TRAILER DEALERS have a variety of ways to make a profit, and the path that an individual dealer takes is often determined by where he has been.
Bob Pullen began Apex Trailer Service in 1979 as a four-bay trailer repair shop. And while the company has added other components to the mix — new and used trailer sales and aftermarket parts, it's easy to see from the company's sprawling new shop in Jeffersonville, Indiana, that Apex is still very much involved in maintaining and repairing its customers' trailers.
“We have a very aggressive sales department, and our trailer sales have blossomed. But service is still our forte,” says Jeff Wenning, sales manager.
Apex opened the 75,000-sq-ft shop last year, just off Interstate 65 and on the other side of the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. Located on a 50-acre site less than a mile from the company's previous location, the 30-bay facility is a major step forward.
“We just didn't have enough room,” Wenning says.
The building is 150 feet wide, enabling the shop to service today's longer trailers back to back and still have a spacious aisle in between them.
Beyond the extra space, the new shop also has additional equipment, including a nicely designed roof rack mounted on a series of floor tracks, enabling the rack to be roll out of the way as the trailer is being backed into the bay and then roll forward to position it tight against the trailer when work is being done.
Other major equipment upgrades include an overhead crane system that significantly improves material handling and a 70-ft Binks downdraft paint booth.
“These are all things that we did not have at our old place,” Wenning says.
There never seems to be a shortage of people who talk about the shortage of technicians, whether the shop is a truck equipment facility, trailer dealership, or truck dealer. The shortage seems to be a little less acute at Apex, Wenning says.
The key is to keep them.
“Some of the guys have been with us since the company started in 1979,” Wenning says. “We don't have a lot of turnover in our shop.”
Management lists several things the company does to keep technician turnover below industry averages. They include:
Wages. Apex makes it a point to pay at or above the prevailing rate in its market.
Good work environment.
“We want to create a good environment for all of our employees,” Wenning says. “That's an additional advantage that the new shop provides.”
All of which are essential for companies that repair and maintain trailers.
“Trailer mechanics aren't the product of some university that turns out students by the thousands,” Wenning says. “We have to train them ourselves. It takes time, and it's an important investment.”
Going after the business
Apex is not content to wait for service and repair business to show up at the shop door. The company operates a fleet of seven tractors to pick up customer trailers and bring them into the shop. Apex also has five mobile service trucks to perform work remotely.
“The service trucks do some emergency work, but they mostly are for preventive maintenance,” Wenning says.
The trucks are 16-ft Morgan van bodies mounted on International 4900 chassis. They are equipped with most of the tools that outfit the shop, including air compressors, generators, and welding machines capable of MIG and stick welding. They also carry a decent inventory of basic repair parts, including valves, lighting components, brake boosters, seals, and other common wear items.
Each truck is assigned a driver, and the company offers 24/7 mobile service.
The seven tractors retrieve customer trailers that require service work. They also bring back trailers that have been in major accidents.
“Wreck repair is big business for us,” Wenning says. “We will go 400-500 miles to buy a wrecked trailer and bring it back here for repair. When it's fixed, we will either sell it or add it to our rental fleet.”
Competitive labor rates
Apex pays its technicians at least the prevailing labor rate, but that rate is somewhat less than in other major cities in the area. Labor rates in the Louisville area are approximately $44 per hour. By contrast, shops in nearby Indianapolis are billing $50 per hour, and companies in Chicago may charge $60.
“That can make a big difference in the final cost of a major wreck repair,” Wenning says.
Major wreck repairs can require 100 hours or more, Wenning say. Sometimes the difference in labor rate, when multiplied over the course of a labor-intensive job, can affect an insurance company's decision to authorize the repair of the trailer or to write it off as a total loss. If they are written off, they become prime candidates for Apex to buy and restore.
Equipping the shop
The new Apex shop is equipped to handle frame repairs. Thanks to tie-downs built into the floor, technicians can pull trailers back into alignment.
Insulation repair is another major capability. The shop can now restore refrigerated trailers that have suffered major damage. Technicians can remove the liner and use new urethane foam equipment to spray the sidewalls. The shop is also equipped to scarf the insulation to the proper thickness.
The shop also has been equipped for in-house fabrication. Major equipment includes a shear, press brake, and multiple ironworkers.
“We try to do as much of the fabrication as we can,” Wenning says. “We have a couple of guys who work the fabrication department. They do a little bit of work for outside customers, but we can usually keep them busy just fabricating parts that our shop needs.”
Apex also does its own sandblasting, preparing steel surfaces for a trip through the new 70-ft downdraft paint booth.
Apex is more than a repair shop. The company also sells new and used trailers and aftermarket parts and is a distributor of Morgan van bodies.
“We have six sales guys, each with a designated territory,” Wenning says. “By making them geographic specific instead of product specific, they are more efficient.”
The company also has a parts manager and an outside parts salesman promoting Apex as the place to buy aftermarket parts.
“We keep all OEM trailer parts in stock,” Wenning says. “We seldom have to wait on trailer parts.”
Aurora is the company's largest supplier of aftermarket trailer parts. The Aurora parts distribution center is in Lebanon, Indiana, less than 150 miles from the Apex location in Jeffersonville.
“We often load a new trailer with trailer parts,” Wenning says.
It's an efficient way to get delivery. Apex is a Wabash National dealer. New trailers have to pass right by the Aurora parts distribution when they are delivered from the Wabash plant in nearby Lafayette, Indiana.
The company's new shop in Jeffersonville is one of three locations Apex operates. The company also has an eight-bay facility in Nicholsville, just outside Lexington, Kentucky, and a 12-bay shop in Evansville, Indiana.
Together the company employs 130 people, including 88 in Jeffersonville, 21 in Evansville, and 15 in Nicholsville.
The three locations each cover a territory that consists of approximately a 70-mile radius.