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A new generation of distributors

April 5, 2017
March 2017 editorial

One of the things we have always appreciated about truck equipment distributors is that many of these companies continue to be family businesses.

Messer Truck Equipment, for example, is continuity on steroids. Founded in 1899, the company has been passed down from one generation to the next.

But looking at it this way would be wrong. You don’t pass down a family business like it’s some sort of heirloom. We might inherit Grandpa’s pocket watch. Inheriting his truck equipment operation is an entirely different matter.

Instead of looking at a company as something that is to be handed down, we need to view the next generation as something to be raised up. As the Messer family and countless other family-owned shops know, the next generation may have a legal claim to the company’s assets because of their last name. But keeping that company alive and thriving is something that has to be learned—and earned—rather than handed down.

Trailer/Body Builders did not set out to make this year’s Distributor Issue a clarion call to truck equipment distributors to start grooming their heirs early. It is purely a coincidence that two of the company profile stories in this issue could lead you to conclude that.

Take the case of Nichols Fleet Equipment. David Nichols started the company as a young man 25 years ago. He owned it. He grew it. He made the decisions. And then a few months ago his wife without any warning suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, and his business life came to an abrupt halt. For three months, he devoted almost all of his attention to his wife’s recovery, helping her become one of only 2% of those who recover from this type of trauma. He was able to devote that amount of time away from his business in part because he had begun training his sons to run portions of the business. (See story How one distributor is combining the best of two generations to perpetuate his business and satisfy his customers).

Pat Hilsinger, manager of Utility Trailer Sales of Oregon, knows firsthand how quickly life can change. She has been running the Portland-based dealership since her husband Paul passed away several years ago. She, too, has been preparing the next generation to run the business. In her case, the pupil is her daughter Elizabeth who is now the general manager of the company’s new dealership—Utility Trailer Sales of Central Oregon. (See story Utility Trailer Sales of Central Oregon powers forward supplemented by the sun, winning energy accolades).

Letting go of a company that you have built can be difficult, but the consequences of not doing so can be deadly. We are reminded of a convention speaker who told the story about a member of the audience who asked him about his son.

“I eventually want to retire and turn things over to my son,” the old man said, “but the boy isn’t getting the hang of it. What can you do to help me?”

“How old is your son?” the speaker asked.

“Oh, he is 65.”

If you want your company to last longer than you do, it might be good to start the process early.

So what does the future hold for the next generation of truck equipment distributors?

Based on the research we did for the “Shop of the Future” story (see Page 20), the family-owned truck equipment shop will probably look like the shop of today. The biggest changes will be ones that we can’t see. Yet they are just as real and challenging to manage. Among them:

•  Increased competitive pressures on family-owned businesses

•  The growing use of truck electronics.

•  The difficulty in hiring and training technicians.

•  New management ideas that will make shops more productive.

Overall, the commercial truck business is expected to continue to grow as e-commerce and other forces bring changes to North America’s transportation system. This bodes well for larger truck equipment distributors who have chassis pools, but it also holds promise for smaller shops that can take the time to design, sell, and produce the high-spec trucks that will be required for tomorrow’s commercial market.

So what else should we expect? We know that more technology is coming. How can we master the technology on the truck for the maximum benefit for our customers? How can we best harness office technology to increase our own productivity or develop new ideas that increase shop efficiency?

Maybe it’s time to ask the kids. ♦