Joplin Trailer Sales Builds Reputation On Parts and Service Departments

EXPERIENCED personnel, a large inventory, and an updated computer system bolster the parts department at Joplin Trailer Sales in Joplin, Missouri.

"If nobody else has it, we do," says Steve Parker, owner and president. "We sell parts for almost every trailer manufacturer in the US."

Joplin Trailer Sales is an authorized parts dealer for Wabash, Stoughton, Fruehauf, Monon, and Strick. The company also carries almost all suppliers of trailer-related aftermarket parts, says Parker. Company inventory is estimated at $600,000, with more than 4,000 parts numbers listed.

Of the business Joplin Trailer Sales generates, 80% comes from parts sales. Repairs and modifications of equipment represent 18%, and 2% comes from trailer sales.

"Our real strength is in parts sales," Parker says. "The main benefit of trailer sales is that it gives us an entrance into a customer's aftermarket needs."

Parker, his wife Alison, and his father, Dave, purchased Joplin Trailer Sales in early 1997. Since then, they have steadily upgraded the tools and equipment.

Parker also installed a digital phone system with extra lines. "We get calls from all over the country," Parker says. "We want to be sure our phone system has the capacity and quality to meet the volume of calls we receive. Every phone call is a potential sale.

Selling the Unusual "Joplin Trailer has a reputation for stocking hard-to-find items that nobody else carries," Parker adds. These include parts that are no longer in production.

"A lot of the larger companies won't carry parts that are out of production. So more often than not, we will be the only place that has them," Parker says.

"Manufacturers know we keep top and bottom rails in stock, and those can be hard to find. They spread the word, and customers come to us looking for them."

Parts manager David Brisco, employed at Joplin Trailer Sales for 16 years, has a national reputation as an authority on trailer parts, Parker says.

Balancing a reputation for stocking hard-to-find parts with the need to turn inventory can be difficult at times, says Parker. "The secret is to watch for trends and patterns, knowing the best time of year to keep certain items in stock."

New Inventory System The company's new computer system helps make this possible. Joplin Trailer Sales has installed a new point-of-sale inventory system.

"We've just completed a major computer upgrade," Parker says. "We've replaced our old PCs with a new IBM network computer system, loaded with BusinessWorks software that will make a lot of our old ways obsolete."

By using the new system to monitor inventory flow, the company won't stock a large supply of items that aren't moving, Parker says. Sales personnel will also be able to track the time of year when certain items are selling well, and make an accurate judgment on how much of an item to order.

"Keeping a large stock of parts that aren't selling is not good business," Parker says. "On the other hand, you don't want to get caught short when orders start coming in.

"We turn our inventory about five or six times a year," Parker says. "With the new point-of-sale system we hope to go to seven. It tells us when an item was last sold, who bought it, and how much they paid for it. Each morning we can get a total analysis of the preceding day's business."

The competitive nature of parts sales makes margin control essential, Parker says. "Tight margin control is vital to the ultimate success of our business. You can have high sales, but if the margin is not there, you are just trading dollars with the suppliers. The new system tracks the margin per invoice, per day, per week, and per month. It tracks the profit on each sale."

Full-Line Service Department Joplin Trailer's parts sales complement a full-line service department. "We build trailers, extend them, shorten them, and install upper-couplers," says service manager Joe Sullenger. "For example, we can stretch a 42-ft flatbed into a 48-ft flatbed. We'll cut off the backend, insert a section of flooring and crossmembers, extend the sliderails, put on new upper-couplers and bulkhead racks, and reattach the back section. The suspension will stay where it is. Basically, we're extending the trailer and fabricating a new rearend.

"Recently we extended 30 flatbeds. A customer wanted to extend his fleet. Instead of buying new trailers, he had us extend the 42- and 45-ft-trailers to 48-ft and add bulkheads to them.

"We do a lot of suspension work," says Sullenger. "We install, rebuild, and retrofit. We have been converting a lot of suspensions from spring-ride to air-ride."

The service department consists of Sullenger and 12 mechanics. They work on everything from tank trailers to horse trailers, says Parker.

Parker says the company may eventually pursue small trailer business. "We already service and repair utility and horse trailers. If we decide to really dive into the small trailer business, we will become a dealer and keep inventory."

Sales and Promotion Dave Parker heads up the sales department after working seven years as a salesman for the previous owner. The other outside salesperson sells directly to JB Hunt and works out of JB Hunt's Arkansas location.

"JB Hunt requires fast, accurate service," Parker says. "They want an on-site person to handle their orders. Our salesperson serves as a direct contact and sells exclusively to JB Hunt. She checks with the various departments, determines what they need, and in what quantity. The Joplin office makes sure customers get what they need when they need it."

The Parkers advertise via direct mail, and phone solicitation. Mailers are sent out once a quarter, and are redesigned twice a year. Mailer design and layout is done in-house, and sent to an outside printer.

The parts department distributes vendor catalogs and videotapes to customers. From time-to-time, Joplin Trailer Sales sponsors small seminars and conferences for vendors and customers.

Typically, Joplin Trailer Sales serves customers in a 125-mile radius around Joplin, going into Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The company has exported parts to Mexico, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, and drop-shipped to all over North and South America.

"On the strength of our parts inventory reputation, a customer asked if we could drop-ship an order to South America," Parker says. "That got our foot in the door, and we've been receiving orders ever since. We stock and ship parts that are specific to fleets such as CFI, JB Hunt, Wal Mart, and Trism. We've even done some drop-ship orders for the US government. For example, we supply headlights for the US Army's HMMWV (high-mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle)."

Dromedary Boxes The Parkers expect much of their future growth to come from the manufacture and sale of dromedary boxes, containers that are specially built to carry explosives. Government regulations require different types of explosives to be separated from each other during transport, says Parker. Dromedary boxes serve that purpose.

"The boxes have to be made of non-sparking metal," Parker says. "There can be no steel-on-steel. Places where the boxes meet or rub must be painted, covered, or made of dissimilar types of metal.

"We enhance the durability of our boxes with solid wood floors and four-hinged doors," Parker says.

Dromedary boxes are made of the same components as trailers, says Parker. "They have the same roof side panels, flooring, rivets, doors, and sideposts."

The boxes are custom-made and can be fabricated to most any specification. A typical box will fit comfortably behind a truck cab in a two-piece saddle container. The saddle container, which is fabricated from raw steel, basically serves as a chassis for the dromedary box, which can be loaded and unloaded with a forklift. Air lines and electric cables are relocated to the headache rack, which is connected to the saddle. "They are built to handle explosives, but these boxes can carry anything," Parker says. "We installed a reefer unit in a dromedary box and insulated it with foam, so a customer could use it to haul produce. He put the box on an enclosed utility trailer, hooked it up to a generator, and tows it behind his pickup."

Parker says Joplin-based R&R Trucking, an explosive hauler, is his company's biggest customer for the dromedary boxes.

Growing Pains "We are having a record year," Parker says. "We can't keep trailers on the lot and we are maxed out in all areas.

"Trailer sales have been high for some time. Right now, we have a three-month manufacturing backlog. Because of the shortage, people are refurbishing their existing trailers and making more repairs. This leads to more parts sales for us."

The service department is also backlogged, and parts sales are brisk, Parker says. "We can bring in a truckload of new parts, and within a week they are gone."

Low unemployment across the nation makes it hard to find qualified personnel, says Parker. "We could add a second shift if we could find qualified people. We have increased our base salary three times this year to attract and maintain quality personnel."

Parker is cautious about to expanding too rapidly when there is a labor shortage. "We recently landed a very large account, and it draws a lot of our resources. They have a large fleet of trailers that require frequent repair and refurbishing. We install doors, running gear, and suspension equipment for them. We also sell all the parts and components necessary for that service. "We're always glad to have new business," Parker says, "But we have to be sure we have the personnel and the resources before we expand. Good personnel can be hard to find."

Joplin Trailers presently employs six people in parts, 12 in service, and six in management.

Web Site Coming A company web site should be up by the end of the year. "We'll offer an extensive catalog on our web site," Parker says. "The web site will show the available quantity of a given item. Customers can place an order on the web site, and we'll send them a computer invoice with a purchase order number."

Parker says the web site will list trailer inventory and show digital photos of the trailers. It will be updated monthly, and will list a sales flyer and hard-to-find parts.

Room to Grow The present facility in Joplin sits on 2.37 acres and has 14,500-sq-ft of space. It contains seven shop bays, three executive offices, parts and service manager's offices, and a 3,000-sq-ft parts warehouse. The parts warehouse is equipped with racks for efficient storage of springs, sheet metal, and aluminum extrusions. Even with efficient storage, Joplin Trailer is running out of space.

"We are bursting at the seams and looking for room to grow," Parker says. "We would like to be in a new facility by 1999. We want the new facility to be about two-and-a-half times as large as our present one, sitting on 10 acres.

"We are planning carefully for the changes with an eye to the future. The design of a facility makes a lot of difference in what you can do.

"One thing we are watching closely is the construction of Highway 71. It is being turned into an interstate highway and will intersect with I-44 in Joplin. The project is scheduled for completion around 2005. Ideally, our new location will be somewhere convenient to that intersection."

After relocating, the Parkers plan to turn the present site into a manufacturing facility for dromedary boxes, liftgates, and truck bodies.

"We will continue to offer a wide range of services," Parker says. "But our future remains in parts sales."

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