Goodnight, Mom and Pop?

SMALL, family-owned businesses continue to be the heart of the truck body and trailer industry. But the market is becoming increasingly sophisticated, which makes it tough for mom and pop to keep pace.

But they have to. Nurturing the status quo is not an option — companies either grow or die. Not surprisingly, the small, family-owned companies in our industry that stay in business long enough grow to become large, family-owned companies.

And then what?

Although we didn't set out to do so, this month's edition of Trailer/Body Builders offers a series of vignettes that portray typical stages in the life cycle of family businesses. We inadvertently have assembled a series of stories that, when read as a group, trace companies from their conception to that critical point where they either die or grow to the next level. Those stages include:

  • The “Wonder Years.” John Vandel, president of Caravan Trailers, does a good job describing what life was like in the early years after launching his company. Ten years later, customers still call him. But now the phone rings at his large, modern shop — and not at Vandel's home. And when customers call, they no longer hear a baby crying in the background.

  • Hitting your stride. The Fisher family's American Roll-Off had operated successfully for years in its Trenton-area location. With two generations of Fishers involved in the company, continued growth led the company to take the next big step, opening another plant.

  • The really big fork in the road. Given enough years, the individual who started the company has a decision to make: turn the operation over to the next generation, sell the company to an outsider, or close the doors. We conclude this issue of Trailer/Body Builders with an announcement about the sale of Crysteel Manufacturing, for years a family-owned dump body manufacturing company that, effective December 22, joined two similar companies owned by Kirtland Capital. The result: a single company, Truck Bodies & Equipment International, will continue producing Crysteel, Ox, and Rugby dump bodies.

Such changes apply as much to magazines as they do to trucks and trailers. For example, at the same time John Vandel was starting Caravan Trailer (1996), Trailer/Body Builders entered a new phase. The family company that began Trailer/Body Builders in 1959 sold its three truck-related magazines to Primedia, a large media company that published business magazines and consumer publications.

This summer, Primedia spun off its business magazines, including Trailer/Body Builders. About the same time the Crysteel acquisition was completed last month, our new company announced its new name — Prism Business Media. But like the brands at Truck Bodies and Equipment International, those names will continue — including Ward's Communications (the company that provides monthly reports on retail truck sales), Truck Blue Book (pricing guide for used trucks), Fleet Owner, and American Trucker. And, of course, the other two magazines that the Tunnell family published — Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter — will continue to be produced at our Houston office.

The company name may be different, but we are the same folks who have brought you Trailer/Body Builders for many years. (Despite two separate company sales, we only have a few employees at our Houston office who were not working for the family company ten years ago.)

We may be part of a large company now, but we still have the same objective — to report the events and information that are important to you. To help us, please let us know how we can serve you better. And let us know how we are doing — good, bad, or ugly. We value you and your input. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send an e-mail to my new address: [email protected].

Family companies in our industry must constantly change to keep pace with a changing market. Doing so sometimes requires a change in ownership. Sometimes it requires a change of people. And it always requires a change in people.

When moms and pops make the right changes, they can lead their companies to new levels and a brighter future. Some of the companies in our industry have grown through new ownership. Other family companies have been passed on through multiple generations. Either way, successful companies eventually reach the really big fork in the road. And when they do, there's no need to say goodnight. It's time to say good morning, because a new day has dawned.

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