“The absolutely number one thing we focus on is providing top notch service to the customer. If we didn‘t provide that, we wouldn‘t be nearly the size we are today.” -Brett Hartman, vice president and director of operations for Truck Enterprises Inc. (TEI), which operates eight truck dealerships throughout Virginia.
Sit and talk with Brett Hartman for a while and you‘ll quickly understand why his family‘s had such success in the truck dealership business.
(Brett Hartman in front of the trucks for sale at TEI's Manassas Va. location.)
Hartman‘s grandfather founded what became Truck Enterprises Inc. (TEI) in Harrisonburg, Va., back in 1961 as a sideline business to his trucking company - an ambitious thing to do with a family of four kids underfoot. Brett told me, though, that the time soon came when his granddad had to choose between his trucking company and dealership - with the dealership winning out.
Not that it was a huge operation, you understand. “It was a small place - barely fit five trucks,” Brett told me. But oh how they grew that small operation over time, slowly but steadily expanding TEI‘s reach, opening dealerships in Richmond Va. (1971), Roanoke Va. (1978), Kaiser Md. (1985), Hagerstown Md. (1995), Chesapeake Va. (1996), Lynchburg Va. (2004) and finally Manassas Va. (2007).
[For fun, I made a short video of my visit to TEI‘s Manassas Va. location. Enjoy!]
The reasons TEI expanded to each location differed - some were heavy with current customer business, so a new location was needed to adequately serve them; others had strong truck populations where TEI felt good market share was available for the taking - but the reason the company succeeded at each boiled down to two reasons: an almost fanatical devotion to customer service and the grit, determination, and loyalty of the company‘s 350 employees.
All the dealerships have all-makes and models parts and service operations working multiple shifts and Saturdays to meet the needs of customers. Franchises include Kenworth, Volvo and GMC trucks, Rhodes and Ox bodies, and Rhodes and Transcraft trailers. Full service body shops are located in Harrisonburg Va. and Richmond Va., with Harrisonburg also featuring Josam frame straightening and alignments systems.
(TEI's "youngest" dealership in Manassas Va. sits on 12 acres 25 miles outside of Washington, D.C., just off I-66. Much of that property is as yet undeveloped, giving TEI plenty of room to expand as business volume grows.)
“All I really am here for is to support our operations - we let our general managers really run things day-to-day, telling them to run each dealership like it was their own business,” Brett explains. “We give them a lot of flexibility to address customer needs. We want them to have the authority to make those crucial decisions, with corporate really just setting the overall strategy and guidelines.”
Brett feels that if every employee understands and acts on the philosophy that the customer comes first and that it‘s a team effort to serve the customer - without regard to what position that particular employee holds - then the foundation for ultimate success is in place. “Hey, if a customer needs a part and I am heading up that way, I‘ll take that part with me,” he told me. “I get those 1 a.m. calls from a customer broken down in South Dakota, and we do what wee can to help them even if though they are out of our area.”
[That mentality extends to the company‘s heavy truck technicians as well - as a short chat with Jimmy Bailey below illustrates.]
The Hartman‘s boil it down this way: their strategy is to build lasting relationships with current customers and attract new customers by providing exceptional products and services - all of this accomplished through talented people committed to high ethical standards; people that anticipate the customer needs and exceed their expectations.
“The mentality is, if we take care of the customer, then the business will take care of itself,” Brett explains. “That‘s why we try to be a one-stop shop - selling new and used trucks, offering finance, insurance, maintenance, stocking our parts inventory properly, etc. - so we can take care of the customer. I don‘t ever want to be tasked with the customer calling to say ‘you didn‘t take care of me.‘”
That‘s one reason Brett spent two and a half years centralizing TEI‘s finance arm, so the company‘s economies of scale - the business of several dealerships instead of each one individually - could pay off for the customer. “It gives the customer better rates - that‘s why we did it,” he says.
Of course, maintaining that philosophy in the tough market of today isn‘t easy. The Hartman‘s saw the writing on the wall about a year and a half ago in terms of sales of new trucks falling way, way off, so they started switching their focus from trucks sales to parts and service.
“As trucks get older and aren‘t traded out, they need more maintenance, they need more parts,” Brett said. “So we saw this as an opportunity to build more relationships with customers through exceptional parts and service capability, which we hope to turn into truck sales as well when the market returns.”
(Trucks of all makes, modesl, sizes, and applications get worked on at TEI's Manassas dealership -- and at all of its other locations as well.)
In the meantime, everyone is focused on cutting expenses and trying to boost absorption to 100% or better, so parts and service business can be in a position to pay the bulk of the bills. “That strategy takes the pressure off truck sales in a down market and gives us more flexibility,” Brett explained. “We‘re not yet where we want to be with absorption, but we‘re on the right path. And we‘re all focusing on this as a group - general managers, sales people, our parts and service departments, everyone.”
It all adds up to a pretty draining job for Brett - on average, he gets 150 emails a day - moving from dealership to dealership across large swaths of Maryland and Virginia, in his role as coach, trainer, fire support, and morale booster. But he wouldn‘t have it any other way.
“The most stressful part of the job is knowing that 350 employees and their families rely on us for their livelihood - that weighs most heavily on me,” he said. “But I take a lot of pride in watching them grow and create success, getting to that level to where they are excited to come to work, that it is a career for them, not just punching a time clock. They make me look good.”
Brett notes that “can-do” attitude among TEI‘s employees is what helped the company expand from one to three dealerships back in his grandfather‘s day and from three to eight over his father‘s tenure - and should help the company keeping right on growing, though still at a very deliberate pace.
(The management team at TEI Manassas. From right to left: Al de Charleroy, sales manager; Dane Tice, service manager; Brett Hartman; Adam Harms, parts service manager; and Patti Deariso, office manager.)
“We‘re not a mega-dealer - we‘re not expanding by three or four locations a year,” he said. “When we open a location, we take our time and grow into it, keeping the focus on serving the customer.”
Brett points to TEI‘s Chesapeake dealership as an example; a facility that struggled for a while, reaching just a measly 4.3% market share by 2002 until a crack team of employees moved in, re-focused the business, and drove market share up to 23% by 2006.
“Once we get customers believing in us and what we can do for them, that‘s when we really shine,” he says.