Vehicle manufacturers, suppliers and distributors a like all depend on the trucking fleet customer to purchase their trucks and order their components. Meanwhile, the maintenance managers of those fleets are also coming face-to-face with component and equipment shortages that have altered their operations for years now.
Three maintenance managers from North American for-hire carriers sat on a panel during Heavy Duty Aftermarket Dialogue on Jan. 16 in Grapevine, Texas, to discuss their perspective of the industry and give insight into how they've successfully adapting to the challenging envirnoment.
HDAD, jointly presented by MEMA and MacKay & Company, is an outlook conference specifically directed toward the heavy-duty aftermarket supplier industry.
Below is a selection of the panel discussion in the form of a Q&A, featuring:
- Taki Darakos, vice president of vehicle maintenance and fleet services at Pitt Ohio.
- Scott Ewell, director of maintenance at H.R. Ewell.
- Adam Wolk, director of maintenance at Challenger Motor Freight.
Molly MacKay Zacker, vice president of operations at MacKay & Company, was the moderator.
These questions have been simplified for brevity and clarity, and the answers have been edited for grammar and editorial standards. Some answers have been shortened or omitted for brevity.
Q: How many trucks and trailers are you planning on purchasing this year? Did you have to adapt plans due to new truck availability challenges? If so, how did you?
Taki Darakos, Pitt Ohio: In 2022, we were looking to purchase roughly 120 tractors, 50 straight trucks and a couple hundred trailers. And in a typical buying cycle, we would probably buy through a primary, secondary supplier. One dealer from each of the OEs. But we were put on allocation. So, we were forced in a way to get creative from a relationship standpoint and reached out beyond our normal sphere, our normal network. We were reduced to 40 tractors, straight tracks we got about what we wanted, and then trailers. In a typical buying cycle, we would probably have worked with two suppliers, but we worked with four suppliers to make up the difference.
Moving into 2023. Our belief is to try and keep the fleet a mix of older units, middle aged and newer units. So, we've tried to leave the buying cycle in a place to spread out cost of the brand-new technology. It gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of what we do. So, you know going into this year, I've got three suppliers, three dealers, providing 130 tractors; I’ve got a couple suppliers providing box trucks, getting everything I need there.
Looking forward to taking delivery on the remainder of 2022, because I still have a lot open trickling in, and getting started with those 2023 purchases.
Scott Ewell, H.R. Ewell: I'm taking delivery of 25 Mack’s this year. In 2022, I took delivery of 50 trucks, some trickled in from 2021. Trailer wise, most of our trailers are all STE trailers out of Beloit, Wisconsin. Get about 30 to 40 a year. I did have some suspension travels. Very loyal to one suspension supplier, which I did switch to a new suspension supplier was staying there from for so long.
Adam Wolk, Challenger Motor Freight: We're extending the life cycles. We were working three years on power units, and 10 years on trailers. We're extending power units now to six (years), and the trailers we're planning on extending to go 15 years.
I haven't got the tires that are actually ordered probably for about a year and a half. It's been challenging. It’s not to say that the products were horrible, but it wasn't what we had planned on. And we plan well in advance, we plan on the data and knowledge on our existing fleet. So, it can be quite challenging.
I want maintenance to be boring … When we have to keep vehicles longer than expected, then [we face things we haven’t] anticipated, and sometimes extensive failures that ordinarily we don’t plan for.
Q: How have supply chain issue impacted your fleet? How have you overcome those struggles?
Ewell: I think my hardest struggle was with suppliers more or less lying to you, saying they're going to have it there Monday. Monday comes and it’s not there. Four more Monday's come and it's still not there. That made us just change suppliers, change aftermarket parts, that we were loyal to for 30-40 years and switch to a different brand. We did do that a lot.
Darakos: I think first and foremost, shout out to the parts people and the dealers, support industries/companies that help fleet. I mean in terms of where it was such shortages, it was like the game of whack a mole. Because when you thought you had something, something else will pop up.
Today with the trailers coming in, there's axles that are delayed that delay production, there's tires… you don't really have a choice. For us, we ran into battery issues, ran in the brake chamber issues. We ordered a years supply of brake drums with the significant increase in terms of costs and availability. We increased our inventory by about 20% to really smooth out those peaks and valleys that were happening at the shop level.
We couldn't have done it with without our team of seven parts professionals to manage who we bought the parts from, when we bought it, and at what price we paid for the parts.
We were more reman and aftermarket, and there was a period of migrating to strictly OE. Bcause of availability, it's a mix. I think we did do more original equipment to keep our fleet up and operational, but we do have secondary suppliers that we use. You just can't depend on one source of parts and materials to survive in this kind of stuff in this environment.
Q: What is your biggest inventory challenge?
Darakos: We can burn through things pretty quickly to support the fleet. So I think the increase [in parts inventory during the supply chain constraints] has been about 20%. We can dial it back as we as we feel a little bit more comfortable. We're not comfortable when it comes to things involving chips, oils, lubricants, greases.
You know, I can tell you there were a lot of lubricant-involved suppliers pre-COVID that came knocking on your door to gain your business. There was not so much of that over the last two-and-a-half years. It's only now they’re starting to get a little more comfortable and knock on your door and say, “Hey, I can provide this to you.” I think it's more of a comfort level with your supply chains.
Wolk: We had to get into a method of risk analysis of our high volume or high cost parts. As the supply constraints ease, we will still keep a sharp eye on it.
We leveraged our relationships with our suppliers. In some cases, they were even able to hold inventory at their warehouse. It's ours, but it's on their site. Some were able to do that, some not. Some have preordained the inventory to us prior to purchase. So, we've committed through sometimes a signed document or a handshake to say “OK, we're going to take this off with you.” Or “OK, we couldn't do it.” We just want to make sure that our supply of this particular critical part for us is assured.