In an interview at ATMOsphere America, True Manufacturing’s owner and CEO Steven Trulaske explains how the company became a leader in self-contained propane display cases.
From left: Steven Trulaske, True Manufacturing, and Michael Garry, Accelerate America
Last year, Steven Trulaske, owner and chief executive officer of O’Fallon, Mo.-based True Manufacturing, accepted two awards in Chicago; both recognized the company’s leadership in developing stand-alone, energy-efficient commercial display cases using propane refrigerant.
The first, presented at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show in April 2016, was the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 Energy Star Emerging Technology Award in the residential/commercial refrigeration category for 42 of True’s propane frozen and refrigerated display cases. The second, given at the ATMOsphere America 2016 conference, was Accelerate America’s 2017 Innovation of the Year award, also for True’s propane display cases.
This year, Trulaske, son of True’s co-founder Bob Trulaske, was back at ATMOsphere America, held June 5-7 in San Diego, as a participant in the conference’s first CEO interview. Fielding questions from Marc Chasserot, CEO of shecco (organizer of the conference and publisher of Accelerate America), and Michael Garry, editor of Accelerate America, Trulaske described his personal journey at the 72-year-old company, and the decisions that led to True’s leadership role in the marketing of propane self-contained display cases. The following are some highlights from that interview. (The complete interview will be published in the June-July issue of Accelerate America, coming in mid-July.)
Marc Chasserot: What’s your personal story? How did you end up here?
Steven Trulaske: In my 20’s, the last thing I wanted to do was to get into the refrigeration business, the family business. I was trying to find an entirely different career path. I was really into sports, so after I graduated from DePauw University I went to Ohio State for a brand-new degree called sports administration. I did an internship for the St. Louis (football) Cardinals (now in Phoenix), and that cured me of the whole sports management idea. I got my MBA at Ohio State and really fell in love with business.
I did go back to True Manufacturing in 1982 but there wasn’t too much for me to do – except to go around the world and push the international business for the company. I began in Europe – I love Germany. But I was trying to sell to Germans something – American refrigeration – that they really had no interest in.
I finally found an opening through the Coca-Cola Company. I built up a relationship, and they said I should go to Coca-Cola in Barcelona, so I did. They were – still are – the outstanding bottler and distributor in Europe. I got this huge order for vertical display coolers and my father couldn’t believe it. From there began the journey of the last 35 years; there are still a lot of opportunities.
MC: What was it that made you decide to go with propane before everyone else? That was a pretty big gamble.
ST: It was really because so many stars were uniquely aligned. First of all, what we’ve done in the last three to five years is so much based upon being a privately owned company. I would imagine it would be very difficult for a publicly owned company to go to the board and say, “Let’s try this, and this is what it’s going to cost because it’s a big number.” Being privately owned and able to take this long-term view – that’s central to the ability to make a decision like we made with propane.
It also comes down to simple fundamentals. What does our customer want? Coca-Cola wanted to go down the path to CO2, but we also worked very hard to develop our McDonald’s business in Europe; I’m pretty sure McDonald’s had the first [propane] kitchen in Denmark in . Propane had been the residential refrigerant in Europe for some years, and had an established track record. So if we were going to do business in Europe, we had to go down this [propane] path. Then we were able to start leveraging our relationships with compressor companies like Danfoss, Secop and Embraco.
Michael Garry: In the U.S., what role did regulations play in driving True’s propane technology?
ST: The regulatory piece crept up on us. We saw in Europe the banning of HFCs. Then [True Engineering Manager] Charlie Hon worked with the EPA’s SNAP program [to gain approval for propane in commercial refrigeration in 2011]. All of a sudden in 2014, we get these new [Department of Energy efficiency] standards for 2017, which for many of our models were absolutely draconian drops. Along the way comes the [EPA} ban of HFCs. We were prepared to go down that path, but at the same time in the United States it came so fast.
Perhaps our situation was more difficult than other manufacturers because we have so many models and so many variations of refrigeration systems that we had to redesign. When this whole journey began about 10 years ago we had 10 to 12 labs. We have 34 today! And we need every one of those to do all of this work. So this has been an enormous investment, but regulations have pushed us hard in the last couple of years.
“The engineering team loves it; they’ve designed the best refrigeration systems they’ve ever designed."
– Steven Trulaske, True Manufacturing
MC: Did you get resistance internally to moving to propane?
ST: No, it’s been phenomenal. The engineering team loves it; they’ve designed the best refrigeration systems they’ve ever designed. And for the new generation coming into the company, they like to be a part of this.
MC: Does that help with recruitment?
ST: Yes. It’s not just that we’re leading this revolution in great refrigeration; as a company, we’re concerned with our carbon footprint. But it’s not purely an environmental thing. Remember, these refrigerants do save our customers a lot. The difference with two-door freezers is 10 to 12 kilowatts. You add that up across the footprint at Target, and all the units they buy and replace, and you see significant savings. So it’s just a big win across the board.
MG: Flammability of hydrocarbons is still an issue for some. What have you done to address this?
ST: When we began this journey, there was a lot of pushback and concern. Fortunately, you had leaders out there like Paul Anderson of Target; when he made his [commitment to propane], that gave it tremendous credibility. To make this kind of journey, we need the Pauls of the world to step up. And we put a lot of effort into educating folks that no one’s died or gotten burned [from propane refrigeration].
MG: What’s next for True?
ST: We still have some work to do. We have existing models with HFCs to convert to propane. [For some models] we didn’t keep testing to pass Energy Star 4.0; we will come back and get Energy Star 4.0. There are all kinds of technologies coming that we need to be ready for, and new efficiency standards are coming potentially in 2022, so we always have to think about how to stay ahead.