Driving fast, dealing slow

March 1, 2002
I DIDN'T really want it to be like this, says Al Sapp, president of A Truck Body in Largo, Florida. Despite his best efforts, his company probably has

I DIDN'T really want it to be like this,” says Al Sapp, president of A Truck Body in Largo, Florida.

Despite his best efforts, his company probably has lost the distinction of being the smallest truck equipment operation in Florida. As he surveys his seven-bay, 10,000-sq-ft shop, he reflects on what might have been if only he had ignored suppliers' requests that he let the business grow.

“I wanted to work about six hours a week just selling truck accessories,” he laments. “Now look.”

At one point, he may have been the runt of the litter for Florida's truck equipment industry, but now he has to console himself with the fact that he might only be among the smallest distributors in the Tampa Bay market.

Why does Sapp want to be small? Before he has a chance to answer that question, a customer walks in and asks Sapp if A Truck Body would shear some steel for him. “Yeah, we can do that,” Sapp says, directing the customer to the company's shop.

Dressed in the same uniform that his five shop guys wear, Sapp says he never wanted a shop with five mechanics.

In no time flat, the A Truck Body shop has taken care of the customer. “Hey, how much do I owe you for the steel?” the customer asks.

“Nothing,” Sapp replies. “I'll get you twice the next time.”

The customer for whom Sapp's company sheared the steel works for one of the municipalities in the Tampa-St Petersburg area. Sapp is happy that he gave away shop time. He points out that a lot of distributors will give away a lot of sales and management time entertaining a customer on the golf course or some other venue, but he is convinced that giving away 15 minutes in the shop is time well spent. Besides, A Truck Body is trying to remain small.

“Our business plan is not to get big,” Sapp says. “We have a niche market — the national leasing companies. All of the big ones. Plus the end user. We are very available to the end user.”

A Truck Body operates in ways that most truck equipment shops don't. For example, the company does not go after the truck dealer business. Sapp will sell to local dealers — but only when the dealer has a special request. Sapp is perfectly happy to let other distributors call on truck dealers, and he is very glad in today's soft economy that he does not have a chassis pool. It's an approach to the market that enables him to be friends with his competitors.

“Our competitors are not friends with each other because they all go after the same truck dealer market,” Sapp says. “But I get to be friends with all of them. We borrow inventory from one another. If I have a customer who needs something I don't have, I can get it easily from a competitor. I will do the same for him. My competitors battle among themselves for the truck dealer business. They aren't friends with one another, but they all are friends of mine.”

Broken Rules

Al Sapp does not believe in operating by the book. Conventional business principles generated by Harvard MBAs wind up shattered at A Truck Body. Al Sapp prefers doing things his own way.

“I really love this business,” Sapp says after climbing down from a forklift. “I get out in the shop and weld as much as I can. I love the customers I have and the people I work with. I enjoy driving hundreds of miles to deliver a truck to a customer — at least if it's someplace fun where my wife and I can go.”

The atmosphere at A Truck Body is laid back. Employees get a 30-minute break in the morning, a shorter paid break in the afternoon, and the ability to run personal errands on company time.

“If someone needs to run a quick errand, that's okay,” Sapp says. “I don't ask them to clock out. I just ask them not to do me wrong — and nobody does.”

Shop employees get to dress just like the president of the company — with clothes provided by a uniform service. A Truck Body also gives its employees a full complement of paid holidays, along with a generous insurance package.

“I believe in making my money from my customers, not from my employees,” Sapp says.

Running Fast

In addition to the truck equipment business, Sapp has another love: racing. He considers it to be a great way to build a tight team of employees and a powerful marketing tool for customers.

“We play a lot here,” Sapp says. Employees all race air boats or pickups on dirt and asphalt. A Truck Body sponsors the pickups they race.

Races are run on a regular basis. Every other weekend pickups race on asphalt tracks as part of the Fast Truck touring series. But that's not enough racing for Sapp. Every other weekend, he competes at Desoto Speedway in nearby Bradenton, Florida. And if that is not enough, Sapp serves as an instructor at the Buck Baker racing school 10-12 weekends a year. A Truck Body sponsors a car at the school.

“Racing really raises the company profile,” Sapp says. “Truck equipment people tend to like racing. Truck equipment people also tend to buy from those who have the same interests they do.

“A lot of truck equipment customers also like to play golf, but compared with racing, golf is limited as a way to entertain customers. I can play a round of golf with maybe three customers or prospective customers, but a normal racing school weekend can accommodate up to 50 of my customers.”

The school offers legitimate training for becoming a NASCAR driver. Most of the students, however, are businessmen who want to spend a weekend learning about racing but who have no intention of becoming a NASCAR driver.

Teaching at a NASCAR school is a great way to meet people, Sapp says, and sometimes it helps him reach the unreachable sales prospect. He tells the story of the owner of an electrical supply and contracting company that has locations from the Tampa area all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina. The man signed up for one of Sapp's racing classes, and the former student is now a customer.

“Until he became one of my students, I never could get past his secretary,” Sapp says.

Saving Money

A Truck Body distributes new truck bodies, including Grumman Olsen vans and Morrison service bodies. The company also handles Venturo cranes, Venco hoists and liftgates, Eagle Lift liftgates, and Ramsey winches. In addition to new equipment sales, A Truck Body also rebuilds the products normally seen in truck equipment shops plus some — such as an old Bucyrus Erie water well digger — that are not normally associated with truck equipment.

“If I can keep the cost below 75% of the price for new equipment, I can save my customer a lot of money by rebuilding truck bodies for him. Most of the time, I can keep it within 50% of the cost of new,” Sapp says. “And I can make a lot better profits dealing with used equipment.”

A recent example involves the customer who wanted a service body installed on his pickup truck. Sapp found a used body for $100, spent some shop time refurbishing it, removed the pickup box, and installed the service body. The customer was pleased with the price and the body, and A Truck Body had a pickup box in stock. Another customer with the same type of truck had a problem — because it had a service body mounted on it, the customer's homeowner association would not let him drive it home on the grounds that it violated deed restrictions. A Truck Body solved the problem by removing the service body and installing the recently acquired pickup box.

A Truck Body gets its used truck bodies from exporters, insurance companies, salvage yards, and other sources.

“The hard part is not making the sale — it's buying,” Sapp says. “When we find a truck body to remanufacture, we return it to like-new condition. And mounting used truck bodies on a new chassis does not affect the value of the chassis. It is still a new truck, yet we have been able to save the customer a lot of money on his truck body.”

Custom Manufacturing

Remanufacturing appeals to the price-conscious customer. But the company's reputation for custom manufacturing leads truck dealers to call.

One of the more unusual jobs A Truck Body completed was a handling system for carrying caskets to the crematorium. A local customer wanted a way to transport as many as 14 caskets in a van body. Dimensions were not a problem, but lifting the casket to the upper deck proved difficult.

When a liftgate didn't work, the truck dealer called A Truck Body. The company designed a winch-powered lift mechanism that enabled the truck to be fully loaded.

Another custom application was for a company that sprays concrete roofing material. A Truck Body cut out the forward portion of a van body to transversely mount a diesel generator and a gasoline-powered air compressor. The generator produces the 220 volts for powering some of the equipment, and the compressor blows the roofing slurry through a 600-ft hose to the top of the building.

“This van body carries about $250,000 worth of commercial roof foaming equipment that has to be kept dry and secure,” Sapp says.

A distributor of fine woods is another user of A Truck Body's custom application. The company receives rail shipments of imported mahogany paneling and needed what Sapp calls a “very dry-freight van body” to transport the paneling to wholesalers. The customer wanted the same truck to deliver rough-cut lumber along with the paneling. The solution: a 32-ft van that has curtain sides for 18 feet of the body length, with the remaining 14 feet of the van made of aluminum.

Despite his penchant for doing things differently, Al Sapp considers himself an “old school” truck equipment distributor.

“I started in this business with Watson Automotive in 1973,” he says. “That company was a real old-line truck equipment house with a history going back to the 1920s. I learned a lot from them.”

Sunny Florida

After four years there, Sapp moved to Florida for its lifestyle, weather, and cost of living. After a stint with another truck equipment distributor, he formed a partnership and went into business for himself. When the partnership broke up, he took a year off and then decided to go into the business solo.

“We opened in a 1,700-sq-ft facility selling and installing truck equipment and accessories,” Sapp says.

The 1,700-sq-ft facility lasted six months before Sapp added two production people and moved to a 7,000-sq-ft shop. That location lasted 10 months before A Truck Body outgrew it, moved to a 10,000-sq-ft facility, and added more employees.

After three years in this rented facility, A Truck Body bought its current 10,000-sq-ft building.

“It is the same size building, but it has a better layout and more land surrounding it,” Sapp says. “It isn't that big, but we don't want to get any bigger. We are small, and we want to stay that way.”

And why is that?

“At a certain point, with too many employees, you begin to lose quality control,” Sapp explains.

A Truck Body monitors the quality of its jobs at three different stages. The shop foreman, the salesman who sold the order, and Al Sapp, inspect every job that A Truck Body completes. It is the third of these quality control steps that has Sapp concerned about getting too big. His reason is that, when it comes to the inspections, “I'm the pickiest of them all,” he says.