Charging up north

March 1, 2004
ONE OF MICHIGAN'S largest truck equipment and trailer distributors has solidified its position with a new shop in the northern portion of the state. Scientific

ONE OF MICHIGAN'S largest truck equipment and trailer distributors has solidified its position with a new shop in the northern portion of the state.

Scientific Brake & Equipment, headquartered in Saginaw, had been serving the northern portion of the state for years with a small facility in Gaylord. But with the exception of snowplows and spreaders, the company did not install truck equipment there.

That has changed since Scientific completed a 16,000-sq-ft shop.

“We have had a facility in Gaylord for 25 years,” explains John Princing, president. “For 20 of those years, we had specialized in trailer parts and snow and ice control equipment. About five years ago, we added service capabilities to the building we were leasing. But with the new facility that we built, we have made it possible to really grow here in Gaylord.”

Princing knows that the building is larger than required to meet the immediate needs of the operation. But he also knows that the shop is in the second-fastest-growing city in the state.

“Gaylord is becoming a transportation hub,” he says. “It's an hour from the Mackinaw Bridge (connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas), Traverse City, and Alpena. Fleets are looking to Gaylord as a source for service.”

With the growth of business comes increased competition. So when the building Scientific had been leasing became the site of a new Wal-Mart, it became time to move into a shop that could handle the company's needs (and the market's growth) for years to come.

“Suppliers are looking for strong companies to fill holes in their distribution networks here in Michigan,” Princing says. “Now we have a state-of-the-art facility that we can use to cover the market. It was a scary time to build a new shop, but we were convinced that there was a lot of pent-up demand in the market, and we wanted to be ready when business picked up.”

Battery business

One of the company's biggest parts lines is batteries.

“We keep going to industry events and asking other companies like ours what's working,” Princing says. “Someone at an industry meeting told us about batteries.”

Princing points out that selling batteries can be a springboard into the sale of other products. Customers come in with a battery problem, but they also may need an alternator, battery cables, wiring harnesses, or lights. Scientific is now able to diagnose a customer's electrical problem and has the product on the shelf to solve it.

“This was the best new product launch for us in more than a decade,” Princing says. “We had displayed batteries before, and they never moved. But our supplier came through with a new strategy, and we tried it again in 2002.”

Scientific sells batteries to a variety of companies, including repair shops and parts stores. The company also sells specialized batteries to marinas and golf courses. Truck batteries, however, are the biggest sellers.

“Look at the unit consumption of batteries,” Princing says. “They are the fleet's second-largest replacement item behind tires. Some trucks have three batteries. And regardless of how many they have, batteries are a big business.”

The difference was when Scientific decided to get into the battery business in a big way. Rather than having a few batteries on the shelf, Scientific now has racks of them, fully charged and ready for installation.

Company sales personnel do the same thing at customer locations — stock the batteries and check them regularly to make sure they are charged.

“Selling batteries definitely carries with it a heavier service requirement,” Princing says. “But that's OK, because it fits our distribution model well. Our distribution model is to provide our customers with same-day service and same-day delivery wherever possible. All of our locations get service at least once a week, and most get service twice a week.”

What it takes

Being successful in the battery business requires several things, Princing says:

  • A competitive price. The battery business can be multi-tiered. If the price is too high, the batteries move slowly. When batteries stay too long on the shelf, they spoil.

  • Brand is important. In its first foray into the battery business, Scientific was not selling a top brand. Fleets tend to shy away from names that are not considered reliable.

  • Service. Retailers are reluctant to handle products that spoil. Scientific restocks older batteries with fresh ones. Batteries can remain on store shelves up to three months without needing to be recharged.

“Batteries are one of those products that, when you need them, you need them,” Princing says. “Our biggest wholesale customers are now satisfied with the products we offer and the service we provide. They can get cheap batteries elsewhere, but they want a relationship with someone who stocks their stores and services their needs.”

Scientific tasted its first success in the battery business in 2002 by buying from a master distributor in Warren, Michigan. But shortly after Scientific signed on, the distributor began to show signs of financial difficulty. Although the battery operation was profitable, other operations of the company were losing money, Princing says, and by the end of 2002, the battery distributor was on the verge of going out of business.

“We were its top distributor,” Princing says. “We bought their inventory and other assets and hired three of their employees.”

Scientific continues to wholesale its battery line out of Warren, a good location for serving the southern half of the state. But the new facility in Gaylord promises to play a key role in handling the northern portion of Michigan.

“We designed this building to be our second distribution center,” Princing says. “We have dedicated 40% of the floor space to our battery operation.”

Battery sales were up 10% in 2003, but management expects sales to double this year, thanks in part to the Gaylord facility.

In addition to new batteries, Scientific also reconditions used batteries.

“We look for batteries that are no more than two years old,” Princing says. “Our Warren location reconditions them, and we sell them as such. Auto salvage operations and auctions are good markets for reconditioned batteries.”

More truck equipment

Scientific also expects a significant increase in truck equipment sales now that the larger shop is up and running.

The new shop provides seven service bays, compared with 3 3½ before the building opened. Seven years ago, the company did not have any installation bays in Gaylord.

“We are able to install all of our product lines here now,” Princing says.

The entire shop is available for truck equipment installation or repair. Scientific did not include a paint booth in the new facility.

“The building was designed to be expanded and a paint booth installed,” Princing says. “We have the ability to add a paint booth — but not the inclination. A good customer of ours has a paint facility across the street from us. We are farming out our business to him.”

Able to serve

Management wanted the Gaylord branch to be a full-service facility that can offer the same products and services that the Saginaw home office provides the central and southern portions of the state. To do so meant having spacious service bays.

“We want to have room to fit a full Michigan train in our shop,” Princing says. “We also wanted to have enough room in the shop to fit an ironworker and other equipment needed to provide full truck equipment installation, service, and repair.”

Management also wanted Gaylord to have its own inventory and not have to rely on Saginaw. The building accomplishes that objective, providing sufficient room for inventory and a spacious display of truck equipment.

The 5,000-sq-ft showroom has plenty of glass to make the displays visible to the outside and to allow in plenty of light. To make it easier to put full-size truck bodies and equipment on display, an eight-foot door provides access to the showroom from the warehouse.

Big on parts

Like the headquarters facility in Saginaw, the Gaylord branch gets much of its revenue from parts sales.

All three Scientific locations (Gaylord, Saginaw, and Alpena) have outside parts sales programs. The Saginaw location has three outside and two inside. Two work the parts counter in Gaylord, and two are outside salesmen. In Alpena, one salesperson covers the territory while another works the counter.

The Gaylord outside parts sales reps are on the road five or six days a week. To divide the sales territory, Scientific drew a line across the state halfway between Gaylord and Saginaw. The Gaylord reps cover Michigan north of the line, including the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula.

Customers include fleets, municipalities, repair shops, and auto parts stores.

Scientific is a multifaceted company, serving as a truck equipment distributor, trailer dealer, and heavy-duty parts house.

Major truck equipment lines include Omaha Standard platforms, Reading service bodies, and Supreme vans. Snow and ice control products are big sellers among the truck equipment lines the company sells, including Western and Meyer snowplows, along with TrynEx and Air-Flo spreaders.

Trailer brands include Clement, East, Heil, and Trailmobile.

“We have been a Trailmobile dealer since the 1950s,” Princing says, “and we have been among the top five East dealers ever since we have represented them.”

But the parts business has always been vital to Scientific. The company got its start producing a part of its own: the “Scientific Brake Machine” that, in the days before power-assisted brakes, gave drivers a mechanical advantage. When mechanical brakes were replaced by air and hydraulic versions, the company was quick to switch.

After gaining a foothold in the parts business, Scientific developed a relationship with Trailmobile and then Heil before branching into the truck equipment business with Daybrook hoists and Meyer snowplows.

“We were in the trailer business first, but we noticed all the work trucks that our trailer customers had,” Princing says. “Selling both has worked well for us, but we've found that it takes duplicate sales staffs to really do it right. Selling truck parts is something you do every day. It's a high-volume business with instant rewards. Truck equipment tends to be a big-ticket business. You can work months or years on a deal before it ever comes through.”

The duplicate sales staff applies only to truck parts. The same people represent trailers and truck equipment.

Scientific is now in its third generation under the leadership of the Princing family.

Ernie Wilcox, John Princing's grandfather, ran the company for its owner, Jay Downer, between 1958 and 1974. The family acquired 20% of the business in 1974, and John's father, Tom, bought the rest in 1979.

Like his father, John Princing also began his career outside the company.

“I was offered a job here when I first graduated from college, but I wanted to establish myself before joining Scientific,” he says.

Once John joined the company, Tom consistently worked with him.

“He was my mentor from the time I walked into this place,” John says, “and the mentoring was ongoing. I tried to learn from every opportunity — why he made decisions and alliances that he did. We had a lot of post-meeting meetings in which he explained why he did what he did. Because we were as close as we were, I got a chance to see where he was coming from. It's always nice to have another set of eyes and ears. Now that he has passed away, I work that out with others. I didn't realize how much I took that for granted. I had the luxury of a lot of good experience.”

Tom Princing planned to retire when he turned 65. To prepare for the transition, he made John president of the company in May 2002. The next week, Tom was diagnosed with cancer.

He achieved his goal. His company, customers, and suppliers all celebrated his 65th birthday and his retirement in October 2003.

Former Scientific Brake president passes away

Tom Princing, former owner and president of Scientific Brake & Equipment in Saginaw, Michigan, passed away January 20 after a lengthy bout with cancer.

Princing's career at Scientific spanned 42 years. He joined the company in 1961, less than two years after graduation from the University of Michigan. After a brief stint doing accounting in the engineering department of a General Motors subsidiary, he answered an anonymous help-wanted ad in the local newspaper. To his surprise, the ad was for Scientific Brake & Equipment, where his father-in-law was general manager.

At that time, the company was under the absentee ownership of Jay Downer. Princing bought 20% of the company in 1974 and purchased the remainder in 1979.

Princing served on the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) Board of Trustees 1976-1979. His son, John, is a member of the NTEA Board, and his father-in-law, Ernie Wilcox, served as president of the Truck Body & Equipment Association 1973-1974.

He was involved with numerous community organizations, including the Saginaw Community Foundation, Saginaw General Hospital, University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital, Saginaw Choral Society, PRIDE, First Congregational Church, Delta College Foundation, NBD — Saginaw, Independent Bank, and the Mid-Michigan University of Michigan Alumni Association.

Princing devoted much of his time supporting the arts, including the Saginaw Art Museum, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, Interlochen Arts Academy, Berkshire Choral Festival, and the University of Michigan Musical Society.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Wilcox Princing; his daughter, Linda, and husband, Tom; his son, John, and wife, Marie; and six grandchildren.