Unlike any other

THE WABASH NATIONAL Trailer Centers location in San Antonio looks a lot like the other 17 locations throughout North America.

It is a factory-owned branch of Wabash National Corp that deals in new and used trailer sales in dry vans, refrigerated vans, and flatbeds, along with parts and service. It has experienced technicians who work on inspections, suspensions, brakes, fabrications, customizations, welding, interior repair, mobile service, installations, paint work, and roof and door replacement.

With one huge difference — it does several million dollars a year in truck-equipment business.

Mike Eline, GM-branch operations, says there are other locations that dabble in truck equipment, but nothing to the scale of the San Antonio location.

“When I do my budget, San Antonio is the only one I consider to be doing full-fledged truck equipment,” he says. “No other branches are putting bodies on.”

He says other locations have gotten into niche markets — tank repair at Dallas and Scranton, Pennsylvania, for example — because they had been doing it previously as a Fruehauf Trailer Corp branch and have a good reputation.

But across the vast Wabash network, there is nothing quite like San Antonio.

“Wabash has been great about allowing us to continue to do truck equipment,” truck equipment manager Don Colley says. “Truck equipment is all about personal relationships. It all depends on that relationship with your dealers and customers. If you keep a good personal relationship and provide the service they need, you're going to be successful.”

How did a powerhouse trailer OEM get involved in truck equipment?

The history

After Freuhauf filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 1996, Wabash agreed to acquire the sales and distribution network, a trailer plant in Huntsville, Tennessee, and the Fruehauf trade name in North America. Freuhauf's United States manufacturing and sales distribution business was sold in March 1997 at an auction where Wabash was the sole bidder. Wabash offered $19 million in cash, one million shares of Wabash common stock, and $17.6 million of par value Wabash preferred stock.

“Wabash was looking to establish a branch network,” says Eline of the company that was founded in 1985 in Lafayette, Indiana. “There was an opportunity, obviously, with Freuhauf going through bankruptcy. There were a few other branches that were into truck equipment, but over time many of them exited the business due to market conditions, whereas San Antonio has been able to stay competitive in its market and maintain a good volume of business.”

The San Antonio branch started out in the mid-1930s as part of Hobbs Trailers, then became part of Fruehauf in 1956. When GM Bill DeCastro arrived 13 years ago, the branch was doing approximately $1 million in truck-equipment business — the majority of which was from selling van bodies for Supreme.

The branch ultimately lost that when Supreme opened its own store in San Antonio. But six years ago, the San Antonio branch started building its own flatbed bodies. That boosted the branch's truck-equipment business to several million dollars.

“As it turns out, we haven't had any slack time,” DeCastro says. “We've been building bodies constantly. It's been a good business for us. Plus it's kept labor in-house and we didn't have a cash outlay to hold inventory that wasn't appropriate. It helped us immensely as far as cash and meeting customer demand.

“We've been selling a lot more dump bodies since losing the Supreme van-body account, along with a lot more service bodies and cranes. Years ago during the oil-field boom in the 1970s, this branch was doing quite a bit of truck equipment — winch trucks. And we've done a lot more winch trucks in the last two to three years.”

San Antonio has branched out to build extra-large living-quarters on a regular day cab, including a 16' sleeper with a generator, refrigeration unit, microwave, rest room, and beds. Those are used in custom critical freight situations where the truck is parked for two weeks at a time with someone on board at all times, such as during the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. The branch also has built electronic trailers that are taken on location to broadcast football games.

Strong work force

DeCastro credits Colley and service manager Jack Champlin, both of whom have been at the branch for over 40 years — Colley for 50 and Champlin for 45.

“Don's been doing it — and doing it well — for a long time,” he says. “Jack is very good at conceptualizing and fabricating and doing specialized work. We build special dumps that are sealed roof and hydraulic hatches that the city of Austin uses to haul sludge, and a lot of that was Jack's design.”

DeCastro says it isn't easy to become the kind of branch San Antonio is today. It takes a patient approach and hard work over a long period of time.

“You have to start pretty slow, and in some cases there's a steep learning curve in getting established in the market,” he says. “We have two people — Don and Richard Lewis, a truck-equipment salesman — who do nothing but truck equipment, which is what you almost have to do to be successful. We have a close relationship with our dealers. One of Richard's jobs is to go and visit them regularly and make sure we're doing everything we can to meet their needs.

“You have to be committed and go for the market: ‘We're going to get into it and make it work.’ It takes dedicated individuals. In some of the older locations years ago, trailer salesmen would help sell truck equipment. That's just not as successful as having a dedicated truck-equipment individual.”

Says Colley, “We are very close to our clientele. We've built up some great relationships. We do a lot of work for the city of San Antonio and public services, and for Bexar County — dump bodies and service bodies to their specifications, winch rig-ups and platform bodies. Hertz Equipment Rental has been a major account for the past 10 years. We've done most of their field-service trucks for the Southwest region.”

Dedicated mechanics

DeCastro says another key is that the branch has dedicated mechanics assigned to truck equipment.

“There are five or six who specialize in truck equipment,” he says. “There are a lot of hydraulics involved. It's not something you can just pull somebody in and have him start working on it. It takes experienced individuals to do that. You can't just have one mechanic work on truck equipment for one week and then not do anything for three or four weeks.”

DeCastro says the recent acquisition of a 200-ton hydraulic press from Wabash's manufacturing facility in Lafayette will increase efficiency and save the San Antonio branch a significant amount of money each month. Previously, the branch bought steel and was forced to pay 50 cents a pound to have the steel company brake it. He says the branch also will be able to produce other parts in-house.

“If we need something, we can do it immediately,” he says. “We don't have to wait and send somebody to pick it up. It's a big boon to us.”

Parts manager Denny Fleury says truck equipment continues to grow because the branch is so connected with municipalities and cities.

“We just go in there with a reasonable price and good service,” he says. “I think good service helps us 99% of the time. I don't think we always have the best price, but I know we have the best service. We have really good people.”

DeCastro turns it around and says the parts department has been a huge help because it works closely with Colley and stocks all the necessary parts. He says that several years ago, they got together and compiled a list of each body and all the items that go on it.

“You just go to the parts department and they have this sheet that tells them everything they need for a particular job — all the way down to the mud flaps and the nuts and bolts,” he says. “It really works great.”

Won't be duplicated

Could Wabash take a close look at the San Antonio operation and duplicate it elsewhere?

Eline says Wabash executives have asked themselves that question. The answer, he believes, is that it might be difficult to do.

“There tends to be a local market, and if you're not tied into all of that, we're not going to invest to try to fight to enter a market and go uphill,” he says.

Adds DeCastro, “In other cities like Dallas, you're going to have dedicated truck-equipment houses who do only that typically. It would be a harder market to break into, versus another market that doesn't have as much competition. Not that you couldn't, but it'd be tough in some locations where houses have been around awhile and had a clientele, a following and a reputation. It'd be like someone coming in here. We have some competitors, but I don't think they're as well-rounded as we are.”

Eline says his vision for San Antonio's branch is to continue to do what it has been doing.

“Unless something changes drastically in their local market, I think they'll remain strong in truck equipment and continue to grow their service business,” he says.

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