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Shop Profile: Out of the ashes

Friday, May 8, 2015 - 07:00
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As a CPA, Bill Hunter was helping oversee the dissolution of his father’s trucking company, Hunter Intermodal Transportation (HIT). Started in 1988, the firm was closing its doors after the 2008 recession, but Bill saw an inkling of something worth salvaging. While looking over a maintenance facility they still had under lease, he came up with an idea.

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The 6500 square foot shop was located at a travel plaza outside of St. Robert, MO, and Hunter had noted the amount of semi-truck traffic coming in off nearby I-44. Starting 100 miles to the northwest in St. Louis, Interstate 44 was once a section of the legendary Route 66, and ran down into Texas. On this particular stretch of highway, there wasn’t a repair facility for miles.

“(Opening a repair shop) is nowhere near as costly as having a trucking company,” Hunter reasoned. “Plus we had a little bit of stuff left over from the old company, some service trucks, parts that we could sell, tires, things like that.”

Recruiting two maintenance technicians from his father’s former company, Hunter opened HIT Truck Repair in 2008. But being an accountant, he was possibly the unlikeliest person to open such a shop. “I didn’t know anything at first,” he shrugs. “Still don’t know a lot, but I know the terminology now and know what the parts look like.”

During that first year Hunter would work 7 in the morning to 7 at night, seven days a week, but the trucking industry rolls 24/7. “When we first started we didn’t do much at night, but we got into that right away because we realized it was needed,” say Hunter, who was quickly drafted into going on some night calls himself. “I would do some of the jump starts and stuff like that, but I’m not a mechanic so I hired a fourth guy.”

However Hunter was able to do all of the bookkeeping and paperwork, including invoicing, payroll, purchase orders. “And I was pretty good with the customers,” Hunter notes. “I’d answer the phone, have them come in.” But then he began to do something with customers which seemed counterintuitive, especially for a numbers cruncher.

“A lot of times I would take them back to the bolt room and if what they wanted was a dollar, I’d say just take it and think of us for next time. We buy (nuts and bolts) in bulk; it may cost us a quarter. That’s how I started getting customers to come back. There are not many places like us in the country; they’re pretty few and far between. People like us; they come back all the time.”

Then again, advertising in trucking is a bit different than automotive. For one, Hunter’s market is a specific stretch of road, so one of the first things he did was to rent four billboards along I-44. “We got those up about three or four months in, and I haven’t changed those signs once in six years,” he reports.

“I didn’t care about colors, I didn’t want many words on them, since some of our clients don’t speak English. I wanted a picture of a truck with the words ‘truck repair’ real big on the side of it, but our name real small because nobody cares about that if they’ve never been here before. If you’re broken down on the side of the road, it’s not like there’s going to be six choices around here; it’s going to be us.”

And the trucking industry networks itself differently, relying not on websites but online listings like the National Truck and Trailer Services Breakdown Directory (NTTS). “It’s what most big trucking companies use,” Hunter points out. “I guess one day I could get a website, but once I go out to meet a (potential customer), I’ve usually got their business.”

To reach these stranded clients, HIT has a fleet of service trucks. “I’ve actually got a guy who works for me that brought in two of his trucks, and I’ve got two,” reports Hunter. Each of these are equipped with air compressors that can power pneumatic tools, but mainly air up tires. “Every once in a while the semi rigs have to be towed to the dealership,” says Hunter, “but we try to get them to our shop if we can, and here we can fix most things outside the engine.”

The company also generates business from trucks getting fuel at the plaza. “They pull around and see us,” says Hunter. “Sometimes they’ll get steering tires. We do a lot of one or two tires; people love us a lot for that, like when they have a blowout.”

Because the other unique, counter intuitive thing Hunter does is start his labor rates at one eighth of an hour. Yep, you read that right; as in the fraction 1/8, which translates into $11. “The reason I do this is that our hourly rate is $88, and of course the math is easy,” Hunter laughs. “We do everything on clipboards first, but before we bill customers who have accounts with us, we transfer them over to Quick Books to print them.”

For locals the rate is $66, but the minimum is 1/6 of an hour, which still works out to $11. “If we work the whole hour, we charge $66 and $88,” Hunter confirms, “but $11 is as cheap as we’ll go for anybody, and everything we give out says we’re the home of the 1/8 hour. People love that. They’re just not used to it. In fact today one guy’s bill was $22. He was the president of a trucking company who came through here in his car. We didn’t know who he was until we got done; he asked me to call him. They’ve got like a thousand or so delivery trucks.”

With six years under his belt and seven technicians now in his employ, Hunter has earned the right be proud; like the legendary phoenix, his new company has risen out of the ashes of the old.

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