What’s in Print

Custom upfits: Northland sweats the small stuff so customers don’t have to

For many in the work truck industry, “innovation” typically entails multi-million dollar R&D budgets and “game-changing” redesigns, but for Northland Equipment Company President Brian Williams, innovation is simply finding a way, however small, to improve a product to benefit the customer.

And if that means that essentially every upfit is a custom one, Williams and the team at the Janesville, WI-based truck equipment distributor are up for the job.

“For our customers, time is money,” Williams says as he strolls the busy shop floor, pointing to example after example: the placement of a step here, or a compartment there, or extra lights. Pointing to the open hood of a utility truck, he explains how Northland makes it easier for customers to manage the electrical system, with accessories wired separately, through an independent fuse panel, and the wires and switches are clearly labeled.

“We designed the wiring with a customer who just wanted a better way to identify how the accessories were wired,” Williams says. “Most upfitters just don’t want to take the time to do this—there’s no splicing in this truck.”

In another custom touch, horizontal storage surfaces are lined with rubber mats, to prevent tools from sliding around and to reduce noise. A diesel generator is kept in a custom designed cabinet on sliders, and the compartment features its own exhaust duct. A rear bumper features a vice attachment for work in the field, while custom cone holders are mounted on a front bumper.

The trend to the taller, more efficient European-style vans also has provided Northland a number of custom upfit opportunities. “It’s a lot more than just bolting on shelves,” Williams says, indicating a custom storage space, again designed with a customer’s input, that’s fabricated in the shop.

“A lot of equipment houses don’t want to get into the customized stuff. They just want to put the bodies on—turn and burn and go,” suggests Operation Manager Jeremy Webb. “We listen to the customer—how they use their truck—and we try to make it better for them. Getting customers involved in the build has gotten better because it’s had to. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t get what they wanted.”

Both Williams and Webb credit the talent of the people at the company for Northland’s success. Indeed, Williams is quick to joke that can hardly “hang a picture,” and that he’s just a truck equipment salesman “in the right place at the right time.”

While Webb responds that Williams clearly knows trucks, he also praises the team.

“We’re really detail oriented. We have a pride in a quality product that’s really special,” Webb says. “There’s an art that goes into building our trucks. It’s a true art.”

Williams is especially proud of Northland’s “turnkey” service, installing not only truck bodies and custom storage solutions, but radios, GPS systems, cameras, laptops, and branding, then providing inspections, fueling and delivery.

“It’s been a really big thing,” he says. “Basically, all the guy’s got to do is transfer his tools and his lunchbox and he’s good to go.”

But the custom approach doesn’t come easy. Personnel, pricing, and lead times are among the many “pieces in the big puzzle.” On the other hand, making every job different contributes a lot to job satisfaction, Webb notes. 

He also points to the “nice blend” of experienced workers and more recent hires. Northland pays for ASE courses and awards bonuses for those who hold certification.

“They really, truly work as a team,” he says. “The strong guys are helping the young guys, working side by side to bring them up.”

Northland currently employs 16 techs, who work in an expanded 20,000 square foot shop that features14 bays, 10 of which are drive-through. New LED lighting in the shop, along with recently installed shop doors that replaced small windows with large ones, make for bright work area, even on a gray February morning. 

The shop runs two shifts, having added a night shift last fall.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to maximize the facility,” Williams says. “It’s been good to have someone to finish up something that didn’t get done during the day. It also gives us the availability if someone calls at night and says they have something that’s broke down, they can come down and we’ll fix it. But [adding the second shift] is scary, when you first do it.”

The second shift and overtime have helped Northland to cut lead time in half, to eight weeks as of early February, Williams says.

The business

Williams is just the fourth president of 80-year-old Northland Equipment. He started as a salesman in 1989, and became sole owner in 2002.

The growth of the business over the 15 years of his ownership has been the most obvious change, he notes, and it has been deliberate. Every five years Williams brings on a consultant to devise a strategy to take Northland “to the next level.”

“A consultant basically already tells what you know you should be doing, but sometimes you’re just afraid to do it,” he says. “I’ve surrounded myself with quality employees and smart people to take us there.”

Geographically, the company benefits from having access to the Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago area markets.

“We’re like any other truck equipment distributor: We’re dealing with truck dealers; we’re dealing with contractors,” he says. “But we’ve really grown in the utility fleet business.”

Utility and large fleet sales make up more than half of Northland’s business, with about 30% coming from truck dealers and the remaining from snow plows, parts, and accessories, according to Williams.

“Truck-dealer salespeople are going to take the path of least resistance,” Williams says. “They want to make sure the transaction goes smooth, that it makes their customers happy. And even though we’re growing, the truck salesman doesn’t feels like he’s lost in the shuffle with us. We can walk right out in the shop and give him an update on what’s going on, unlike a huge company upfitter where they get back in a few days after checking with production. We’ll never lose that.”

A big customer is We Energies (Wisconsin Electric Power) and, in turn, many of the contractors doing work for the power company buy Northland vehicles—after seeing the advantages of the custom touches in the field.

Finding qualified installers has been the most important ongoing challenge. Recruiting efforts have included a $5,000 hiring bonus, visits to technical schools, and a “huge” radio campaign that returned “very little.”

“We were very surprised. We consider ourselves one of the top-pay employers in the area, and we’re on the high end for the industry as well,” Williams says. He notes that local unemployment is 2.7%, but Northland also offers vacation, paid holidays, a 401(k) match and a good health care plan. 

“One thing you can’t control is this generation that we’re dealing with now,” he says. “They don’t care what you did yesterday, it’s ‘what can you do for me today?’ They’ll leave you in heartbeat. But everybody I talk to is in the same boat.”

On a wish list for future growth, Williams says he’d like to establish an independent service department, rather than sharing space and personnel with the main production floor. To mitigate the hiring challenges, he’s also considered opening a second facility in a different labor market. Similarly, Northland would be open to acquiring another truck distributor for the additional workers.

Williams would also like to beef up his parts sales, characterizing the business now as “order taking.”

“I always felt our parts business should be a certain percentage of our sales, but it’s never met my expectations,” Williams says. “Now it’s gotten worse: Everybody that’s got a computer is looking for the lowest price. And lot of people are asking for knock-offs, because they just don’t care about quality.”

Additionally, an e-commerce website is slated for April. “We think there’s potential there—we’re going to try it to see what happens.”

Industry issues

Another “big challenge” has been the relationship between distributors and the manufacturers—it has deteriorated, and “it’s getting worse,” Williams explains.

“We’ve been dealers for some lines since the 1970s, and they’ve been loyal to us and we’ve been loyal to them,” he says. “Some of these companies go through so many changes, and so many sales reps, but I think it all started with the Great Recession when everybody was doing what they could to survive. It’s a real kick in the gut when they tell you they’ve set up with a competitor down the road. Then you find out they’re calling on some of the bigger companies, or some guy that’s got a building in the backyard.”

Speaking of the recession, Northland weathered the economic crash through “fiscal responsibility, money management, and discipline,” Williams suggests. And, during an interview the day after the New York Stock Exchange fell nearly 1,600 points, he makes it clear that he plans to remain cautious, even as he finds new opportunities and pressure to expand.

“I watched a lot of guys locally before 2008 who built themselves really nice businesses, new facilities—and they lost it all,” he says. “I don’t want to put myself in that situation. We can manage what we have, and the more money we can put away before interest rates go up—and they are going to go up—the better off we are.”

Son Adam, 24, is interested in making a career in the business, so Williams also has a legacy—and his retirement—to protect. 

“The gentleman I bought the business from made it attainable, and it will be my responsibility to pass it on,” Williams concludes. “I’m very proud of Northland Equipment. I’m very proud of the employees. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish in the future.”

For more information or contact on Northland Equipment Company, please visit: www.northlandequipment.com


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