Nobody likes a hurricane, at least not one that packs the punch that Hurricane Ike did 18 months ago. That's especially true when you are the target of its fury.
But natural disasters don't have to be a total loss. Sometimes they bring people together in a way that good times can't. Such was the case when Hurricane Ike blew through the Texas coast and knocked Hi-Tech Truck Rigging & Equipment out of action for nearly a month in September and October 2008.
It wasn't the damage to the company's shop that kept the truck equipment distributor from installing truck bodies and equipment. The facility itself received very little damage from the Category 2 storm. But today's truck equipment distributor can do very little without electricity, and day after day, week after week, Hi-Tech was in the same situation that thousands of other Houston, Texas, area businesses and homes were in — they were left without electricity.
The company had plenty of work that needed to be done, but the area surrounding the shop was one of the last to have electricity restored. Crews from utility companies all over the United States pitched in to remove trees from downed power lines and to reconnect electrical service. But predicting when the lights would come back on was anybody's guess. Was today the day that the lights would come back on?
Despite the fact that Hi-Tech went weeks without building any trucks, none of its employees went without a paycheck.
“The storm left us with a few things to take care of, and we fixed those right away,” says Byron Baty, vice-president. “Our shop had no electricity and we couldn't work on trucks. We decided to help one another instead. A number of our employees received damage from the storm, so we pitched in and helped take care of it — mostly removing downed tree limbs. It kept us busy, and we didn't have any layoffs — everyone continued to get paid.”
Unlike those who lived closer to the Gulf of Mexico, the damage in the area around the Hi-Tech shop was relatively mild. But the fact that co-workers were pitching in to help with that damage — at company expense — was greatly appreciated.
Hi-Tech is a company that is small enough for the employees to know one another well. The company has 21 onboard, including 12 in the shop, four outside sales people and one inside.
“We treat one another like family,” Baty says.
The passing storm
With Hurricane Ike long gone and the family a little closer, the team at Hi-Tech appears to have weathered a different storm — this time an economic one.
“We feel like the worst is over,” Baty says. “Business is picking up.”
Baty attributes a broad mix of products and services for reducing the impact of the recession.
“We don't get more that 20% of our business from any one sector,” he says. “Plus we offer a wide range of services — repairs, maintenance, custom fabrication, and paint. We have the largest paint booth of any truck equipment shop in the area. “
Hi-Tech bought a 16-ft × 16-ft × 40-ft booth in order to be able to fit a truck mounted with at least a 24-ft long body. Before the company relocated to its present 3.3-acre site in 2003, Hi-Tech constructed a separate 6,000-sq-ft building to house it.
“Nobody smokes here, nobody welds here,” Baty says. “We built this building and selected the paint booth that we did because we wanted to be able to offer our customers a quality finish.”
The word has gotten out about the company's paint department. Hi-Tech offers its painting services to customers outside the commercial truck equipment business. It's not uncommon to look inside the booth and see race cars being painted.
Management also considers its fabrication department to be an asset that helped the company through the downturn and makes it more competitive as business picks up. Among the machine tools in the Hi-Tech fab department are a 175-ton press brake, a 10-foot shear that can handle half-inch-thick steel, a 75-ton ironworker, and plasma machine. The company bought new welding equipment when it moved into its new shop in 2003.
“We have more equipment than we do technicians,” Baty says. “We don't want a technician not to be able to weld. If a machine goes down, we have a back-up for him.”
Hi-Tech sends a lot of trucks overseas. There are trucks operating in Europe, Asia, Africa, and throughout North and South America with Hi-Tech nameplates.
The company's location in Houston has made international sales much easier. Many of Hi-Tech's customers are in the energy business, and they need equipment all around the world. The fact that the company's shop is only a few miles from one of the busiest ports in the United States is an added bonus.
Specific countries that Hi-Tech has shipped trucks to include Venezuela, Ecuador, Malaysia, Canada, Mexico, Scotland, Chad, and South Africa.
While Houston-area energy companies provide a major source of international sales, it's not an exclusive source. The company, for example, has shipped emergency vehicles to Mexico and farm-oriented trucks to Venezuela.
“Our proximity to the port is a big plus for us,” Baty says. “People with truck needs from other countries typically contact Houston-area truck dealers to start with. The dealer in turn contacts us. But we get international business from several sources, including brokers and direct inquiries from the customer. An order that we shipped to Malaysia, for example, came from a customer of ours in Aberdeen, Scotland.”
Baty says Hi-Tech is in the process of setting up e-commerce on the company's Web site. Currently a few products are up, but a lot more are coming.
“People don't shop anymore,” Baty says. “They Google instead because it's faster. We are setting up an entire catalog, mostly small things — including fire extinguishers and other products that might not be mounted on a truck but are used on them.”
Baty believes that customers will want to install the easy stuff themselves.
“All of us have gone through this downturn trying our best to hold on to our key employees,” Baty says. “We have had our shop guys doing things that we would not have them do when the shop was full. Our customers are in the same boat. So if they can have one of their guys put it on, they probably will. And if that's the case, selling at least the easily installed products over the Internet becomes more feasible for a company like ours.”
A little history
Hi-Tech can trace its history back to 1947 with the start of Truck & Pickup Equipment. It was sold in 1994 to Hi-Tech Pump and Crane. Three years later, it was sold to its present owners and renamed Hi-Tech Truck Rigging & Equipment.
Hi-Tech moved to its present location in 2003, leaving the leased facility for a tract that it purchased on the service road of a major north-south toll road. The location includes a total of 35,000 square feet under three different roofs. One building includes 6,000 square feet of offices plus a small showroom and warehouse. The shop and fabrication department are in a separate building, while painting is provided in the third.
“We pretty much handle it all, from equipping a pickup truck to rigging special trucks that can handle 500,000-lb loads,” Baty says. “Being able to do a little bit of everything helped us make it through.”