Speaking the language

July 1, 2007
AT A TIME when immigration reform is generating heated debate in Washington DC and elsewhere, a trailer dealer in Portland, Oregon, is quietly reaping

AT A TIME when immigration reform is generating heated debate in Washington DC and elsewhere, a trailer dealer in Portland, Oregon, is quietly reaping the benefits of knowing and serving some of the people who have recently arrived in America.

The United States has always been a melting pot, but the pot seems to be melting particularly quickly in and around Portland. Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon is more than happy to help stir the pot. That's because the company has benefited in several ways as immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe have made their way halfway across the world and made a home in Oregon's largest city.

President Patricia Hilsinger is quick to say that the home for her company is not the home for the nation's largest trailer fleets. Trailer business comes from small fleets and owner-operators. And increasingly, those small customers include — at least in the Portland area — many who are relatively new to living in the United States.

“Our biggest challenge — and I think the biggest challenge for a lot of us in this industry — is the lack of qualified mechanics out there,” Hilsinger says. “There are not nearly enough. But we have found recent immigrants to be a good source for mechanics. Yes, they require training, but they frequently have the basic skills and work ethic that is important to be successful in their jobs.”

Hilsinger says some of her best technicians are foreign born. One had only been in the United States for two weeks when he went to work at Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon.

“He had some manufacturing experience in Croatia before coming to the United States,” Hilsinger says. “But he learned quickly and is now one of the best in our shop.”

Good source for customers

Utility Trailer Sales has found increasingly that immigrants are forming their own trucking companies and are becoming good customers.

“Our biggest customer base now consists of people who are from either India or eastern Europe,” Hilsinger says. “Many are from Russia and Croatia, and they seem to know each other. It's only natural that when they arrive here, they remain close to one another. They form communities. And when they do, they communicate pretty effectively. A lot become truck drivers. Later they form their own trucking companies. If you can satisfy one of these customers, the word usually spreads. They tell their friends.”

Illustrating the company's commitment to its international customers, Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon sometimes advertises in local foreign language publications. They are consumer and lifestyle publications that have nothing to do with commercial truck bodies or trailers — but they do provide a way to reach people who speak the language in which the publication is written.

“Eastern Europeans are getting into trucking,” Hilsinger says. “We are learning the culture, but language is still a big barrier. We usually have the equipment they need here, and we do a lot of pointing. But the big challenge is communicating what you can and can't do from a legal and regulatory standpoint. We have to be prepared to say ‘no’ to requests that a backyard shop might provide. We aren't a backyard company.”

Expanded facility

Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon recently completed an expansion to the front of its facility that has had a ripple effect throughout the building.

The expansion provides additional office space and a larger retail area. This in turn has enabled the company to expand the parts warehouse into the area that previously had been occupied by offices.

With the extra warehouse space, Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon expanded its parts inventory and has begun stocking additional product. The company now keeps about $450,000 in parts on hand, which includes about 5,000 part numbers.

Until the expansion was completed, 80-90% of the company's parts sales were delivered to the customer. That ratio has dropped now that the retail sales area has been expanded and walk-in traffic has grown. Walk-in sales could be even higher, but tight local ordinances limit the extent that companies such as trailer dealers can promote their retail sales.

The company is zoned as light industrial. The city of Clackamas, a suburb on the southeast side of Portland, limits what can be displayed in the dealership's newly created parts display area.

Room with a view

The expansion has made Utility Trailer Sales more visible to its customers, and it has given management a better view of traffic patterns around the facility.

From the customer's perspective, offices are easier to find, and the products the company sells are easier to see. However, the fact that the facility is zoned as light industrial keeps the company from really maximizing the effectiveness of the new visibility.

“We have to be choosy about what we display,” Hilsinger says. “We have never had a showroom before, and we have noticed a substantial increase in walk-in traffic. But we will never be able to have a large showroom because of city ordinances.”

From management's perspective, the increased visibility makes it easier to spot customers as they arrive and the occasional visitor who has no business being there.

“Visibility is important,” Hilsinger says. “Previously, we had no windows facing the entrance to our property. We had no way of seeing who is coming. Now we have a good view of the entrance, plus we have installed eight security cameras to give us a picture of what is going on throughout the property.”

The cameras operate inside and out, including one each in the parts department, reception area, and shipping and receiving department. The remaining five cameras are installed at various outside locations throughout the seven-acre site.

Utility Trailer Sales broke ground for the project in October 2006 and completed it at the end of last year. The company has occupied it since the beginning of 2007.

“We planned to do the expansion in 2000, but we postponed it because it appeared we were in for a downturn,” Hilsinger says.

Sales surge

While sales are flagging across the industry, Utility Trailer Sales in the first three quarters of its fiscal year had already topped sales for all of last year.

“Our sales are still high, but we anticipate a downturn,” Hilsinger says. “Our service backlog had been out three weeks, and it is down to a week and a half. “

The company attributes the strong sales to several factors, including:

  • California's regulation on reefer units. Stricter emissions rules go into effect for refrigeration units for trailers being operated in California. While nothing of the magnitude of the recent prebuy for diesel engines, sales manager Russel Kelly perceives some pressure on the part of fleets to take delivery of refrigerated trailers ahead of the implementation date.

  • Some sales are being delivered now that were sold at a time when trailer backlogs were stretching out six or eight months.

  • Good support from owner-operators.

  • Exceptional sales from one customer currently that is in a strong expansion program.

“But really, it's all about repeat business,” Hilsinger says. “We never have had a bad year in all the years we have been in business — sales have increased every year. We attribute that to the way we treat people. For example, a lot of owner-operators are retiring or will retire shortly. Many of them are turning their businesses over to their children. Well, we know their children, and we are doing business with them.

Making the sale

In spite of increased walk-in traffic, Utility Trailer Sales continues to rely on outside sales for the vast majority of its business. That includes the parts department, where the company has a fulltime parts and service salesman and two route salesmen who see customers at least weekly.

“It's important to be able to place a face with a name,” Hilsinger says. “It's the best way we know to understand the customer better and to learn what customers really want.”

One of the routes heads north from the Clackamas shop, including most of the metropolitan Portland area. It leaves the city, crossing the Columbia River and going as far north as Vancouver, Washington. The other route goes south as far as Salem, Oregon, approximately 50 miles from the shop.

The routes are run fairly quickly — leaving by 9 a.m. and back by noon and leaving the shop at 1:30 and back by 5. Parts customers include RV shops, small manufacturers, and bus fleets.

Liftgates and liftgate parts are high-demand items, as are Hendrickson suspensions, brakes, drums, and adhesives, captive Utility parts, couplers, and fifthwheels.

For new trailer sales, two outside salesmen represent the company. Refrigerated trailers are the most popular type of trailer sold. Dry-freight and platforms are also in the mix.

Keeping the shop safe

Charles Norris, operations manager of parts and service, supervises the parts department and also is responsible for a shop staffed with eight technicians.

In running the shop, safety is a key consideration. If his shop goes 90 days without an accident, he celebrates by barbecuing for his employees.

To help make those barbecues possible, the shop systematically seeks out potential hazards and tries to determine ways to eliminate them before an accident occurs.

Norris conducts monthly safety meetings. But before he does, two members of his safety committee scrutinize the shop in search of potential safety hazards. And to help in that search, the inspectors are given a lengthy checklist of areas to evaluate. Management is notified of any potential problem areas that need to be addressed.

The committee also has a “near-miss” program, one in which it reviews recent incidents in which a shop employee could have been hurt but wasn't. The committee then brainstorms ways to reduce or eliminate the conditions that caused the near misses.

The presence of immigrant technicians does not present a safety problem, Norris says.

“Only one has yet to really learn English,” Norris says. “His coworkers just translate for him.”

Growing up together

Pat Hilsinger's husband started Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon in 1985. She has been at the helm of Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon since Paul Hilsinger passed away in 1992. At the time, she was involved only in the financial side of the business, working primarily as the mom of a 4- and 12-year old.

“The staff here is great,” she says. “We have grown up together. My managers are my partners.”