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Uncommon Carriers

Spend time on the road with drivers, as ProSales did recently, and you'll get a new perspective on what's happening with dealers today.

Coffee Chatter

Shrinking sales keep distributors busy figuring out how to shave pennies delivering less-than-truckload quantities. On the other hand, if they do keep you on the route despite meager purchases, it may be because it enables drivers like Henderson to do valuable marketing work.

Energetic as he is, Henderson doesn't need coffee, but he still gets a cup from as many as five different dealers every day because it gives him a moment to chat with the staff and pick up details about its business that he acts on himself or relays to the home office. That makes him even more welcome at places like Curtis Lumber in Olympia, Wash., where manager Roxy Palm gets a regular courtesy call.

"He's not a sales guy, but he knows his customers," Palm says. "He'll notice what he's delivering. If it's a special order for us, he'll call and see if we need it right away."

While Almaas avoids coffee, he can talk about fruit. His visits in central Washington take him past miles of orchards, and some of his dealer customers also are part-time growers. Thus, the state of the crops is an evergreen conversation topic. Almaas also keeps his ears open to sales opportunities. At one store, he learned that a driver for another company had accidentally left a glulam beam at a previous stop 47 miles away. That driver refused to go back and get the beam. Almaas saw an opportunity to acquire additional business and called the store's Huttig rep with the story.

Notes Crossland: "If I go to a new customer, I'll introduce myself, ask what they want, find out when they open and where they want me to park. They appreciate that." That effort can pay dividends later, he says. "If I go to a place and there are five or six trucks ahead of me, they'll serve me first. If you can get along with your customers, they'll take care of you."

Executives for distributors view their drivers in differing ways, in part because the range of connections varies so markedly. At BMD, drivers also are owners–the company is employee-owned. Huttig, Wolf, and BlueLinx employ their own drivers, while iLevel by Weyerhaeuser outsources its deliveries to trucking companies that tend to use the same drivers. Do it Best maintains its own team of drivers for hardlines but contracts out for lumber. At the far end of the scale are common carriers that get hired to haul a load of sticks. It's possible you'll never see that driver again.

Roll With the Changes

Truckers used to be notorious for avoiding both sleep and the rules by making caffeine- and drug-fueled runs in which they kept two logbooks so they could conceal the true hours spent behind the wheel. That era is fading fast. Just above the gear-shift lever on Huttig and Wolf trucks are computers that automatically–and honestly–track when folks like Almaas, Henderson, and Crossland are on the road. This makes it near-impossible for distributors to make their truckers drive longer than legally allowed. It also constricts a company's ability to increase worker production. On the other hand, those computers also help distributors track potentially cuttable costs like idle time.

Nunes of ONEtree Distribution predicts that federal trucking guidelines coming in are forcing the trucking companies "to have A-1 equipment. No more second-hand stuff; the fines are so big and so large. Their equipment has to be perfect, and violations now go on the driver's license. The drivers will only work for the big boys. That's going to trickle down and cause a shortage of trucks."

Bob McCollow, vice president of operations at Palmer-Donavin in Columbus, Ohio, is working now to cross-train drivers and stock pickers so that they can fill in for each other as needed. He also sees the day coming when drivers will scan products upon delivery and have dealers sign an electronic receipt, similar to what UPS and Federal Express do now.

But that won't change the thrill that drivers like Almaas get when they fire up their rigs and head to your door.

"I enjoy the customers, getting to know them," he says. "I also enjoy the freedom. Once I leave, I'm my own boss. It's freedom ... and responsibility."

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