Olympian effort produces gold

The environment was chilly and cold. And from their perspectives near the peak, the competitors could see nothing but the long, downhill slope — a slope that some would not negotiate successfully.

They began descending, slowly at first, then accelerating at a breathtaking pace. Muscles tightened. Slopes like this require total attention. The slightest bump, and you lose valuable time, your balance, your race.

It's completely understandable if the television ratings of this year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City drew higher-than-usual ratings from among the people in our industry. These are contests with which we can identify. We may not be as graceful as the figure skaters, but we sure can empathize with skiers and snowboarders. Those guys operate in an environment similar to ours. As is the case with us, their success depends on how well they conduct themselves as they navigate a slippery slope.

The difference is that skiers and snowboarders know what to expect from the slope. They know how long it will run, how sharp the descent will be, and when they can expect to level off. Another difference: Olympians move through the decline quickly.

Life isn't that predictable in the commercial truck and trailer business, no matter how long we practice. Our downhill run has been going on for two years and counting. From a perspective near the peak in 1999, some in our industry could see a decline coming, but no one knew just how steep it would be or how long we would be going downhill.

Nor is it clear exactly when we can expect to level off or begin going back up — although there are some signs that we have reached the bottom and are about to start our climb to another peak.

Sales and production numbers for our industry are beginning to come in for 2001, and they indicate that we ended the year going in the same direction as we ended 2000. And the decline at year-end was sharper than ever.

Let's take a look at what the numbers indicate — first for trucks and then for trailers.

One of our sister companies, Wards Communications, has released its year-end report for truck sales. Overall, 2001 was a great year for truck sales, down only 1% from an all-time high in 2000. But when we look past the soccer-mom minivans and SUVs that consumers were buying by the droves with 0% financing last year, we are left with a different picture. Focusing on the Class 3 — 8 market, the backbone of the commercial truck body and equipment industry, we see an industry that was down 22% in 2001.

It was the second consecutive double-digit decline for this segment of the truck industry. Class 3 — 8 sales were down 10% in 2000 compared with the strong year the industry had in 1999.

Generally speaking, the heavier the truck, the more sales went downhill in 2001. The situation was particularly severe in the Class 8 truck market. Truck dealers sold 34% fewer of these heavy-duty, trailer-towing trucks in 2001 than they did the previous year. The heavier end of the medium-duty market was better only by comparison. Class 5 trucks were off 16%, Class 6 dipped 17%, and Class 7 was down 25%. Only Class 4 trucks were able to finish in positive territory, up 9% from 2000.

Trailer manufacturers experienced an even sharper decline. The traditional source for trailer shipments, the U S Bureau of Census, stopped its monthly reports on the industry at the end of 2000. However, thanks to the generosity of the two leading research firms that track trailer shipments, we have a pretty good idea how the industry fared in 2001. It appears that trailer shipments fell more than 40% from 2000. This follows a drop of more than 20% from 1999. Details on what these two firms discovered about 2001 trailer shipments can be found on pages 26 and 28.

We also take a look this month at how individual trailer manufacturers fared last year. Paul Schenck's annual report on the top manufacturers in the industry includes specifics on past performance, and perhaps more importantly, on what leading trailer manufacturers expect during the coming year. And it is here that we see signs that the long, downhill ride is coming to an end.

No one is predicting that tomorrow's market will be like the half-pipe used by snowboarders — a path that is just as steep going up as it is going down. But some of the industry's top trailer manufacturers are reporting increased requests for quotations and are beginning to fill production slots.

For a while it looked like the only way to end this downhill course was to hit a tree. But those who have handled themselves well during this exhilarating ride are beginning to see the gold ahead.

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