The cold reality is that most business start-ups are hard pressed simply to survive that first tough year of business. Another chilly reminder: most family-owned businesses fail before the third generation can take over.
So it's a pretty special company that can continue to thrive after 125 years of doing business. But that's exactly what H A DeHart & Son has been doing this year — celebrating a century and a quarter of service to customers of commercial trucks and horse-drawn wagons.
The obvious question for any company with that level of longevity is a simple “How?”
Philip “Cliff” Clifford, chairman of the board does not hesitate to answer. “Diversification,” he says.
A look at the company's line card confirms Clifford's claim. H A DeHart is Great Dane's oldest trailer dealer. The company is a dealer for Thomas Built school buses. A subsidiary operates a fleet of school buses. DeHart sells and services transport refrigeration units. All of this in addition to serving as a full-line truck equipment distributor. The company has added and subtracted a lot of products and services in 125 years.
“As things change, we have to, too,” says Bob Hall, sales manager.
Snow and ice control equipment has been an area that has changed rapidly. One of the ads that H A DeHart developed to promote its line of snow and ice equipment involved a photo taken around 1915 of a team of horses pulling a snow roller — a means of “controlling” snow accumulations by compacting it, rather than removing it. By creating a hard surface, the snow roller made it easier for sleighs — and the occasional automobile — to travel streets and roads.
“A lot has changed in this market, especially in the last few years,” Hall says. “Probably the biggest change has been the switch from aggregate to liquid deicing agents. That's made a big difference in the equipment we sell. Compared with the number of plows that we mount on light-duty trucks, we are doing more work on medium- and heavy-duty state and municipal trucks than we used to.
“We now have so much electronics on the trucks that we build — trucks that download computer data, computers that regulated application rates. Of course, our customers have gotten a lot more sophisticated, too. They know exactly what is going on with their roads and highways, thanks to sensors embedded in the roadways that can tell what the humidity is, how hard the wind is blowing, and what the temperature is. That data is transmitted to the dispatcher. The dispatcher can then send a truck, knowing what the conditions are.”
Going with the flow
With a wide variety of products and services in the mix, H A DeHart has the flexibility to go after the market segments that are hot — or at least warm — in today's challenging economy.
“Our trailer business is really tough right now, but we are glad that we have a good paint facility and repair shop to help us ride out this downturn,” says Joe Tompkins, truck equipment sales manager. “We've been through downturns before. The good thing about a downturn is that we always seem to come out of them with fewer competitors.”
Consistent with the company's history of change, Hall says the company has recently begun focusing its truck equipment efforts on environmental products. These include street sweepers, refuse and recycling bodies, sewer cleaners, camera systems, and catch basin cleaners.
“A lot of these sales have been driven by changes in federal regulations,” Hall says. “For example, as of February, you can't wash a truck without a containment system. We have been selling bio-reactors — permanently mounted equipment that uses microbes to eat the grease and other hydrocarbons that are removed when trucks are washed. Municipalities, contractors, anyone who has to wash vehicles can use equipment like this.”
Regulations also have affected DeHart's school bus business.
“In New Jersey, schools are not allowed to run school buses that are more than 12 years old,” Clifford says. “We used to take in trades, but there really isn't a market for older buses in our area any more. We wind up sending them to Central and South America.”
A diverse company like H A DeHart requires a fair amount of specialization. Hall and Tompkins handle the municipal truck equipment sales operation. Dennis Noon, president, heads up the Great Dane dealership. He supervises a sales staff that covers Delaware, the eastern shore of Maryland, New Jersey and also southeast Pennsylvania.
The Thomas Built dealership covers the state of New Jersey. The company has three full time sales personnel and an inside sales staff representing this product line. In addition to new equipment sales, parts and service departments are a key element in the company's success.
H A DeHart Transportation Company is a subsidiary of H A DeHart & Son. The company operates a fleet of 80-85 buses for public and private schools — and has since the 1930s. A staff of 89 part-time drivers gets the children to school and back.
A lengthy history
The company can trace its roots back to Harry DeHart Sr., who left home at age 13 and began working as a blacksmith in Paulsboro, New Jersey. With a $225 loan from his girlfriend, DeHart started a small blacksmith shop in 1884. DeHart soon branched out from shoeing horses and began repairing wagons. From there he began building his own wagons. The initial products were heavy cargo wagons, but ice wagons and furniture vans soon followed. DeHart patented a wagon design that helped reduce the wagon's turning radius, a idea that helped make his product successful and his reputation solid.
But as the motor vehicle began to emerge, DeHart shifted his focus to making bodies that made motor vehicles more useful. He also became a truck dealer in the early years of commercial trucks. The transition was natural. H A DeHart had been selling Brockway carriages and simply rode into the motorized vehicle business when Brockway began manufacturing trucks.
H A DeHart Jr joined the company in 1906. By the time his father died unexpectedly in 1923, the two had morphed the company from a blacksmith shop to an early truck and equipment company.
The switch to motorized vehicles accelerated quickly following the 1918 fire that destroyed the premises. The fire essentially was a break with the past. H A DeHart only built three wagons after the fire, concentrating instead on building bodies for vehicles such as the Ford Model T. Early trucks did not have a cab. Like other early body builders, DeHart sold truck chassis and built bodies along with the cab. Cabs, however, were frequently open.
The Great Depression was a difficult period. H A DeHart Jr said that the only reason the company survived was that it had strong cash reserves before the crash and had no loans outstanding. He also commented that he knew business was bad when people who did not intend to pay weren't buying.
Here's a look at the products that a 125-year-old company sells:
AIR COMPRESSOR - TRUCK MOUNTED
Airman, Cyclone, Ingersoll/Rand, Stellar Industries
ANTI-ICING & BRINE MAKERS
Salt-A-Way, Snow Equipment Sales, GVM Inc.
Thomas Built Buses
BUS SURVEILLANCE SYSTEMS
Apollo, REI, RTI, Safety Vision, Silent Witness
R S Technical Services, Superior Signal
DUMPS & DUMP TRAILERS
Air-flo, Del, Godwin, TBEI/Heil, R/S, Rugby, Summit, TruckCraft, Towmaster Trailers
Bemis, Betts, Buyers Products, Code-3, Duty Master, Ecco, Federal Signal, Grote, Kwik Raze, Kussmaul, Night Scan, Peterson, Signal-Stat, Superior Signal, Truck-Lite, Whelen
FORESTRY EQUIPMENT- DUMP & CHIPPERS
Buyers Products, Holland
Bemis Sign Post Puller, Chelsea, Component Technology, Certified Power, DeHart Hydramastor, Monarch, Muncie, Stanley
INVERTERS, CONVERTERS, GENERATORS
Dimension Unlimited, Redi-Line, Stanley
American Road Machinery
Alligator, Anthony, Eagle, Leyman, Maxon, Thieman, Tommygate, Ultron, Waltco
LIGHT TOWERS/SIGN TRAILERS
PAVERS, HOT PATCHERS & AUTO PATCHERS
Koch Pavement Sealers, Puckett Pavers, Schwarze Industries Road Patcher, Spaulding Hot Patcher
Nu-Life Bulk Waste Crane, Ampli-Roll Hook Lift, G-S Products (Recycling Refuse), New Way, Pak-Mor
REFRIGERATION - A/C
Carrier, Thermo King, TransAir
ROLL-BACK CAR CARRIERS
Camel, Super Products, Scavenge-Vac, Dyna Vac
Air-Flo, American Road Machinery, Buyers Products, Diamond, Good Roads, Henderson, Meyer, Pre-Wetting Equipment, Viking
Aero, Donovan, E-Z, Pioneer, Roll-Rite
Great Dane, Mickey, Summit, Towmaster, Trail-Eze
Knapheide, Stellar Industries
VAN SHELVING & TOOL BOXES
VAN TRAILER & BEVERAGE BODIES
WHEEL CHAIR LIFTS & RESTRAINTS
Braun, Q-Straint, Ricon, Sure Lok