After years of experimentation, Gary Kulp believes he has found the answer to keeping his fleet on the road. The owner of Austin Gutter King in Austin, Texas, hired an experienced mechanic to maintain his 38 diesel-, gasoline- and propane-powered trucks in a shop Kulp built at his facility.
Spending less than $20,000 for two used tire-balance-and-mounting machines, a new lift and an alignment rack, Kulp is sure his investment in a full-time mechanic and all that equipment has already paid off.
The cost of the equipment “is really nothing when you’re spending $100 on alignments twice a year for 38 vehicles,” Kulp says.
His decision to bring his maintenance in-house may work for other small fleets. But no two fleets are alike, and finding the maintenance sweet spot requires operators to determine the solution that works best for themselves, their drivers and their customers.
Kulp, along with two fleet operators from companies in different industries, discuss how they arrived at their maintenance solutions.
If every service need required a trip to an off-site facility, customers of Pointe Dairy Services Inc. in Troy, Mich., could find themselves on the wrong side of their inventories’ expiration dates.
The company’s president, Tony Selvaggio, is in the midst of an expansion that will add eight refrigerated straight trucks to his existing 17-vehicle fleet, which includes several 100,000-mile units.
The new trucks will be leased from Ryder, but Selvaggio will continue to rely on his mechanic, a 25-year company veteran, to perform routine maintenance and repairs in-house.
Selvaggio says oil changes, brakes and springs, as well as common repairs such as broken headlights and taillights, keep his mechanic busy — so busy, in fact, that he is hiring an assistant to help keep up with his growing fleet.
He notes that his closest dairy competitors also employ at least one full-time mechanic to maintain their fleets.
An alternative, Selvaggio says, would be to rely on local truck service centers and hope they can perform the work in a timely fashion.
Kulp notes that the costs associated with an off-site arrangement can add up fast. Unless the garage is within walking distance or the driver plans to camp out in the waiting room, repaired trucks must be either delivered or another driver is needed in a second vehicle for both runs.
“For us, the ability to service it in the shop probably saves us $10,000 a year just in wages and mileage in not taking them somewhere,” Kulp says.
Kulp’s mechanic oversees Gutter King’s entire program, including programming service reminders into the fleet’s GPS units and pulling trucks out of rotation on a set schedule. Each truck is pulled one day per month for a full inspection, inconveniencing a driver for that day but heading off any catastrophic breakdowns.
Leasing Goes Mobile
Joe Dramise is president of Apex Linen Service Inc., a company that provides laundry services to many of Las Vegas’ biggest hotels and casinos. In 2011, Apex underwent an expansion that required the construction of a new 90,000-square-foot facility a few blocks west of Las Vegas Boulevard.
To build upon his one-truck fleet, he turned to Peterbilt of Las Vegas, a PacLease franchise. Dramise settled on a combination of four Peterbilt Model 337 medium-duty tractors with 38- and 53-foot trailers and two 337 straight trucks with 28-foot boxes.
While the PacLease program includes full-service maintenance, there was only one problem: PacLease’s facility is 14 miles away, a drive that can take up to an hour, depending on traffic.
Faced with the prospect of shuttling his trucks back and forth for every service need, Dramise asked if PacLease would come to him. They agreed, and for the past four years, a PacLease mechanic has performed preventive maintenance and minor repairs at Apex.
For Dramise, it’s a win/win: PacLease’s house calls keep the trucks in service with limited downtime, and Apex didn’t have to hire its own mechanic — a prospect for which Dramise says he had no appetite.
Todd Berger, director of national accounts for PACCAR Leasing Co., explains that a mobile servicing arrangement as part of the lease agreement could be worked out with other fleets.
Berger says the key is to understand the makeup and mission of the fleet to tailor the best maintenance solution. A common arrangement is to perform routine maintenance at the customer’s location, while bringing the trucks to the shop for larger repairs and heavy-duty, non-routine maintenance, he says.
Berger notes that the PacLease shop includes a fully stocked parts inventory and tools that can’t easily be taken on the road.
Apex’s drivers are required to conduct a pre- and post-trip inspection on every run and complete a driver vehicle inspection report. The goal is to make sure each truck is ready for its next dispatch. If a truck is due to roll out at 3 a.m., Berger says, PacLease may have to send in a second-shift mechanic to meet the deadline.
“They have to be on-demand and ready to go,” Berger says. “And if you’re not doing the proper preventive maintenance [and] inspections at the recommended intervals, you’re going to have significant downtime, which translates into inconsistent service and missed deliveries — and, ultimately, jeopardizes your relationship with your customers.”
Leave It to the Pros
Greg Wilson, truck product manager for GE Capital Fleet Services, says an operator with multiple locations or a more dispersed fleet might struggle to make an in-house arrangement work.
Complexity of assets is also a factor. While a simple box truck on a pickup chassis can be serviced by a local dealer or a national service center brand, trucks with purpose-built vocational upfits require a specific servicing solution.
Travis Mjolsnes, director of business development for small fleets at GE Capital, makes the point that in-house maintenance exposes the company to greater liability, especially if the mechanic misses a repair that leads to an accident.
Wilson adds that an outsourced maintenance program — through a mobile arrangement or a managed network of service locations — can be just as efficient as an experienced in-house mechanic, without the liability anxiety.
The outsourcing company negotiates with vendors on behalf of the fleet, monitors consistency of service and consolidates billing — essentially acting as a fleet’s back office. “As a fleet, you don’t have to figure out, ‘Am I getting the right price? Should I get this fixed or not?’” Wilson says.
Finally, Wilson adds, many fleet operators feel the same way as Apex’s Dramise: leave maintenance to the experts. “They really want to focus on their core business,” Wilson says.
Pencil to Paper
Kulp agrees that in-house maintenance is not for everyone, and operators must consider every angle before following his example.
First, they must have enough room to perform maintenance and repairs safely and easily. Second, they must be prepared to make an initial investment in tools, equipment and, of course, qualified personnel.
Third, Kulp is well aware of liability issues. He does not accept outside work, and the lack of a pit reduces environmental concerns.
The fire marshal inspected the facility to ensure that waste oil was being properly stored; in fact, a local vendor provided a 1,000-gallon tank for that purpose and pays Gutter King for the privilege of hauling it away.
For fleets that don’t include enough vehicles to justify hiring a full-time mechanic, Kulp suggests bringing someone in on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, for example, to handle any issues that come up during the week. When the costs balance out, Kulp says, the savings are exponential.
“We swapped a motor, so we probably saved $2,500 by doing that here,” he says. Kulp’s alignment lift allows him to do front-end repairs for about a fifth of the cost of sending it out, while he’s saving 60% in brake maintenance.
Were it not for the on-site facility, Kulp says his 10-year/100,000-mile units would be on the trading block. “The repair costs would just eat us alive,” he says. “But now we’re just looking at parts and an hourly rate, so we can really keep those vehicles on the road, theoretically, forever, because there’s nothing we can’t fix inexpensively.”
Better yet, every year an aged unit stays in service, Kulp saves the 7% sales tax on a new truck.
Asked whether his competitors and fellow Austin fleet operators were following his example, Kulp draws a blank.
“I don’t know anybody else who does what I do,” he says. “If they knew what I knew, they would do it themselves.”