A Good Year for Old Trucks

At this chassis and suspension shop, business is brisk, and fleets are happy


Believe it or not, 2008 was a pretty good year for some businesses. Take Botts Welding, an independent, family-owned chassis and suspension repair shop in Woodstock, IL: by capitalizing on the need for many fleets to keep older trucks running longer, owner Gordon Botts has found a growing market for his services, and in the process he has become a hero and savior to many Midwest fleet maintenance managers.

Botts employs 24 technicians in the main shop, and another four people at the neighboring parts building (That's right: they don't have a parts room, they have a parts building). According to Botts, it's not unusual to have the shop filled up with 24 vehicles at any given time. "Take a day like today:" he says. "We opened up the doors this morning, and there were three trucks waiting. Within a half hour, we were filled up."

CHEAPER TO KEEP IT

More and more, Botts is seeing a certain type of fleet customer--municipal fleets, primarily--coming to grips with a simple financial reality: they can put as many as four rehabbed trucks on the road for the price of one new truck.

"We're getting them in from municipalities" he says. "We're completely replacing the frame, rebuilding the suspension. That's the biggest problem with the municipal vehicles is the frames rot out. The frames get bent, they get coated with salt, and they start to rot out."

Botts points to "double frame" construction as a the chief culprit. Over the years, salt water gets in between the frame rails and creates pressure that splits the frame rails.

"So, it blows up the outer frame rail, and it's always the outer one, because it's easier to open than to close a frame," Botts explains. "So we strip them down and put everything on. It runs about $30,000 to $35,000 a truck to do this, but for a new plow truck with all the good stuff on it, you're looking at $140,000. And you can get 10 years out of (a rehabbed truck)."

Municipalities often replace their trucks after 7 years, but they put relatively few miles on those trucks. "They do a lot of idle time, so it's very critical to watch the engine hours," Botts says, "but they don't go anywhere! They just wander around town.

"You take your typical over-the-road tractor; in eight years it has a million miles on it--that's nothing," he continues. "You take a municipal truck and in eight years you might finally get up to 12,000 miles. They don't get the opportunity to wear out! They rot out, they do not wear out."

MAKING FLEETS LOOK GOOD

In Botts' position, he sees first-hand how different fleets are handling tough economic times. Refuse fleets that traditionally have high maintenance expenditures are idling trucks due to excess capacity, but they're doing it in an unusual way:

"They run a truck until it breaks, then they pull it out of the fleet, then run another one until it breaks," Botts says. "Consequently, they're laying off their own staff. So, their staff is there to handle preventive maintenance; but they're not doing any major maintenance."

The idea, Botts says, is to avoid doing that "major" maintenance. Fleets that follow this strategy can afford to have an independent shop such as Botts' do their major work, and by doing so they can eliminate one or two mechanics on staff.

"That eliminates a lot of benefits," Botts says, "and benefits are what's eating these guys."

Botts sees a similar strategy pursued by another big customer group: food industry fleets. More and more, these fleets want to send major repairs out of house and "Let the people handle it who know how to handle it."

"When you run a fleet operation, when you have engine people on staff, transmission people on staff, body people on staff, suspension people, brakes people, you're talking big bucks to keep that many people on staff," Botts says.

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