SOUTHERN TRUCK EQUIPMENT has greatly benefited from the popularity that Arizona has experienced for the last 38-plus years. To keep up with that growth, Southern has become as diverse as the Arizona climate.
“The growth in Arizona has been phenomenal for us,” says Darvin Moore, president of Southern Truck Equipment. “Fortunately it has been the type of growth that has bettered our business. It placed a demand in action for our products.”
Arizona's economic growth has been a large part of Southern's success since its inception in 1963. “It's hard to measure environmental growth. It's something that is hard to calculate for a future business plan because the full extent of what that growth is going to do for the company is incalculable. When new people move into an area, that doesn't necessarily mean that new service bodies will be sold.”
Nevertheless, Moore says that the growth in the desert area, Arizona Valley, and the evergreen mountains of Flagstaff have significantly helped the company to become a leader in truck equipment distribution.
Southern grew from a small shop in downtown Phoenix to its present facility in the industrial district. Today, Southern Truck Equipment has two locations serving the Arizona market. “Phoenix is our original location,” says Moore. “The company was started in Phoenix in 1963, moved to a new location in 1968, and then the Tucson location was added in 1971.”
Moore believes that Southern's facilities will capture business on a statewide basis. “We can comprehensively service all of Arizona from our Phoenix and Tucson locations. Customers can reach one of our two locations with ease from anywhere in the state.
“The Phoenix location does more than half of our business handling the work from the valley area and northern Arizona,” says Moore. “Our Tucson facility accounts for about a third of our business. The desert area has been steadily growing for a number of years and does well in supporting that location.”
Moore recognizes that it's not how many locations a company has that makes it visible to customers. It's more important to have salesmen working their territories.
He also says an important lesson is to understand where your company is in the timeline of it's own development. Moore says he recognizes that Southern has become a mature company. “We aren't the new kid on the block. We have to do things that keep us visible to the customers.”
The keys for operating an established company such as Southern are different than establishing a start-up business. “We have established a strong reputation for excellent service and installation work in our markets. But we strive to build and hold that reputation everyday. Word-of-mouth testimonials are very important to us.”
As a manager, Moore strongly recommends using salespeople to keep a mature company in a growing market visible to both old and new customers. “Our salespeople keep our distributorship in the customer's sights by calling on existing and new customers.
“We do a substantial part of our business with truck dealerships throughout Arizona. Whenever our salespeople slack off and aren't calling on dealerships, orders seem to drop down at that time.
“Even thought they know us and in some cases, they have been using us for years, we still have to stay in front of those people. If your sales people are not in front of them on a constant basis, somebody else's sales force is.”
The service side of the business is another important tool for a mature company to attract new business. Much of the new customer base is derived from this service work.
“We'll work on any type of truck body that's sold in the valley. Service customers come to us with problems on new equipment. We also advise customers that if the repair is covered under the manufacturer's warranty, that they should visit the selling dealer.”
Moore says that in many cases those customers have already been to the equipment dealer. “Service customers are looking at several things. They have a piece of equipment that isn't doing the job that they want. They've already visited the selling dealer who may not have the parts to complete the repair. They want the problem fixed and they want it fixed today.
“Customers also want to feel confident about their dealer,” says Moore. “They find that with Southern. We sell professional grade products for people who work with their truck.”
Training is key
Working on the multiple products that Southern services can bring its own set of problems. Like many truck upfitters, Southern works hard to hire and retain qualified professionals to install and repair body components.
Technicians need specialized skills. “These guys have to be multitalented. They must perform layout to electrical installation. Diagnostic skills allow them to repair the bodies. Sometimes that might be an electrical problem with a motor, or it might be a hydraulic problem with a valve. Knowing what to look for and being able to find the problem quickly is value to us and ultimately to the customer.
“I would like to see more NTEA and vendor's workshops held in the western states,” Moore says. “The training is important in today's competitive environment. We don't have time for a technician to figure his way through a job. He has to know how to do it.
“There are some programs that I'd like our technicians to attend. I hope that they will be within a reasonable distance from Arizona.” Moore is interested in the educational programs because they increase his customers' level of confidence in the distributorship.”
Customers certainly have that feeling of confidence when they enter Southern's current Phoenix facility. A wall rack containing hundreds of product brochures are displayed in Southern's offices.
“We distribute so many different types of bodies for so many manufacturers that we've ended up with an entire wall dedicated to product literature,” claims Moore.
On another wall adjacent to Moore's office is the inventory board. By keeping track of the inventory of bodies and major components such as lift- and rail-gates, management is able to keep a close watch on many important issues.
The inventory control system has been honed to provide the best overall view of what's taking place in the shop, the sales floor, and the business in general. “This keeps everything in sight,” says Moore. “We don't loose inventory or jobs.”
The inventory board tracks work for Phoenix and Tucson. Each location has an equipment schedule that runs vertically. This schedule contains the exact model of body and major components that each location normally stocks, along with a figure indicating the number of units in stock.
The colors are as important as the words, says Moore. Black indicates a unit in stock, red indicates a unit on order, and blue indicates a sold unit.
Sales people are required to enter their takedown of inventory as body installations are contracted. When a sale is completed, and the body is unavailable, the board displays the order date and expected date of delivery to Southern.
“This also allows for other avenues of inventory management,” says Moore. “If we have chassis on order, and they are several weeks out, we can use the beds on-hand for other customer installations. That keeps our customers happy, plus it promotes a lower operating cost and inventory turnover for Southern.”
Moore touts the fact that the board is old technology. “Sometimes using the simplistic technique yields better results or gets the job done in a more effective way. I see the inventory board every time I walk out of my office. If it were hidden in my computer, I'd never look at it. Neither would anyone else.”
Open air environment
Southern built the Phoenix building in 1968. Land surrounding the building is covered with office warehouses. “We were the first building in this area and on this street in 1968,” Moore claims. “It's been interesting watching the area develop over the 30 plus years that I've been with the company.”
The main installation and repair area is, in the Arizonian fashion, a steel roofing system that covers approximately 20,000 square feet.
The 240-ft by 80-ft roof covers six, 40-foot-wide drive thru openings. Normally this would provide twelve workstations, except that one station is enclosed to provide a tool and parts storage area.
The cover was designed specifically with the body upfitting and trailer repair business in mind, using a steel fabrication technique that makes the interior of the covered area column-free. This adds a great amount of mobility for technicians working under the structure.
With a 35-foot-interior height, repairing trailers, crane installations, or manufacturing a taller, specialized body isn't a problem for technicians.
Southern manufactures many specialized bodies, but the majority of the work is the installation of pre-manufactured bodies.
“We don't dedicate a lot of the installation space for manufacturing tooling. We have been subcontracting many of our metal forming requirements to a local company, Capital Engineering, in Phoenix. That includes our entire shear and press brake operations. This lowers our operating cost and improves our job scheduling.
“We like specializing in installing the bodies,” Moore says. “We have quicker turn-a-round for the customer, and a better return on our investment by staying very focused on body installation.”
Tucson operates in a similar fashion. “We are very strong in the body installation business,” says Bill Murray, operations manager for the Tucson location. “We don't have as many dealerships in Tucson as in Phoenix; however, we are a very strong service and contractor's market.”
Murray says that service work is equally important in Tucson and Phoenix. Similarly to the Phoenix location, Tucson subcontracts any metal forming business.
Another similarity is that Tucson managers will service any brand of truck body that comes through the door. “We get a lot of new customers based on our service performance. This is especially true in Tucson where business is still done on a first name basis.
“We also get out-of-state companies. They are moving into the area and their equipment needs service. They find us, like us, and we gain their branch office's business here in Tucson.”
The Tucson facility was opened in 1971. It is comprised of seven bays under an industrial roofing system similar to the Phoenix operation.
“Jim Wood and Larry Boccardo, the original cofounders of Southern Truck Equipment, believed in the deep commitment that their company makes to the community and Arizona,” says Moore. Wood died in 2001.
“When the two started the business in 1963, they barely had a facility that was large enough for both men to sit in at the same time. When I joined in 1965, it was much the same since the new building hadn't been built.
“It was always funny to Wood and Boccardo that we could all be so cramped, in a place where land was so open and plentiful.”
Ample space isn't a problem today. Today it appears that Southern Truck Equipment is sitting comfortably in Arizona.