New Shop, Showroom Strengthen Growth at Nichols Fleet Equipment

A NEW SHOP has opened the parts and accessories market to a truck equipment distributor in a way not previously possible.

Nichols Fleet Equipment in Chattanooga, Tennessee, got its start just six years ago as a one-man sales operation for IMT cranes and tire service equipment. A 65-ft trailer served as the sales office, and the factory handled the installations.

Today the company is in its second shop, this one a new facility designed both for truck equipment installations and parts and accessories sales.

"We still concentrate on cranes and field service equipment," says David Nichols, president. "But we have launched a retail sales operation. No one else in Chattanooga has anything quite like this, and the results so far have been pretty good."

The shop is near several local truck dealers and some of the company's suppliers. But most importantly, it is near a lot of service customers.

"We could have found a higher-profile location that might have generated a little more parts and accessories traffic," Nichols says. "But that would have meant moving fairly far from the center of town. We like the idea of being convenient to our suppliers and customers. In our business, we believe convenience is more important than visibility."

The showroom is not vast, but it is functional. It shuns the light-truck appearance accessories that are popular in many truck equipment display areas, concentrating instead on practical products that help the company's core customers perform their jobs.

Commercial-grade toolboxes are a major line. Nichols began selling Weatherguard products shortly after the showroom opened, and the company has been taking on additional products ever since. Among the major lines that Nichols displays are Champion compressors, Graco pumps and air accessories, Reelcraft and Hannay hose reels.

The company does offer a variety of light truck accessories such as running boards and bug deflectors. Customers also can find the new bubble-pack parts displays available from Buyers Products.

"The more quick-moving parts, the better," Nichols says. "We have expanded our inventory significantly and have the parts operation well organized."

To promote the new facet of its business, Nichols has tried advertising on local radio stations and in newspapers.

"Because our location is not highly visible, we are promoting it heavily," Nichols says. "We have been doing a lot of trial and error in order to get an idea of what works and what doesn't."

Nichols cites newspaper advertising as an example. Ads promoting light-truck accessories drew a good response around Christmas. A similar ad that ran after Christmas did not generate much response.

Instant Invoices Getting into the parts business has had a major impact on the accounting system at Nichols Fleet Equipment. This is particularly true at the parts counter, where invoices must be generated ASAP.

A new computer system generates the invoices at the parts counter. The system also helps keep track of the increased volume of transactions that Nichols' new venture into the parts business requires. With a new parts warehouse, it also becomes more challenging to maintain control of a substantially larger and faster-moving inventory.

Acquired simultaneously with the move to the new shop, the company's Real World computer system is made up of a series of modules that can be added as required. While management is pleased with what the software is doing, getting a complete computerized management system up and running was not free of obstacles.

"We made a mistake by not buying the hardware and software from the same vendor," Nichols says. "We have it squared away now, but it would have been much easier to resolve performance issues if we had had single-source accountability."

Designing the Shop Nichols' new shop is based on input from several distributor locations in other parts of the state.

"We combined their ideas with our own budget and size restrictions," Nichols says. "We wanted an expanded parts room and retail showroom, which we have. Other items are still on the wish list, including an ironworker and an overhead crane. We are hoping to find a good used bridge crane."

The new facility includes a wash bay. Nichols decided to have one because of the volume of rebuilding work the company performs. The bay is particularly effective in removing blown hydraulic oil, a task that Nichols used to farm out to others. It also is used for washing customer trucks prior to delivery, something Nichols does for every truck it completes.

Nichols drew up the basic design of the shop, then turned the project over to an architect for refinements-including a review to make sure that the building would comply with all applicable building code requirements.

The shop that the company previously occupied had 60-ft bays. Nichols built its new facility with 80-ft bays. The additional length allows the shop to fit three trucks per bay instead of just two. The configuration utilizes bay length more efficiently, given the size of the trucks that typically come into the shop. With only two trucks per bay, Nichols used 30 feet per vehicle. With the 80-ft bay lengths of the new shop, mechanics have more than 26 feet per truck, still a generous amount of room for most applications.

The 20-ft bay widths provide ample room for mechanics to work, while the 24-ft eave height was specified to make it easier for mechanics to work on truck-mounted cranes.

No Support Columns One of the more uncommon features of the shop is its lack of support columns. Mechanics are free to work and position trucks without a post getting in the way.

But the design eliminates one popular item that distributors usually want to have in their shops-air and electrical service mounted on the columns. With no columns on which to mount utility outlets, the Nichols shop supplies each bay with electrical service and hydraulic fluid by running both underground. Lines for compressed air, however, are mounted on the support posts of the outside walls.

"We chose not to run air underground because of the condensation," Nichols says. "We were concerned that the hot air moving through cold pipes would generate a lot of moisture that could not be drained if we had underground plumbing."

The air compressor is housed in a separate room adjacent to the wash bay. Air lines are run overhead inside the building and down the outside support columns. There they supply hose reels that are used in individual bays.

Hydraulic oil flows through black pipe, while electrical lines are run in conduit. Both underground services are plumbed so that they can be tapped to serve two additional bays that Nichols may build should demand warrant a shop expansion.

Nichols recently celebrated its first anniversary in its new location. Construction of the facility began in May 1996 and was completed in September.

Major markets that the company serves include construction (primarily paving and excavating), municipalities, utilities, building supply companies, the tire service industry, contractors, and heavy equipment dealers.

A staff of three handles the direct selling-including an accessories specialist who sells Weatherguard and Reading products. He also assists the inside salesman who also serves as parts manager.

"We needed a parts manager after we opened our new shop," Nichols recalls. "Before we opened the parts warehouse and retail showroom, we had little need for one. Whoever answered the phone was our parts manager."

The new location is the third since David Nichols formed Nichols Fleet Equipment in February 1991. He started the company by selling the IMT line of cranes and tire service equipment in east Tennessee. He also serviced the products he sold, working out of a pickup truck.

After an eight-month stint in a rented trailer, he set up offices inside the facilities of a trailer repair shop with which he contracted to perform his service work. By this time, service volume expanded to the point that Nichols leased two of the 20´ x 60´ bays from the trailer repair operation and hired three mechanics.

The company continued to grow, adding a sales staff as well as mechanics. In 1994, Nichols bought the property where the new shop now stands, a 21Ž2-acre site adjacent the trailer repair shop where the company previously operated.

"I bought the property about a year before we started the building," Nichols recalls. "The idea was that we would need both the land and a building some day. We only had an 8´ x 8´ room that we could use for parts storage, and we had no retail space."

Since the move, sales have increased-particularly in the area of parts and accessories.

"The showroom is generating more and more traffic," Nichols says. "The longer our company is here, the better accepted we become. We like what the future seems to hold. The potential definitely is there."

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