HOW can independent distributors compete in today's marketplace?

HDAW organizers drilled down deep for the answers by assembling a panel representing a major truck dealer, a major independent distributor, an independent truck repair specialist, and fleet operator for a session called, “Culture of Survival: Competitive Distribution Strategies For a Winning Future.”

Distributor, fleet, and dealer consolidation continues to grow. How do changes in the marketplace offer opportunities for a business to capitalize on its distinct advantages? Here's what the panel had to say.

Robyn Spitzke, executive VP
Fort Garry Industries
Winnipeg, Canada

Spitzke said Fort Garry Industries, a supplier of truck and trailer parts and equipment to the transportation industry across Western Canada, was established in 1919 as a tire repair shop in Winnipeg, and now has 16 locations with 11 stores (all in the open warehouse concept), two trailer sales offices, two equipment installation shops, and a remanufacturing plant.

The company operates in four time zones, with the closest stores 90 miles apart and the furthest locations 2000 miles apart in a country where 72% of the population lives within 100 miles of the US-Canadian border.

“We try to follow good business principles, starting with constantly making an investment in our business,” she said. “Our stores are large, and each is its own warehouse. You need a broad coverage of inventory and an ongoing process to monitor and tweak inventory to ensure that you have the optimal mix to serve customers.

She said the company's culture is tied to in-house-developed software that gives them the luxury of collecting a vast amount of information quickly and making data-based decisions.

“We distribute the same parts as our competitors, but we can differentiate ourselves with technology by supplying our team with information to quickly locate and respond to customer inquiries, and by working with our customers and suppliers to use technology to cut costs in the supply chain and using information to ensure our inventory offering is optimized,” she said.

She said that to build a successful model, relationships are the key:

  • Team

    “If you look after your people, they will look after your customers.”

  • Suppliers

    “They are partners, and we work with them to achieve a common goal. We work with them to develop programs and gain business for both parties.”

  • Customers

    “These relationships need to have depth to be sustainable. It's not enough to have corporation-to-corporation relationships. It needs to be at all levels of the supply chain: purchasing, maintenance, management, and parts. People always come and go, so it's important to build relationships with a cross section of customers and a cross section of your team.”

  • Bank

    “It's more important than ever in this economy to ensure ongoing viability.”

  • Industry contacts

    “It's an easy one to pick off, but it's important to build relationships with others in the industry.”

“Listen to customers,” she said. “What are they looking for? It might be as simple as extending hours of service. Diversify store and shop hours. While most of our business is still call-in and delivery, adding walk-in customers has provided additional product sales opportunities for less price-sensitive items”

She said the company's culture has these facets:

  • Focused on growth

    “No one keeps all the business they have, so we're constantly looking for new business to replace attrition. It's easy to get stagnant and fall behind the curve.”

  • Identify costs of doing business

    “A strong balance sheet is built on profitability. Know your costs. To be profitable, you need to earn enough to cover costs plus.”

  • Continuous improvement

    “Survival is not the goal. The definition of survival is ‘struggling to live.’ A successful business weathers the downturn because it's prepared to do so. If you want to be successful, you have to thrive — not simply survive.”

Kyle Treadway, president
Kenworth Sales Company
West Valley City, Utah

Treadway said we're seeing a paradigm shift that was last seen in 1980 when the federal government deregulated the industry.

“It's a combination of things,” he said, “from CSA, determining when and where customers are going to get work done; to hours of service, meaning that when they get it done it's even more time-critical because it's not just that equipment that's down. It's impacting the ability of the driver to be productive. Fuel economy standards come into play in 2014-2017. There's a relentless wave of this federal impact.

“Add to that, what would the customer want? Large fleets today more and more are telling us how we're going to get purchasing-order authorization from them, how we're going to submit invoices and statements, and how they're going to remit payments. They're dictating those terms.

“Then there's the traditional role we all fill. We're a support to their business. Whether trucking is their core competency or just a part of it and not their mainstay, they look at us to be a consultant and expert to explain a confusing variety of all the new technology and products and services out there.”

He said his company deals with new and used truck sales, rental, leasing and finance, parts and service, managed maintenance, body, fuel, and truck washing. Market segments include LTL (regional, national), private carriage, refrigerated, bulk transport, mining, oil and gas exploration, construction, agriculture, pickup and delivery, flatbed, lumber, and specialized carriage.

He said they want national pricing with central billing, a 24/7 support network, pickup/delivery of replacement vehicles, outsourcing, parts consignments, a private shop run by somebody who knows efficiencies better than they do, managed maintenance from somebody who's tracking every unit to show cost per mile and giving them feedback, mobile maintenance, and warranty support and advocacy.

“In our marketplace, we need the independent supplier and WD, because we can't do it all,” he said.

Don Nugent, purchasing manager
US Transport
Denver, Colorado

He said US Transport is a fleet operator created in 2004 from a leading dry-bulk transport service and logistics providers, and now has eight locations, 250 company-owned trucks and 100 owner-operators in five states.

“I use a wholesale distributor mostly in my area,” he said. “Though we are predominantly Paccar, I find it hard to use OEs in my area. OEs are spread so thin these days that you sit on hold forever. With the WD I do business with, I generally call right into the person and get a hold of him.

“The WD I do business with in town seems to have it all figured out. The OEs are trying to figure out why this guy is doing so well. It's painfully obvious to me now — being on the other side of the fence in the buying position — how he does it.”

Some of his observations:

  • “Internet ordering is not taking the place of phone-call ordering and communication yet. I tried it a couple of times and had snafus. I'd rather build relationships with WDs by talking to them.”

  • “The best way for distributors to survive is to listen to their customers. Do not lose focus on the basics of doing business. It's simple supply and demand, demand and supply: ‘This is what I need today. Make sure it's on the shelf.’”

  • “Some aftermarket private label parts are fine. Some I will stay away from based on experience.”

John Wensel, founder and president
Wensel's Service Centers
Spring City, PA

Wensel said his company's role in the industry is:

  • Providing professional and quality service and at a fair price

    “What's a fair price? We don't look at what Joe down the street is charging. We look at internal costs on a price matrix. We look at mechanics and their sales rates, their efficiencies, and run things by the book.”

  • Going out of the ordinary to provide superior service

    “That's what distinguishes us from the guy down the street. We're very careful about whom we hire and that they fit into our culture of caring about how a truck is fixed. We don't just send the truck out on street after completing the job. We make sure it's safe.”

  • Keeping current with the latest technologies

    “We operate a little closer to an OEM shop. We can do everything but warranty work. We can bring in a 2012 truck and plug in and be able to diagnose. How are we able to do that? We're involved in The Maintenance Council and have a lot of friends and colleagues that are available for us to call.”

  • All-inclusive fleet repairs, from road service and towing to engine overhauls, alignments, hydraulic service, and spring repair

    “We look at segments of business other people are doing well. We have pushed into spring repair. We've done alignments for years. How do we do all these services? We hire people who are specialized in those areas. Years ago, it used to be that there were one or two guys in your shop who could do everything. That's long gone. We consider ourselves a repair service that tows. We don't do a lot of accident-chasing.”

  • On-site repair service

    “A company calls and says, ‘I want you to come down once a week and go through our trucks and make a list and look after them.’”

He said he does online marketing through nttsbreakdown.com, Yellowpages.com, and Google; website development (www.wenselrepair.com); and pick-up and delivery service.

“I learned from OEMs in my fleet days,” he said. “The delivery service has been huge. A lot of retired truck drivers are sitting by the phone, waiting for me to call. They are some of my best employees — so committed to making our business grow.

“We also made our service trucks and tow trucks appear different by using them as moving billboards near the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

He said the future for the supply chain looks like this:

  • Development and deployment of online ordering and parts inquiries

    “We have an automotive division within each of our shops. We're able to do less calling and a lot more going on online, and the part shows up an hour later. It makes it a lot easier to integrate into our software system for account purposes. I'd like to see more of that on the truck side in the future.”

  • Expanding the use of supplier websites

    “A lot of people don't know about them.”

  • Deployment of online training/technical assistance

    “I'm seeing more and more of that the last few years, doing webinars. Our mechanics can spend an hour online with the manufacturer, keying in on what's important to us at this time.”

  • Diminished shop inventory, requiring increased frequency of deliveries/ consignment inventory

    “We can't financially carry inventory in this economy. We have one supplier who will put clutches in consignment because he doesn't want to miss that sale. He might not sell them for a couple of months, but he's OK with that.”

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