "We spent our entire careers building the brands of major U.S. banks, so we knew how to build a brand," he notes. "We developed Bean, and Bean is on the verge, on the doorstep of being a cult brand. There's a strong identification with people who love Bean."
Bean's success has been a win/win for both companies. Revenues have jumped by 1,000 percent from 2018 to 2020 for Bean, as the entire enterprise has doubled its sales. "It's been good for everyone," says Harling.
Challenges: "The challenge is ramping up," says Harling. He wants to keep the lead time for orders at "a reasonable four to five months," versus the many competitors' status quo of more than a year. "But if I had 50 inventory trailers right now, they'd be gone," he adds.
Opportunities: Continued growth. "Part of what's driving the trailer growth is the fact that people are not jumping on airplanes and traveling," says Harling. "They're trying to figure out how to get out into the outdoors -- the ultimate social distance, right?"
"It's mostly the West, but we have trailers in New Jersey, we have trailers in Oklahoma, all over the country," he says of Bean's market.
Needs: "We need additional talented human resources," says Harling. "We're in good shape from a capital and liquidity standpoint. I question anybody that says they need more space. . . . That's an immediate red flag to me."