BUCKEYE is Back.” That’s the new slogan at Buckeye Body and Equipment in Columbus, Ohio.

And it wouldn’t necessarily be an overdramatization to suggest that Buckeye came back from the dead. For three months in 2013, the plant was shuttered, the gate was locked, and employees were looking for work.

Then a group of private investors bought the company in June. Fred Bongiovanni, former co-founder of America’s Body Company, took over as president. He immediately re-hired Roger Clark, who had been operations manager of Buckeye for 29 years, and general manager Jeff Massey, who had been with Buckeye from 1986-2000 when it was owned by America’s Body Company.

They opened July 1, and have been working hard to restore the roar ever since.

“All I can say is, it’s a fun place,” Massey says. “It’s exciting. We tell people we’re an ‘old new company.’ We’re still in the same game—commercial truck equipment—but we bring a lot of fresh ideas and new leadership. Some of the things we’ll be bringing to the market in future years other truck equipment suppliers don’t currently have and probably can’t provide to customers as vehicle solutions.”

It’s a beautiful thing for Bongiovanni, who has Evan Corns—the original founder of America’s Body Company—and other experienced management executives providing guidance through a special advisory board.

 

“I am proud to be a part of the ‘new Buckeye,’ ” he says. “The company is comprised of many veterans of the industry and many original America’s Body Company employees who bring those experiences to our customers today.

“Our focus as a company is a basic one: deliver the highest quality products on time and at a competitive price. It is really what our customers want from this industry, and we have the resources and people who understand that and deliver on the commitment every day.”

The company was originally founded in 1946 as Buckeye Body Builders by Arthur Hoffman—a pioneer in the early days of commercial vehicles—and sold truck bodies and related products.

In 1978, America’s Body Company purchased Buckeye Body Builders and renamed it Buckeye Truck Equipment. Under the leadership of Corns, the company experienced steady growth and became a regional leader in the industry.

In 1998, America’s Body Company was sold to the Linslata Group, a private investment firm that was positioned to expand the company, and did it by creating a nationwide network of truck equipment outlets spanning 12 states and 14 locations—the largest, most comprehensive company of its kind. The Buckeye Division expanded its product offering into the national fleet arena and became a central supplier to many top national accounts as well as a major bailment pool center for regional truck dealers.

In 2005, the company was sold to Leggett & Platt, a regional manufacturing company with a broad product offering. That allowed America’s Body Company and its Columbus division to diversify into product manufacturing—van bodies, platform bodies, and other related equipment—to add strength to its distribution base.

In 2009, the company was acquired by The Reading Group as an expansion bid to increase the company’s overall distribution and to add a more diverse manufacturing component to its portfolio. The company maintained the Columbus operation until June 2013.

Logistically not hard

Clark says the three-month jobless period was brutal, but the constant downsizing over the years prepared him.

“Honestly, just the fact that I made it through so many buyouts reduced the shock,” he says. “That was the last buyout of the three. I had to be a target eventually, because staff was getting reduced a lot. Each time we were purchased, it was always about reduction.”

Clark says that when the plant was shut down, many of the company’s long-time customers went to competitors—some even went outside of Ohio to have their needs serviced.

“There are small local competitors that business went to,” he says. “Those competitors are certainly not happy to see us back.”

How did Buckeye come back? From a logistical standpoint, it wasn’t that difficult. The facility was in place, and hadn’t done much but collect some dust over three months.

“I think that’s what was attractive to the new investors,” Clark says. “The facility was pretty much, ‘Turn on the lights and air compressors and here we go, we’re building truck equipment.’ A little polish here and there.”

Massey says that it did require a “significant investment” to get the seven-acre property cleaned up and the plant reconditioned and retooled to accomplish new goals with 55,000 square feet of installation area and 15,000 square feet of warehouse space. The surface work included a fresh coat of paint and refurbishing the office areas. Then they focused on the parts department, which previously had been laid out to be more of a counter walkup.

“We tried to make it more like a showroom where a customer can come in and browse and literally shop with price points right there with the product,” he says. “That’s really working for us. We brightened it up. We also doubled the size of the customer waiting area, and that’s been utilized a lot.

“A big thing we do is snowplow repairs. We have had some pretty strong snows this year. The waiting area has been a really nice addition for that kind of customer. We have a TV in there. A guy can bring his wife and kids in and feel comfortable and safe in a nice, clean environment while waiting for equipment to be worked on.”

The facility is equipped with two 35-foot-long paint booths with 10-foot entry doors and have integrated bake capabilities so that after liquid paint is sprayed, there is a 45-minute bake cycle.

This has allowed Buckeye to delve deeply into a new and lucrative refurbishing business servicing fleets.

“The size of the paint booths allows us to have an almost unlimited ability to take on these jobs,” Massey says. “That’s really been something that’s working for us and helped us to get some business from fleets because it’s a big void in the area. There are not too many people out there who do this kind of work.

“The facility was already there. Frankly, if we didn’t fill it with refurbished things, we’d be building trucks. It’s a wide-open shop that needs to be used for primary setup for paint. It’s a key part of our plant. For fleet customers, a truck chassis is a $250,000 unit brand new. We’re refurbishing the old one, painting the cab and body and making it almost like a new unit again. They’ll get the rest of the life out of it for half the cost of a new one.”

Massey says the refurb business has remained strong over the past few years, and he anticipates it will remain that way.

“The cost of vehicles continues to escalate,” he says. “There have been a lot of companies finding that the new diesel emission requirements make it more feasible for them to buy less-compliant engines and run them for a number of years. That’s another factor.”

Says Clark, “Before we reopened, there wouldn’t have been a job like that. There wasn’t an opportunity because nobody was asking for that kind of work. Even if it was available, they wouldn’t even have looked at it because it wasn’t a focus. It’s lucrative for us because it’s hard for the fleet customer to find someone who can paint not only the body and equipment, but paint the cab as well, and do all the detail in the interior. And they may want to upgrade to LEDs and make minor changes like that. We can provide all of that service in one stop. That’s what makes us a little bit unique. We don’t pull engines or transmissions, but anything equipment-related we can provide.”

Management team

The experience of Bongiovanni, Massey, and Clark has been instrumental in the new Buckeye.

“Fred has been around the industry for most of his life and had close connectivity with ABC in previous years,” Massey says. “I never really stopped working with Fred. We worked on many other projects. We never lost connectivity.”

Massey was with ABC as operations manager and then general manager in Riverside, Missouri, from November 2000 to May 2003. He then was VP of operations and co-owner of Kranz of Kansas City, Inc, until July 2004, when he became general manager of OEM Systems LLC. After five years there, he went to Allegiance Distribution LLC, in Kansas City, and served as president. Then Bongiovanni called.

“I don’t want it to sound like we are being boastful, but Jeff has had a really influential track record in this business, as well as myself and Fred,” Clark says. “People hear those names coupled together and they say, ‘I want to work with those guys.’ It was really all about our team. Every team has to have a coach or leader. It’s all about how that team is being coached.

“You come into our facility today and all employees have uniforms. They look professional. Employees like that, too, because you’re making an investment into them at no cost to them. That’s another thing our competitors don’t even do.

“Right now, the word is out. We’ve been in business long enough and people are seeking us out, just like it used to be. Don’t get me wrong: It’s still hard to find good people. Even though some people seek you out, that doesn’t mean you want to hire them. But it’s kind of nice to have people come to us and say, ‘Do you have a position I can get started in?’ They remember what it was like in the past and the success we had, and they want to be part of a winning team.”

Buckeye now has 25 employees, which is 21 more than it had when it was shut down last June. That includes paint manager John Santos, who has been in the plant longer than Clark has.

They’re embracing the famous quote from author F Scott Fitzgerald: Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.

Buckeye’s new mission: “Our goal is to be an industry leader in providing unmatched quality automotive products and service. We will constantly strive to meet the changing needs of our customers. Our aim is to provide an atmosphere that encourages employee teamwork, integrity and excellence. Together we will set and continually improve sales, service, and operational standards to ensure long-term market leadership and profitability; it is our mission to exceed customers’ and employees’ expectations and maintain their loyalty for a lifetime.”

“On the operations side, we’ve heard from our customer base that they like our ability to turn installations and deliver a completed product in an acceptable amount of time, and to have it completely user-ready and turn-key at a fair price, and at very high quality,” Clark says. “In this marketplace, that’s been lacking, from what we’re hearing from our customer base. Those are things we are focusing on to make us different than anyone else.

“We used to be really strong 20 years ago in our service offerings, the repair of vehicles. The focus, through the buyouts, has not been there for that part of business, so we’ve added a strong leader in that department (parts and service manager Kevin Delgarn) and we already have a team going and a shop full of service work. We’re really focusing on that.

“The biggest thing is that since we’re privately owned, there’s more attention to detail when it comes to our processes and employees. We expect a higher level of volume from every employee, from the person who touches the vehicle when it first comes here to the person who puts the final sponge on it to make sure it’s clean and ready to deliver. We have a total team effort. There is a total team bonus for accomplishing certain metrics we have in place and certain goals we want to hit.”

Massey says Buckeye’s suppliers have played a key role in the success.

“We have fantastic, very dedicated suppliers who have helped us get back into the game,” he says. “They’ve supported us with special programs and products. One thing we’re doing that a lot of truck equipment suppliers are not doing is we’re sticking with primary suppliers and not signing up with multiple lines. It is a fresh approach and seems to be working.”

Reading still maintains a presence on site to meet the criteria to continue the Reading GM and Ford chassis pool, and is the primary supplier of service bodies and platform bodies. Other suppliers: Galion and Reading for dump bodies; Brand FX for fiberglass composite utility service bodies; Dur-A-Lift for aerial lifts; Utilimaster for van bodies and city van products; Champion and Palfinger for hoists; Anthony and Tommy Gate for liftgates; Palfinger for heavy-duty mechanics bodies, hydraulic cranes, compressors, hooklift equipment, and articulating cranes; and Meyer for snow and ice control equipment.

Also new to the company is product development through design and in-house engineering services—which Buckeye offers as a free service to many fleet customers who have special needs for commercial vehicle equipment.

“We work with fleet customers to help improve how they use their vehicles through product design,” Massey says. “It saves them money, makes them more efficient, and reduces the amount of men they need to put into vehicles in a lot of cases.

“It hasn’t been a focus point of the company for many years. In past years, at one point, we serviced quite a few customers in fleet utility markets. With Sprint, we had a long track record in helping to design aerial lift packages. We built hundreds of them for them every year. It’s an old skill set we brought back to the market. We’re starting to gain momentum as a result of that.”

Over the years, the company lost more than its Buckeye name. It also lost the distinctive block “B” logo in the colors of the Ohio State University—scarlet and gray. But both of them are back now, and that’s a key component of the rebirth.

“The name is synonymous to Columbus, Ohio,” Massey says. “When this opened in 1946, the original name was Buckeye Body Builders. After that, it was Buckeye Truck Equipment. That was back in the heyday when we were a really strong house. Everybody relates to Buckeyes—hopefully in a positive manner after this football season (which ended with two straight defeats).

“We tried to build off that name, and the block ‘B’ in our logo is emulating the block ‘O’ of Ohio State. People remember the name and that block ‘B’ because that’s been on every logo when we were Buckeye. We’re also using the Ohio State colors. When it was ABC, they were red, white, and blue. Leggett & Platt was black and white, and Reading has its own red logo. The block ‘B’ is almost like its own individual trademark.”

“Kind of like the Chevy bowtie, except in truck equipment,” Clark says.

Buckeye is back. Believe it. ♦

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