At a time when the independent parts and service provider is faced with increasing competition from industry consolidation, cheap overseas parts and online ordering, how do you compete?

I posed that question to Mark Decker, CEO of Jerry & Keith's, while we were talking for this month's cover article on electronics.

The answer really comes down to the simple question of service.

"One of the most important things in our business is what those customers think of us and what they believe Jerry & Keith's is and why they come here," Decker told me. "Because we are not the cheapest on everything; we go to market saying, 'We sell it, we service it.' "

Jerry & Keith's is a single-location operation in Bakersfield, Calif. It's a member of HDA Truck
Pride and recently opened a new 50,000-square-foot facility.

In 1968, Jerry Thomas and Keith Decker, two mechanics trying to make a living, started working on trucks.

They pride themselves on keeping that atmosphere of a family-owned business. When you call during
store hours, a live human being answers the phone. And sometimes you can still find Keith walking the halls and crawling under trucks.

"A lot of our customer base is very loyal to us because of the full-service aspect, not the pricing aspect," Decker says. "We all know the pricing aspect is a losing game. If you're going to be the low price leader in truck parts, you're not going to be very good at it. Just being a parts seller with the lowest price, the big guys are going to run over you with that."

Being a member of HDA Truck Pride helps expand that knowledge base with more than 700 locations of independent distributors, staffed by people like those at Jerry & Keith's, who are very concerned that things are done properly because they have a stake in the business.

Decker believes that independent distributors increasingly will need to offer maintenance and repair services in order to compete.

As an example, he cites Frito-Lay, which has a national parts-buying contract with a big-name business.

"They have a national fleet exposure the small guy's never going to be able to touch," he says. "Why would Frito-Lay want to talk to a single-location operation?"

However, it's a different story when Frito-Lay has a problem with a dry freight van and the suspensions don't work.

"They're looking for someone that's a truck service expert," Decker says. The big national parts company may not have a service affiliate in the area. "We get that kind of work," Decker says. Even though Frito-Lay is part of a national fleet program, "We have Frito-Lay trailers in our service bays."

It's simple, Decker says - you have to service what you sell.

"You've got to be diverse to survive here. Service is sometimes a pain, but if you get good at it, it also can be a good profit center, and it's definitely a good selling point to your customers.

"When you build your business on relationships, you've got a pretty solid base, and that's how we go to market."

Sales gurus call it "relationship marketing." At Jerry & Keith's, it's just good business.

From the July/August 2012 issue of HDAJ.