Garbage truck builder still packs a punch

CAMBRIDGE — The owners of Shu-Pak Equipment Inc. are not ones to set modest goals.

At one point in the 1970s and 1980s, the company employed 300 people and was one of the largest manufacturers of side-loading garbage trucks in North America, said production manager Keven Ellis.

Shu-Pak’s goal is to regain that lofty status, he said.

The Cambridge-based company appears to be taking all the right steps to becoming a major player again.

Sixty to 100 side-loading garbage trucks roll out of its 15,000-square-foot plant on McGovern Drive every year, destined for municipalities and private haulers across Canada and a few south of the border.

The bare bones of a truck rolls in the back of Shu-Pak’s plant at the beginning of the week. It’s just a cab and a set of eight wheels holding up a chassis. A Shu-Pak crew cuts open the passenger side of the cab and installs a second steering wheel and set of brake pedals so the truck can be operated from either side.

Not far away, other workers carve open and extend the length of the chassis, weld together a frame out of thick steel sheets and attach a mechanical arm to pick up garbage cans.

Other improvements include new drive shafts, separate compartments to accept up to three garbage streams, equipment to pack and crush the trash as much as possible, and valves and electronic controls to operate all the many functions.

Apart from painting and window installation, everything is done at the Shu-Pak plant in as little as one week, said Ellis.

“I was blown away that they do all this here,” he said, recalling the day he joined the company in 2006.

The company was the first to develop a horizontally split body to accommodate two loading hoppers and separate storage compartments.

If it all sounds like a minor miracle, so is the fact that Shu-Pak still exists.

The company’s history goes back to 1945 in Waterloo where it began as Carter Brothers, an aluminum manufacturing and welding company that made garbage trucks, trailers and snowmobiles.

In 1963, the company went into the production of side-loading garbage trucks after it acquired the rights to a popular design by the Shuban brothers of California.

The advantage of side-loaders is that they can be operated by one driver from the right-hand side of the vehicle.

The company renamed itself Shu-Pak to promote its flagship product and grew into one of the largest producers of side-loaders in North America, said Ellis.

But the company nearly went out of business in the 1990s after it became caught up in an expensive and protracted lawsuit with the federal government over a contract to manufacture fire trucks for the military under a related company called Amertek, based in Woodstock.

Shu-Pak, which continued to manufacture garbage trucks while this was going on, was rescued about six years ago by David Tanner and Dr. Victor Mele, who saw merit in the Shu-Pak name and purchased the rights to the garbage side of the business.

“The Shu-Pak brand has recognition all across North America. It’s something that’s an advantage for us,” said Tanner, the company’s president.

Shu-Pak, which has about 50 employees, has been located at McGovern Drive for about 10 years.

It monitors websites such as Merx, the Canadian public tendering site, and posts ads in magazines such as Hauler to drum up new business. But the company’s name is enough to attract a lot of customers, said Ellis.

“A lot of municipalities know who we are.”

Shu-Pak also prides itself on safety and launched a new policy to install side-guards for free on all its vehicles to prevent pedestrians and cyclists from being injured or killed by trucks making right turns at corners.

The company does a lot of custom work, including left or right standup cab conversions. Its trucks are among the easiest to service on the market, said Ellis. “Everything we do is designed around the mechanic that has to work on it.”

In the near future, Shu-Pak would like to move to a larger facility so it can accommodate its growth plans, said Ellis.

After all it’s been through, Shu-Pak’s main challenge now is letting customers know it’s still around, he said.

“We went from a being such a giant to being so small. We’re trying to get the people to know that Shu-Pak is still here. We’re still producing trucks.”

Shu-Pak Equipment Inc.

176 McGovern Drive, Cambridge

519-653-2472; 1-800-809-0166

Employees: 50