Truck Camper Magazine talks with Mark Hellwig, President of Hellwig Products, about sway bars, helper springs, and the heated story behind the brand.
There’s only so much you can learn about a company by looking at where they are today. As the son of a history teacher, I want to know how the company got there, who the principals are, what makes them tick, and where they’re taking the company. And while I have their attention, I want to know what’s so special about their products.
Who better to ask these questions than a company’s big cheese? A company President lives and breathes the business and can often shed light on things no one else in the building even knows happened. There’s a reason why they’re in the big chair and those stories offer the kind of reading anyone who loves free markets and capitalism can stand up and cheer about. Well, at least you can enjoy them.
For today’s story, we have Mark Hellwig, President of Hellwig Products, in the hot seat. During our Hellwig tour, we saw the 2,200 degree furnaces, the white hot steel, the powder coat oven, and the flame throwing shrink wrap team in shipping. Now we want to know the story behind all this hot stuff. How did things initially heat up for Hellwig? What was the initial spark? And how have they kept things burning for so long?
TCM: Did your family go RVing when you were a kid?
Mark: As a family, we were always outdoors. Dad started RVing with a twenty-one foot Kenskill travel trailer pulled behind a Chrysler station wagon. We went camping in California and into the states to the east. My parents were always traveling.
Dad was progressive. He had an early twenty-five foot Amigo motorhome built in southern California. Dad was also into boats. He hooked up a ski boat onto the Amigo motorhome and took us around state of California. We sometimes went to Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
When I graduated high school in 1972, our family took a five week tour to Alaska. Four of those weeks were actually in Alaska and we gad a great time. After that I went to college so I didn’t do a lot of RVing for awhile.
TCM: Did you ever own a truck camper?
Mark: My grandfather had a Holiday truck camper. It was a very basic eight-foot camper. My grandfather was upgrading his camper lifestyle, so he sold the Holiday to me for $600. It had a basic hand pump sink and a slide-out drawer toilet. At the time I had a heavy duty three-quarter ton pick-up with four wheel drive. My wife and I got back into the RV lifestyle with that camper after we married.
A few years later, our children came on the scene and I needed the room of a pull behind. I bought a twenty-four foot Weekender, or something like that. We towed that trailer all around the state. I was really interested in air shows, so went to shows from San Diego up to Marysville and everything in between.
When the kids got older, we got into motorcycle riding out in the desert. We would put the motorcycles in the back of pick-up truck and I had a racking system for the quads on the back of the trailer. The kids drove the quads and Rosemary and I drove the motorcycles. That was our first toy hauler experience.
We never did have a truck camper after that. We ended up buying a motorhome to share with my brothers. From there we sold the motorhome and I bought a toy hauling trailer. That was in about 2003. We ended up with the toy hauler and towed it for five years until it was totaled in a car accident. The accident only affected the trailer, so nobody was hurt. After that we ended up with the fifth wheel toy hauler we have now.
TCM: Sounds like it’s just about time to get you back into a truck camper. Tell us about the history of Hellwig Products.
Mark: The first decade involved moving from the city of Kansas City, Kansas to Glendale, California. Actually the family was traveling back and forth from Kansas City to the west coast of California.
They were always driving overloaded. The headlights were sticking up in the air. Well, granddad said that he could fix this with a leaf spring helper. He didn’t know where he was going, but knew he could do something.
Back in Kansas, one of granddad’s brothers had a leaf spring shop. There granddad designed helper springs and components to bolt on and adjust. These springs and components would help to carry the load he was fighting on long trips.
When the company began, my granddad and dad would make helper springs at night at the shop of granddad’s brother. They would bring parts home and paint them with army paint. They dipped in the parts and let them dry overnight. Then, Granddad would go out the next day and sell the springs.
After a year or year and a half, my granddad said, “Let’s move to the West where things are expanding rapidly”. This is post World War II. There was a hot bed of activity in the West, so they moved out to Southern California in 1945. In September of 1946, they incorporated Hellwig. We are coming up on sixty-four years of being in business.
TCM: Not many family owned companies make it for sixty-four years. That’s an amazing track record. What happened after the move to California?
Mark: At first they were renting property in Glendale. They moved the equipment in and began manufacturing there. That was 1946 and 1947. Dad was in high school and graduated in 1948. He went from high school to working in a spring shop.
Granddad was a salesman and selling the products that dad was making in the shop. This went on until 1966 when granddad passed away. Dad took over the business then.
After the passing of granddad, it became apparent the property in southern California was too small. There was not enough room to expand. Dad was land locked and couldn’t purchase land on either side or close to the manufacturing facility. So, he began a search for place to move the company.
Dad had a friend working at American Yearbook who moved from southern California to Visalia. Dad came to visit him on sales trips. The area struck dad as an attractive area to live. When he talked to a realtor, he found the property Hellwig now sits on.
In 1967, Dad began the plans to construct the first phase of the building that we’re now in. By the summer of 1968, he was moving the business form Glendale to Visalia. He started manufacturing some down there and some up here, so there wasn’t an interruption to the business or manufacturing.
By the fall of 1968, everything was here and the plant was running. Personnel were hired. Some people moved up from California and dad hired others from the local job pool. At the end of 1968, he was manufacturing here in Visalia in full swing. I was fourteen at the time.
TCM: When did your dad get you involved with the business?
Mark: Being a young teenager, I needed things to do. Dad had me sweeping floors. The rest of the property had a walnut tree orchard, so I would prune and water the trees. Dad bought a tractor and I ran around in that. It was a power mower and had a little scraping blade to keep gopher holes covered up. That was a lot of fun.
After school and on weekends my brother and I would come down and do chores. We had plenty of part time work to do. Working here as a teenager was out of convenience and it gave me pocket money at the time.
TCM: At what point did you become interested in what was going on at Hellwig?
Mark: As I grew up, I was always interested in mechanical things like go carts and small motorcycles. I would take them apart and put them back together. I had an intrinsic interest in vehicles. As I spent time at Hellwig on the weekends I saw the activities and designs that were being created. I also saw the types of vehicles Dad had around for research and development including trucks, RVs, and off-road vehicles. There were all types of vehicles in there. I was at driving age, so I could run the vehicles in the plant and put them on the rack.
Dad would put me underneath a vehicle and train me by showing me things. I didn’t know I would do this as a life long career, but he wanted me to see what he was doing.
I went away to college for a year and fell in love with a local gal. We got married in 1975 and I came to work here full-time. I was thrust into the design and manufacturing. I had interest in manufacturing equipment and started designing machines we could make products with. That’s what I’ve been doing since the summer of 1975. I’ve been here in all capacities clear up to running the business.
TCM: How did you come to take over Hellwig from your dad? Was that something you wanted or were encouraged to do?
Mark: My dad never encouraged or discouraged me to run the business. He wanted me to make my own career choice, even after I was married. He got a comfort level with me doing various functions around the plant. I wasn’t in the administrative part until 1980s. He would talk to me about profits, losses, and labor, but I didn’t get into it until the 1980s.
In the 1980s one of my brothers worked here and my sister worked in the office doing payroll. Around 1991, my next youngest brother went off on his own and started a manufacturer representative business, selling various RV products and truck products. My sister moved to Boise. Everyone went their way. I was still here bending steel, designing machines, and hiring and firing at that point.
Dad told me when he was 55 that June, he was going to retire. He had a plan. He bought a house on the coast and bought a motorhome that was bigger and went off to have fun. He is 81 now and still out having fun. He was just up in Montana fishing at some remote lake. I’m looking forward to that lifestyle.
TCM: Now that you’re President, are you still hands on in the factory?
Mark: There’s always something to do; equipment needs repair or new products need to be designed. We have to build equipment and tooling. I am hands on in regard to designing equipment and helping out with the machine shop. I’m not a numbers cruncher guy. I do it because I have to. My interest is building and manufacturing products. It’s still in my blood.
TCM: What have been some of your biggest challenges as President of Hellwig?
Mark: The challenges most recently have been with the roller coaster ride of steel prices, availability, and supply. The price of steel went through the ceiling in 2005 and 2006. This is a competitive business, so you can’t just raise prices. That was challenging. We kept the product moving as best we could but it was a real tough time.
The current economic situation has been challenging, but we are surviving because we placed ourselves well in the market.
TCM: How does someone know if they need a sway bar?
Mark: That’s probably one of our biggest marketing hurdles; explaining to the consumer what our product does and why they need it.
Most people assume their vehicle will do what they expect it to do. The result is that vehicles are often pushed to their limits as far as load capacity and handling characteristics are concerned. This results in uncomfortable driving conditions like sway. Hellwig can solve sway issues with a sway bar.
In the case of a truck camper, if you have a rig with sway issues, you need a rear anti-sway bar. If you have a lighter duty truck with sway issues, you might need an anti-sway bar and a set of our helper springs. Each situation is different so we encourage you to talk to your local Hellwig dealer about your set up.
TCM: What makes Hellwig products unique in the marketplace?
Mark: We back up our sway bars and helper springs with a lifetime warranty. There are occasional issues that we need to address like a U-bolt issue. We will back that up 100% by helping the customer and immediately shipping the product the customer needs to solve the issue.
Longevity is one of our strong suits. We’ve been designing sway bars and helper springs for years and years. We have the knowledge of how to make a product that’s user friendly, easy to put on, and it does what we say it will do.
TCM: Tell us about your upcoming product for the truck camper market.
Mark: We’re producing a heavier duty version of our traditional pickup truck anti-sway bar. We’ve come up with a product line that’s in development now. We will probably be releasing the full product line around November 1st.
TCM: What is your vision for Hellwig Products moving into the future?
Mark: There are less and less pick-up trucks in production. The new heavy duty pick-ups that are being produced have better payload and towing capacity than ever. People have options. I think our helper spring market will always be around, but will be less and less a part of our business as a whole as the new trucks improve their payload and towing characteristics. I see us primarily being an anti-sway bar manufacturer as our legacy.
For two or three decades of working together with the employees, you build this network of core people that you can count on and they can count on me. Our team is a very important part of my vision for the company moving forward.
TCM: Is there another Hellwig family member whom you see taking over the company?
Mark: I like coming to work every day. I have freedom in my schedule to go where I want when I want. Eventually succession of a family member is in my thinking.
My oldest daughter, Melanie, is in marketing now. We’ve talked about her managing and running the company long term. I’ve spoken with the employees and many have expressed interest in working for a Hellwig family member for years to come.
In the state of California, we have to jump through hoops as business owners. That’s why my dad wasn’t encouraging me to get into it. There are regulations and environmental issues. It can be a real distraction to running your business. Melanie has a good temperament to handle these challenges.
TCM: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you would like to add to your interview?
Mark: We are now setting off on some new areas to market. We’re attending a speciality trade show next week in Detroit. We are going to concentrate on more military contracts and manufacturers for military vehicles. There are more and more highly specialized vehicles for army and some navy applications. We are moving into speciality areas that we have not dabbled in before. The military has come to us. We’re shifting gears in that direction.
If you get comfortable in one spot too long, the market shifts. I have learned that over the years. If you have a gut instinct, go with it. If you wait too long, you might lose out on the opportunity.
TCM: We’re looking forward to the debut of your truck camper sway bar. Let us know when it officially debuts.
Mark: I certainly will. And there’s one more story I’d like to share. My dad was in here the other day and saw one of the original helper springs he made in on my office shelf. He looked up at it and started up on a story when he and his dad worked together.
Grandfather would take dad out on the weekends and drive up and down the local neighborhood streets. If they saw someone washing their car, they would stop and talk to them about the product they couldn’t live without. Dad would crawl under the vehicle and install the product for seven dollars.
TCM: You mean you don’t sell Hellwig products that way today?
Mark: I’m afraid not. But dad’s story really shows how far we’ve come as a company.
TCM: It sure does. Thanks for the interview Mark.
Mark: You’re welcome.
To learn more about Hellwig, visit their website at www.hellwigproducts.com.