The heavy-duty aftermarket's been a busy place the past year as customers played catch-up on purchasing and maintenance after delaying both during the recession. That growth is slowing, however, which may make it a perfect time to consider branching out into new markets, new product lines and new endeavors.
We talked to two parts and service providers who have been doing exactly that in recent years: Midwest Wheel Companies, which has been focused on growing its light-duty business, and Clarke Power Services, which has moved from being strictly a Detroit/Allison distributor to offering bumper-to-bumper maintenance and more.
Midwest Wheel has always sold parts for nearly anything with wheels, but during the past five years, the light-duty truck and trailer business has really taken off, says Steve McEnany, vice president of marketing and technology for the Des Moines, Iowa-headquartered distributor, which has seven locations in Iowa and Missouri.
"The light-duty truck accessory business has really come into its own the last 10 to 15 years, and we've really gotten focused on it the last five," he says. The company is up to a 100-page light-duty catalog. It has added 16 product lines this year alone. A field product manager is dedicated to the light-duty business.
Midwest Wheel offers light-duty items such as bed liners, cab racks, chrome accessories, fifth wheel and gooseneck hitches, grille guards, ladder racks, mudflaps, performance exhaust, running boards, towing mirrors and steps.
There are many product lines that overlap between light- and heavy-duty, such as diesel exhaust fluid, batteries and some types of lighting.
"Tonneau covers are really big right now," McEnany says. They serve the dual purpose of streamlining aerodynamics for better fuel efficiency and offering cargo protection. "We're also adding more and more in suspensions and shocks. If you want to put bigger tires on it, you have to raise the suspension up a couple inches to get those tires to fit." Customers who want to put a snowplow on their trucks face the same need, he notes.
Another recent addition are padlocks that can be keyed the same as the pickup. Last year, they added the Power Step from AMP Research, a running board that automatically deploys when you open the pickup door, then retracts when the door is closed.
"You find little niches, the direction the industry's going," McEnany says.
Of course, any new business venture comes with a learning curve. Midwest Wheel has long found involvement in associations to be a valuable tool, and light-duty is no exception. The company recently started going to the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show - McEnany likens it to a larger, light-duty version of Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week - and has joined Automotive Accessories Marketing on the automotive side.
"An interesting difference is in the fleet world, it's 'I need it because it's broke,'" McEnany says. "In the automotive world, it's 'I want it because I want it.'"
When adding a new venture such as this, he says, it's important to decide the added expense you're willing to invest.
"I'm certainly never going to tell anybody it's easy to jump into a new part of the business," McEnany says. "You need to figure out what you have to change in the company to make that work."
For instance, will you use the same salesmen and delivery trucks, or will you make it a dedicated part of the business? In Midwest Wheel's case, they were able to take advantage of delivery trucks that were either already delivering to a location that was buying heavy-duty parts or whose route took them right by a light-duty customer location.
Having a person dedicated to specializing in that business has also been a big help, McEnany says.
Thinking like a fleet
Clarke Power Services, a nine-state operation headquartered in Cincinnati, decided about 10 years ago that it needed to broaden its offerings beyond the Detroit/Allison service it provided. Today, it's a member of the WheelTime truck service network.
"Mark Andreae, our owner, had the vision that we would become a bumper-to-bumper provider of maintenance for all makes and classes of equipment," explains Riley Asher, vice president of fleet services, who came on board four years ago after 22 years in maintenance with a fleet.
Asher explains that the fleet services area works to "think in terms the way a fleet would." He and his team ask themselves, "What can we do to streamline our maintenance practices such that a fleet would be hard-pressed to do it better themselves?"
"If we say we will have a unit done, we will," he says, "even if we have to double and triple up to get it out the door."
Clarke not only offers maintenance and repair services, but it will also take over a fleet's entire maintenance operation and run it.
"It's not enough to be able to handle a small chunk or small slice of the pie of maintenance," Asher explains. "You really have to provide a fleet with a one-stop shop. Fleets can't afford to stop at one place and get the engine work done and another to get the PM done and a third place to get the tires repaired and changed."
In fact, when selling to fleets, Clarke representatives like to talk not only to the head of maintenance but also to the owner or COO - the guy who's responsible for seeing the freight is delivered on a timely basis.
In recent years, glider kits and refurbishing have become a major opportunity as fleets try to avoid the extra expense and uncertainty of engines meeting ever-more-stringent emissions regulations. Glider kits are built on the same assembly line as new trucks and offer a new cab and front of the truck to put on an existing chassis. Clarke will overhaul the engine, rebuild the transmission and rears, and create a rebuilt, like-new truck. The company has converted hundreds of gliders for a major fleet.
"Some of these smaller fleets are finding this is such an economic boon for them, many are considering never going back to buying new trucks," Asher says.
Cashing in on another trend, the need for better fuel economy, Clarke also found business converting the hydraulic fans in metro buses to more fuel-efficient electric fan systems.
Another relatively new venture is mobile service on-site at the customer's location. It acquired Vehicare in 2010 and offers it through nine of its locations. "When the customer's so tight on time that he can't bring his fleet to us, we'll go to the fleet and do the same services," Asher explains. "These are highly spec'd mobile trucks with good technicians on board. We will make the service convenient to the customer based on when the fleet is home."
Like Midwest Wheel, Clarke is expanding into lighter-duty truck classes. Traditionally it was involved primarily in Class 8, but is handling vehicles as small as Class 4 and 5. It even has found opportunities for equipment beyond trucks, as in the case of a customer that specializes in refurbishing sewer lines.
"We have become involved with maintaining large amounts of their equipment - whether it's a truck or a generator or a pump, if it's mechanical and it has an engine on it, we can do it," Asher says.
With the Marcellus shale extending into Clarke's backyard in Ohio, the company also has found opportunity in servicing the trucks and pumps and generators used in the extraction of natural gas.
When it decided to expand its service offerings, Clarke Power Systems had "a good base to build on in terms of technical expertise; probably some of the finest technicians in the industry," Asher says. The second key, he says, is "having the fleet believe that you have the credibility and the expertise to do it. Once we did one, once we did two, once we did three, we had successes to point out" to prospective customers, he says.
To discover what new opportunities may exist for your operation