Keeping the innovations coming

We asked, and you delivered.

In spite of an extremely short schedule, almost two dozen industry companies submitted entries to our “Gallery of Innovation” feature found inside the back cover of this issue.

As we explained last month, the project was inspired by an e-mail we received from a reader who was concerned about how the commercial truck business is losing much of its history. Records are thrown away. Key people who had been involved in special projects pass away or leave the company. Photos fade. Memories do, too.

So we made a last-minute effort to put this project together. Although production deadlines were coming up very quickly, we recognized that we have no better place than our Buyer's Guide to exhibit what your customers have bought and you have created for them over the years. Time was extremely limited, and we thank those of you who moved so quickly to share snapshots of your history.

It was a fun project. As the photos and text came in, it became obvious that those who spend time in this business love commercial trucks and trailers. Although we asked readers to send us samples of what their company produced, a retired industry veteran took it upon himself to send in a photo of a truck that he ran across at an antique truck show. He had no direct link to the truck, but he sent it to us, he said, because he appreciates trucks.

Beyond being fun, though, a close look at our “Gallery of Innovation” will identify a few business realities mingled among the photos. For example:

  • Adapting to changing markets

    While the original intent of the “Gallery of Innovation” was to show how our industry has responded to meet the changing needs of customers, a “glass half empty” case could be made that many of the photographs illustrate how our industry previously did things. Several photographs were of popular products that companies used to offer. When new, external factors came into the market, these popular products became obsolete. It was an outside force — not the competitor down the street — that took away the business. The unspoken truth from these companies is that they were forced to find new products or services to offset their losses. The fact that these companies are in business today is proof that they made the changes necessary to continue to prosper.

  • Protecting the irreplaceable

    A couple of the companies that submitted photographs made it a point to say that they keep photographs in a fireproof safe. This was especially fortunate for one distributor whose photo collection survived a fire in 1995.

    Beyond photos, what do you have in your company that cannot be replaced? Customer lists? Sales records? Engineering records that someday could help in a lawsuit? If your building flooded or burned, what would you want to remove in the little time that might be available?

  • Learning from mistakes

    A few of the companies in our industry now have histories that span three centuries. As we received photos and information from well established distributors and manufacturers, we could not help wondering about those who were no longer in business. What became of them? Some used to be larger and more prosperous than the companies that sent in photos. Even leading companies make mistakes. But what did the thriving businesses do differently from those companies that became casualties? Are there lessons from the past that we can apply today?

Perhaps the way the entries arrived gives us a clue about the mindset of companies that succeed. We did not receive a single photograph through the mail. The old photos you see printed in the back pages of this issue arrived the most modern way possible — electronically — and never physically existed at our office. They arrived faster. At less cost. With less effort and with no damage. How quickly does your company harness new technology?

Some of the photographs are just that — photographs with little explanation of the product or its context. Details are missing because no one is left to tell the story. We suspect that today's technology will only accelerate our loss of history. Hard drives crash. Files get corrupted. And it's a snap to delete something the minute we decide we don't need that information anymore.

Does all of this emphasis on history mean that we at Trailer/Body Builders are dawdling in the past? Not at all. Gazing into the rearview mirror is your most direct path into the ditch. But a quick glance at the past can give all of us a fresh perspective on where we are going.

Does anyone want a sequel?

We received some feedback from readers who wanted to submit a truck or trailer for the Gallery of Innovation but could not meet the tight schedule.

Given sufficient interest, Trailer/Body Builders would consider publishing a second edition a few months from now. If you would like to submit one of your most interesting projects, or if you simply would enjoy seeing more from our industry's past, send an e-mail to [email protected].

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