Bumper to Bumper At River City Truck Equipment,the Lot is Full - And More Vehicles Are on the Way

Every time vehicles are delivered to River City Truck Equipment Inc, the mechanics are thinking, Oh no, more trucks.

Meanwhile, general manager Dick Mulno is thinking, Thank God, more job security.

The truck and van shipments have been unrelenting since Royal Truck Body Inc bought River City Truck Equipment last December. Mulno says River City Truck Equipment has more inventory on its lot in Sacramento, California - 185 vehicles - than most dealers do.

The pressing day-to-day challenge: What do they do with it?

Every morning, a half-dozen mechanics and shop workers slide open the gate and slide into 85 vehicles, then systematically empty the half-acre lot - in 30 manic minutes that will make your head spin - so that work can begin inside the garage. Late in the afternoon, they do it all over again, this time squeezing in the vehicles so the gate can be locked.

"Every time you move one, you run the risk of denting it or hitting it or knocking a mirror off," Mulno says. "It's a tough challenge. The toughest challenge for me is to watch trained mechanics out there moving trucks back and forth for an hour a day - one-half hour in the morning and one-half in the evening. Can you imagine how much time we're losing if we take six mechanics? That's six hours a day. Figure 30 hours a week. That's a lot of production time."

Asked how much land River City Truck Equipment has, Mulno shoots back, "Not enough."

"About half what we need," says vice-president Mike Frizzell, who sold River City Truck Equipment and is now operating on a long-term consulting contract with Royal Truck Body.

Looking for More Space They have one acre up front and rent an additional two acres in the back, where 100 pool vans are parked. They also stock another 100 vehicles on a rented property four miles away. River City Truck Equipment is a prominent Adrian van upfitter.

The company hopes to acquire an adjacent two-acre property from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that includes a four-bay garage and room for parking. Negotiations also are underway to acquire a new site within five miles of the existing one, according to Dudley DeZonia, president of Royal Truck Body, based in Paramount in Southern California.

"We're looking at a new location," Mulno says, "but we want to keep our labor pool. We don't want to get too far out that we're looking for new welders and new painters. It's a good problem to have and a bad problem to have. Thank God our customers are going through a lot of the same growth we are, so they can understand the pressures we're under. They seem a little more forgiving than they used to be. I think we've done everything we can possibly do to give them the service they need. You pull a rabbit out of a hat once in awhile."

DeZonia says Royal Truck Body purchased Frizzell's company because it wanted to expand its "regional reach." Although it has an installation center in Cotati, 50 miles north of San Francisco, most of its California activity had been in the southern half.

Royal Truck Body operates two primary books of business: high-end service bodies, targeted for personal and commercial applications, that are marketed nationally; and a conventional line of service, contractor and combo bodies, stake beds, flatbeds, and maintenance trucks that are marketed in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

"We felt that even though we were marketing in Northern California and doing a good job, there were more market opportunities if we could get closer to our customers," DeZonia says. "We want River City to keep doing a lot of the things they were doing before, but we also want to impart some of the customer urgency that we have, and the same level of service.

"This is a full-line, truck-equipment house, and it will remain as one. It's a fine company and has been going since 1978. We've known and respected Mike Frizzell for a long time. We're not coming to change the world or anything. It's all about service.

"We essentially want to strengthen our relationship with the dealer body. River City has grown quite a bit in the past year or two. That's one of the reasons why they thought the timing was right to take on a partner - to help manage the growth. It's hard to remain a player and remain the same size these days."

Smooth Transition Mulno says the transition has been as smooth as could be expected. "Anytime there's change, you've got customers you're concerned about, and you've got people that work for you to be concerned about," he says. "It went from a family-owned business to a company that's still family-owned, but it's out of Los Angeles, it's not here. People have taken the transition rather well. It's been a good ride. We've got our arms around things.

"We now feel that we really can offer full service to Northern California. The accounts that we do business with - the GM and Ford guys - we're getting feedback from them that their customer service has improved tremendously, which is good news for us. That's our purpose - to make life with dealers a lot easier, dealing with us directly."

Frizzell did not envision in 1978 that his company would be supplying to dealers.

"My vision was to have a nice little truck equipment company that covered a 50-mile radius around Sacramento," he says. "Hopefully, we'd be able to get some of the lines and become --- not a player, but make a comfortable living. "I sat down with Ken (Kauffman, vice-president of production and service) five years ago and said, 'Everyone in our business five years ago should have made a decision about what their niche would be. Because you can't be all things to all people, like we were when we started.'

"One of the things we're all recognizing is that the long-range plans used to be set at five years, and they seem to happen in five months now. Our company has changed more in the last three years than in the previous 20."

Just Like a Restaurant Mulno and Kauffman have had many conversations during which they compared their company to a restaurant. A restaurant doesn't make any money if a table is occupied all night by the same party; it must turn its tables over. Likewise, a distributor must move the trucks in and move them out. The trick is to decide which ones.

Mulno's drive with Kauffman is to turn concrete.

"We've got so many square feet out there," Mulno says. "What can we get in and what can we get out? The offers we used to look at and say, "Yeah, we'll do that' --- now we look at and say, "Well, we're talking about two guys. It'll be an 85-hour job. We can probably knock out six flatbeds and four service bodies in the same time that we're going to do this thing.' We're making more intelligent decisions - to be fair to our customers, to meet the deadlines we have to meet."

It's not easy. Frizzell adds more to the restaurant analogy. He says he called a restaurateur friend of his one night and asked if he could find a slot for Frizzell's party.

"What time?" his friend asked.

"7 or 7:30," Frizzell said.

"Just like everyone else," his friend retorted.

"Yeah, but we're good pals," Frizzell said.

"I'll bet your business can probably relate," his friend said. "Everyone gets hungry at the same time."

Kauffman digests the story and says with a laugh, "It is exactly the same. When business is good for us, it's good for others, too. Everyone gets hungry at the same time."

"We just have to be more cognizant," Mulno says. "It's hard to say no. Sometimes when you say no, you disappoint one guy, but the end result is you make 10 other guys happy because you get 10 trucks out instead of one truck."

A Sign of the Mission Maybe this is why Mulno has this sign on the wall of his office: BEING EFFICIENT IS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT. BEING EFFECTIVE IS DOING THE RIGHT THING.

The company still has some of its first customers - including Meeks Building Supply. As Mulno, Frizzell, and Kauffman talk, their technicians are working on 11 flatbed dumps for Meeks. Frizzell recalls the very first phone conversation, in which a Meeks employee wanted to place an order even though Frizzell hadn't even established a pricing schedule.

But dealers now are the primary customers of River City Truck Equipment, because it has the chassis pool.

"It really puts us under the microscope," Mulno says. "If the Chevy guy doesn't like it, if GMC doesn't like it, if Ford doesn't like it, and they make a couple of phone calls to Detroit, our life can get bad real fast. We've got to really dot the I's and cross the T's."

When the possibility of the pools was first discussed, Frizzell told Kauffman that it would do one of two things: make the company a lot better, or put it out of business.

"It's made us a lot better," Frizzell says. "You change all the ways you do things. We never thought of having written procedures on everything we do. Every mechanic did it differently, and all you wanted was that the finished product would be the same."

The Future River City Truck Equipment has divided its California sales territory into three sections, each one with one representative.

"The commercial dealers are a big influence, a big thrust of what we're after," Kauffman says. "Those are the guys we're calling on. That's the future we see." Says Mulno, "The Chevy and GM core dealers, the Ford preferred dealers, they have made a financial commitment. They have their bays set up, machines, parts, plus they have their own commercial sales lots. Naturally, they want guys like us to make a commitment back to them and service those accounts as much as they can.

"We're dealing with sales guys at the dealers' end of it who understand what they're doing. Before, we'd get a call from a dealer and want to run and hide, because you knew it was going to get ugly: 'What do you mean I can't put that on there?' Now the learning curve is over. These guys are really committed to it. Our lives get easier."

What happens when a customer doesn't use the vehicle as it was intended? Frizzell says that his company once built a one-ton, 10,000 GVW, 26-ft flatbed called The Long Dog for a customer. He was hauling primarily furniture Styrofoam to Los Angeles and wanted the bed stretched, so they did it. Then, Frizzell says, the customer got "greedy" - he took on a load of pallets for the ride back and "forgot everything we talked about." The platform body buckled.

"Thank God for the NTEA, keeping the industry up to date," Mulno says. "It's up to the buyer to do the research. There's so many things we turn down - probably three or four jobs a month: 'Sorry, I can't do it.' I don't ever want to go to court to answer questions."

Frizzell says his mantra to Kauffman for years has been, "I hate losing the order. But whatever you do, don't lose the customer."

Tracking the Vehicle in the Shop Back in the early 1990s, Frizzell's company was a trend-setter with its management system that tracked a vehicle's progress through the shop. After Frizzell described it at a seminar three years ago at the National Truck Equipment Association convention, he received a lot of inquisitive phone calls.

The way Mulno describes it now, it's a "pretty simple system, but real important."

When the transport truck pulls into the lot with a cab chassis or van, one of Mulno's technicians inspects it, writes the VIN number and date on the windshield in grease pencil, and prepares a folder for the spare keys and invoice. In essence, they have created a birth certificate for every vehicle that arrives. Kauffman added a feature to it: The jobs are color-coded on the hand-written sales order. Vans are orange, flatbeds are yellow, utility bodies are green, and dump bodies are pink.

"If you tell the mechanic he's going to be doing a flatbed and you hand him a green work order, he'll go, 'Wait a minute, that's not a flatbed,' " Mulno says. "Simple, but effective."

"You've got to eliminate mistakes," Kauffman says. "It's a lot of second checking. Everything ties together."

"It does work," Mulno says. "Last week, one of our mechanics goes, 'I've got a problem. The paperwork has one VIN number and truck has a different one. The writeup says F-250 Super Duty, and the truck is an F-350, so something's wrong.' He would've put the body on the wrong truck. And it would've fit, because it was a single rear wheel."

River City Truck Equipment has gone through the three-year process of becoming certified through ISO 9001, an international quality-control system adopted by 76 nations around the world as their standard. The ISO 9001 registration for Royal's SportBody truck line validates "world-class quality" - the ability to consistently meet or exceed customer requirements - and ensures that it can rapidly introduce new product designs and features into manufacturing to meet new customer requirements.

"It's quite an accomplishment," Frizzell says.

Hard Work in a Small Area A tour of the property reveals why the company wants a larger area. It's hard work in close confines. Nothing particularly glamorous.

"We don't have state-of-the-art robotic equipment," Mulno says. "We just get the vehicles in and get them out."

In an area just outside the office, a mechanic is working on a 19-foot cab chassis. The body is built in a shop about 200 feet away and brought here. Mulno says each mechanic works on up to three trucks a day. Twenty-two of the 28 full-time employees are technicians.

In another garage, a worker is putting protective lining in a van. Next to him in another van is a worker installing racks. He is on one knee, his chest pressed down, left arm draped over his left leg.

"This is really labor-intensive work," Mulno says.

Over in the 34' x 18' paint booth, a worker is putting in 50 hours a week. His painting workload has been reduced since the sale because Royal Truck Body supplies the painted bodies, but he deals with three times as many units, doing touchup painting.

Mulno says his biggest worry these days is finding enough qualified mechanics.

"Everybody wants to play with a computer," he says. "The day's going to come when you're going to push the price of everything right up and you'll be paying welders $25 an hour just to get them.

"Years ago, guys would start with an apprenticeship and want to learn from the ground up. Now, it's, 'OK, I just got out ofhigh school. I paid my dues. How much can I make?' It's really sad the way the industry is changing."

Aiming for Satisfaction That's just one of the many challenges. Mulno knows thick skin is required. You're only as good as your last job.

"If you ask our customers, some days we're heroes and some days we're bums," Mulno says.

"You've got to have a bit of masochism in you because you hit a home run and they don't remember it."

"Strike out," Kauffman adds, "and they do."

But it's a rewarding business. There is nothing Mulno would rather do.

"It makes you feel good at the end of the day when you can look at a cab chassis and two days later say, 'Wow, it's something,' " he says. "You actually produced something. It's a pretty good feeling. It's not just putting Part A with Part B, and there it is. It makes you feel like you accomplished something when you see the finished product roll off the line.

"I'd rather do this than turn Bolt 49 all day, that's for sure. Every day's different, every day's exciting, every day's a challenge."o

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