When 33 employees who had worked an average of 20 years at Beall Trailers in Lockwood finished reminiscing Thursday, they walked out the door and the trailer and tank fabricating plant shut down.
In 1945, the Portland, Ore., company started a Billings branch. In 1978, Beall moved into the Lockwood plant at 1430 Highway 87 E., which manufactured semi-truck trailers and tanks used primarily to haul petroleum products.
The closure wasn’t unexpected.
Last fall, the parent company, Beall Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection in Portland and tried to sell the whole company, which operates in eight Western states.
That was unsuccessful, so last week Beall, which began business in 1905, was sold off in pieces in a bankruptcy auction.
Wabash National Corp. of Lafayette, Ind., paid $15 million cash to buy all of Beall’s tank manufacturing assets and properties in Portland. Wabash also bought all the Lockwood equipment but passed on the Montana building and property. Wabash is consolidating tank production in Portland.
“We knew at the bankruptcy auction they excluded this property, but we hoped they could have negotiated a deal,” said David Shannon, general manager and vice president.
Twenty-three production workers and 10 administrators, including Shannon, are unemployed. The 80,000-square-foot Lockwood plant sits on seven acres in a larger Superfund cleanup site.
That cleanup liability may have affected Wabash’s decision not to buy and operate the Lockwood plant, Shannon said. But he thought that Wabash also didn’t want to inherit $6 million in unfunded pension obligations. Beall paid its pension obligations, Shannon said, but the national trust is still underfunded.
“If they operated this facility and employed more than 50 percent of Beall’s employees, then the boilermaker’s union could be recognized again and Wabash might be tied to the unfunded pension fund,” he said.
Meanwhile, another company, Polar Service Centers, bought all of Beall’s service and parts facilities in the western U.S., including a separate Lockwood store within sight of the closed plant.
Polar didn’t immediately return calls for comment, but Shannon said the company might consolidate its service centers in Billings Heights and a small one in Lockwood into Beall’s building at 1635 N. Frontage Road.
“Our facility is far better than theirs and there is no need for two,” he said.
Aulick Leasing of Scottsbluff, Neb., bought Beall’s plant in Washington state that makes the “Beall bullet” aluminum bottom dump trailers used to haul sugar beets in this area.
A few employees reached after the plant had closed all declined to comment on the record about Beall’s demise.
The last afternoon for the team involved pizza, group pictures and photos of custom trailers they had built, Shannon said.
And Steve Bowman, who owns Diamond B trucking companies in Plentywood, showed up to praise the Beall employees’ work and to wish them well.
“His dad was a customer probably dating back to the ’60s, and Steve has been buying trailers here since 1974,” Shannon said.