Illinois Company Finds Success Through Specialized Service

"Put all your eggs in one basket," Mark Twain once said. "Then watch that basket!"

Tom Swiderski, president and owner of Transportation Repairs and Services (TRS), Hodgkins Illinois, has taken that advice to heart.

"The company name says it all," says Swiderski. "We specialize in repairs and service. We don't sell trailers, we don't sell parts, we're not an authorized dealer or a distributor, and we are not interested in any of those areas."

Swiderski believes in finding a niche and doing one thing well. "I've seen people spread themselves too thin, and that's when quality starts to drop. A reputation takes years to build, but one bad incident can ruin it all."

Specialization has worked well for TRS. Starting in 1985 with a five-bay shop in Cicero, Illinois, Swiderski expanded the shop to 10 bays in 1987, added sandblasting and paint booths, and started a mobile repair service.

The company continued to grow and moved to its present location in 1997. The new facility has 12 trailer bays, sandblasting and paint booths, and 52,000 square feet of space.

Commitment to Customers

TRS' initial growth resulted from a long relationship with the Santa Fe Railroad, says Swiderski, servicing and repairing piggyback trailers for the railroad. TRS is the exclusive repair contractor for the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe facility in Willowspring, Illinois.

"We started out repairing trailers for Santa Fe," said Swiderski. "Then we expanded to over-the-road carriers and steamship lines. We work on any and all specialized equipment."

In addition to Santa Fe, TRS is the exclusive contractor for the Chicago Evergreen line at the CSX railroad facility in Bedford Park, IL. The company also is the exclusive contractor for the K-line steamship company in Proviso, Illinois.

The most recent addition to the TRS service family is the United Parcel Service (UPS). TRS repairs and paints UPS package vans and tractors.

Special Equipment

"We are setting up a paint system for UPS that will cost us $10,000," says Swiderski. "UPS has its own system and specific colors. We won't be able to use the paint system for any other customers, but considering the volume of work UPS has committed to us, we are more than willing to make that commitment."

It's the larger picture that counts, Swiderski says. "UPS supplies paint and materials, and the company determines the amount of labor a project will require. Sometimes we take a loss, but that's something we are willing to do every now and then in order to keep a good customer happy."

Waste Management of Chicago is another big account for TRS. "We sandblast and paint all their roll-off equipment and packer trucks," says Swiderski. "We have a 10-ton crane in the shop, installed specifically for equipment like Waste Management's. The crane gives us the ability to hang containers and roll-off boxes in the air and set them on stands."

One bay in the shop is dedicated for cold straightening frames. TRS does not use heat, because heat tends to weaken the frame.

"We have 12-inch I-beam sunk in concrete," says Swiderski. "We use a system of come-alongs, port-a-powers (hydraulic tools used to straighten bent steel), and the crane itself for straightening. We can put tremendous pressure on the floor without breaking it. For pulling purposes, we have installed four 12-inch I-beams into the concrete that are 60-feet long and run the length of the bay."

Swiderski says set-up time is the most costly part of frame work. With the special bay equipment, set-up and breakdown times are reduced from about two hours to around fifteen minutes. "We have invested $60,000 in concrete and steel for frame work. It ensures safety, and that alone makes the investment worthwhile."

Special Needs

Modifications and alterations are welcome at TRS. "We are not afraid of anything," says Swiderski. "Cautious, but not afraid. The mechanics welcome a challenge, because it gives them a chance to show their expertise."

Swiderski says TRS has modified roll-off boxes into recycling boxes for Waste Management. Clearance was a problem for one customer, so TRS simply cut the top of the trailer down with a torch and rewelded the roof back onto the container. "We will do whatever is needed," says Swiderski. "We will lengthen, shorten, or remove doors."

TRS recently took on a daring venture by pressure washing and painting three side loader cranes for Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. "The cranes were too big to bring inside the shop," Swiderski says. "So we did it all outside and took a chance on the elements. Fortunately for us, the weather held out and we were able to complete the job successfully."

All major components of customer fleets are part of TRS' $250,000 parts inventory. "This goes back to our commitment to the customer," says Swiderski. "By keeping customer fleet components on hand, we reduce turn time and increase productivity. If we don't have the parts to repair something, we won't even pull it in the shop. We don't waste customers' time and they appreciate that."

Service Sells

Service is the final product that sells a company to the customer, says Swiderski. "In the end, it all comes down to quality service performed in a timely manner.

"To ensure good service, a company must employ quality personnel, and that's what we try to do. The majority of the people in management positions have been with the company from the start. I handpicked most of them myself."

Mechanics are another story. The combination of a healthy economy and low unemployment has made it difficult to locate and retain mechanics, says Swiderski. "We've had a very hard time increasing our staff. We are running ads every weekend, and we'd like to add a third shift, but we can't even fill up the second shift at this point." Of the 80 mechanics Swiderski employs, he estimates that only about 50 percent of them have been with the company for eight years or more.

Team Concept

"Everybody knows something about the other guy's job around here," says Swiderski. "When one person is out, everything doesn't crumble, because another person can pick up the slack."

Titles mean little or nothing at TRS. "We work as a team," Swiderski says. "The success of this business is a cooperative effort. I wouldn't trade this team for anything."

The company has no real sales or marketing staff. Swiderski says the nature of the business is such that salespeople aren't really necessary. "We rely on word-of-mouth. We do make the occasional sales call, but growth is not of major importance to us."

Indirect Marketing

Aggressive marketing is not a tactic Swiderski follows, but he does believe in planting subtle seeds for the future. "I've never made a deal on the golf course and I have no plans to start, but golfing with clients is an opportunity to get to know each other a little better. Besides, I am a golf fanatic."

Swiderski says he gets plenty of networking opportunities through his membership in the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA). "Being involved with the IANA gives us the opportunity to learn from other people in the same line of work, and it lets people know we're here."

Visiting home offices of customers is another example of Swiderski's low key approach. "I like to check in on my customers every now and then, just to make sure everything is going okay. It strengthens our relationship and it lets them know that I really do care. We really try to keep the customer satisfied."

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