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The War Within: The Deal That Saved Oshkosh

Stocks in this article: OSK

All of this has thrown the relatively little-known defense contractor -- whose home base sits on the shores of Lake Winnebago, 50 miles southwest of Green Bay -- into the spotlight. Prior to this summer, you could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that Oshkosh was a manufacturer of children's overalls -- or, given the company's location -- an RV OEM.

Another way of thinking about Oshkosh prior to this summer: a maker of cherry pickers and cement mixers so tied to the collapsing construction business, and so levered up after a spree of boom-time acquisitions, that its market cap was dwarfed by its mountainous debt load.

Oshkosh started life in 1917 as the Wisconsin Duplex Auto Company. One of the pioneers behind the development of four-wheel drive, it built trucks designed especially to deal with the rough, unpaved roads that then dominated most of the country -- and particularly the Midwest -- at the dawn of the automobile age. (It's also credited with bringing the first cement truck to market.)

Always popular as cargo haulers for construction companies, Oshkosh's trucks first went into combat during World War II (along with the entire auto and truck industry, of course), though the company didn't start producing heavy supply vehicles for the military on a regular basis until the early 1980s.

Oshkosh never lost sight of its civilian business, however, adding to its product lines in the commercial segment through a series of acquisitions beginning in the 1990s. It was a buying binge that culminated, in 2006, in the $2.3 billion purchase of a company called JLG Industries, the cherry-picker and aerial-lift manufacturer.

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