A Good Year for Old Trucks

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.

"We go after that business," he explains. "We do business with a lot of large fleets, and it's not really maintenance: it's suspension rebuilding on the trailers, brake repair on the trailers, replacing the doors, handling collision repair. I do not do any engines. We do not do repainting. We do the bodywork, but we farm out the painting. I don't do any towing; I've got a guy who does a great job on towing. Engine diagnostics, we do a lot of that, and we'll be doing more of it. We've got all the computer diagnostics for all the different vehicles."

As Botts sees it, his job is to make fleet maintenance managers look good: "That's my job, and that's what we strive for."

"Two years ago, outsourcing work was the wave of the future," says Botts. "Fleets are realizing their business is logistics, not truck repair. So, consequently, they would like to keep their technicians doing nothing more than the PMs. They don't even want them doing the oil changes. They like them to do the PM, the pre-trip inspections--if a light needs to be repaired before the guy pulls out, they've got it. If it needs tire repair, they want to send it to the tire dealer and get that taken care of before he goes out.

"Fleet managers would like to get it down to where they just have a skeleton crew--they don't want to do trailer repair in-house," he concludes. "Some of these guys have huge, beautiful shops, but they have the same problem I have: hiring good, qualified technicians."

TECHNICIAN TRAINING

With such a unique perspective on the needs of the fleet maintenance industry, it's not surprising that Botts is a champion of technician training. As a board member of ACOFAS, the American Council of Frame and Alignment Specialists, Botts helps organize several training events a year with such big names as ArvinMeritor, Hunter Engineering and Michelin Tire.

"We just did one on vibration analysis at the end of October, and it was unbelievable," he says. "We always get in two or three manufacturers, so that we get an overall, broad view of the topic. And, really, each one of these guys could put on a two-day program by themselves!"

Thirty-two technicians took part in the October training seminar, including three from Botts' shop. Of course, Botts has an easier time than fleets springing technicians from the shop floor to attend training classes.

"For a fleet to pick out a couple of techs and take them… number one, they're running short, and number two, for fleets to get someone to authorize the money to send a tech to a program, it's hard to get," Botts says sympathetically. "As an independent, I don't have that problem. I can okay that any time: 'Here's a program: you, you and you are going.'"

BUSINESS IS UP

That's a good thing for Botts, who saw his business increase by ten percent in 2008, in large part due to those municipalities rehabbing their trucks.

And the good news is going to get better in 2009, as buyer anticipation over 2010 trucks starts to build.

"The 2009 trucks are not selling," he says. "You've got the 2010 emissions engines coming in, and the 2010's got so many enhancements. You'd be crazy to buy a 2009. I'd say, probably even before June, you'll see the 2010s released. I think that's what's going to bring the truck industry back."

That, of course, will bring warranty work into Botts' shop, and once again he will be in a prime position to make fleet maintenance managers look good.

"We fit in when the fleets get behind," he says. "Take one of our disposal fleets: they've got a guy who can do kingpins, but let's say they have three trucks with engine problems. They don't have time to mess with something like kingpins or suspensions, so we handle that for them. We do the overflow for them. That's what we offer them: 'We take care of what you can't, what you don't have time for.'"

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