story and photos by Kim Souza
Springdale-based S.A. Concepts has a business model built around sustainability. They retrofit big rigs with AeroSmart trailer skirting panels made from recycled aluminum trailers that in turn increase fuel efficiency by 5%.
But that’s just half the story.
S.A. Concepts is also a nonprofit work transition program for veterans who are enrolled in college on a full-time basis, providing part-time jobs for a full-time wage.
Father and son team, Don and Drake Vanhooser, along with Jon Hamlin began kicking the idea around in the spring of 2011. One year later they employed six veterans with hopes of adding more in the coming months. By the end of the year they hope to have 15 to 20 veterans in the program.
Josh Peacock, U.S. Navy Petty Officer Third Class, found it difficult to go to school and provide for his family following his tour in Iraq. That was before he found S.A. Concepts with the help of Diana Portillo, a veterans resource director at NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
Since April, Peacock and five other military veterans have found stable work with S.A. Concepts and still have the time they need to study for their full-time college endeavors.
Unemployment levels among veterans remains higher than the national rate, according to the Department of Labor. Post-9/11 veterans face a weaker job market according to survey last year by Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans of America. This study claims unemployment among recently separated veterans is nearly 17%, well above the rates reported by the Labor Dept.
As college tuition continues to rise – up 8.5% this year – veterans have little extra from their G.I. Bill funding to cover living expenses which nearly forced two of the six veterans out of college. Both had begun to drop classes the week they were introduced to S.A.Concepts.
“We are a sustainable business but first and foremost we are veteran transition program standing in the gap for those soldiers who need some time to retrain and integrate into the civilian workforce,” said Hamlin, vice president and general council for the organization.
He said the veterans share a kindred spirit and work well together in the light industrial setting. They also share common goals and challenges as they juggle families and school.
Vanhooser said the hope is “to furnish them a bridge to stand on as they walk toward a new career through first obtaining a college degree.”
The AeroSmart skirts are refashioned from trailer panels of retired trailers and have been tested for the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay designation.
“We are waiting to see if the 5.17% fuel efficiency achieved in our test run is enough to get the advanced classification level by SmartWay. Walmart has been great. They donated our first 30 trailers retired from their fleet and paid for our SmartWay testing at the Goodyear facility,” said Drake Vanhooser.
The crew can cut about eight pairs of skirts with brackets and bracing needed for assembly from one trailer. The rubber sheet that runs along the bottom of the panel is made from recycled conveyor belts, which make the AeroSmart skirts a recycled product from top to bottom.
Hamlin said a pair of panels installed, retails for around $800 and offers roughly a 5% fuel savings.
Vanhooser said they have reached out to local trucking firms for possible donations of retired trailers and opportunities to retrofit existing rigs. USA Truck in Van Buren is talking with the firm about opportunities for possible donations.
Vanhooser said one major hurdle the company faces in selling the panels is most carriers order them directly at the factory level, so he is working with a retired trucking executive to gain access to major manufacturers.
“We hope to eventually be an option carriers can choose when they order their trucks. There is not another totally green product alternative being offered now,” he said.
Smaller carriers have been the most receptive to getting their existing fleet retrofitted, because the fuel game is one of the only tools they can can control, Hamlin said.
With new fuel efficiency mandates impacting the trucking industry, the timing of this venture in optimal and the potential is wide open, given that less than 10% of the current U.S. fleet is already equipped with the skirting, according to George Tanner, director for NWACC’s Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) organization.
Tanner and his SIFE team also partnered with S.A. Concepts last year when they first heard of the venture. They loved the idea and entered the business model in a national SIFE competition sponsored by Sam’s Club. Out of 110 teams, Tanner’s crew took third place for this sustainable business model.
“We have helped buy some equipment and will help furnish career counseling with these students along the way,” Tanner said.
S.A. Concepts recently stretched its scope to include polypropylene plastics also known as No. 5 recyclable. Having secured a mountain of 6 million pounds of Sterilite products a year from Walmart’s reclamation centers, the veterans also work to sort plastic binds of various sizes by color so they can be granulated into chips and sold.
Tanner said these plastic goods were formerly bundled and shipped to China via containers. But now Walmart can drop off the returns and product rejects directly at the Springdale warehouse while Sterlite gets a tax deduction for the gift to the non-profit.
This plastics sideline gives the veterans more stable work as the company continues to market the AeroSmart panels.
As of June 25, granulated polypropylene was selling between 60 and 70 cents per pound in the plastic market, according to PlasticsNews.com.
Vanhooser said the plastic sorting is also less strenuous than dismantling the trailers which will allow more work for disabled veterans who might eventually want to join the program.
Hamlin said the paperwork has been filed to get the 501(c)3 tax status, and the firm is incorporated as a nonprofit in Arkansas.
The nonprofit status is needed to help with incentives for securing the raw materials the veterans work to re-purpose or recycle.
“It will also help us to secure grants to help with overhead expenses, while we’re also operating as a business generating sales revenue from our recycled products,” Hamlin said. “So every dollar donated can go into a veteran’s pocket.”
The business owners have bootstrapped the venture and recently secured a loan from Arvest.
Tanner said the SIFE team is helping them chase grant opportunities they will apply for as soon as they get the 501(c)3 status back from Washington.