Don't Call Them "Mom & Pop"

Don't call Dale and Hermi Krueger's Fleet Maintenance Professionals Corporation (FMPC) a "Mom & Pop" operation. The Kruegers, who have owned and run FMPC out of a five-bay shop in Appleton, Wisconsin for ten years, do not like the term one little bit, even though they are, in fact, a "Mom" and a "Pop."

Eight years ago, the manager of a neighboring fleet terminal decided to send his trucks and trailers all the way back home to St. Paul, MN--a 552-mile round trip--for maintenance and repair, because he considered FMPC too much of a "Mom & Pop" operation to entrust with his maintenance work. That didn't sit well with the Kruegers, who pride themselves on their high professional standards.

"They got a new terminal manager, and he asked why they were sending trucks to Minnesota when they had a service provider right here on the premises," Dale recalls. "I told him it was because we were considered a ‘Mom & Pop' operation. And he said, ‘Well, we're going to change that.' And I've had his business ever since. He's even thinking of bringing maintenance work from his other Wisconsin terminals here instead of taking them to St. Paul, to their home shop."

That scenario is representative of the way the Kruegers work. As independent shop owners, they have to prove themselves every day, but the customers who are won over and then sign on are fiercely loyal, and rarely take their business elsewhere.

"We've proven that our customers don't have breakdowns, and our policy has always been to do it right the first time, and do it well, and not have returns," says Hermi, who works in the front office alongside Dale. "When they can find someone who can do a good job extending the lives of their vehicles, it would be ludicrous to go out and buy new.

"Our business is based on trust," she goes on. "Customers trust that what Dale tells them is going to be right. He tells people sometimes what they don't want to hear, but he tells them the truth. He doesn't push anything down anyone's throat, but he tells them what needs to be done. If it's a safety issue, he doesn't play ball: either you fix it or you don't bring it here, because I'm not going to be responsible for your safety problems."

STARTING OUT RIGHT

Dale credits his success to a service manager he worked for at his first job, way back in 1961, at an International Trucks dealership in Wausau, WI. That service manager taught his technicians and his customers the importance of regular preventive maintenance, and it's a lesson that has stuck with Dale. It taught him two things: good PM is one of the most important things you can do to extend the life of a vehicle, and it's also one of the best ways to build customer loyalty.

"All the customers he had, he put on a preventive maintenance program: every year, wheel bearing packs, winter checks, and everything else," Dale says. "He had such a following, such a group of customers who came to him just because of his philosophy of preventive maintenance."

In subsequent jobs, Dale has continued on with his own philosophy of preventive maintenance, and in doing so he has attracted his own following. When he left his position as head of maintenance for Fore Way Express ten years ago to found FMPC, his reputation for meticulous inspection and thorough repair was already well established, and he had no trouble finding customers for the new business.

"This is all I've ever done, and I still get all excited because I'm such a big believer in preventive maintenance," he says. "But I sometimes shake my head at the way some fleets operate…"

SLIPPING UP

Dale and Hermi can talk for hours about the problems they see on trucks that have been serviced at other shops--sometimes their own customers'. Dale's list of worst offenders includes:

• Technicians who don't realize that smaller utility trailers have electric brakes--"In these salty road conditions, are those electric brakes working? Are you constantly replacing the brakes on the truck that's pulling it? Because the truck is doing all the stopping; the trailer is not."

• Technicians doing "brake patches" instead of brake rebuilds--"He'll do a brake job on a trailer, and he won't replace the drums! The drums will be all worn out and grooved, and he'll just put in brake shoes. Or he'll do a one-wheel brake job; you can't have balanced brakes when you just do one wheel, or one axle."

• Technicians who are taught that it's okay to adjust an automatic slack adjuster--"You've got an internal problem somewhere with the brake foundation that's causing this adjuster not to work. You're just covering up by trying to adjust the ASA, because in two weeks the brakes are going to be out of adjustment again."

That last problem sometimes hits close to home. "I've even had a hard time here, convincing my own guys, that you do not adjust an automatic slack adjuster," Dale admits. "When a truck comes in and needs a brake adjustment and it's got an automatic slack adjuster, do not adjust it!"

TECHNICIAN RECRUITING

The six technicians at FMPC are a loyal group, although it can be hard to find good candidates for open positions. One new tech was hired away from a fleet last summer and only lasted three days; he felt the work at FMPC was "too technical," and he wanted to return to the fleet world, where he knew he would be working on the same trucks and the same problems day in and day out.

"He was used to filling out a PM sheet next to the truck, which is what I find a lot of my competitors do," Dale shrugs. "I hear this from new customers who come in here after having taken a truck to a dealership, and I've got technicians who have worked for dealerships; they don't physically go under the truck! They fill a sheet out at the service desk."

The Kruegers are willing to hire graduates of the local technical college's diesel program, but they feel those candidates don't receive enough real world training. "Tech schools aren't preparing technicians," Dale says. "It's all diesel training, but it's not the basics, it's not preventive maintenance."

Tech school-trained technicians are eager to do troubleshooting with a computer, Dale says, or to replace injectors, but they balk at the prospect of tearing down a truck. "I had a young man here who I trained on doing an air brake job," he says. "Well, he had had air brake training at the technical college, but they had new axles that somebody had donated to them, and when you take new axles, they're not rusted, they're going to come apart really easily. But when you get to the real world and you pull that wheel off and everything's rusted and you can't get that anchor pin out, you learn how much work it takes."

As a matter of course, every new technician who joins the staff works closely with one of the experienced technicians, sometimes for a number of years.

"One of our older guys will spend an afternoon with a younger guy as he does a PM inspection, then the older guy will go through with him and show him what he missed," Dale explains. "We once had an older guy follow up on a younger guy who had lubricated a truck--to me, lubricating a truck is just as important as anything we do, because I don't want our parts to wear out for the customer--and every grease fitting he had missed, he had to give the older guy a quarter!"

The Kruegers have high standards for their technicians, and some of the recruits struggle to meet those standards, but those who succeed never forget the lessons they learn. In fact, one technician who began his career at FMPC and has gone on to a maintenance position with Michels Power, a local utility construction company, has vowed that the Kruegers will always be his #1 outsourcing vendor.

DEVOTED CUSTOMERS

With that kind of loyalty, it's not hard to understand why FMPC has just finished its best year ever without spending a cent on advertising.

When you do good work, word gets around. Michels Power, as previously mentioned, sends all its overflow maintenance work to FMPC, and has done so since the Kruegers opened their shop ten years ago. Not only has the former FMPC technician who now works for Michels sworn his undying allegiance to the Kruegers, but when a group of Michels employees left that firm to start their own competing company, they also came to FMPC for help!

"I do all their overflow work," Dale says of the upstart company. "They have their own shop and fleet manager, but they can't keep up. They like my preventive maintenance program, and they've incorporated some of my practices into their program, but I don't care because they still can't keep up. They still send me work. If I can help the company operate its own fleet in some way, I will."

FMPC's biggest customer, Canadian National Railroad, also dates back to the founding of the company ten years ago. Because Canadian National's trucks often come equipped with "high-rail" gear so they can ride the rails, they can't be maintained at any old shop.

"I had to send somebody to their school to get certified on their high-rail equipment," Dale says. "Every year they get their wheel bearings packed on their high-rail wheels, and we do an alignment check to make sure they're running down the rails straight, that there aren't any safety issues, that those brakes are working. It's quite a detailed inspection."

Balancing such specialized technical work with more run-of-the-mill maintenance tasks calls for some complicated planning. Finding technicians who can handle the challenges is difficult, as is training the right technician on the right procedures.

"I have to have a technician who can deal with the more specialized pieces of equipment," Dale says. "We do light duty, too--I have a dry-cleaning and laundry customer who has 15 little vans that they deliver laundry in. They come here and I have a lift in for them, so I have to have technicians who can do that.

"That does make it more difficult," he admits. "I have to take the time to train them; it costs me some money, but once I train a technician I know that customer is going to stay with me, like the railroad's been with me for ten years now, and MaxAir's been with me for ten years."

BIGGEST ENEMY

The Kruegers' penchant for thorough, painstaking work has its detractors. According to Dale, his biggest enemy is the client's "bean counter."

"He's looking for low price," Dale says, "and he doesn't understand value."

But value is the cornerstone of FMPC, and the Kruegers make no apologies for their high standards. Those standards may cost them some business, and some technicians, but they have stood the test of time.

"Whatever we do here, we do thoroughly," Dale says. "It's a brake rebuild, not a brake patch, because I want my customers to get the most life they can get. Yeah, I might be more expensive, I might use a higher quality brake shoe, or better quality fan belts, or whatever, but I want them to get the most miles they can get out of their truck. I don't want them to look at invoice cost; I want them to look at cost-per-mile."

The fleets that get it really get it. Many customers trust Dale's judgement to the point that they authorize FMPC to do whatever work they deem necessary, without calling in to get an okay. The railroad company does request quotes, but according to the Kruegers thay have never said no to any work FMPC has recommended.

"Dale is of the same age as a lot of other professionals in the business, but he's not sitting back doing it the same way he did it 30 years ago," Hermi says. "He is right on top of things, and he knows the way things should be done now."

"I'm 67 and I'm still looking for new things," says Dale. "I'm not the normal guy who says, 'We've always done it this way, and we're going to keep on doing it.' I look for ways to do it better and work more efficiently and save the customer money."

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