July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Soup it up

Rugged Owosso firm thrives overseas

Maker of bedliners and other accessories expands business by selling in 70 countries

A Volkswagen Amarok in Russia carries a Rugged Liner tonneau . (Rugged Liner)

When the economy went sour a few years ago, Owosso-based Rugged Liner needed to do something creative to keep its 80 employees busy producing protective heavy-duty plastic liners for pickup beds.

But instead of retrenching, Rugged Liner launched new product lines, including truck-bed tonneau covers, and started selling overseas. Recently, the company won a major national award for its innovative export business, a business that now includes some 70 countries and accounts for nearly 35 percent of sales.

To keep up with the growing and now global demand for its products, Rugged Liner added 30 employees and moved into a large and formerly vacant warehouse building in its hometown.

Oh, and it recently introduced yet another new product line, plastic bedliners designed to enhance the cargo-carrying capability of popular open-side trailers.

Rugged Liner was founded in 1995 by Donald Williamson, who served as mayor of Flint from 2003-09, and his wife, well-known Buick dealer Patsy Lou. Their son, Scott, is company president.

In 2010, they hired Yannick Greiner as director of international sales. Greiner, a native of France who did a year-abroad study program at Kalamazoo College while pursing his degree in international business, returned to the U.S. to work for General Motors and then for two automotive suppliers.

“We’d see international customers at the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show every year,” Greiner said. But, he added,“we were sending them away” because Rugged Liner didn’t have product to fit the beds of the smaller pickups being used in South America, Asia, Europe and Africa.

Rugged Liner invested in creating the necessary tooling — some 50 additional specially designed molds — and started selling bedliners and tonneaus to people with small Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Mahindra and other trucks, including Ford Ranger pickups being produced in Thailand.

Greiner said Rugged Liner products have many things going for them in the eyes of overseas buyers, including the fact that its products are made from fully recyclable plastic materials.

He said they also see made-in-America as a sign of quality, reliability and customer service.

In fact, for its export bedliners, Rugged Liner created a new logo that has “USA” molded right into the berliner headboard.

Foreign consumers aren’t the only ones who feel strongly about made-in-the-USA. Even Rugged Liner’s private-label customers overseas still want the “USA” emblem molded in because of the value it adds to a product.

Because of such results, Rugged Liner has begun molding the “USA” lettering into its domestic products.

Greiner said there also has been what he calls a “boomerang” effect from Rugged Liner’s overseas sales. It was caught the attention of American automakers and will become an original equipment supplier of bedliners on a major new domestic pickup line.

For more information on Rugged Liner and its products, see the www.ruggedliner.com website.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.