A customer takes over

FOR many years, Brake & Equipment was a leading truck equipment distributor in Milwaukee, and B R Amon & Sons was an area road contractor. Tom Amon may have been an occasional customer, but he never bought from Brake & Equipment the way he did in March 2004.

Two years ago, Amon acquired selected assets of Brake & Equipment after the truck equipment company had filed for bankruptcy. Suddenly the third generation road contractor was in the truck equipment business, hanging a sign with the new “AmTruck Equipment” name where the old Brake & Equipment used to be.

“I recognized a real opportunity here,” Amon says. “I am convinced that we can grow this company back to what it used to be. It will not be identical to the old Brake & Equipment. Times have changed, people have changed, and the market has changed. But I do think that we can make this a leading truck equipment house again.”

One of the things about the truck equipment business that appeals to Amon is its seasonality — particularly in Milwaukee where snow and ice sales spike during the fall and winter months. By contrast, Amon's contracting company is at its busiest during the spring and summer months.

During peak season, B R Amon & Sons has 170 employees working throughout southeast Wisconsin, repairing roads, designing and constructing driveways, and surfacing parking lots. The company that Amon's grandfather began some 75 years ago has flourished by meeting the demands of its customers, a principle that Amon uses to guide his newest business.

“We are going to take this company wherever the customer takes us,” Amon says. “Right now, our truck body business is really strong. Part of that is the result of what we are doing in the shop. We recognized from the beginning that getting the shop running smoothly was one of the first things we needed to do. If the shop isn't running right, a distributor isn't going to last long.”

The assets that Amon acquired included Brake & Equipment shop. The facility is hardly new — it opened in 1978 — but it had been well designed and well maintained. The building houses 10 service bays, a modern paint department, and spacious parts warehouse.

AmTruck Equipment also was able to hire a veteran group of technicians, many of whom were former employees of Brake & Equipment — including shop manager Ken May.

Point men

Tom Amon owns and actively manages multiple businesses, including the construction company and his new truck equipment operation. But rather than appointing general managers for each of them, he has a team of managers who report to him.

“Tom has organized AmTruck Equipment the same way he has the other companies he owns,” says Kevin Menna, sales and marketing manager. “He actively manages each company. Instead of a general manager, he has a series of point men who report to him.”

In the case of Amon's truck equipment operation, there are three: Jerry Novara heads up the parts operation, Menna represents the sales department, and May is responsible for the service side of the business.

While each of the point men have their own area of responsibility, one of the goals of the arrangement is to break down walls and get the three areas of the business to work more closely together.

“We meet together frequently,” Menna says. “We want each area to communicate with one another and to work together smoothly.”

Working long hours

The shop is really hitting its stride. It operates two shifts, serving customers from 6:30 am to midnight during the week and 8 am to noon on Saturdays. Fifteen technicians staff the two shifts.

“We are open that long because that's what our customers want,” May says. “Milwaukee is a little different market than some. Fleets generally seem to be able to schedule maintenance for convenient times. A few fleets are based here, but most of the commercial trucks in our area are privately owned. We need to get our jobs done as quickly as possible so that those trucks can go to work for the people who bought them.”

That commitment to long hours reaches its peak during the winter. Like many in the Snow Belt, AmTruck Equipment is on call 24 hours a day during snow emergencies.

“It's important that we give our customers the service they deserve,” May says.

Instant replay

One of the more innovative things the AmTruck Equipment shop does is to videotape the production of its more labor-intensive projects, primarily those for municipalities.

“We wouldn't do it for a standard platform or service body, but we think it's a good idea to be able to show how we put a truck together,” Amon says.

May says videotaping the assembly of high-end jobs provides a variety of benefits, both for the customer and the company. Among them:

  • Repeatability. If the municipality wants an identical truck in the future, a videotape provides an effective way of showing exactly what the city wants to duplicate.

  • Education and training. The tape can be used to show crews exactly what is on the truck and how it works.

  • Sales. The AmTruck Equipment sales staff can be better informed about what the truck contains.

  • Product liability. If a subsequent owner modifies the vehicle, and the vehicle is involved in an accident, AmTruck Equipment has a record of what the vehicle looked like before it left the shop.

Lights, camera, action

AmTruck Equipment productions have yet to be nominated for an Oscar. But the actual production is not as difficult as one might think, thanks in large part to a shop technician who has an interest in cinematography.

The foreman for the shift generally operates the video camera and provides the narration or commentary. One of the technicians does the editing and some of the voice over.

“It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, and we have been able to do it at AmTruck Equipment,” May says.

The videotaping is but one way that AmTruck Equipment documents and communicates the work it does for customers.

“It's important that we keep our customers informed,” May says. “We call them as the job progresses, and we invite them to inspect their truck before it's painted if they want.”

The AmTruck Equipment sales department stays aware of what is going through the shop, and they try to call customers or potential customers if a truck similar to one they are considering is in the process of being produced.

“We encourage our customers to visit our shop and to see their truck being put together,” May says. “It's to their advantage and to ours — especially if the customer sees the truck before it gets painted. There's not a lot we can do once the paint goes on. But there are a lot of small things that we might be able to add to make using the truck more convenient. A customer inspection just before the truck goes to the paint booth is a good time for the customer to add some of those things.”

Parts and service

Like most distributors, AmTruck Equipment offers parts as well as service. The parts department includes two countermen — one for meeting the needs of the shop, the other to serve retail parts customers.

Parts for snow and ice equipment are a major source of parts sales at AmTruck Equipment, Amon says, and the company does well selling parts and accessories with its spacious showroom.

“We have remodeled the showroom,” Menna says. “We make sure we change it seasonally. Spring and summer are big landscaping months for us, and we are in the process now of gearing up the showroom for that business following the end of our snow and ice control season.”

New management software is coming for the company, a purchase that is expected to provide major benefits for the parts department — particularly a barcoding feature that should enable the department to more easily track the status of its inventory.

Reaching out

AmTruck Equipment covers its territory with four outside salesmen, plus a new addition to the staff — a fulltime inside sales person who helps prepare quotations.

Rather than assigning each of the outside salesmen a geographic territory, they have areas of specialization. Andy Holverson is the company's heavy truck equipment specialist. Dean LaFond concentrates on light- and medium-duty truck dealers, and Scott Augustine handles sales to municipalities. Bee Yang recently was hired to handle inside sales and quotations.

“We really believe this arrangement enables us to offer better coverage of our sales territory,” Menna says. “There's a lot of overlap between responsibilities, which means that someone from our company is calling on an individual customer more frequently than if we assigned one individual to a particular account.”

A demo truck has helped make the sales staff more effective.

“An operating unit is huge, especially when you can take it to the customer,” Menna says. “We will have spreader and plow that we demo during the snow and ice selling season. Last year we equipped a truck with a liftgate that showed to tire dealers and other potential customers. Being able to show dealers how to use the equipment really helps a lot.”

Opening the house

The sales staff also is instrumental in conducting open houses.

“We have had three just in the time that we have been open,” Amon says.

AmTruck Equipment conducted a grand opening when the company began operations. Since then, it also has held specialized open houses — one featuring dump bodies and service bodies and the other for snow and ice control equipment. The grand opening attracted about 200 people, and the specialized events each drew more than 100.

“We really want to get people to see the facility,” Menna says. “Open houses are a good way to do that. Our grand opening was for everyone, but we have been pleased, too, with the attendance we have had at our specialized events. Vendor participation has been good. Western for example donated a plow for a giveaway at our snow and ice open house, which we believe really helped us boost our attendance.

“We are trying to build our reputation,” Amon says. “AmTruck Equipment will not become the same company that Brake & Equipment was. The market has changed. And we are changing with it.”

What they sell:

Truck bodies:

  • Dump and combination bodies: Air Flo, Brandon, Maxi-Dump, Truck Craft, Viking, Warren
  • Grain/livestock bodies: Knapheide
  • Platforms and stake bodies: Knapheide, Morgan
  • Service bodies: Knapheide, RKI
  • Vans (dry freight and insulated): Morgan

Truck equipment:

  • Cranes: PM, RKI, Stellar
  • Hoists: Air-flow, Brandon, Knapheide, Warren
  • Liftgates: Anthony, Tommy Gate, Ultro, Waltco
  • Snowplows: Bonnell, Root, Sno-Way, Viking, Wausau, Western
  • Spreaders: Bonnell, Buyers, Sno-Way, Swenson, TruckCraft, Western

Parts and accessories:

  • Air springs: Firestone
  • Backup alarms: Ecco
  • Brakes: Weatherhead
  • Cargo control: Security Chain
  • Commercial pickup caps: GemTop
  • Fenders: Fleet Engineers, Life-Time, Koneta, Spray Control
  • Hitches: Buyers, Valley
  • Lighting: Ecco, Federal Signal, North American, Star Headlight
  • Ladder racks: Knapheide, Topper, Weatherguard
  • Mirrors: Velvac
  • Mudflaps: Koneta, Symplastics
  • Suspensions: Granning, Neway, Superide
  • Toolboxes: Alum-Line, Buyers, DeeZee, Knapheide, Weatherguard
  • Van interiors: Weatherguard
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