Building boom

Is there a truck equipment distributor in the country today that is expanding its facilities as much as the Auto Truck Group?

The company, headquartered near Chicago's O'Hare airport, also has locations in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; and Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado. Each either has had or will receive major facilities upgrades within the next two years.

The biggest is the new headquarters location scheduled to open late this year. Plans call for Auto Truck to move out of its current 75,000-sq-ft location in the fall when a new 105,000-sq-ft building is complete. The facility also will be home for the parts-oriented store that Auto Truck has operated in Aurora, Illinois

But that's just one of the projects. Here are others:

  • In Denver, the Auto Truck Group is scheduled to move into a new 40,000-sq-ft home for its Layton Truck Equipment operation in May.

  • The Layton Truck Equipment shop in Colorado Springs is shopping for additional property for chassis storage.

  • The company's Fort Wayne Fleet Equipment Company recently acquired 18 acres. The extra land initially will provide additional storage and chassis parking, but it also gives the company the ability to build a new shop if and when a new building is needed.

  • A new shop for the company's Louisville Truck Equipment operation is scheduled for completion in March 2009.

These projects are simply the most current. Others have been completed in the past few years to help the company keep up with increasing demand for truck equipment installations. Auto Truck has been in business since 1918, but the company has grown substantially in recent years. Most of that growth has come from national fleets.

Its Louisville operation is a good example of the approach the company has taken to fuel that growth. Auto Truck's Louisville Truck Equipment opened in the shadows of Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant in 2003. By having that facility, Auto Truck can easily and efficiently upfit Ford F-Series trucks on a ship-through basis.

“We are here (in Louisville) because we have to be,” says Dennis Jones, vice-president of sales and marketing. “We are here because our customers — major fleets, leasing companies, management companies, and railroads — expect it.”

Headquarters for the Auto Truck Group remains in Bensenville, a suburb of Chicago. But the Louisville location — in operation only since 2003 — has become the company's largest. It upfits 3,000-4,000 trucks per year, more than twice the volume of the Bensenville shop.

The Louisville operation has virtually no local sales operation. Its entire volume comes from national fleets that want equipment installed quickly and delivered through the OEM's transportation system.

The location has two speeds — fast and faster. It also has one shop for each speed.

The company's first shop had been a repair facility operated by Waste Management. After acquiring the 7,000-sq-ft building in 2002, Auto Truck more than doubled the size of the building, adding on 8,000 square feet before it began operations in 2003.

In 2005, Auto Truck acquired its “east plant,” a 15,000-sq-ft shop built on five acres. This plant specializes in quick turnaround jobs such as cab guard and toolbox installation. While some jobs performed at the east plant involve the installation of bodies — such as a recent order from Home Depot — most trucks can be completed in one or two hours.

“Orders for 100 or 200 trucks are not uncommon,” Jones says. “A lot of them are pickups that don't require a lot of work. Others, such as those we build for Home Depot, are a little more involved. In those cases, we bring together a team that really knows what the order requires so that even the more complicated orders can be completed quickly and efficiently.”

Back in Bensenville

Meanwhile, back in Bensenville, the company is planning to vacate the O'Hare Airport area for a new headquarters facility about 12 miles west of its present location.

The 105,000-sq-ft building is currently under construction on a 16-acre site in an industrial park in nearby Bartlett, Illinois. Plans call for the project to be complete in October.

“We will pick up a lot of space and efficiency,” says Jim Dondlinger, president. “It also will enable us to integrate our Aurora (Illinois) parts store into the new building. The building will have a big parts showroom that will have inventory displayed on mobile kiosks. When we need to use the area for meetings — and we have a lot of dinner meetings for our customers — we can move the displays and set up for the meetings.”

One of the more unusual features of the new location will be a 30' x 50' room that Dondlinger calls the design center. It will be located next to the conference rooms and the engineering department. The design center will help the customer know the details of his future truck.

“The goal is for the customer to leave with a detailed set of notes and drawings if necessary,” Dondlinger says. It's important that the customer knows exactly what he is getting.”

Engineering oriented

While the Louisville operation specializes in high-volume installations, the Chicago-area shop routinely produces highly custom work trucks built on medium- and heavy-duty chassis.

Dondlinger, a degreed engineer, places a great deal of emphasis on having the proper tools to design a truck that performs at or beyond customer expectations. The engineering department's arsenal includes finite element analysis software in addition to more conventional computer-aided design software.

The company finds the engineering software particularly useful for the specialized trucks that railroads require.

“CAD data on all the tools that railroads typically need have been loaded into our computer library,” Dondlinger says. “We incorporate that data into the drawings we produce of the trucks we build. The software we have enables us to produce three-dimensional drawings of the trucks before we ever cut metal.”

Major customers

Government agencies in the Chicago area are a major source of business for the Bensenville location. Auto Truck is the City of Chicago's supplier for products such as dump trucks, snow and ice equipment, platform bodies equipped with liftgates, and hazmat trucks.

O'Hare Airport has some unusual truck needs. Auto Truck engineered and produced a mobile weather station for the airport as well as a mobile x-ray unit. The truck-mounted system, enclosed inside a van body, is designed to screen suspicious luggage away from the airport, protecting the building and its occupants.

Railroads are another consumer of highly specialized truck equipment. Auto Truck's strength with railroads has helped propel the company into its present position as an upfitter with a national customer base.

National scope

Auto Truck's base in the Chicago area is also the home for a number of national fleets. But it is the company's ship-through operations that have really enabled Auto Truck to serve the national market.

Auto Truck made its first move as a ship-through operation in 1987, just after General Motors began truck production in Fort Wayne.

The company subsequently increased its national footprint by acquiring Layton Truck Equipment in Colorado Springs. Formerly owned by a car dealer, Layton had considerable experience operating chassis pools by the time Auto Truck acquired them. Auto Truck further strengthened its presence in Colorado by opening a second Layton shop in Denver.

Keeping it together

Managing a multi-location as geographically widespread as the Auto Truck Group takes skill and technology. Thanks in large part to computer and telecommunication systems, the company can operate its Louisville location with only two people in the front office — in spite of the fact that thousands of trucks move through the two Louisville shops each year.

The same can't be said of Bensenville, where the company's engineering and administrative staffs are concentrated.

“We have the ability to work with the same customer out of any of our locations,” Jones says. “All of our locations are supported by the same computer system based in Bensenville. It's a major advantage. With it, we can save huge sums of money, particularly in our accounting expenses and in the level of inventory we need.”

The software, a product of Spokane Computer, has been part of the Auto Truck Group since 1999. The system has been able to keep up with the company's expansion, enabling the locations to network easily.

“There's no way we do what we do without being able to operate these locations under a single system,” Jones says.

At it a long time

It's not surprising that Auto Truck has it figured out by now. The company celebrates 90 years of doing business this year.

The company got its start at the end of the war — World War I — and has remained a family business all these years. Founded by Eugene Dondlinger in 1918, Auto Truck is now in its fourth generation of Dondlinger family management. Jim Dondlinger, Eugene Dondlinger's grandson, has overall management responsibility. Pete Dondlinger, Jim's son, manages the Bensenville operation.

Jim Dondlinger sees a simple reason for the company's success.

“We bring value to the customer,” he says. “If the customer wants a $100,000 truck, he needs to get it the way he wants it. We make trucks into tools, and it's something we have been doing since 1918.”

Auto Truck Vice-President Dennis Jones chosen NTEA president

Dennis Jones, vice-president of sales & marketing for Auto Truck Group, was installed as the 44th president of the National Truck Equipment Association February 27 during the association's recent convention.

Jones accepted the gavel from immediate past president Tom Rawson, CEO of RKI Inc of Houston, Texas, during the President's Breakfast and annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jones began his career in the truck industry upon graduating from The College of St. Thomas in 1973.

He worked first at the Truck Division of International Harvester. He joined the Auto Truck Group in 1986, helping launch the Fort Wayne operation.

“This was a major transition for me. I went from buying truck equipment from distributors to selling and installing truck equipment for the very customers by whom I used to be employed,” he says. “Building a facility from 13 acres of weeds, opening it without a truck on the ground and operating it for many years has been a very rewarding adventure.”

Auto Truck Group has been a distributor member of the NTEA since 1973. Jones has served on the NTEA Board of Trustees since 2003.

“I am both excited and committed to the role of president of the NTEA and the opportunity to lead the board in furthering the association's ability to serve this great industry,” Jones says. “NTEA has given so much and in many different ways already, yet I believe as our industry changes we have just begun our work. Thank you for allowing me to represent you.”

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