Commerce: The small company with big things in store
When passengers board a trolley bus in a distant community-for example, in Hawaii-they will no doubt notice a number of charming features such as the brass-trimmed fare box, the woodwork inside the vehicle and the vintage seating that evokes a time long gone. It’s a good bet, though, that most of these passengers are unaware of where this vehicle came from.
Many of them would probably be surprised to learn that the trolley was built in a small northern Wisconsin town. They would probably be just as surprised to find out that at the head of this third generation business is a woman who has successfully proven that manufacturing is no longer the exclusive domain of men.
Kristina Pence-Dunow is that woman. As the CEO of Double K. Inc., which does business as Hometown Trolley in Crandon, one of her top priorities is “to make sure we don’t lose the quality of our product due to the quest for volume and growth, and to take care of our customers.” At a time when quantity too often trumps quality, she, along with her husband Joe and son Dustin, are proving that meticulous attention to detail, quality and innovation are still a winning combination.
Hometown Trolley is a growing part of the public transportation industry, custom manufacturing trackless trolley buses for public and private transportation uses in communities across the continental U.S. as well as in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Central America and Canada.
The company, which currently employs 20 people, is one of only four trolley manufacturers in this country. Hometown is in fact the only trolley manufacturer in Wisconsin and it’s the second-oldest such manufacturer in the U.S., but Dunow says, “We’re still small. Trolleys aren’t mainstream like city buses. There’s room for us to grow.”
Grow they have, recently moving from smaller quarters into a larger 18,000 square foot facility in Crandon’s industrial park. While they’ve been growing, the accolades have rolled in. In short, Hometown Trolley has seen a great deal of change in a relatively short time.
The company had a humble start, with the first trolley being produced in 1978. In 1993, the vehicles were marketed to the public transportation industry. At one time, a few trolleys a year were being produced; now, Pence-Dunow wants to see production reach between 30 and 50 a year.
“The first ones were going to Florida to retirement and coastal communities,” she explains. Now universities and churches are also among their customers. “We’ve had to stay on top of the transit industry to be current.”
Part of staying on top of the industry is keeping up with green technology. “My husband is very innovative,” says Pence-Dunow. “The whole green thing is his push.” Trolleys are available in biodiesel, LPG (liquid propane gas), CNG (compressed natural gas) and hybrid. “That really is the future,” she says.
The company also offers other features that make their products attractive to the public transit industry. One example is the low floors on their trolleys. A vehicle with a low floor entry offer easier boarding for the elderly and infirm. “Right now, we have the only low floor trolley on the market,” says Pence-
Dunow. “There are low floor buses, but no low floor trolley.”
That’s just one instance of the considerations manufacturers in the public transportation industry must take into account.
“There’s a lot you have to follow when it’s public transportation,” Pence-Dunow says. “Every model that we build has to be tested.” The trolleys are tested at the test track facility at Penn State University. There they are subjected to tests of their emissions, structural integrity, safety, brake performance and more.
As she leads the way through the building into the bays where the trolley buses are manufactured, Pence-Dunow mentions that her husband had attended a transit bus summit in Texas. Hometown had a couple of its trolleys on display there and, he had noted, Hometown’s interiors, which are handcrafted, were superior to those of competitors. “What probably sets us apart is our finish detail,” Pence-Dunow says.
The finish detail-the aforementioned vintage look, the woodwork, brass trim and other high quality touches-is what charms the passengers. Other features of a more modern type may not be so evident to passengers but are very much on the minds of buyers and are a major reason for the company’s success. Trolleys are made in front- and rear-engine models, and they are equipped to run on biodiesel, LPG (liquid propane gas) and CNG (compressed natural gas). The company will also offer the option of an electric hybrid propulsion system on one of its models.
Hometown Trolley’s rise is the result of Pence-Dunow’s persistence. As a woman competing in a male-dominated industry, she has weathered her share of gender bias over the years. But in truth, she can hold her own in this industry.
“The challenge in the ’90s in public transportation was really hard for women,” she says, noting that in the last decade, the situation has improved. But in the early years, “No one would take me seriously until they saw the trolleys.”
No mere company figurehead, Pence-Dunow can weld and do the wiring for a car, she says, as well as install the woodwork. “I had to do that to get respect,” she explains. She is well acquainted with all aspects of building a trolley car. “I know exactly how long it takes to do everything and what [the employees] are doing out there.”
Her advice to women competing in a business dominated by men? “Trust in yourself and don’t let one negative comment about gender capabilities get you down,” she says, “because you can do it.”
While she may not have been taken seriously in earlier years, she is now, and so is her company.
In May, Hometown Trolley was honored with the Entrepreneur of the Year award at the Forest County Economic Development Partnership annual meeting and luncheon.
In the fall of 2012, the company was nominated for the Manufacturing Award of Distinction, sponsored by the economic development arm of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. The award is intended to honor excellence among manufacturing companies in northeast Wisconsin.
For the first time in the company’s history, Hometown Trolley was also nominated for the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year award, sponsored by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Ultimately, the award for their category went to another company, a fact that hasn’t discouraged the crew at Hometown Trolley. “We were nominated,” says Pence-Dunow, “which was a great honor.”
Regardless of who the awards go to, the crew at Hometown Trolley charges forward because there are big things ahead. The recent move to the larger facility not only afforded the company the capacity to manufacture more trolley buses, it also paved the way for creating additional jobs.
“We did ExporTech in the fall through the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and WEDC,” says Pence-Dunow. “They really go through an in-depth study.” ExporTech is a program by which the WMEP and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation assist small- to medium-sized manufacturers grow their export sales by helping companies determine global markets and potential customers in other countries.
A couple of Hometown’s competitors, Pence-Dunow explains, are already doing some exporting. She intends to join them. “We’re in communication with Mexico and Australia and hope to make sales within the next year or two,” she says, noting that an area’s tourism business has a direct effect on trolley bus sales, and right now tourism in Australia is down.
But other communities closer to home have taken notice of Hometown Trolley.
Thanks to a grant under the Clean Fuels Act, the city of Alpena, Mich., awarded a $2.6 million contract to Hometown Trolley in January to build fully electric trolleys over the next two years. It’s a product unavailable elsewhere in the industry. When the prototype has been delivered to Alpena, it will be part of a year-long Federal Transportation Authority research project.
Officials from the city of Tampa, Fla., are also impressed with Hometown’s work. As of this writing, the company was working on bidding a project for inner city trains in Tampa. These trains are similar to trolleys, but unlike Hometown’s trolleys, they run on a track. Instead of building new trolleys for Tampa, however, Hometown would instead refurbish Tampa’s train cars, which were originally built in Europe in the 1800s.
There’s a lot going on with Hometown Trolley these days, and Pence-Dunow is enjoying her role as the head of the company. “It’s creative,” she says. “I like leading a group of people to be a team and to reach goals. Seeing that the public is using our trolleys is very satisfying.”
For more information, log on to hometowntrolley.com.