Cannon aiming higher

Truck equipment distributors are always aiming at a moving target. Customers expand or go bankrupt. They merge. They move away. Suppliers stagnate or innovate. Changes in technology affect the way truck equipment is sold and serviced.

So it is no surprise that distributors must change the way they do business if they want to stay in business. A good example is Cannon Equipment, a 40-year-old truck equipment distributor that is now doing business in a new shop just outside Detroit.

The new shop is located where few would have moved a few decades ago. The products the company sells are not the core business Cannon relied on for 75% of its history. And the path for reaching customers (who have taken the place of the previous ones) is not the same. Even the company name has been changed to more accurately reflect the nature of its business.

For the first 30 years of its history, Cannon was a utility equipment distributor. Digger derricks and aerial devices were key product lines. But few segments of the truck equipment business have been transformed as radically as utility equipment, with major suppliers systematically acquiring the local or regional distributors that represent them.

During the past decade, the company has shifted its equipment mix significantly. Cannon still sells aerial devices and digger derricks, but it has increased its sales to other areas, including construction and municipalities.

The Michigan Department of Transportation and the City of Detroit are now major customers. To serve these and other markets, Cannon Equipment has taken on such lines as Auto Crane service truck packages; Warren dump bodies; snow and ice control equipment from Boss, Meyer, Trynex, Wausau scrapers and snowplows; Prentice log loaders, Rugby dump bodies and platforms.

“We are doing a lot of custom up-fits for stepvans now,” says James Brown, general manager. “This involves installation of generators, workbenches, and lighting packages. Nevlin supplies most of our interior packages for stepvans, but we also use Adrian and Weatherguard.”

Focused facility

The new shop, which Cannon opened recently in the Detroit suburb of Shelby Township, was built in response to the changes Cannon Equipment has been making. It has enabled the company to consolidate into one location.

“We can cover the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan from Shelby Township,” Brown says.

Cannon Equipment previously had a shop in Grand Rapids and a smaller location in Troy. The Grand Rapids shop was closed two years ago, and the Troy facility was too small, Brown says.

“When we closed the Grand Rapids shop, our facility here became too small,” Brown says. “So we began considering our options here in Metro Detroit for a bigger location.”

Cannon Equipment selected an industrial park in Shelby Township for its new 18,000-sq-ft facility. The search for a location and the construction of the building took approximately 18 months.

“We were looking for a growth area for our location, and this is one of the fastest growing areas in Michigan,” Brown says. “Plus, it is one that is more friendly to truck equipment businesses like ours.”

Designing the shop

The building allocates 15,000 square feet to the shop and has 3,000 square feet for offices and the parts warehouse. This includes just over 1,000 square feet for retail displays of parts and equipment.

Cannon Equipment built an office for the shop manager in the middle of the shop area.

“This puts our manager in the middle of things,” Brown says. “He has a better view of what is going on, and there's less wasted motion.”

By contrast, the parts warehouse is at one end of the shop. The location allows the Cannon Equipment parts manager to handle sales at the retail parts counter. The assistant supplies the parts needs of the shop technicians.

The Cannon Equipment shop is staffed with 12 technicians. Four are repair specialists, and eight perform new equipment installations. Complementing their efforts are four delivery drivers and another who washes trucks and applies decals. An in-process inspector monitors the control of jobs as they are assembled, and the production manager performs the final quality control inspection on each truck leaving the shop.

Out of the ordinary

Cannon Equipment has begun specializing in custom truck production.

“The more specialized the truck, the more we want to do it,” Brown says. “We have some excellent suppliers such as Time Manufacturing and Reading who can help us with the engineering that some of the more unusual trucks require.”

For those jobs that require even more engineering services, Cannon Equipment contracts with local engineering companies.

“To keep costs reasonable, we try to utilize the expertise of our suppliers,” Brown says. “If it isn't possible to do a cooperative engineering effort, we hire an outside company. The important thing is that the engineering be performed properly. That's essential if we ever get a project that we aren't sure about. Liability in this industry is too big to do it any other way.”

40th anniversary

Cannon Equipment celebrated its 40th year in business last year. The company celebrated this milestone, along with the opening of the new shop, with an open house last June.

Established as Cannon Engineering, the distributor is now part of Falding Capital, a company based in Grand Rapids that also owns American Cargo Corp, a van body manufacturer in Goshen, Indiana.

“With our new location, we have enough auxiliary parking to accommodate a chassis pool,” Brown says. “We have had discussions with chassis manufacturers about it, and our sister company, American Cargo, has experience with chassis pools. Operating chassis pools is a big risk, and it is something we do not take lightly.”

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