One of the strengths of the truck equipment industry has been to provide the truck customer with the precise vehicle to do the job.
Chassis manufacturers offer trucks that meet the needs of the vast majority of applications. Truck equipment distributors do a great job of upfitting, turning those chassis cabs into fully functioning work trucks.
For everything in between, there's the truck modification company — the demanding jobs that may be beyond the capabilities of the local truck equipment shop, yet too specialized for high-volume truck manufacturers.
“We want to make it possible for the upfitter to work on a chassis that otherwise may not exist and to do it in a way that does not require him to have to do a lot of work inside the cab,” says Will Trantham, president of Fontaine Modification, a multi-location company based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “And we want to get that truck to the market quickly.”
It's a niche that Fontaine Modification works to fill. That work has intensified in recent years, and the company has responded by opening three facilities since 2007. The first step was the largest — replacing a shop in the Dallas suburb of Irving. The Dallas-area modification center now operates in a 45,000-sq-ft shop next to the International plant in Garland, another Dallas subsidiary.
In 2009, Fontaine Modification followed its Dallas move by opening a facility in Williamstown, West Virginia, near the Hino plant. The third move occurred last year. The company opened a new location in Laredo, Texas, where Freightliner chassis built in Mexico enter the United States.
“Our core marketing strategy is the equalized freight system,” Trantham says. “We do what we are asked to do to the chassis with no additional freight charge.”
Fontaine has a lot of resources that we bring to the market, including a new innovation center in Charlotte. With it, Fontaine Modification centralizes research and development for the multi-location company. It is there that new requests are screened and engineered.
“Our innovation team gets flooded with requests,” Trantham says. “We have to ask ourselves if the request make sense. Normally it does, but we have to weigh all the factors, including regulatory requirements. For example, do we want to do a special $700 seat installation if we are required to perform a $10,000 pull test?”
Fontaine Modification produces single units, but it also performs volume installations. Auxiliary power units have been popular in recent years, and the company can quickly set up an assembly line to handle demand. The Garland service center, for example, has installed as many as 18 APUs a day with a two-shift operation. Five technicians work the line — one who installs the generator, a second to hang the exterior components, a third who installs the evaporator and controls inside the truck, a fourth to run the wiring and cabling, and a fifth who is responsible for the finishing touches and final quality-control check.
“The line is very flexible,” says Jamail Young, general manager. “We might be installing APUs today and front frame extensions tomorrow. To do that, we have to have some pretty versatile personnel. We do a lot of cross training.”
The Garland location employs an average of 40 technicians.
“The shop is flexible, and so are our technicians,” Trantham says. “It's important to us that we keep them — even during times when the economy is slow. We live and die on the shop floor, so we pay more than the going rate, and we sometimes transfer people from one location to another in order to keep them on the payroll. The key to running an operation like ours successfully is to have a consistent workforce. That enables us to offer better quality, lower warranty costs, and to have a better safety record.”
Safety is the top priority at Fontaine Modification, Trantham says.
“Accidents affect companies like ours in so many ways,” he says. “They begin with a cost to the person involved. From that, the effects of accidents ripple throughout the company.”
To improve workplace safety, the company holds monthly safety meetings. Employees watch carefully for safety issues in their work areas. Potential trip hazards were a recent focus.
“If we have an accident on one place, we send out a full report — with photos — to the other locations,” Trantham says.
The new facilities enable Fontaine Modification to strengthen its operation. The Laredo center, for example, now enables the company to provide post-production modification services for Freightliner trucks as they cross into the United States. Previously, these trucks had to be processed at Fontaine's Garland, Texas, service center.
The Williamstown, West Virginia plant, meanwhile, gives Fontaine Modification greater capacity to work on Hino chassis. That became more important recently when Hino announced last fall that it plans to double production at Williamstown by the end of this year.
The Williamstown modification center produces a range of products based on Hino chassis, including an extended cab, the 338 city tractor, dual steer sit-down, and dual steer right hand stand-up packages. Hino has been producing trucks in Williamstown since November 2007.
With the Williamstown and Laredo locations, Fontaine now operates seven service centers across the United States. Each are located near OEM truck manufacturing facilities in Springfield, Ohio; Hagerstown, Indiana; Charlotte, North Carolina, Dublin, Virginia.; and Garland, a suburb of Dallas.
The Charlotte location also houses the company headquarters and the Innovation Center for Research and Development — one example of how Fontaine Modification has centralized its operation.
“We want to invest in research and development, but we want to be smart about it,” Trantham says. “We have looked across all of our operation to make sure that we are placing our overhead in the right place.”