A Five-Bay, 122-Mile Shop Extension

THINK OF IT as a 122-mile shop extension.

That's the way Stuart Tank Sales looks at its new five-bay commitment to the Chicago area. Until last year, the trailer dealer had only one location (in Elkhorn, Wisconsin) and a lot of customers in and around Chicago, Illinois.

Stuart Tank has been in business in Elkhorn since 1958. But it became increasingly clear that the company could better serve the growing Chicago market by opening a facility a couple of hours closer to it.

The trailer dealer began searching for an existing building that could be modified for tank trailer service. The company found one on the south side of Chicago that was close to ideal for what management had in mind.

“We looked at a lot of properties, but most of them were not in great condition,” says Mike O'Donnell, vice-president. “This place was well-maintained, and it did not require much work to get it to meet our needs.”

The location had been used by an auto hauler until January 2000. The 5½-acre site provides Stuart Tank with the space it needs to park trailers, and the 13,000-sq-ft building houses five drive-through bays just the right amount for the volume of service work management had envisioned the shop performing.

Even the location was advantageous. With headquarters 122 miles north of Chicago, the south side location helps the company serve customers in the metropolitan area plus Joliet, Illinois, lower Michigan, and Indiana.

“Chicago is a transportation hub,” O'Donnell says. “The new location enables us to serve this market in a way that really wasn't possible before.”

Stuart Tank serves as a dealer for several tank manufacturers Heil, Stainless Tank & Equipment, Walker, and Boston Steel. The company also offers a full range of tank-related services, including rebarreling, repairs, and HM 183 testing. Its parts department serves as a distributor for Drum Industries and Ranger pumps providing sales, service, and installation of such specialized products as vacuum pumps, and liquid and dry blowers.

The company's sales territory for Heil and for Walker includes the Chicago market, adjacent counties in Indiana, most of Wisconsin, and all of Iowa. Four outside sales specialists cover the territory.

In spite of its name, Stuart Tank Sales is more than a sales organization. The company has a markedly balanced approach to the market. On average, 35% of revenue comes from trailer sales. Another 25% comes from parts sales, but the largest single source of income is the shop. The service department accounts for 40% of Stuart revenues. Because of that, finding the right shop in Chicago was mandatory.

“That's why we were pleased to find this location,” O'Donnell says. “It only had been vacant a few months when we acquired it. Getting it ready was simple. We cleaned it, painted it, and moved in.”

In addition, Stuart Tank resurfaced the blacktop, took out some offices to give more space to the parts department, and added an air compressor.

“All things considered, it was an easy setup,” O'Donnell says. The shop even had a pit in one of the bays. If we were building something from scratch, I would use a lift, but a pit is certainly easier than crawling around on a creeper to do some of the service work such as blower repair or PTO installations.”

Specialized Training

Because it specializes in tank trailers, Stuart Tank is required to have particularly highly trained mechanics in its shop.

Stuart Tank employs certified welders, and the Chicago location earned its “R” stamp in January. O'Donnell hopes to expand the number of shop employees from six to 10. Potential applicants will undergo a pre-employment physical and then training that includes the following topics:

  • Confined space entry. They will be required to know how to meter tanks for oxygen content and to detect the presence of explosive materials.

  • Confined space rescue how to remove a co-worker safely from inside a tank.

  • Personal protective equipment, including the specific respirators used while working on tanks. These are different from those used for protection from grinding, welding, or working with chemicals.

  • In-house forklift training.

  • Knowledge of hazardous materials.

  • General housekeeping.

  • Fire extinguisher training.

“We rely a lot on our vendors for training,” O'Donnell says. “But we also have a ‘train the trainer’ program so that we can do much of the educating ourselves.”

While Stuart Tank is geared to perform most of the typical service work associated with tank trailers, other functions are left to headquarters in Elkhorn or are contracted out locally.

For example, unlike the Elkhorn shop, the Chicago location does no painting. Nor does it offer tank cleaning services.

“We may take a look at doing that later, but it's working out well subbing those jobs out now,” O'Donnell says. “Plenty of shops in Chicago do that. We didn't have an option in Elkhorn.”

Elkhorn also provides the Chicago shop with the necessary invoicing, payables, and other accounting functions. Almost all the items the shop needs are purchased in Elkhorn.

Even Dave Cooper, superintendent of shop services, splits his time between the two locations.

“The only way to be able to do that is to have an excellent team of people in both locations,” he says.

Fabrication is another function that Elkhorn performs for the Chicago shop. Among the machine tools operating there are ring rollers and pyramid rolls.

“We have the ability in Elkhorn to build a trailer from scratch if necessary,” O'Donnell says. “Just about anything we need here to repair a trailer, we can fabricate.”

Stuart Tank has found that digital cameras and e-mail are an effective way to quickly let the fabrication department know what the Chicago shop needs.

Whether by e-mail, face-to-face communication, or a commuting shop superintendent, Stuart Tank is finding ways to extend its shop by 122 miles.

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