By Eric Peterson | Jun 14, 2020
La Junta, Colorado
Hydraulic cylinders for dump trailers and contract manufacturing services
When the oil market hands you lemons, make hydraulic cylinders.
Eagle Upsetters was in the business of threading pipe for oil and gas drillers in the early 1980s. George Hill, Dave's father, saw an opportunity to make couplings for the operation and hatched the idea for Falcon Industries to pair with Eagle.
The idea to machine couplings in-house was a natural for the Hills. "Growing up, we always had a shop," says Dave, who outfitted the fledgling shop with CNC and other machines to take flight as a manufacturer. "Dad was always building and making machinery for the construction business.
As oil prices started to slide in the early 1980s (and Nucorp acquired Eagle), the Hills needed to shift their gaze to new markets. "The bottom fell out of the oil industry and we had to find something else to do at Falcon Industries," says Dave.
As the company was already making some hydraulic cylinders for Ranco's end dump and belly dump trailers in nearby Lamar, management doubled down on the line and started offering both stock and custom cylinders for a wide range of trailers.
The big lesson? "We vowed not to get locked into one industry like the oil deal," says Dave. "We tried to stay diversified from then on."
Falcon now makes a wide range of stock cylinders, largely for Ranco models, but takes on custom orders as well. "There's a lot of old trailers out there that people are still using," says Dave. "Getting parts for those old trailers, there's a lot of those trailer companies that aren't around anymore. . . . There's no original manufacturer to go back to, because they're not there anymore. And we can generally produce a cylinder cheaper than they can buy from an OEM."
Turnaround times are often shorter as well. While Falcon typically promises shipping in seven to 10 days, Dave notes, "We usually beat that. We're usually able to ship in five days."
Falcon supplements cylinder manufacturing with contract services. "We do job-shop work for Lewis Nut and Bolt, specialized stuff that they don't do," says Dave, noting the company takes on similar contract jobs for other local manufacturers like DeBourgh Manufacturing and Oliver Manufacturing. "We're not into huge production. If it's huge production, [customers] buy equipment to do it on their own."
While the shop is outfitted with manual machines, welding rigs, and fabrication equipment, CNC machining has been part of the Falcon portfolio since the company launched. "We started in the coupling days with CNC mills and lathes," says Dave.
Falcon Industries has been based on a former World War II air base in La Junta since its founding. "This whole industrial park was part of the air base," says Dave. "The military came out and built it from scratch in the middle of the prairie."
Built as a supply depot, the main, 10,000-square-foot shop is the only building left from the wartime era, and the company built an auxiliary facility for plasma cutting and other industrial processes that's 5,000 square feet across the street.
With increasing cylinder demand from OEMs, growth has been solid since 2017. "It's not gangbusters by any means, but it's rocking along," says Dave. "We've got three OEMs that are hitting us up pretty regularly on the cylinder side."
Challenges: "Vendor bashing," says Hill, noting that some larger customers have pushed Falcon for lower and lower prices and turn to offshore manufacturers if they can't hit the target. "Instead of being a good partner, they just want to get it as absolutely cheap as they can. . . . You can't do it for nothing."
COVID-19 has "slowed down" sales, he adds, and impacted the supply chain. Getting materials lately "is just a real bear."
Opportunities: A long-anticipated federal infrastructure project would be a boon for Falcon. "Infrastructure's just crumbling everywhere. They're going to have to do something, and when they do, it's going to be like the gold rush," says Dave. "This trailer business is going to go absolutely crazy. They're not going to be able to build enough trailers fast enough, and consequently there's going to be a lot of old trailers people are trying to refurbish."
A new lift pump for farmers to move water uphill from irrigation ditches. As farmers would often call Falcon to repair old pumps, Dave says his son, Patrick, and brother, Allen, came up with a better design that's being tested this summer and slated to hit the market in 2021. "We've got a couple prototypes out there," says Dave. "These farmers like it because they can come to us if they have problems with it."
Needs: A succession plan. Dave is eyeing retirement and working on a plan for his son and possibly another employee to take over the ownership.
Right-sizing the Falcon staff is another ongoing need. "How much is too much?" says Dave. "We were at one time up to 25 employees, and you have some headaches with that many people."