Southern exposure

When it comes to serving the truck equipment market, Reading Equipment & Distribution (RED) has stayed pretty close to home.

Over the years, RED has acquired locations in Seneca and Abington, Pennsylvania, and Mount Airy, Maryland. By opening a branch in Seneca, Pennsylvania, the company became better equipped to serve the western half of the state from a location that is halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie. The Abington location gave the company a stronger presence in the Philadelphia market. Mount Airy, just across the border in Maryland, made the company more competitive in the Baltimore and Washington DC markets. Yet for over 34 years RED has maintained operations within 200 miles of its home base in Bowmansville, Pennsylvania.

But Reading Equipment's latest move puts the company in a significantly different market. The new Suffolk, Virginia, shop is almost 400 miles from the home office, and the direction of the move is away from the Northeast and into the South.

The question is why. And the answer is easy.

First, the RED Suffolk location includes the Ford chassis pool. The pool is actually a new location for Reading Truck Body's chassis pool. Couple this with the addition of RED's Chevrolet/GMC pool, and the catalysts for future growth are in place. In addition, RED works with a number of large fleets located throughout the Southeast. Suffolk will provide the company with a base for service and installations.

Outside in

The typical distributor builds a business by serving local customers and expanding from there to state or national accounts. At least for Reading Equipment's newest location, the approach is just the opposite.

“This is the first branch location Reading Equipment has started from scratch,” says Mike Snyder, branch manager. “The others have been acquisitions of existing companies. But our advantage was that even though we were new to the area, we opened here with an established base of customers.”

The facility is not in a high-profile spot that lets the locals know right away that there is a new truck equipment shop in town. Instead, Reading Equipment selected a workmanlike shop inside an industrial park. The approach is to reach out to the customer, rather than the other way around.

Established customers may have led Reading Equipment to open a shop in Virginia, but management is quick to point out that it does not plan to ignore the local market.

“Our focus is on dealers, dealers, dealers,” Snyder says. “The market here expects to do business with local companies. Not a lot of end users are coming in at this point, but we have only been open a few months.”

To help the company establish itself with local customers, Reading Equipment held an open house November 17, two months after the shop opened for business. The event attracted 265 people, including representatives from Ford Motor Company, Reading Truck Body, area truck dealers, fleets and local government officials.

Setting up shop

Reading Equipment opened its Suffolk branch in September 2004, moving into a 60,000-sq-ft facility that had been used by a manufacturer of artificial flowers.

“We are only using about 30,000 square feet now, but with a little luck and a lot of hard work, someday we hope to be using all of it,” Snyder says. “We have some opportunities that could help us grow.”

The Suffolk shop includes three-ton and five-ton bridge cranes. The 100-ft rails that the cranes travel cover approximately 40% of the shop.

The configuration of the shop allows trucks to enter the building, have body and equipment installed, move through the paint department, and out the door.

“The shop is the only Reading Equipment facility that puts everything under one roof,” Snyder says. “We can make an assembly line system work here because of that.”

Sure-fire paint system

Even though RED-Suffolk utilizes Reading Truck Body powder-coated service bodies in many applications, the company decided early on to invest in a state-of-the-art 20-ft × 40-ft downdraft paint booth. Included with the booth is a 1.2-million Btu air makeup system gas heater that allows a painted truck to dry in 30 minutes.

“Paint can be a production bottleneck,” Snyder says. “This system really speeds our process.”

Beyond speed, the system also provides accurate information about how much each truck costs to paint.

Before a job moves through the paint booth, a painter must log in the job number into a computer. Without the job number, the spray gun will not operate.

With the job number logged in, the clock and the meter begin to run. The amount of time the painter spends is recorded, and instruments measure the paint that is applied. The result: an accurate picture of time and materials.

Management made easy

The paint control system is but one way Reading Equipment has implemented computer technology to make it easier to manage the operation.

Bar codes and scanners significantly reduce the amount of time the company must spend managing its inventory.

“We bar code everything we use to put a truck together — right down to the washers,” Snyder says. “Our parts department checks everything into and out of inventory with a minimum amount of time involved. People are human, and no system is perfect, but we are confident we are going to be 95% accurate. We will know for sure when we do our first physical inventory.”

Management can get reports at the push of a button. And with ordering points built into the system, management is alerted when stock of particular items is low.

How to Excel

Reading Equipment's Suffolk branch designed its own job configuration software using Microsoft Excel.

“Each branch of Reading Equipment is completely different,” Snyder says. “Some produce some very complicated jobs that have page after page of bill of materials. That's not us. Our jobs usually have a single-page bill of materials. Each branch manager is responsible for developing an effective system for his particular location.”

In the case of the Suffolk branch, Snyder developed a series of spreadsheet templates designed to simplify the ordering process. The templates, one for each common type of truck body that the company installs, are easily modified to accommodate customer requests for nonstandard features.

Wireless networking

Reading Equipment has developed a wireless network, without cutting the cord to the home office.

A T-1 high-speed data line links the Suffolk branch with company headquarters in Bowmansville. The data link plugs into a wireless router, which then provides each office computer with contact to the outside.

“We were the first Reading Equipment location to go with a wireless network,” Snyder says. “We like it a lot because of the flexibility it provides. Desks and computers can be moved anywhere in the building — regardless of whether it is near a plug.”

Snyder is not concerned about security of a wireless network.

“We run the standard antivirus software, but Spokane Computer set the network up for us — including the security measures that keep our network safe.”

So far, only office computers are on the wireless network. However, plans call for the network to be extended into the shop in the near future.

Ready to grow

The Suffolk branch has big plans to grow, thanks in large part to the company's ties with Ford Motor Company. Reading Equipment has ship-through and freight re-entry programs with Ford that Snyder is counting on to help the branch fill its 60,000-sq-ft facility. “The ship-through and freight reentry programs work pretty much the same,” Snyder says. “The big difference is that trucks for the freight re-entry program have to come out of Reading Truck Bodies' Ford pool in Suffolk. The ship-through program allows chassis to be dropped shipped to our location.”

With a Ford plant in nearby Norfolk, Reading Equipment can use the ship-through program for the limited work the company does on Ford F-150 trucks. The heavier trucks that are not produced in Norfolk are delivered to remote customers through the freight reentry program.

“The freight reentry program is really important to us. Without it, Reading has been limited geographically. We have an established reputation in the eastern United States. But this program opens the doors for us to be successful west of the Mississippi River. We have 200 trucks on the ground right now, but we have room for a whole lot more.”

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