Ah, friends, we’ve made it at last: the last recap of our Diesel Connect panels. Er, unless our marketing director finds more panels that we recorded. I guess that’s always a threat.
In our final panel of the event, Fullbay CEO Patrick McKittrick hosted four owners in a second Shop Owner Roundtable. Here’s the lineup:
- Keith McMaster of Fireweed Heavy Truck & Equipment Repair
- Dave & Jan Kettle of Quality Mobile Fleet Services
- Troy Willich of TDI Fleet Services
This roundtable focused more on audience questions, and with such a distinguished group up there, believe us, there were a lot. We aren’t going to hit all of them in this recap, but we did pick out some good ones.
WHAT’S YOUR BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM DIESEL CONNECT?
Yeah, Patrick started with a heavy one. After two straight days of diesel shenanigans, what’d everybody learn?
“We’re all in the same boat,” Keith said. “We think we’re all by ourselves.”
That tracked with what we’ve heard from repair shops for years. And yeah, it’s a big part of why Diesel Connect became a thing in the first place: shop owners may feel uneasy exchanging information and help with the shop down the street, but not the shop across the country (or out of the country, as the case may be).
“It’s funny how much we’d be willing to help each other, but we don’t,” Keith went on. “We’re too scared to reach out to the people next to us and say ‘Hey, how do you do this?’”
Troy agreed that meeting everyone and learning that they were all facing the same issues was one of the most meaningful parts of the event. “Learning that we’re all facing the sames issues: ‘What was your approach to solve that, I think was the best part of this week?’”
Dave had a slightly different take—he viewed this as a business trip. “I could come here and remember that I’m the owner. [I could] focus on the business, not the techs or customers. We get so deep in the weeds … I don’t think I’ve had two days to just think about my business as a business.”
With the big takeaways settled, it was time to move on to audience questions. Here’s some of their best advice:
HOW TO SCORE A NATIONWIDE FLEET FOR PM WORK
First of all, don’t go waltzing in there assuming you’re going to count them as a client purely based off your charm. Odds are a nationwide fleet already has someone handling PM work for them. Someone big. With that said, it’s not impossible.
Dave and Keith agreed on the general tactic: Go in there and ask, “Can I help?”
Don’t ask for their entire fleet. Don’t tell them their current shop sucks. Ask, What do you need? “Then,” Dave advised, “let them talk. Don’t try to get all of it. Just get what you can.”
“Get your foot in the door and impress them,” Keith added.
I’M NOT A MECHANIC! HOW DO I OPEN A REPAIR SHOP?
While lots of repair shop owners got their start as technicians, it is in fact possible to open a shop without a background in diesel. Jan and Dave did just that; she was a COO, he was in sales.
“Have a plan,” Jan advised. “What do you want to accomplish? Who do you want your customers to be—are you gonna be commercial, or take care of everybody?”
And if you aren’t a mechanic, get someone who is a mechanic. “When I hired my very first mechanic I said, tell me what you can do and what you can’t do,” Dave said. “I want to bury you in work that you can do.”
Keith and Troy both got their start as mechanics, but they generally agreed with the Kettles. “I think I would need a trustworthy employee I trusted about repairs,” Troy said. He also suggested finding trusted mentors in a general sense. Oh, and a good CPA.
Good CPAs are awesome.
“If you can’t do the job, surround yourself with people that can,” Keith said. He also said perseverance is key. “If you’re a new shop owner and you’re starting out, you’ve already got that [perseverance]. You’re stepping off from having that regular paycheck to oblivion. That’s the scariest thing you’ll ever do, not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from. But persevere. It’ll happen.”
HOW DO YOU TRAIN YOUR TECHS?
So, once you have techs, how do you make sure they keep learning?
Troy told a good story that covered training and retaining. TDI had a tech called Gustavo who was getting mighty tired of lifting heavy stuff and wanted to retire. Troy, naturally, was not thrilled about losing a tech with so much experience. What could they do?
Well…how about hiring a strong young back to do the heavy lifting for him?
TDI got Gustavo an apprentice. The youngster did the lifting and learned from him, and it worked out so well TDI now has an “apprentice farm” where newbies work with senior techs until they’re ready to take their place in the circle of life. Er, repairs.
The audience liked the sound of that. And they might have had more questions about starting an apprentice farm, had Keith not dropped a shocking truth bomb about life in Canada: “We have an apprenticeship program … our schools are all mandated by the government to teach certain things.”
“Our techs work for us for 10 months; they have to have 1600 hours of work. We send them to school for two months. And we’ll do that for four years…”
Granted, just because Canada has a good program for those who do want to become diesel techs doesn’t mean there’s high demand for that program (or enough graduates).
“Maybe we should recruit from Canada,” Patrick mused.
“Oh…no…we don’t have any techs either.”
OPENING OR EXPANDING IN THIS ECONOMY?
And so we came to a real sticky question: Is it smart to open a new shop or expand your current one in this economy?
The short answer: Sure. “If you’ve got the work, go for it,” Troy said, noting that TDI doubled their revenue by taking a risk and moving into a larger piece of property. “But who will run the place?”
The long answer had a little more nuance. But when it comes down to it, the trucking industry is incredibly vital to…well…everything. “The industry does well even when the economy doesn’t,” Dave observed. “We’ve actually done better in downturns because everyone holds onto their truck! They go, ‘Dave, can we get another 50,000 miles out of this?’”
You heard it here first, folks (or maybe you didn’t): Bad economy usually means more repairs.
“There’s so much work out there,” Keith agreed. “The biggest issue is manpower. I’ve said it a couple times already. We’ve done nothing but grow since we started.”
THE INDUSTRY LOOKS AHEAD
The final panel of the event wrapped things up by looking forward.
It’s a strange time to be in diesel. Yes, the industry may do well in downturns, but we can all admit there are myriad difficulties ahead—some from within the field, and some from external sources. Jan voiced her worries about techs becoming less and less available, and the lack of schooling provided for those who are interested in diesel work.
“Trades isn’t a dirty word,” Keith added—something we have to communicate to the rest of the world.
Dave, meanwhile, pointed out the uneasy sentiment around diesel and the regulations built up around it. “Everyone wants Amazon Prime; nobody wants a diesel truck to deliver it,” he said.
And yet those diesel trucks aren’t going anywhere. And even if we do manage to phase out diesel engines, we’ll still need techs to work on trucks. “We’re not done yet,” Dave said. “We need to exist!”