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Sunflower Trailers stays busy during shutdown, adapts like most ag businesses in Kansas

Gale Rose
Two employees of Sunflower Trailers, Inc. in St John attach a flatbed to a pickup as they keep busy during the coronavirus crisis. Customers continue to need the trailers, parts and other services Sunflower offers so the company continues to be busy as an essential business in the agriculture industry.

Sustainability is an important word for small businesses especially now during the COVID-19 crisis when small businesses have been shut down and income reduced.

But for some businesses, especially in the agriculture sector, that decrease in income has had less of an impact.

Sunflower Trailers, located a mile south of St. John, has remained busy because the business of agriculture keeps going. Cattle still have to go to grass and to sale barns and to feedlots; trailers still need repairs, farmers need flatbeds, and that goes on every year no matter what, said Sunflower Trailers owner Bruce Heller.

“I don’t see anything like that changing much,” Heller said.

Like other business, Sunflower has adapted their customer dealings for safety. Besides trailers, Sunflower also has a parts department, does repair work and swaps regular beds for flatbeds, Heller said.

Instead of customers coming in the office, they call in and parts are laid outside for them to pickup. Shop workers frequently wipe things down with disinfectant.

“We’re really careful about wiping things down,” Heller said.

Overall, they are doing more business over the phone with people calling in to check prices. Some of their flat bed sales and installations have been canceled because guys are watching their money. With the drop in energy prices, their sales to oil fields have declined. Their cash flow into accounts receivable is down somewhat because some are unable to pay, Heller said.

Outside of that, their other customers have kept the company very busy which has allowed them to keep everyone on staff. Farmers always need flatbeds and cattle trailers and other equipment so the work is steady. The business also installs flatbeds on pickups which accounts for a big portion of the company business. There are plain flatbeds and arm beds for handling bales. They average four installations a week.

When equipment breaks down, they bring it in for repairs. Their repair shop is a big part of their success. Cattle and country roads are rough on trailers so Sunflower does a lot of repair work on cattle trailers.

“We’re doing pretty decent,” Heller said.”When one part of the business goes slow, another picks up.”

Heller’s father started the business in 1989 with just one line of trailers. Trading, buying, selling and building trailers got the business up and going.

In 1993, Heller joined his father in the business and they increased their business. In 1999, Heller bought out his father who kept the panel sales part of the business while Heller continued with the trailer sales.

They no longer build trailers but buy trailers from manufacturers. They carry nine lines of trailers including stock trailers, small yard trailers, cattle and horse trailers, cargo trailers and car haulers, Heller said.

While Sunflower is a local business, its customer base is much wider. They have sold trailers in 14 states including a recent stock trailer sale to Hawai’i with a sub dealer in Carey, Idaho. In Payonia, Colo. there is a guide service that purchases trailers from Sunflower then resells them.

The Kansas base of Sunflower Trailers is located at 2A NE 20th Street on U.S. 281, a mile south of St. John.

Suzette Vandoren is a business partner and her husband Kyle joined in 2000 and is now shop foreman. They have another three employees for a total of six. They have been working together for a long time and work together as a team.

“It feels like a family,” Heller said.

The business has a Facebook page and they advertise in various publications, including the St. John News, the High Plains Journal, as well as in school game sports magazines and books. Their website is www.sunflowertrailersales.com.