The measure of a truck equipment distributor

Trailer/Body Builders March 2014 editorial

THIS YEAR promises to be one in which anniversaries play a prominent role. The National Truck Equipment Association celebrated 50 years this month. M H Eby is now 75. As of this year, Utility Trailer has been in business for exactly a century.

H A DeHart & Son has been building covered wagons and/or upfitting commercial trucks for 120 years. All are upstarts when compared to Kranz Truck Equipment & Repairs, a Saint Louis distributor that is 151 years young this year.

As we reflected on these and other well established businesses, it’s interesting how many of them are still family owned and operated. Not as many as there used to be, but a high percentage of the truck equipment distributors reaching these milestones can now measure their longevity by the number of generations—not just years in business.

So we asked a few of these companies what it takes to make it in the truck equipment business. Year after year. Generation after generation. Many are still around, run by the children or grandchildren of the founders, still doing business under the same name—but doing business with a fresh perspective that the next generation brings.

“This is the only job I have ever had,” says Bill Brown, whose father started Bob’s Services Inc in Anchorage, Alaska, 62 years ago. “I started sweeping the shop floor when I was a kid. I’ve had just about every job this company has. Now I have the toughest one of all.”

Gene Kohler Jr attributes a major portion of Kranz’s success to a desire on the part of his family to carry on the company’s tradition. Others agree that the family provides a different perspective.

“There are advantages to working and owning a family business,” says Gary Kois, who took over as president of Kois Brothers Equipment in Denver three years ago when his father George retired. “Fortunately our parents instilled strong family values when we were young. We have always separated work related issues from family gatherings. We love and respect each other, and also enjoy being around each other.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t argue about issues, we each have our own opinions, but have always been able to work through the tough issues. We know that we can count on each other when times get tough. 

“From an owner prospective, we consider our employees as part of our work family; we spend a great deal of every day together working to build a quality product and to provide a good living for our families.  The incentive is to be profitable so that we can stay in business while continuing to work in an industry we love.  We concentrate building respectful relationships between us and our employees.”

“I worked next to my dad until the day he retired,” Bill Brown says. “Our family is proud to continue this legacy. The third generation is now onboard, and I am so happy about that.”

Increasingly, though, the truck equipment business is becoming less and less a family friendly marketplace. Inevitably, the time comes when dad wants to cash out, and no one in the family wants the business their ancestors built and nourished. Plus, changes in the marketplace make it harder to stay competitive.

“The biggest challenge is really the entire scope of any operation,” says Frank Livas, the second-generation president of 49-year-old Brake & Clutch in Salem, Massachusetts. “How much inventory to stock, personnel management, succession planning, finding and keeping best employees. All are important and challenging. We have to keep striving for professionalism.”

“The creation of OEM pools placed local distributors on notice that major changes were on the way; adapt or die,” Kohler says. “Partnering with major manufacturers of truck equipment appears to be the truck equipment’s latest progression. If possible, having a facility involved in ship-through can help turnover and cash flows.”

Increasingly, distributors are being acquired by corporations, and so are their customers. With that comes national sourcing and a lack of influence on the part of the local distributor.

“National offices are buying trucks elsewhere and shipping them to Alaska,” Brown says. “Loyal local customers are telling us there is nothing they can do. But the trucks aren’t spec’d for the Alaskan market. We know trucks, and we know Alaska. In the end, that’s how we will compete. We have expertise, and we provide great service. That’s really all a distributor has to offer.” ♦

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