An Equitable Equestrian Nook

This Missouri shop owner’s horseshoe was upright and full of luck when a local banker wagered on his first-place idea to fit horse trailers with custom living quarters.

By Lisa Whitcomb

     
KWG Enterprises

Nixa, MO

Year Founded: 1993

Employees: 50

Gross Annual Sales: $6 million

Shop Size: 43,000 square feet

FYI: KWG has outfitted trailers for the legendary, and world-title winning team rodeo ropers, Speedy Williams and Rick Skelton.

 
   
     

Sometimes having a passion for a hobby and a “good idea” to make that hobby better are not enough to actually get a potential business off the ground and running. Such was the scenario that played out for more than a decade for Kevin Gross, owner and president of KWG Enterprises of Nixa, MO.

In the early 1980s, Gross had the notion to combine a traditional horse trailer and camper together so avid trail riders, racers, horse show entrants and rodeo circuit afficionados, plus other horse owners like himself, would no longer have the hassle of transporting two vehicles to every function. “I thought, ‘There has got to be some way to combine all of these vehicles.’ The idea was unheard of at the time, so it was difficult to find a bank that would back me,” Gross recalls.

Being pertinacious pays off

Gross grew up around horses, woodworking and tools. His father owned a cabinet shop, which is where he developed his predilection for woodworking. “My dad was in the trophy business and we made a lot of walnut bases, plaques and different kinds of things. As a teenager, I ventured off into rebuilding old cars and customizing their interiors. I put many walnut burl dash inlays in my own vehicles, working in my parents’ driveway, while I was still in high school,” he says. During high school he also was hired to help build the interior of country singer Kenny Rogers’ tour bus, which was a 1969 Eagle.

He continued converting buses for several years after graduation. Then, in 1981, Gross got the idea to convert horse trailer interiors into functional, comfortable living spaces for people. “I thought about the interior of the bus and taking [those same comforts] and putting them into a horse trailer,” he says. He took the idea to a banker and was turned down flat. Gross did not give up, though. Instead he put it on the back burner and continued to develop it and find ways to support it over the years. In the meantime he branched off into converting the interior of limousines and working in manufacturing management for a boat trailer company.

     
 
Oak is by far one of the most popular woods requested for trailer interior cabinetry and millwork.  
     

In 1984, and then again in 1987, Gross tried once again to launch his idea and obtain the necessary venture capital with no success. “The bankers laughed at me and said my idea would never work. One banker even thought I was an idiot [for suggesting such a conversion,]” he says. But Gross soon proved those bankers wrong.

In 1993, Gross quit his manufacturing management job to try once again to fulfill his dream. He finished out the interior of a horse trailer in his home’s driveway, a project that got him kicked out of his subdivision. It took 30 days to build, but it launched KWG Enterprises as a viable business.

Before going to bankers, Gross took the trailer around to several different horse trailer manufacturers. He finally found one who loved the idea of mobile comfort for equestrian owners as much as Gross did and decided to back the idea with the promise of future orders. With this retail commitment in tow, Gross then took the proposal to a bank where a young banker “loaned me $35,000, and that is how I got started,” Gross says. “Someone finally believed in me and my idea.”

In that decade of waiting for a financial backer for his idea, someone else beat him to the punch. However, Gross says he has no regrets. “I didn’t get into the market too late. I got in at the right time, when everybody was still wanting it and there was still a big demand,” he says.

     
 
The shop builds specialty-use cabinetry like the television cubby and elegant rack for wine glasses shown.  
     

Getting an inside look

Today, KWG manufactures living quarters for all major brand trailers. Each unit is designed to the owner’s individual tastes and needs, although most are ordered nationwide from dealers who sell the trailers after they have been converted. The shop converts an average of three to eight aluminum trailers a week, but could do as many as 12 if need be.

Even though it has a handful of competitors nationwide, the shop prides itself on raising the standards of the horse trailer market. “When I got into the market, you didn’t hear of solid oak cabinets and real oak trim in these trailers,” says Gross. “They were being produced and marketed more as a camper-type package with particleboard and real inexpensive products.” KWG Enterprises only installs solid wood and other high-end products, which has made the company stand out from its competitors. “We offer higher quality woodworking, because we offer solid wood cabinet boxes where our competitors just build a wall and face-frame it,” he adds.

The average cost to finish the interior of a trailer is between $10,000 and $50,000, depending on what the dealer or the owner wants installed in the unit, thus bringing the total cost of one of these special trailers between $50,000 and $100,000. A finished trailer comes equipped with a shower, toilet and vanity, bed, stove, refrigerator, sofa, cabinetry, hot and cold running water and other home-like amenities. They are similar to a camper, except that there also is space to house anywhere from two to four horses in the rear of the trailer. The stalls are separated from the living quarters with a wall.

Woodwork inside the trailers is fabricated in either solid oak, pine, hickory or maple and occasionally in veneers such as bird’s-eye maple and olive. The wood is finished with either a red, brown or yellow-hued stain and a high gloss, or just polyurethane for a natural look. The cabinet doors are offered in two styles, raised panel or “country” – which looks like an old barn door. Occasionally the shop will install cowhide leather on the door panels. Matching wainscot paneling and wood trim finish out the trailer’s look, although the shop will use prepared wallboard when requested. Flooring varies between wood, linoleum or tile depending on the owner or dealer’s preference. More than 100 different fabric choices are offered for the upholstered areas.

     
 
Who says you can’t take the kitchen sink with you? This interior boasts all the amenities of home including a sofa, dining table, queen bed, microwave and fashionable cabinet pulls.  
     

The benefits of inline production

The production in the shop is handled in an assembly-line fashion, like a car plant, thus making each trailer assembly more efficient. Thirty-eight employees are divided up according to their expertise to staff various stations. Each trailer spends about a day at each “station” in the line and is completed in seven to eight working days. At the beginning of the line, the empty aluminum trailer has furring strips attached, so wall panels and flooring can be installed. Next, the trailer goes to the wiring station and then to the plumbing and gas. After all of the basic mechanical features are in place the interior walls and subflooring are installed. The cabinets, appliances, plumbing fixtures and other finishing hardware are installed next. Finally the trailer is trimmed out with decorative mouldings and rails, and then the trailer is inspected, tested and given a final cleaning.

The cabinet shop division of the business has 12 employees. They custom cut whatever piece they need from rough stock for cabinets and other casework, mouldings, trim pieces and wagon wheel decorations, which are a shop specialty. The shop uses SCMI’s Sigma 65 panel saw, Superset 23 moulder, S630 planer and Sandya 10 widebelt sander; Northtech’s Straightline gang ripsaw and two upcut saws with TigerStop stops; Ritter Manufacturing’s pocket door drill and adjustable shelf hole machine; ShopBot’s CNC router; a 21-in. Delta sanding center and table saw with a Biesemeyer arm; Unique Machine & Tool Co. door machine; Murphy-Rogers dust collection system; and Cabinet Vision and Quick CAD 8 software for designing.

In the current economy, the dealer market for finished horse trailers has slowed, but James Dean, design engineer for KWG says, “Currently our production is strong. Initially, for the first two months after the Sept. 11 attack our business was down, but it has been steadily picking back up since then. “ He adds that the shop is working at a comfortable pace right now.

There are no current plans for expansion because the shop just moved into its new facility two years ago. And while owner Kevin Gross hasn’t finished out any buses since securing funding for his finished horse trailer business, he has been thinking about moving back into that niche area and specializing in both finished tour buses and horse trailers. “The horse trailer industry grew so fast [since I began,] that I just got away from the buses. But I would like to get back into it and do more buses,” he adds.

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