The 'Chrome Shop' at Southern States Utility in Jackson MS specializes in selling parts to make trucks and trailers shine.

Finding gold in chrome

Oct. 1, 2009
Trailer dealer finds profits in the parts that make trucks glitter

The folks at Southern States Utility in Jackson, Mississippi see amazing things in many places. Tornados that damage buildings and spare people. A new home when the company was homeless. Sales that weather an economic downturn. And parts sales that come from chrome.

The company is not a truck dealer. Its new product lines are exclusively trailers -including Utility, Landoll, Clement, Hilbilt, Peerless, and Reitnouer. Yet chro me-plated parts and accessories are helping make sales shine at the company's new location just south of Jackson.

Chrome accessories for trucks and trailers are so popular with Southern States and its customers that the trailer dealer's recently created 5,000-sq-ft showroom is known as “the chrome shop.” And the word is spreading.

Of the 9,500 part numbers that the company keeps in inventory, roughly 4,500 are either chrome plated or made of stainless steel. Of those accessories, the majority go on the tractor, not the trailer.

“We sell bezels, lights, dash items, exhaust systems, and bumpers” says Mike Cauthen, parts manager. “It's amazing how many truck-related chrome parts that we as a trailer dealer can sell.”

But there's more to it than chrome. The company's showroom features other truck-related components, including a large display of eight fully functioning air-ride seats.

“Sure, our customers could get truck-related parts from truck dealers, but they can't get the variety that we offer here,” Cauthen says. “We sell products for all brands of trucks — not just one. Some of our customers are truck dealers. The reason — we have the parts they are looking for. Availability is key.”

Also key is the ability to have a shop that can install the products that customers buy. According to the company, the closest shop that mounts chrome is in central Florida, several hundred miles away.

The chrome shop is just a few months old, but the company has been extremely pleased with its performance so far.

“We are just now getting the word out,” says Percy Thornton, president. “Yet the traffic has been real strong. We have had times when parts customers have occupied all of our designated parking places.”

The product of a tornado

As successful as the chrome shop has been, it would not exist today had a tornado not hit the company's headquarters at 12:30 pm on Friday, April 4 last year.

“I was upstairs at the time,” says Aaron Smith. “I heard the light fixtures fall, and I saw the roof coming off the shop.”

The company receptionist was at the copy machine when the tornado struck. The force of the tornado blew apart the glass entry doors, sending shards of glass into the wall where she had been sitting just moments before.

Out in the shop, employees clung to building support columns to keep from being blown out of the building. Just down the street at Ryder Truck Rental, employees watched as the event unfolded.

“It was like a giant wasp that came down and just kept stinging the building,” a Ryder employee recalls.

“It all happened so quickly,” says Thornton, who was at lunch at the time. “I didn't know why the tornado warning siren was sounding — the sun was shining. Suddenly the sky turned black, and the next thing we knew, it was over.”

The Southern States shop was the only building the tornado struck. But downed power lines around the building had employees trapped inside long after the storm left the shop in shambles.

A survey of the rubble showed that the twister had blown out at least one window of every car in the parking lot. The company's 40,000-sq-ft facility was left with $2 million in damage.

Employees of Southern States gathered along the service road that passes by the front of the location.

“All of our managers came together that evening, and we had a prayer meeting,” Thornton recalls. “We prayed that by 11 am the next day, we would have a plan for how to get back on our feet. Someone later asked me if any of our employees feared that they would not have a job to return to. If that was a concern for anyone, it did not last long. Not only did we have a plan by 11 am Saturday — the day after the tornado — but we were back in business Monday morning.”

What now?

The Southern States facility had been devastated, but the company was able to resume operations — almost without interruption — because of the generosity of Empire Trucks, the Freightliner dealer just down the road. The dealer had recently expanded its shop and offered Southern States seven work bays that were not being fully utilized. Empire Trucks was using the area for overflow repair work and parts storage, but the company quickly moved them out — enabling Southern States to service trailers until its new building could be constructed. Less than 24 hours after the tornado hit, Southern States had a place to operate and a goal of not missing a full day of the work week in spite of losing its facility.

“The support we received was incredible,” Thornton says. “There were 25 people from our church. People I didn't even know showed up to help us. On Saturday, I told our insurance adjuster that we would be back in business on Monday. He later said that he didn't have the heart that day to tell me there was no way a company like ours could be destroyed by a tornado on Friday and open for business on a Monday. But we were.”

Digging out

Southern States' temporary home was less than two miles from where the tornado struck, just down the same highway — U S 49 that links Jackson with Gulfport and Biloxi. The company operated there for a year until the new facility was completed.

Southern States celebrated the grand opening of the new facility in June, just over a year after the tornado struck. Several factors worked in the company's favor to get back home quickly.

Unlike major events such as Hurricane Katrina, no other building in the area was damaged. This enabled insurance claims and reconstruction to proceed more quickly.

  • The damaged building was constructed in 1987. The contractor who Southern States used still had the plans from the project and was available to go to work quickly.

  • Southern States had recently built a new facility for its branch in Olive Branch, MS, near Memphis. Management was eager to implement some of the new features that had proved successful there — primarily changes to the parts department.

“Our people had a great attitude throughout the year as we recovered,” Thornton says. “There were times when we were repairing trailers without a roof over our heads. We couldn't get an entire trailer inside the work bays in our temporary location, but no one complained. All of us were grateful about the way things worked out.”

Starting over

From a construction standpoint, Southern States started over. What was left of the 40,000-sq-ft building was razed, and the company brought in enough dirt to elevate the lot just over four feet.

“We always had drainage problems with our property,” Thornton says. “We have had as much as four feet of water standing on our lot. The building never flooded, but this was a good time to make sure that the new one never does.”

Southern States bought four adjacent acres and paved most of the property with concrete — enough to provide parking for more than 300 trailers, including 267 numbered parking spaces.

“We paved the yard at our Olive Branch location in 2006,” Thornton says. “That's worked out well, and we decided to do the same thing when we rebuilt here in Jackson.”

The new building has 65,000 square feet under roof. The structure provides the shop with 17 bays, but extending the overhang of the roof by 10 feet enables the shop to work on as many as 34 trailers at one time and still keep technicians out of the weather.

“About 85% of the work that we do on a trailer is at the rear,” Thornton points out. “So we can back the trailer up so that it is under the canopy and have plenty of room to work.”

To make it easier for technicians to do so, the doors of the new building have been plumbed so that electrical, air, and welding utilities are right there.

Time to shine

Perhaps the biggest addition, courtesy of the tornado, has been a major brick and mortar commitment to the parts department.

“I told our parts manager after the tornado that we can build a parts warehouse now,” Thornton says. “And we can have a parts showroom just like the one we built in our Olive Branch location.”

The building also includes a large warehouse to serve Jackson and to help supply the inventory needs of its branches in Olive Branch and Monroe, Louisiana.

The 14,000-sq-ft footprint of the warehouse understates the amount of inventory that can be stored there. A 32 ft ceiling height, combined with a racking system with over 800 pallet positions that allows Southern States to take advantage of that height, provides plenty of room for a $1.4-million parts inventory — with ample room for expansion.

A motivated shop

The shop provides the branch with the ability to work on 34 trailers simultaneously, but noise from all of that activity does not make it into the rest of the building. That's because of a sound-deadening wall that isolates the shop.

But that does not mean the shop is out of sight and out of mind. The trailer service shop foreman and the service shop forman for the company's Carrier Transicold operation both occupy a spacious office area in the center of shop. Picture windows on all sides make it easy for management to monitor shop activity.

Management has implemented a number of programs designed to keep employees productive — and safe.

“We don't have a flat rate system in our shop,” says Jimmy Thompson, trailer service manager. “But we know what the estimates are, and we expect our guys to get the jobs done within those times.”

But the company expects more than that. If a customer's trailer needs additional service, Southern States wants its technicians to say so. With its “Bingo Upsell” program, technicians are given blank bingo cards. If they find problem areas with a trailer beyond what the customer's original service request, they receive a mark. Once the card is full, the technician receives an incentive.

Southern States is using a similar concept to improve shop safety. The company puts money into a pot. For every day the shop goes without a lost-time accident, the pot increases, and each technician gets a mark. The first person to bingo wins the pot. But if the shop has an injury, the pot goes to zero.

The shop also has a Christmas party in recognition of shop safety. For every year that the technician goes without a lost-time accident, he receives $50.

“We have had guys earn $800 at Christmas,” Thompson says. “But this does not mean that we promote not going to the doctor. An injury that requires medical attention does not count against the individual if he is back at work the next day. We want people to seek medical attention if they need it. But we also want them to keep shop safety on their minds at all times. This is one way to do that.”

Getting started

Percy Thornton has been in the trailer business for 33 years. He started as a salesman for the Nabors Trailer branch. After four years there, he went to work as the trailer sales manager for Rebel Trucks, an operation that represented American Trailers, Polar tanks, and Vulcan heavy-hauler trailers. In 1981, Rebel Trucks became a Utility Trailer dealer.

Presented with the opportunity to buy the trailer operation from Rebel Trucks, Thornton and two partners started Southern States. He has since bought out their interests.

In 1987, Southern States constructed the building that was destroyed last year. In 1996, Southern States became a Carrier Transicold dealer, and Thornton expanded the facility by 8,000 square feet.

While the Southern States facility in Jackson remained roughly the same size for many years, the company has added operations in Olive Branch and Monroe.

The Monroe location, a two-hour drive west of Jackson on Interstate 20, is a small operation in a rented building. It offers parts and service for the trucks on the heavily traveled highway, but the local market is fairly limited.

“The economy is based on paper and pulpwood,” Thornton says. “It has been slow for several years. We have a four-bay shop and 10 employees there, including five mechanics. Like we did in Olive Branch, we started there not knowing anyone. We are having to build customer relationships from scratch.”

Southern States launched its Memphis branch seven years ago. The company bought an existing business and operated in that company's existing building for four years before constructing a new facility in 2006.

Mike Thornton, Percy's son, manages the Olive Branch operation and was the primary person responsible for the construction project.

“We bought a company in Memphis, but we did not like the location,” Thornton says of the 30,000-sq-ft facility that Southern States constructed in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a part of metropolitan Memphis. “We were very fortunate to have recently gone through the process of building a new facility in Olive Branch. That helped us when it came time to rebuild here in Jackson.”

Thornton says the Memphis branch was slow to get started because Southern States bought the existing business without having a personal relationship with customers in the area. Business is improving now, in spite of the economy, because of the relationships the branch is continuing to develop with its customers.

The Olive Branch branch received a shock recently. A tornado hit the building, damaging the roof.

“I thought we were fixing to lose another building,” Mike Thornton says. “It came up on us before we knew it.”

Two tornados so close together might be enough to make some business owners think the worst. That's not the case at Southern States.

“We've survived both of them,” Percy Thornton says. “We had a place to conduct business 24 hours after the first one destroyed our Jackson location. Business continues to be good for us, a lot better than the industry as a whole. Our banker asked us why our business is doing so well. I would be foolish not to recognize the hand of the Lord in all of this.”

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.