Trailer Parts Dealer's Success Rests in Effective People Skills

As owner and president of Western Trailer Repair in Seattle, Washington, the one thing that Carl Terrana values most is his relationships with people, whether employees, customers, or a stranger he just met.

"Treat your employees as well as you treat your customers," Terrana says. "That's my philosophy - It's just common sense."

When speaking with Terrana, most notable is his expression of sincere appreciation for his employees. Terrana gives his employees most of the credit for the success of Western Trailer Repair.

Terrana gained this appreciation for his employees when he was an employee of the company he now owns. In 1955, began sweeping floors for what was then Riddell Trailer & Equipment Company. Terrana later delivered parts, became a mechanic, and then shop foreman.

"The jobs I held gave me a good background," Terrana says.

Riddell was sold to Kenworth Northwest in 1974, and the name of the company was changed to Seaworth Equipment Company. Kenworth promoted Terrana to service manager.

Purchased From Kenworth In 1977, Terrana borrowed $60,000 from his father and bought the company from Kenworth Northwest. Then he changed the name of the company to Western Trailer Repair.

"Back then, it was just a repair business," Terrana says. Since purchasing the company and becoming president, Terrana hired his daughter Mickele and sons Mark, Jeff, and Dino. Terrana is slowly turning over control of the company to his children as he nears retirement age.

Because Terrana wants his children to have his same appreciation for the employees, their first jobs at the company were floor sweepers. For several years, Mickele drove a parts delivery truck.

Terrana's oldest son, Dino, is now the parts manager of Western Trailer. He is well-schooled in his father's management style and shares his sentiments.

"Employees are not just numbers at our company," says Dino Terrana. "I want people to be happy about coming to work here in the morning."

Because of their working conditions, trailer mechanics may not think particularly well of themselves, says Dino Terrana. Mechanics spend their work days in coveralls, often with arms covered in grease up to their elbows.

"We just treat employees like they are as important as the owners," he says.

A Business Philosophy The Terranas' business philosophy extends beyond their relationships with customers and employees. For example, Dino and several co-workers were rushing to unload a trailer with a forklift on a hot summer afternoon.

A truck driver parked across the street needed to deliver a load of steel to the business adjacent to Western Trailer Repair. Even though they were busy, Terrana and his co-workers unloaded the trailer for the truck driver.

"He had no way to unload," says Dino. "The guy was stuck there. Even though we were busy, we helped him out."

Since then, that truck driver started his own business and is now one of the company's most loyal customers, Terrana says. Positive interaction with customers helps motivate the Terranas and other members of management.

One way Western Trailer keeps its employees motivated is with a job performance review every six months, says Carl Terrana. They receive a bonus based on their performance review. In addition, Western has a profit-sharing program for its employees.

"I always pay bonuses to all my employees," Terrana says. "This company has a lot of good employees, and we all work hard."

For Western Trailer to survive, the company's employees had to work hard, Terrana says. Located about three miles from downtown Seattle, Western Trailer repair is near one of the largest seaports on the West Coast.

Thousands of Trailers Steamship companies such as American President Lines and Seattle Stevedoring of America have thousands of trailers, containers, and chassis in need of repair. From the late 70s to the mid 80s, five other trailer repair companies were competing for the same business within 10 miles of Western's shop.

"They were trying to beat us up all the time on price," Terrana says. "Now they're all gone, but we're still here. We did this by taking care of our employees."

One of the employees most responsible for Western Trailer Repair's success is Ross Cameron, who helped with the business after Terrana purchased it. Cameron was Western's first parts manager.

"Ross freed me up so I could make sales calls," Terrana says. "I couldn't have done it without him."

Besides Western Trailer's employees, Terrana credits Trailmobile with the company's success in parts sales. He says Trailmobile provided a large inventory and competitive pricing to help Western expand sales.

Of the Trailmobile parts dealers in the US, Western sells the second highest volume of trailer parts. To recognize this accomplishment, Trailmobile presented Western Trailer Repair with an award at its dealer council meeting in October 1997 in Phoenix, Arizona.

"You never have it made in business, but we've reached a plateau where it's finally paying off," Terrana says. "Even though we're successful, we're not complacent. Western will expand its parts sales because we can capture a larger market share than we now have."

Fire Destroys Shop The success enjoyed by Western Trailer Repair almost came to an abrupt end in 1992 when a fire completely destroyed the repair shop and offices. The heat from the fire warped steel I-beams supporting a 20-ton overhead crane that fell into the building when the burning roof collapsed.

Because the company's insurance provider was insolvent, Western Trailer Repair was on the brink of financial disaster, Terrana says. The insurance company was unable to cover Western's $1.5-million loss so it could rebuild.

Even though Western reopened 30 days later at a rented facility three miles away, the company badly needed business. Customers began to return slowly. Recognizing Western's predicament, they tried to help.

Many customers brought in extra work. One of the first was the truck driver whose trailer Western employees unloaded on a busy afternoon years earlier. Customers brought in more business even though they had to wait longer for repairs to be made in Western's makeshift facility.

A year later, the shop was rebuilt with money from Carl Terrana's own pocket and $300,000 from an emergency fund set up by the State of Washington. The insurance claim was eventually paid four years later.

"After the fire, we grew by one third in five years," Terrana says. Dramatic Parts Growth

One of the most dramatic areas of Western Trailer's growth is in parts sales. When Terrana purchased the company in 1977, Western became a parts distributor for Trailmobile Trailers, Great Dane, and later Wabash National. The company also became one of the largest dealers on the West Coast for tailgate lifts.

In 1977, Western sold $20,000 of parts to repair trailers in its shop. Today, the shop uses up to $75,000 each month to repair trailers. Including outside sales, total gross receipts from parts sales are up to $375,000 a month.

The return from trailer sales is not as great, Terrana says. But trailer sales provide an opportunity for future parts sales. The profit margin on trailer sales is one to five percent, or about $900 to $1,500 for a van trailer.

"We break even on trailer sales, but are increasing our customer base for parts sales every time we sell a trailer," Terrana says. "Western has an average profit of 24% on parts sales. That's the return I like to see."

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