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Zappia Thrives with Eclectic Approach

After Focusing on Semitrailers for Nearly 30 Years, Buffalo Company Finds Growth in Diversity

Tony Zappia Sr looks at his company today and wonders where the years have gone.

This isn't Elto Truck Repair Inc, which he founded in 1967 in Kenmore, New York, to fulfill his childhood dream. That was a company based on his background: the vocational training he received to become a master mechanic, and then his experience as a service manager at a company that focused on heavy-duty trailers and tractors. That was a company that took on his son, Tony Jr, in 1971, and took on contracts with the major fleets.

This isn't Zappia Transportation Services Inc, the next incarnation. That was a company that sold its location in Cheektowaga, a Buffalo suburb, in 1980 and acquired Santillo Transportation, a contract mail carrier for the US Postal Service. That was a company that became the biggest mail hauler east of the Mississippi River while still selling and servicing semitrailers.

This is Zappia Enterprises Inc. This is a company that evolved after the sale of the mail-hauling operations in 1989 and moved into an 80,000-sq-ft shop and warehouse facility off Route 190 in Buffalo. This is a company that does a little bit of everything these days on its 9 11/42-acre spread.

It sells new and used semitrailers, tagalong construction trailers, open or enclosed utility trailers, and livestock trailers. It is the state's largest volume dealer in used semis, including van, flat, reefer, dropdeck, lowboy, converter dolly, open-top, dump, and storage. It is western New York's headquarters for the full line of lightweight Sno-Way snowplows. It takes on any type of repair work. It is a licensed New York State inspection station. It has a large supply of storage trailers for sale and lease, and also provides over-the-road trailer rentals. It carries a complete line of parts for trailers and snowplows.

Children Part of the Package And it even sells children's pull wagons and all-terrain dirt tricycles.

"We get grandmothers and grandfathers in here to buy for their grandchildren," Tony Sr says. "It's different working with them than it is a trucker."

"It helps you keep your sanity," says Tony Jr, who took on the title of president in 1980. "You're not just dealing with trucking companies all the time, sitting there with a written quotation. It gives you a different cross-section of people and breaks things up for you. We're selling trailers for everything from race cars to Civil War cannons.

"It makes things a little more interesting. One niche gets a little bit boring. For a long time, we were doing strictly semis. This fills in the low spots. When things quiet down in the truck end - which they do, because historically in the trailer business, it's feast or famine - this keeps us busy all year. I can't say we've had any slow months in the last three or four years."

The sales force of Tony Jr and Jerry May (who started in 1978) is pressed to handle the increased work and remain knowledgeable on the eclectic product lines Zappia carries. The company is considering hiring a new salesman, but Tony Jr knows it will be difficult to find someone who can seamlessly adapt.

"I think Jerry and I have been at it long enough to where once you get your base in, you absorb things as you go along," he says. "It isn't too hard to keep up with it. But it'd be tough to train a new guy to cover that many things at once. There are a lot of different products. But they're all trailers. It's still basically a trailer."

Versatility is a Strong Point How versatile is Zappia Enterprises?

It has built trailers that were a part of Operation Desert Storm. (The Harris Corp enlisted Zappia's services for a trailer to serve as a generating station and another one for surveillance.)

It has sold reefers that went to Morocco to haul ice cream.

It has built containment trailers for hauling hazardous material.

It has modified a trailer to haul elephants. (Tony Jr's first question: "What do we know about elephants?" Well, he found out what he needed to know, then modified the trailer by installing drain holes, armor-plating the sides, and installing barred windows.)

It has sold a trailer to a Civil War buff (a 6' x 12' tandem axle) who used it to haul his cannon to re-enactments.

And at least once a week, it sells a Fun Wagon. The level of mechanical sophistication is a bit lower than that of a Moritz BobCat Trailer, which it also sells, but the market is there. Zappia stocks everything from a Berlin Wee Toddler F100 (a 10-lb unit with 5" wheels and a 22" body, and a $38 price tag) to the JB Bigfoot Tandem (a 120-lb, three-axle unit with 5/8" ball-bearing, 13" pneumatic tires, a 1,000-lb load capacity, oak decks, nontip steering, and a $395 price tag).

"It's not unusual on a Saturday morning to sell two or three of them," Tony Jr says.

A Stoughton Dealer That's the nontraditional side of Zappia. The traditional side is anchored by trailers and snowplows.

Zappia is a dealer for Stoughton and handles a variety of vans, open-tops, converter dollies, and flatbeds. Zappia started out with Clark Equipment Trailers in 1972, switched to Trailmobile in 1975, and then to Stoughton in 1981. Zappia, which deals in a large number of doubles trailers, was originally attracted by Stoughton's method of installing pintle hooks.

"It's a good trailer," Tony Jr says. "They're a company that's on the move. In '81, they were building 1,500 units. They were over 28,000 in '98. We've kind of grown with them. It's a nice company to deal with because if you have a problem, you can go right to the owner. You might not like the answer you get, but at least you get the final word. But it's good quality and they stand behind it."

Zappia also was impressed with Sno-Way and became a distributor in 1986. Now Zappia is one of Sno-Way's oldest and largest dealers. It has four subdealers located around the state but still sells the bulk of the snowplows.

Since 1990, it has sold Sno-Way's Predator snowplow, a lightweight unit featuring the GE Lexan see-through moldboard, an easy-on, easy-off attachment, and the only available down-pressure system for backdragging and scraping. In 1997, Sno-Way added the LOBO Multiposition V Plow, featuring full tripping capabilities in all positions.

Tony Jr on the Predator: "It's a real innovative product, a real niche for guys with fancy SUVs and pickups. We've got a plow that weighs under 550 pounds but has 500 pounds of down pressure on it. So the guy, without overloading the front of the truck, can put 200 more pounds on the ground. A lot of trucks aren't as beefy in the front end as they used to be. We've got plows for S-10 Blazers and Toyota 4Runners which, in this part of the market, a lot of our competitors don't address."

Zappia sold over 160 snowplows last year, accounting for over $500,000 in sales. Zappia also is a dealer for the Sno-Way Opta-Flow Swing-a-way salt spreader, Snow-Way V-box spreader, and Sno-Way Broomer.

Internet Push a Success Zappia has used a variety of sales/marketing techniques, including direct mailing, radio advertising (on WBEN, Buffalo's No. 1 news talk show), and use of the Internet. Tony Jr says the company has been very pleased with the sales generated by its web site (

"We got in fairly early, compared to a lot of trailer dealers," he says. "We do a lot of plow business off it - parts have gone from here to New Jersey and Long Island. We've had people come in from as far as Albany to buy a plow, which kind of shocked me. And we've shipped plows out of town. Same with trailers. We've recently sold three Haulmark Trailers to a company in Billings, Montana. Our sales of Haulmark enclosed trailers will top 100 units this year, not to mention the sales of open utility trailers and tagalong dump trailers."

It's working. The company's gross sales in the past three years have increased from $2.5 million to $4.5 million. Over a five-year period, profits have tripled. Tony Jr says the company will inevitably outgrow its facility and will need to expand to one that will be more of a showroom-type setup for its retail products. Other than that, he doesn't foresee any major changes.

"I can see us sticking with our current lines and adding a few as far as truck accessories," he says. "Right now, we're so diverse that we're just starting to get to our potential with some of the lines we have. A lot of them we've had for five years or less. They're growing every day, so we'll work on developing them.

"It took awhile, being well-known as a semitrailer business for 30 years, for people to identify our name with utility trailers, snowplows for pickups, and that type of retail market. But the retail side of the business really blossomed the last four years. I think it will continue to grow. It's exceeding 50% of our business. I think it will get bigger than that."

It's a Family Affair From the very beginning, the company has been a family affair. Tony Jr arrived in 1971, working in parts and in the shop. Sister Debi arrived in 1978 as office manager. Their mother, Audrey, handles accounts payable. Tony Jr's wife, Debbie, worked there for three years, handling accounts receivable and installing the computer system. Throughout the years, cousins and uncles have lent a hand.

"We get along good," Tony Jr says. "We've learned to leave work at work. For me and my dad, that was never a problem. He and I worked together long before my mom and sister came aboard, so we could call each other names all day. We used to drive to and from work together. We could hop in the car and turn it off like a switch.

"When the girls started, it was a bit tougher. But as time went on, they found out why we don't talk about it at home. You have enough of it by the end of the day."

The Zappia family has been ingrained in the Buffalo community since Tony Sr's father emigrated from Italy in 1916 and married an area woman. Tony Sr has been an advocate of Burgard Vocation High School, where he learned the mechanic trade. Tony Jr has been president of the Lions Club. They have a stake in Buffalo. They've built their company on that notion.

"You've got people who have a personal interest in the business and the commitment and the pride in it, along with the community," Tony Jr says. "Most of our employees have been here eight to 10 years, or longer. It's almost like an extended family here. It's been a very good experience, being a smaller business in Buffalo."

Tony Sr supposedly retired eight years ago at age 62, but he still works six hours a day. He's not going anywhere, either.

"He'd get bored to death staying home," Tony Jr says. "He's one of those Depression children. You work when you're 13 years old and you don't know what else to do. Our employees bought him a set of golf clubs 15 years ago, and they've never left the bag. He's got this business, his grandchildren, and an old car that he plays with. That keeps him busy enough. And he still enjoys what he's doing."

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