When Robert Ashby planned his new 38,500-sq-ft truck equipment shop a couple of years ago, he had envisioned a modern facility to house his growing collection of truck-related companies.
The building would be particularly well suited for new truck equipment installations, the key business of his largest acquisition — Crenshaw Corporation, Richmond's largest truck equipment distributor.
Today the shop is open, and it's busy. And the company is profitable. From that standpoint, things are going as planned. But what Ashby's technicians are doing in the new shop is a far cry from what this 39-year-old Virginian entrepreneur had envisioned for the shop.
“Equipment sales have taken a substantial hit, but our repair business and parts sales are up,” Ashby says. “And with a lot of manufacturing going on in our shop, we are sure travelling a different road than we thought we would be when we began moving into our shop last year. But if you can't think outside the box and change the way you do business when the market changes, you are doing a huge disservice to yourself and your company.”
Ashby says sales of new truck bodies and equipment are off sharply this year, but that doesn't mean his service bays are empty. Repair business has been brisk. Plus, he is doing some significant military business that has taken the shop in a direction that was never envisioned when the facility was on the drawing board.
In a market like today's, distributors have to be open to new markets and ideas.
“I think anyone in our industry who can finish this year making money is well ahead of the game,” says Ashby, whose company was one of Virginia's five fastest growing companies in 2005, 2006, and 2007, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We are down in a lot of our traditional areas. Even the municipal business, which we had planned to develop, is down this year. We have had to look to other sources of business in order to offset those declines.”
Opening a new shop just in time for a downturn in business isn't exactly pinpoint timing. Fortunately for Ashby, the building was designed for energy efficiency. Nowhere is that more apparent than the company's heating costs. Thanks to a radiant heating system mounted in the floor, the total fuel bill for 3½ months of heating this past winter was a mere $900.
“The system burns waste oil,” Ashby says. “And the radiant heat means that when we have to open the door to the shop, our recovery is almost instantaneous.”
The building has been in operation almost a year, but it continues to receive upgrades. For example, a powder-coat line is being installed to complement the shop's new paint booth, and solar panels are being installed on the roof to help with the electric bills. Additional landscaping is also being planned. Tax credits will defray some of the costs of the solar panels and landscaping.
Commercial trucks can involve a lot of different types of companies — including companies to equipment them, sell them, service them, and buy them.
From the perspective of most Trailer/Body Builders readers, the highest-profile company that Robert Ashby has acquired is Crenshaw Corporation, a large, established truck equipment distributor that he acquired in 2003. But Crenshaw was not Ashby's first acquisition, nor was it the last. And Ashby continues to search for companies that might by a good fit — by virtue of their products, services, and location.
Robert Ashby started his working career in 1983 by working with his dad, the owner of Ashby's Brake and Truck Repair. In 1995, he started his own scrap steel magnet company on the side. He then started his own residential refuse collection company, building it to the point that it became an attractive acquisition for BFI in 2000. Ashby used the proceeds from the sale of the company (Trashby's) to buy Ashby's Brake & Truck Repair from his father in 2002.
As the owner of a fleet of refuses trucks and a truck repair service, Ashby was an established customer of Crenshaw Corporation. He received a call from Crenshaw about buying the truck equipment shop. Within a few months, Ashby had acquired the Crenshaw operation, along with an additional five acres of adjoining property that had served as an oil storage facility.
“The Department of Environmental Quality considered it to be one of the top five remediation sites in Richmond,” Ashby says. “We removed 3,000 tons of material from this site.”
Among the material removed was the steel from all but a few of the oil storage tanks on the property. At a time when oil prices were climbing, Ashby decided to keep 60,000 gallons of the oil that was in those tanks. He is glad he did — oil from those tanks kept the shop warm last winter.
“We only burned 3,000 gallons during the 3½ months we heated the shop,” he says.
At that rate, the shop should remain warm for years to come. But the usage may go up, because Ashby is not through buying companies.
“We still have a few pieces missing,” he says. “We want to be able to repair truck engines. I want to get into the truck tire business, and we want to be able to offer body work on a larger scale. The idea is to be able to offer a group of specialists that make it possible for a customer to get what he needs from one location. If, for example, a state vehicle inspection finds something wrong, we want the customer to be able to get it fixed right there while the driver waits.
“We ask ourselves, ‘what can we do with our core business to help our customers do theirs?’ After all, a fleet's core business is not trucks. Trucks are the tools fleets need to provide their core businesses. It's our job to figure out ways to help.”
A decade of changes
Here are the companies that Ashby has started or acquired:
- Virginia Magnetics Inc (1995).
- Rockworthy Bodies and Axles (1996).
- Trashby's. Started in 1997 after an existing residential refuse collector rolled a truck and could not serve its customers.
- A Rhino linings dealer (2000).
- Ashby's Brake & Truck Repair (2002).
- Crenshaw Corporation (2003).
- Carl's Radiator Service (2006).
- A truck radiator distributor (2007).
And in his spare time, Robert Ashby recently completed his mini MBA from the University of Richmond.