Wrestling Coach Builds Trailer Team

How Utility/Keystone Trailer Sales advanced to the Trailer Dealer of the Year finals IT'S 7 O'CLOCK on a Friday morning, and virtually every employee at the new Utility/Keystone Trailer Sales facility in Manheim, Pennsylvania, is gathered around a quadrangle of folding tables in the upstairs meeting room.

The official purpose of the gathering is the monthly all-company meeting. Some of the employees arrive before the 7 am starting time - despite having been at the shop until 10 o'clock the night before. Yet the atmosphere in the room is upbeat, more closely resembling a pep rally than an obligatory monthly meeting where everyone must be sitting down about the time the sun comes up.

The employees at Utility/Keystone have a lot to celebrate these days. The reason so many were at the dealership the previous night was to wrap up the open house that marked the grand opening of the company's new 16-bay shop and 6,000-sq-ft parts warehouse, one made necessary by an annual grow rate of 30% the past three years.

As the meeting proceeds, comments on how well the open house went soon give way to reports on how well the company is doing. One by one, employees report on how their department performed during the month, what their critical target goals (CTG) were, and how that compared with actual performance. The critical target goals can be anything quantifiable and measurable, including gross sales, gross margin, profits, or how many invoices were processed on time.

Everyone in the room knows what parts sales were for the month, how well inventory is turning, how many trailers were sold, and how much money the company made. The news is good. Cheers fill the room.

Birthdays are acknowledged. Service anniversaries are recognized. Top performers for the month are honored in each department. And one employee wins the right to sit in the "Dean's chair" for the duration of the meeting.

The meeting is but one way that Utility/Keystone builds teamwork - a team that has shown that it can win parts sales, trailer business, and a top spot in the National Trailer Dealer of the Year competition. Whether the Utility/Keystone team or one of the other three finalists wins the award will be announced at the National Trailer Dealer Association convention November 1-4.

Coaching the Team The trailer dealership's team approach is not surprising, given the background of the company and its owner/founder. To put it briefly, Utility/Keystone got its start when two wrestling fans in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, asked the head coach of a local college wrestling team if he wanted to get into the trailer business.

Stan Zeamer, a former all-American wrestler and member of the U S Olympic Committee, was the head wrestling coach at Franklin & Marshall College in 1978 when Bob and Nelson Behmer - owners of a Peterbilt dealership in Lancaster, Pennsylvania - needed someone to help them start a trailer dealership. The three agreed to be equal partners in the operation, an agreement that remained until Zeamer bought out his two partners in 1984.

"I didn't know anything about the trailer business at the time, but I was willing to learn," Zeamer recalls. "My partners taught me a lot. The most important things that I learned were the value of collecting receivables promptly and the importance of holding your margins. We have to have decent margins to remain in business. The way we hold our margins is by providing a high level of customer service. You can only do that through teamwork."

During the first few years Zeamer was in business, he managed it the way his partners did. But he felt himself doing things that were not quite his style.

"One day a light came on," he says. "It occurred to me that running a business is a lot like coaching. I stopped trying to run the company in a way that was not my own. I developed my own style of management that is more in line with what I have learned from athletics and coaching."

That style can best be described as one that places a heavy emphasis on teamwork. The approach is working. The company that began with a small office and a single service bay has grown to be one of Utility Trailer Manufacturing's largest dealers, with sales of $40 million expected for 2000.

Motivating the Team In sports, players know what they are trying to accomplish, and they can see the scoreboard. That is not always the case in the workplace, where some managers tell employees only what they believe workers need to know. At Utility/Keystone, the company and each employee have specific goals to achieve.

It's tough trying to bowl when you can't see the pins. At Utility/Keystone, everyone sees the pins.

"We have an open-book style of management here," Zeamer says. "We don't have any secrets. The old school of management hides information - and they hide ideas. But we are convinced that when you share ideas, you get ideas."

The company also has introduced a variety of other methods for motivating the team. They include incentives for individuals, groups of employees, and for the entire company.

Building a Team In a period of acute labor shortages, highly qualified job applicants are a rare breed. Most companies today are hard pressed to find good human beings and then give them the skills they need to do the job.

Zeamer does not shy away from bringing in outsiders to work on the coaching staff. One such consultant is Diana Hartman, president of Comp Assist in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Her company, which specializes in helping companies control worker compensation costs, trains Utility/Keystone periodically on the subject of maintaining a healthy workplace. She also meets monthly with the company's safety committee, a group composed of members of every department - not just the shop.

Laura Schantz, a marketing consultant, handles sales training and the company's annual sales contest. She works in partnership with Roger North, a consultant who works with the management team.

Ray Faidley is a performance consultant who helps management build its strategic plan and to identify ways to close the gaps when results fall short of plan objectives. He has been working 40 hours per month, in part helping Bryan develop the leadership skills required for the company's chief operating officer and working with Bill in the area of sales. Faidley also joins the company's attorney and accountant as part of a succession team that is grooming Zeamer's sons Bryan and Bill.

One of Stan Zeamer's goals is to be able to turn management of the company over to his sons. He finds that grooming the next generation with the help of a third party is more objective and far less stressful than to do it directly.

"All of us have strong personalities," Zeamer says. "A third party is more objective in his perspective, and he holds us accountable."

Understanding One Another Stan's wife Elli, while not an outsider in the family business, also adds perspective typically not found in a trailer dealership. She has a degree in sociology and has been working to strengthen teamwork by helping employees understand one another.

Under her guidance, each employee takes the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator assessment designed to identify key personality traits. These characteristics (all positive) are shared, along with the percentage of the general population showing these combinations of traits. Employees understand themselves a little better, and they work on ways to deal with people with differing personality types.

Among the areas Elli Zeamer has addressed with the employees at Utility/Keystone are interpersonal communications, conducting meetings, and how to provide and receive feedback from others. At the September company meeting, for example, she discussed some of the Myers-Briggs basic principles. They include:

- Focus on the situation, not the person.

- Maintain self confidence (your own and that of the other person).

- Maintain constructive relationships.

- Take the initiative to make things better.

- Lead by example.

Cliff Zeamer, Stan's brother, is another family member who plays a key role in the success of Utility/Keystone.

"Cliff has been a cornerstone of this company," Stan says. "He is one of the top used trailer managers in the country."

To increase understanding between its customers and employees, Utility/Keystone instituted its Ambassador Program in 1996.

Under the Ambassador Program, a small group of Utility/Keystone employees periodically tour the facilities of major customers, taking photographs and asking questions about the customer and its operations. They are not to talk about Utility/Keystone, because the purpose of the trip is to learn about the customer and to build relationships. It is not a sales call.

After touring the customer's location, Utility/Keystone personnel write a profile of the customer and post it on the wall at the dealership.

New Parts Display A 6,000-sq-ft parts warehouse and display area is one of the new features of the facility Utility/Keystone completed this year.

"We did not have a parts display area like this in our old location," Zeamer says. "But it's been a good addition for us. After all, we have to have the parts in stock. Why not put them out where people can see them?"

The main customer entrance to the building leads directly into the parts display. The most visible item in the display area is the parts counter - a custom creation made to resemble a van trailer. The counter itself is made of laminated trailer flooring (rather than aluminum roof sheet), but like a van, the sides are prepainted aluminum - complete with working marker lamps. Swing doors form one end of the counter, and a trailer front wall is at the other end, with required lights in place. The parts counter probably could comply with FMVSS 108 if necessary.

"The parts counter has been a big hit," Zeamer says. "Other dealers have seen it and are considering doing the same thing."

Covering the Territory Utility/Keystone has two outside parts salesmen who cover a one-hour radius (approximately 50 miles) of the shop. They also operate three parts routes on a rotating basis, meaning that customers can expect to see the Utility/Keystone delivery van once every other week.

The delivery vehicles, General Motors G vans, routinely travel into Philadelphia and southern New Jersey to the east and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to the west.

"Our dealership covers 37 counties in Pennsylvania - about half the state," Zeamer says.

Utility/Keystone ships parts to customers outside the delivery area or those requiring delivery ahead of the regularly scheduled time.

The dealership gets more than 80% of its parts inventory through the Utility Trailer Manufacturing parts program. Brakes, lighting, suspension parts, along with captive Utility trailer parts, are among the department's top-selling parts lines. The company keeps an average of $750,000 in inventory.

While the 6,000-sq-ft parts display and warehouse areas provide storage for most parts, the company chooses to store lengthy extrusions such as top and bottom rails in a trailer kept in the yard. Zeamer says doing so keeps the parts protected and reduces handling. The extrusions are unloaded from the trailer and delivered directly to the service bay.

Making Parts, Service Mesh The service shop is the best customer of the Utility/Keystone parts department. To help keep that customer satisfied, the company has a separate parts counter for the shop and one parts specialist to serve the shop while two other inside salespeople handle retail sales.

The shop counterman is responsible for providing each mechanic with the package of parts he is projected to need for the job he is about to perform.

"We are trying to make it easier for everyone to do his job by packaging everything we can," Zeamer says. "That includes the parts, and it also includes the tools."

The shop has begun using tool bins mounted on casters. Each bin is placed between bays, at the rear. This enables one tool bin to serve four bays.

A look through the 16-bay shop will reveal a lot of items mounted on casters. Even garbage cans have wheels.

"We want everything to be portable," Zeamer says. "It's a lot more efficient to bring things to the mechanic than to have the mechanic go get whatever he needs."

As wheel-mounted equipment is increasing in the Utility/Keystone shop, ladders are disappearing. They are being replaced by personnel lifts that operate on rechargeable batteries. And yes, they are mounted on wheels.

"They are expensive," Zeamer says. "But they are a lot safer."

Designing the Shop The shop has eight drive-through bays, enabling it to handle 16 trailers and still have a center aisle running the length of the shop.

Under normal conditions, the center aisle makes it convenient to move parts and equipment as needed. But an overhead door at the end of the center aisle enables the center aisle to be converted into a service bay should demand warrant it.

Epoxy paint seals the porous concrete shop floor, making it easier to clean and resistant to oil and grease. Stripes painted on top of the epoxy run along the boundaries of the bay, guiding drivers as they back trailers into the shop. Numbers painted on the shop floor and outside above the door make it simple for drivers and mechanics to identify each bay.

Utility/Keystone represents Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company. The dealer also sells the aluminum platform trailers produced by Reitnouer Inc, and the grain and livestock lines produced by Wilson Trailer Company.

The company keeps approximately 175 trailers in inventory, along with 200 or more used trailers also in the yard.

"When we were looking to relocate, we considered one 14-acre site before deciding to buy the 42 acres we have here," Zeamer says. "It's a good thing we bought here, because the other site would have been too small before we even moved in. It's amazing how much land you need to sell trailers."

One of Three The Manheim location is one of three that Utility/Keystone operates. The company also has a 13,500-sq-ft shop in Bridgeville, Delaware, and a small sales and service facility in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The Scranton location helps the company serve customers in the northeast portion of its sales territory. It is staffed by a service manager, two service technicians, and a new and used trailer salesman. The facilities include an office and two service bays.

The Bridgeville branch is a full-service facility that strengthens the company's presence in Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore. The operation became part of Utility/Keystone when the company purchased Eastern Trailer Repair Service, a trailer sales and service company, in 1994. After operating the company in its Federalsburg, Maryland, location for three years, Utility/Keystone built a new shop just across the border in Delaware.

Beyond that, Zeamer has plans for additional locations in the near future. Because when it comes to building teams, Utility/Keystone has not placed any limits on the size of its roster.

Discarded beverage containers can lead to fines of up to $1,700, according to Diana Hartman, president of a safety consulting firm hired to help Utility/Keystone employees understand workplace safety.

The fines are not for littering - they are OSHA citations for violating the agency's hazard communication standard.

In a presentation at the September company meeting of Utility/Keystone employees, she pointed out that OSHA requires containers to be labeled. She said the requirement is part of the agency's hazardous communication standard.

"OSHA requires containers to be labeled, because you have a right to know the substances you work around," she said.

She cited instances where coffee cups have been filled with motor oil, and Sprite or 7-Up bottles have been filled with solvents. Thinking that the contents were drinkable, someone else comes along later and consumes the contents.

These types of containers can be used to hold other liquids, but the contents should be labeled. Proving her point that people will drink unknown substances: Several of the plastic bottles of fruit drink she had placed in front of each person attending the meeting had been consumed by the time she gave her presentation - despite the fact that these commercially available drinks were not properly labeled.

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