HOW COULD anyone reasonably expect a brand new branch to be named Great Dane's top dealer in its first year of operation?
Expected or not, that is exactly what the Trudell Trailer branch in the Minneapolis-St Paul area did in 2002.
Demonstrating that the award was not merely beginner's luck, Trudell's Twin Cities operation then turned around and won the award again in 2003.
And while the jury is still out for 2004, the branch in Albertville, Minnesota, through September was on track to double the parts sales forecast that Great Dane set for the branch in 2004.
The award evaluates all phases of a trailer dealership — total trailer sales, overall market coverage, parts sales, and customer service. Trudell finished first among the 50 dealers in the Great Dane network that serves North America. Great Dane presents separate awards to those in its network of factory branches.
The Albertville branch is one of five facilities owned by Trudell Trailers of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Trudell opened the new building in January 2002. Until then, the company only had a sales office in the Twin Cities market.
“We built a new shop from scratch before we had hired a single technician,” says Dennis Van Lannen, vice-president and manager of the Minnesota operation. “We stocked a parts warehouse without any sales history to go by. The fact that we had a sales office here for two years made some of our planning easier, and we received tremendous support from our other two locations. They were great to us when we first got started, and we still could not succeed without the support of the other branches. All of our people truly make the difference.”
Knowing the experience of Trudell's other two full-service locations in Green Bay and Milwaukee was helpful, but it also drove home the fact that markets are different. Minneapolis-St Paul is no exception, which meant that the new parts department would have to monitor inventories closely and adapt quickly to the nuances of this particular market.
“From the start, we took on products in this market that we might not have offered in Green Bay or Milwaukee,” Van Lannen says. “Liftgates were one of the first lines we took on. We sell van bodies, refuse equipment, as well as construction and refrigeration equipment. All of these are lines we have added since we have opened. We have been selling truck equipment for a little more than a year now.”
From the beginning of the operation, parts sales have played a key role in the branch's path to these accolades. The parts department is now Trudell's largest, and Albertville now serves as the central parts purchasing point for all Trudell locations.
Christine Villenueve is the purchasing inventory coordinator for all Trudell locations. She acquires parts for Trudell from three sources: vendor direct, the Great Dane parts distribution center, and the HD America buying group.
“Every product we stock comes from just one source,” Villenueve says. “We don't buy the same product from multiple sources. But even though we now have another source for buying parts — HD America, this has not affected our parts sales through the Great Dane parts distribution center. We are still buying twice the amount from them this year that we did in 2003.”
The company's top parts lines include Haldex friction products, winter goods, and air products; Ancra and Kinnedyne cargo control products; Holland fifthwheels and suspensions; Dana axles; Leyman, Maxon, and Waltco liftgates; Accuride and Webb wheel products, and ArvinMeritor brakes, ABS components, slack adjusters, and air dryers.
Add them all up, and the company stocks approximately 2,500 part numbers.
“We have parts for all brands of trailers,” Van Lannen says. “We aren't going to stock everything, but wherever we compete, we are going to exceed customer expectations.”
The Trudell parts department in Albertville has a staff of five, including one outside parts sales, one inside sales, a fulltime driver, a warehouse specialist, and parts manager Tony Paar.
“Our sales success is made possible by the support we have received from our corporate management and by the type of people who work here. We have been blessed with people who work here that understand what needs to be done. If we need our trailer salesmen to deliver parts, they will. We all do what it takes here — and we have fun doing it.”
“Our outside parts salesman has a territory,” Paar says. “We steer him away from doing route sales. If your parts salesman is running a route truck, you have made him an order taker, not a salesman. We prefer that he make a concentrated effort covering a specific area each day. How much cold calling can you do if you are delivering parts to the same customers all the time?”
Paar prefers that its driver deliver the parts that its salesman sells. Most of the orders are delivered in a 16-ft high-cube van. However, the company also has three pickup trucks that can get parts to the customer.
“We load the van up early in the morning, and it comes back at the end of the day,” Paar says. “But we can use those pickups, too. We have other drivers here, too, including me.
When it comes to selling parts, the branch strives to provide just the right amount of customer service.
“We want to meet the customer's needs without inconveniencing them,” Van Lannen says. “We have done a lot of interviewing to identify what our customers expect. They have helped us learn their needs, their desires, and their expectations.”
Delivery is one of the needs Trudell has identified. Customers also desire to see company representatives, with once or twice a week the typical frequency.
“Our goal is to see major customers face-to-face once or twice a week, but we aren't quite there yet,” Van Lannen says. “We do have other ways to contact customers, including e-mail and telemarketing. Our customers still respond to telemarketing. It's effective because people still want to buy from people. They want relationships.”
The new Trudell branch includes a moderate-sized parts showroom.
“We rotate displays as much as we can,” Paar says. “What is shown is a function of the time of year.”
Load control parts are popular in spring and summer. As fall approaches, the company rolls out such items as air dryers, desiccant cartridges, deicing fluids, and tire chains.
“The displays help sales, but they are a small component of what we do here,” Van Lannen says. “I'm not real big on showrooms, though. They are a reactive form of selling. You depend on the customer to come to you and buy. I prefer a more aggressive approach to selling parts.”
Although the parts room serves the shop as well as the retail customers, only the showroom and retail parts counter are staffed consistently.
“Our technicians have access to all the parts they need,” Paar says. “Each technician is responsible for logging his parts into our computer system. It takes an element of trust to do it that way, but our parts variance has actually shrunk since we have gone to it. And our shop guys like it.”
Management believes part of the company's success has been the fact that Trudell does not try to make itself Number 1 in the life of its employees.
“We have high expectations of our people, but we have fun, too,” Van Lannen says. “You have to enjoy the small things in life as they come.”
Those small things include periodic cookouts at the shop. What started as a company-sponsored event has turned into a potluck because employees voluntarily have begun bringing food from home.
“It wasn't the company's intent to ask anyone to bring anything,” Van Lannen says. “Our employees just want to share with one another. Somehow we have created a very family friendly atmosphere. When we have cookouts, we have had entire families come — including parents of those who work here.
“We don't want work to be the top priority in someone's life. If it is, we probably have done something wrong as a company. We want work to be about Number 4 in our employees' lives. Faith, family, and community are far more meaningful motivators. If these are in balance, we will have more productive workers.”
In today's workplace, where companies continue to try to get more production from fewer employees, such a view may be surprising coming from a company that instantly rose to the top. But it is just one more way that Trudell Trailers is exceeding expectations in Albertville, Minnesota.