Snow and ice control equipment part of H A DeHart's diverse product lineup
Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, BY BRUCE SAUER
The cold reality is that most business start-ups are hard pressed simply to survive that first tough year of business. Another chilly reminder: most family-owned businesses fail before the third generation can take over.
So it's a pretty special company that can continue to thrive after 125 years of doing business. But that's exactly what H A DeHart & Son has been doing this year — celebrating a century and a quarter of service to customers of commercial trucks and horse-drawn wagons.
The obvious question for any company with that level of longevity is a simple “How?”
Philip “Cliff” Clifford, chairman of the board does not hesitate to answer. “Diversification,” he says.
A look at the company's line card confirms Clifford's claim. H A DeHart is Great Dane's oldest trailer dealer. The company is a dealer for Thomas Built school buses. A subsidiary operates a fleet of school buses. DeHart sells and services transport refrigeration units. All of this in addition to serving as a full-line truck equipment distributor. The company has added and subtracted a lot of products and services in 125 years.
“As things change, we have to, too,” says Bob Hall, sales manager.
Snow and ice control equipment has been an area that has changed rapidly. One of the ads that H A DeHart developed to promote its line of snow and ice equipment involved a photo taken around 1915 of a team of horses pulling a snow roller — a means of “controlling” snow accumulations by compacting it, rather than removing it. By creating a hard surface, the snow roller made it easier for sleighs — and the occasional automobile — to travel streets and roads.
“A lot has changed in this market, especially in the last few years,” Hall says. “Probably the biggest change has been the switch from aggregate to liquid deicing agents. That's made a big difference in the equipment we sell. Compared with the number of plows that we mount on light-duty trucks, we are doing more work on medium- and heavy-duty state and municipal trucks than we used to.
“We now have so much electronics on the trucks that we build — trucks that download computer data, computers that regulated application rates. Of course, our customers have gotten a lot more sophisticated, too. They know exactly what is going on with their roads and highways, thanks to sensors embedded in the roadways that can tell what the humidity is, how hard the wind is blowing, and what the temperature is. That data is transmitted to the dispatcher. The dispatcher can then send a truck, knowing what the conditions are.”
Going with the flow
With a wide variety of products and services in the mix, H A DeHart has the flexibility to go after the market segments that are hot — or at least warm — in today's challenging economy.
“Our trailer business is really tough right now, but we are glad that we have a good paint facility and repair shop to help us ride out this downturn,” says Joe Tompkins, truck equipment sales manager. “We've been through downturns before. The good thing about a downturn is that we always seem to come out of them with fewer competitors.”
Consistent with the company's history of change, Hall says the company has recently begun focusing its truck equipment efforts on environmental products. These include street sweepers, refuse and recycling bodies, sewer cleaners, camera systems, and catch basin cleaners.
“A lot of these sales have been driven by changes in federal regulations,” Hall says. “For example, as of February, you can't wash a truck without a containment system. We have been selling bio-reactors — permanently mounted equipment that uses microbes to eat the grease and other hydrocarbons that are removed when trucks are washed. Municipalities, contractors, anyone who has to wash vehicles can use equipment like this.”
Regulations also have affected DeHart's school bus business.
“In New Jersey, schools are not allowed to run school buses that are more than 12 years old,” Clifford says. “We used to take in trades, but there really isn't a market for older buses in our area any more. We wind up sending them to Central and South America.”
A diverse company like H A DeHart requires a fair amount of specialization. Hall and Tompkins handle the municipal truck equipment sales operation. Dennis Noon, president, heads up the Great Dane dealership. He supervises a sales staff that covers Delaware, the eastern shore of Maryland, New Jersey and also southeast Pennsylvania.
The Thomas Built dealership covers the state of New Jersey. The company has three full time sales personnel and an inside sales staff representing this product line. In addition to new equipment sales, parts and service departments are a key element in the company's success.
H A DeHart Transportation Company is a subsidiary of H A DeHart & Son. The company operates a fleet of 80-85 buses for public and private schools — and has since the 1930s. A staff of 89 part-time drivers gets the children to school and back.
A lengthy history
The company can trace its roots back to Harry DeHart Sr., who left home at age 13 and began working as a blacksmith in Paulsboro, New Jersey. With a $225 loan from his girlfriend, DeHart started a small blacksmith shop in 1884. DeHart soon branched out from shoeing horses and began repairing wagons. From there he began building his own wagons. The initial products were heavy cargo wagons, but ice wagons and furniture vans soon followed. DeHart patented a wagon design that helped reduce the wagon's turning radius, a idea that helped make his product successful and his reputation solid.
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