Is this a parts showroom, or a warehouse?
Freedom Truck Centers, a truck dealer, trailer dealer, and truck equipment distributor based in Spokane, Washington, opened a new facility last year. One of the highlights is a sprawling, 15,000-sq-ft display area that includes products that normally are found only back behind the counter.
Instead of building a warehouse, Freedom Truck Centers built the warehouse into the showroom.
“We don't have a warehouse,” says Larry Pearson, general manager. “We want our customers to know what is available.”
Freedom Truck Centers now has a year of experience in a building that stores nothing in a warehouse. The frequent sounds of customers saying, “I didn't know you sold that” confirms the wisdom of the idea. Big items. Small items. A trip through the showroom can be a learning experience, even for a long-time Freedom Truck Centers customer.
Pearson points to one conversation in particular where a customer saw the landing gear display. He remarked that he always bought landing gear from another company. Freedom Truck Centers now has that business.
Some of the parts, such as fasteners, are items that some parts managers might consider too small to be part of a showroom. Others such as suspensions might be considered too bulky.
But at the new Freedom Truck Centers facility just outside Spokane, there's a place for everything — including the parts that may reside only in the warehouse of other dealerships.
“We keep $1.8 million in our parts inventory,” Pearson says. “And quantities of almost every part we stock can be found in our showroom. Not just the glitter parts. Almost everything is there and accessible to our customers.”
Pearson uses the phrase “almost everything” because a storage trailer serves as a buffer when the company orders more parts than will fit on the shelves.
“We will buy by the trailerload if the price is right,” Pearson says. “We don't like storing the parts in a storage trailer, and we get that inventory out of the trailer as fast as we can. But the lower price that we pay usually makes up for the additional material handling.”
Freedom Truck Centers is first and foremost a Freightliner dealer. But the new facility, with its new showroom, has enabled the truck dealer to sell more trailer parts such as cargo control products, rollup doors, suspension parts, and landing gear.
“We had dabbled in trailer parts when we were in our old location,” says Barry Lovell, parts manager. “Once we moved in here, we began going full force.”
With 15,000 square feet of display area, Freedom Truck Centers can effectively compete with the nearby truck stop.
“We have to keep that in mind,” Lovell says. “We have added LED lights to our showroom, a lot of safety products, and other items that the average truck dealer does not have.”
Calling it a night
One of the more unusual additions to the showroom is a bed — complete with mattress, pillows, and fleece blanket. First displayed during a trade fair that Freedom Truck Centers held September 14, the mattresses have been a pleasant surprise. Apparently customers are eager to upgrade the quality of their sleeper cabs, because Freedom Truck Centers has sold over 100 mattresses in less than a month.
Mattresses are merely one example of the larger products that Freedom Truck Centers has on display. Leaf springs, load locks, headache racks, a pallet load of landing gear, fenders, toolboxes, seats from Bostrom and National are other examples of the larger items that are on display.
Granted, taking a can of corn from the supermarket shelf is a little less involved putting a leaf spring in a shopping cart — but not by much at Freedom Truck Centers. If a visitor to the showroom wants to buy a product that is too big to handle, Freedom Truck Centers will deliver it. But if he wants it right away, parts personnel will load it into the customer's truck with a forklift, hand truck, or even a four-wheeled wooden cart.
On the other end of the spectrum are a wide range of parts that fit easily in the palm of your hand. These include fasteners, connectors, relays, circuit breakers, and switches. Much like the fastener section of a home improvement store, these parts are stored in cabinets containing a series of drawers.
Freedom Truck Centers is pleased with how straight the customers keep the contents of these small parts drawers.
“I wondered if we might have trouble keeping the drawers in order, but it's amazing how our customers either buy the part or put it back in its place,” a Freedom Truck Centers parts department representative says.
Keeping it fresh
While small parts drawers and the bulky items remain in the same locations in the showroom, other products are relocated periodically in order to keep the appearance of the showroom looking fresh and to promote special items. That was particularly the case in September, when the company rearranged the showroom to accommodate the trade fair.
With winter approaching, winterizing fluids are getting high visibility. These include antifreeze, windshield washer fluid, and diesel fuel additives.
Lovell continues to find new things to promote. That includes products more associated with a local retail outlet than with a truck and trailer dealership. For example, Freedom Truck Centers has been selling used coveralls. The coveralls, in good condition, are sold in plastic bags and are grouped by size. They seem to be popular among drivers who need something to slip into when they unexpectedly need to fix a truck.
Cleaning supplies also sell well. Scrub brushes, rags, and detergents are all popular impulse items. Clearly these are not the reason why fleets make it a point to come to the Freedom Truck Centers parts showroom, but they make a nice addition to the invoice as well as the customer's satisfaction level.
Who they are
Freedom Truck Centers is a multi-location, multi-function company. Ken Cook is the dealer principal who bought the company — a Freightliner dealership — in 1994. Two years later, he purchased the Freightliner dealership in Yakima, approximately 200 miles southwest of Spokane. Freedom Truck Centers added a third dealership two miles east of the new location in 2006. That location has since been consolidated into Freedom Truck Centers' new facility.
The company also handles Cat, Cummins, and Detroit engines and recently became an authorized Allison transmission service center.
However, the company also is a trailer dealer. Freedom Truck Centers started in the trailer business with East and Fontaine. The company has since taken on Imco Trailers, Reitnouer, Wilson, and Cozad trailers.
“We got into trailer sales more than a decade ago,” Pearson says. “It was an opportunity for us to add incremental sales.”
Trailer service and repairs are limited, but that is changing as the company sells more trailers.
“Labor rates for truck service and trailer service are quite different,” Pearson says. “We obviously would like to fill our shop with the higher rates that we get for trucks, but we also know that we need to service trailers, and that is a need that increases the more of our trailers that we have on the road.”
Trailer, truck equipment service
The new shop increases the company's ability to serve the trailer and truck equipment markets. With the new shop now open, the body shop that Freedom Truck Centers built in 2000 is now available for jobs that are not powertrain specific such as trailer repairs and truck body installation. Crysteel dump bodies and Force America controls are the company's primary truck equipment lines.
“We are beginning to pursue trailer repair — especially tank trailers,” Pearson says. “We are in the process of getting an “R” stamp. We have added a qualified technician to do the work, and we have the inventory in place. It's just a matter of time before we are completely ready to go.”
John Breland handles truck equipment sales and engineering for Freedom Truck Centers.
A veteran truck equipment specialist with a couple of Spokane-area distributors, Breland has been with Freedom Truck Centers for nine years.
“I love turning a bare truck chassis into something the customer loves,” he says. “We can be a one-stop shop, providing the customer with the chassis, a snowplow on one end, a pintle hook on the other, and everything in between.
Responsible for sales and engineering, Breland has developed his own computer tools that enable him to do both. He relies heavily on Microsoft Excel to develop bills of materials, to perform light engineering functions, as well as computer drawings.
Breland uses XLMOD, an Excel-based program available from the National Truck Equipment Association, to perform weight distribution calculations for proposed vehicles.
“I used to use a CAD program to draw the trucks,” he says. “It would take me hours to do, and then I had to integrate them into Excel. I decided, since I was working in Excel anyway, to use that program's drawing tools to generate the basic drawings that I need. We aren't trying to use CAD drawings to program CNC equipment, so the results that we get from Excel are usually perfectly fine for what we need to do.”
Breland has been using this approach for years now and has built up a library of templates that he can use to speed up the drawing process.
“Producing fairly detailed drawings of trucks now is mostly a matter of cutting and pasting from the work that has already been done,” he says.
He says the drawings help in a trend he is seeing more and more among municipal and other truck equipment customers.
“We are seeing a lot more pre-build conferences for snow and ice trucks,” he says. “We go over the chassis with the customer, pointing out anything new that might affect him. We review the drawings and the templates. We have found that it's best to just sit down with the customer and go over the order carefully. These conferences have reduced the number of comebacks we have had. Some of our customers are making these conferences mandatory by writing them into their specs.”
Freedom Truck Centers moved into its 53,000-sq-ft facility last year. The building was constructed on 9½ acres just off the interstate that links Spokane and Seattle.
Freedom Truck Centers had several priorities in designing the new building:
To implement the ‘Express Assessment’ program that Freightliner has developed for quick truck diagnosis. Highly visible signs make it easy for first-time customers to find their way to this part of the shop. If the repair can be performed in less than two hours, the truck gets attention right away. Four bays are dedicated to the Express Assessment program. If the repair will take more than two hours, the truck gets moved to the main part of the shop.
“If we can't figure out what's wrong there, we move the truck over to our dynamometer for further analysis,” Pearson says.
The express bays are too short for a trailer to fit inside with the shop doors closed.
“We did that on purpose to enable us to keep the line moving,” Pearson says. “A lot of the repairs we perform in this area can be done in 30 minutes or less. It's been a very popular program. We have won over customers here. We had one customer in particular tell us that our new location is now too far from him. But once he heard about the Express Assessment program, he gave us a try. He is once again a regular customer.
Elevated shipping and receiving docks. The docks are arranged to help keep the shop clean. Cores, for example, can be moved from the shop directly to the dock for shipping.
“When you are involved in the parts business, handling cores can get pretty messy,” Pearson says. “The way we have the shop arranged, we can keep cores out of the main building.
An expanded showroom. The Freedom Truck Centers showroom allows all types of parts to be displayed prominently. But there is still room left over for truck displays.
“The winters here can get pretty cold,” Pearson says. “It's been a big help to have some inside displays.”
Dynamometer. A bay equipped with a dynamometer helps Freedom Truck Centers identify problems that otherwise are difficult to diagnose.
In contrast to the express bays, the service bays in the main shop are deep enough to handle three trucks. This gives the company the same capacity, but with fewer bays. But that's not the big advantage.
“It creates a more compact footprint,” Pearson says. “Making your bays deep enough to only accommodate two trucks really starts to stretch out your building. Our technicians like the new facility because they don't have as far to get what they need.”