NOTWITHSTANDING TODAY'S ECONOMY, new participants are joining the body distributor business. Their scope of business might be a little different than a well-established body distributor in a major metropolitan area; however, they are distributing bodies and accessory parts, and they are looking for opportunities to grow their businesses.

But what do these new owners need after they have decided to open their business? According to Truck Tuff, a new body distributor that grew from a minute operation housed in a rental storage complex to a 10,000-sq-ft facility that opened this year, owners need determination, a well thought-out plan for developing the business and their inventory, and most of all, a deep desire to be in the truck equipment industry.

“I've always had the body distributor and upfitting business in my blood,” says James Henderson, president and principal of Truck Tuff Inc. “Working in the automotive field has always been a part of my life, and even when I've operated other businesses, I wanted to pursue something that involved building vehicles.”

Ingredients for success

Henderson had little experience in the business unlike some who have branched out to start their own distributing company. He hadn't worked for a body upfitter or a body component manufacturer. His guide for starting and running the company is common sense as opposed to sophisticated financial formulas.

By starting gradually with products that are demanded today, serving customers in a better fashion than they can get serviced anywhere else, and investing in real estate that can help the company meet its anticipated growth, success will be the end result, says Henderson.

The picture is starting to change dramatically for the company. Because new business generators are sprouting up around his company, Henderson says he will survive and grow.

“We are located in Waller, Texas, a rural community of 6,000 residents just 75 miles northwest of Houston, Texas. This is an area of ranching, farming, and industrial truck users. Agricultural and industrial operators such as well logging and oil drillers use a lot of truck body parts and accessories.

“Waller is a growing community, and it is starting to receive a lot of attention from housing developers that are looking for newer areas to build outside of Houston. That brings more people into the area, and the people who live here use pickups, and they buy accessories for those trucks.”

All of that activity has provided an impetus for Tuff Truck's growth.

Two popular products that Tuff Truck has excelled in distributing are Rhino Linings and Ranch Hand accessory equipment. Rhino Linings are a spray-in bed coating that provides a non-slip surface and is chemically resistant to many substances. Ranch Hand manufactures bumpers, grill guards, and other accessories used in agricultural, industrial, and recreational environments.

“For agricultural work, the spray-in liner is needed. If the customer carries fertilizer, minerals for animals, or other corrosive materials, it just makes sense. My oilfield customers carry corrosive materials in the bed, and they also need something that is non-slip for transporting small machinery and parts for the rigs.”

Aftermarket bumpers and grill guards are a part of the Texas ranching landscape. Additionally, their use has grown among industrial users who also need bumpers that provide more options than those available from the factory.

Grill guards are popular with industrial users because it is easier to purchase a new grill guard than a new grill and radiator. For the rancher, grill guards are a wise investment. Cattle never make a light impression when they accidentally foist themselves into a grill while trying to eat hay that is under a parked truck.

“Many industrial buyers want a bumper that can handle a pintle hitch or D-rings for getting pulled out of a muddy field,” says Henderson. “Mating a trailer's hitch to a ranching truck equipped with four-wheel-drive can be difficult because of the bumper height. The aftermarket bumpers usually have a V-design that brings the ball in line with the trailer's height. We also sell a lot of the drop receiver hitches that have anywhere from a two to six inch drop on them.

Truck dealerships

“My biggest customer is the Lawrence Marshall family of dealerships in Hempstead. I sell them a lot of accessories such as grill guards, bumpers, hitches of every variety, and I handle all of their bed coatings.

“The Marshall dealerships sell Ford, GM, and Dodge trucks. For light and medium duty trucks, they focus on supplying agricultural and commercial buyers. If you look at their lot, they probably have more base-white, heavy-duty pickups than anyone in Texas, plus luxury truck models. Their buyer wants a gooseneck hitch, a bed liner, a heavy-duty grill guard, and maybe a custom bumper that will have a pintle hitch. That's the customer I want, so I find ways to make my distributorship look attractive to them.

“I learned that to get the dealership to do business with me at my old location, I would have to pick-up and deliver their trucks to them so they wouldn't tie up a delivery porter. After moving to the new location, we continue to pick-up and deliver any job that they provide for me. If picking-up and delivering the finished product to them is the answer, we'll do it.”

There can be pitfalls to having too large of a single buying force behind a business. “Although we have increased our retail walk-in sales dramatically, I still have to carry quite a bit of stock to service all of my different dealerships' needs throughout the area,” says Henderson. “If they sell three brands of trucks, then I need grill guards in stock to fit all of those products. I spend a lot of money on inventory.

“Of course, once you get the inventory, you have to store it. That is something that I'm dealing with today. We've got boxes of inventory stored everywhere.”

Growing pains

Henderson branched out from small pickup truck related products installed by customers to items requiring dealer installation. Once that level of work began in earnest, he realized that he needed more room.

He decided to immerse himself into the distributorship business in a big way. “We found a two-acre tract with good visibility from the freeway, plus it is 10 minutes from one of my largest customers and on the back doorstep of another good customer,” says Henderson. “The tract sits in a new industrial development that is growing along side of the new freeway bypass that was finished last year.” Truck Tuff was one of the first businesses to move into the park.

“The next step was building a facility that would allow for future growth, yet is still economical for us to be in today.” Henderson designed a 10,000-sq-ft building that incorporates an 8,000-sq-ft shop. The shop isn't served by many conveniences such as an overhead crane or an overhead air supply system. He will add those items as the shop's needs increase.

But the shop area does include two installation bays, plus a separate general body repair bay that allows for the installation of spray-in bed liners.

The majority of the residual space is dedicated to an accessory showroom area. Since Henderson started with smaller accessories, his showroom reflects his understanding of retailing parts.

“While bed liners are sprayed in their new trucks, customers can walk into the showroom and browse for a receiver stinger that has a four-inch drop. Then we will install the correct ball size for their trailer and they're set.”

Henderson wants his accessory offering placed in a grocery store styled aisle. Customers like to shop for their accessories in much the same manner that a person walks down a mall and window shops.

Truck Tuff also uses wall-mounted products, manufacturer-supplied graphics, and Henderson's own design of neon lighting, all inside the showroom area. Walk-in customers look at the displays and wall-mounted parts. Liberal use of graphics and displays helps to increase buyer awareness of products and their benefits.

Henderson didn't build a lot of executive space in his new facility. He and his wife share one office space between the showroom floor and the installation shop.

Starting and staying

“We have grown from what was basically a one car garage to this new facility which we occupied officially on New Year's, 2002,” Henderson says. “We were open for business the next day.

“We are turning several important corners in many ways. We are doing the things that are attracting customers. We are being asked to provide better and more complicated bodies, and we are talking with distributors to incorporate some new lines of equipment. We will be bringing on a line of chassis flat beds and western-styled beds in a few months. Those are the milestones to building a successful operation.

“Even with the current economy, we know we can survive. Patience is something that you learn when you are raised in the country. And in the end, with a little patience, everything gets out on the table. If we keep doing our best, Truck Tuff is going to survive and grow.”