Where can you buy character?

BECAUSE of the nature of the products that our industry produces, trust in our suppliers is mandatory. Commercial trucks often include equipment that operators literally entrust with their lives to perform a specific job safely and effectively. Additionally, trucks and trailers perform in an environment — our streets and highways — where operator error is commonplace and product safety is mandatory.

Who are the people producing the components that we buy? Can we trust them? Can we trust their products? If we do, on what basis and by what standard do we place that trust?

As always, this year's Trailer/Body Builders Buyer's Guide is designed to help you find your options. Once you have identified who the potential suppliers are, you can evaluate your best buying choices, eventually selecting the company that most closely matches your needs and those of your customers.

It sounds simple, but selecting a vendor is more than just buying a product. It also means buying into the way the vendor does business. In this industry, producing a truck or trailer is a team effort that involves a lot of different companies. These companies in effect share the business — and the responsibility — when the truck or trailer is sold.

The overwhelming majority of companies involved in the commercial truck body and trailer business — manufacturers, distributors, suppliers — are small, privately owned enterprises that are busy trying ethically to make a buck. Most are too small or too honest to run the sort of scams that have rocked the nation the past few months.

As a result of these scandals, we have seen a virtual meltdown of trust in the corporate world. Hardly a day goes by without a revelation of financial deceit on the part of a major corporation. Check out this snapshot taken from our local newspaper one average day in July:

  • “Flaws in Dynegy's bookkeeping caused the company to overstate earnings by about $125 million, on a pretax basis, over an undetermined amount of time, the company revealed Monday.”

  • “A top financial officer at WorldCom told colleagues last month he hoped he never would have to explain accounting irregularities to securities regulators, according to internal documents turned over to Congress.”

  • “Army Secretary Thomas White on Monday denied reports that he plans to dodge a Senate inquiry into Enron Corp later this week, promising to talk without refuge in Fifth Amendment protections.”

  • “Prosecutors are preparing to indict John Rigas, founder of Adelphia Communications Corp, and three of his children for allegedly taking part in accounting gimmicks and self-dealing at the bankrupt cable television firm, sources close to the investigation said. Adelphia has been under fire since March, when it revealed that it had doled out more than $3 billion in loans to company executives. Adelphia also inflated the number of subscribers to its cable service and overstated its revenue and cash flow by some $500 million in the past two years, according to recent disclosures it made in securities filings.”

On this same day, the Senate responded to the chicanery with legislation designed to tighten regulation of corporate auditors and make executives more accountable for their conduct. We aren't sure that a proclamation supporting motherhood and apple pie could get unanimous approval in the Senate, but this measure passed 97 to nothing. Getting a highly partisan Senate to fast track such legislation is an indication of just how aware Congress is of the public's disgust with accounting abuses, corporate con artists, plunging stock prices, and executives who steer corporations with both fists and all ten toes firmly planted in the stockholders' cookie jar.

Clearly lawmakers saw a need to repair investors' battered trust and prevent further damage to the economy. We suspect, though, that whatever becomes law will be far more effective as a public relations boon for Congress (“see, constituents, I supported legislation to clean up Corporate America”) than it ever will be for making Wall Street a foolproof place to put grandma's retirement money.

That's because the real problem goes deeper than a law can reach. Our eroding confidence in corporations is not a failure of our regulations. It's a failure of character. And while laws can help clean up our behavior, they do nothing to purify our motives.

In this post-9/11 era, we see signs everywhere that say, “God Bless America.” But now that our financial markets have lost trillions in value and our commercial institutions have lost priceless trust, perhaps it's time to say, “America Bless God” by doing what's right instead of what's expedient.

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