Learn more about ATD Truck Dealer of the Year Nominee Brian O'Donnell

ATD logoLate last year, the American Truck Dealers (ATD) announced the nominees for its 2024 Truck Dealer of the Year Award. Sponsored by Procede Software and Trucks, Parts, Service, ATD's Truck Dealer award honors dealer executives for their for business and industry leadership, business success and involvement leading in their communities. 

Since early January, TPS has shared in-depth conversations with this year's seven nominees, detailing how they found their way to the truck dealer business, how they've navigated the industry, their efforts to lead their businesses and more. These conversations are leading up to the announcement of the 2024 ATD Truck Dealer of the Year Award, which will be announced Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, at the ATD Show in Las Vegas by Procede Software CEO Larry Kettler and TPS Editor Lucas Deal.

Our next dealer to be featured is Brian O'Donnell, president of Valley Truck Centers in Cleveland, Ohio.

Brian O'Donnell, ATD Truck Dealer of the Year nomineeBrian O'Donnell, Valley Truck Centers; ATD Truck Dealer of the Year nominee

How did you get into the truck dealer industry?

My family has been associated with the truck dealer industry since the mid-1970s. My mother and father owned Lease Line Limited, a small business providing lease financing, as Ford Credit didn’t offer leases.  They provided commercial financing to Valley Ford Truck prior to my career start with the company in 1978.

During my two years attending The Ohio State University, I worked in the body shop at a Chevrolet dealership to put myself through school. Pre-law at OSU while working full time proved to be unsustainable, and I moved back home to Northeast Ohio.

I applied for a job at Valley Ford Truck Sales, Inc. and interviewed with John Drakesmith, who previously worked for Ford, and took ownership of Valley that same year. John hired me as a sales assistant and became my mentor in the years to follow. Valley has been my only place of full-time employment as an adult, the entire 45 years I’ve enjoyed in the business.

How have you risen in the industry and your company to reach where you are today?

I began the foundation of a career, learning inventory and pricing, in the fall of 1978. Being the top vehicle salesperson for Ford in North American Automotive and Fleet operations in 1983, I was afforded a management opportunity. That was followed by beginning my path to ownership of the Valley Truck Enterprise in 1986, when I became minority partner and operations manager, with 20% ownership.

I worked as general manager of Valley Ford Truck starting in 1993, becoming president in 2006 when Ford helped with the purchase of the dealership from my friend, partner and mentor John Drakesmith.

In 1997, Valley Ford was chosen to be one of the nation’s pilot dealers for the new Sterling franchise, and that location is still in operation as Valley Freightliner of Cleveland. We have incorporated a variety of brands across Ohio and into Michigan, forming a network now known as Valley Truck Centers.

[RELATED: Learn more about ATD Truck Dealer of the Year Nominee Katie Hopkins]

What do you like most about being a truck dealer?

The most enjoyable aspect of my career in this industry is quite simple, I love people. Employees, OEMs, customers â€” everyone has a story. Personally, most of my friends are folks I have met in the industry in some form or fashion, whether as a coworker, vendor or customer.

I truly enjoy working with people and constructing goal-oriented teams with a common focus and desire, which is to develop value propositions to serve our customers. It may sound clichĂ©, but truck dealerships are the definition of essential businesses — the products and services we provide are a part of everything that keeps the country functioning, from healthcare to farming to infrastructure. You name it, a truck delivers it!

Describe your leadership style. How do you pilot your business?

I would say my leadership style is to engage and work side by side with my team. I try to help cultivate leaders. By hiring, training and retaining strong people that can make timely decisions, focused on meeting and exceeding our customers’ expectations, we develop a team with a passion for the trucking business. Choosing those team members not only for their aptitude, but also for their attitude makes a significant difference in the level of service we are able to provide.

As the dealer I take care of my managers, who take care of our employees, which enables happy and fulfilled employees to take better care of our valuable customers. As the famous quote says, “find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

What do you believe is the most important skill for a truck dealer? How have you cultivated that skill?

A sense of customer urgency should always be top of mind. Their trucks are not just a mode of transportation — it’s the customer’s livelihood, and we need to do everything possible to get them on the road and keep them going.

This concept is what we call “Valley Time,” which is solely focused on making sure the customer has more up time than down. If a project typically takes a year to get off the ground, we want it to take months. If it normally takes months, we want it to take weeks. Condensing weeks into days, days into hours, hours into minutes and minutes into seconds. We’re asking our people to put themselves in the place of our customers and recognize the importance of their time.

One of our strengths is consistency; pointing to both stability and growth. We provide consistency with a team of engaged employees that deliver a value proposition, making Valley easy to do business with. This philosophy also fosters organic company growth.

How do you differentiate your business from your competitors?

Many of our current customers have been coming to Valley Truck stores since the early days in the 1970s. Keeping those types of relationships in mind, we focused on expanding the business organically, adding products and providing services that make our customers feel uniquely respected. With third party vendors, control of the customer’s experience is at risk, but with Valley Truck Centers customers have one point of contact throughout the entire process.

[RELATED: Valley Truck Centers increases footprint with acquisitions]

To minimize our loyal and valuable customers’ time, effort, and capital outlay, we created Final Vehicle Solutions to streamline equipping a new truck, and Fleet One Automotive to offer services including fleet management and financing. Body shops at two locations handle collision repair, and Fleet One Leasing and Rental offers a convenient way to reduce downtime.

Being more complete in the supply chain, we have more control over the outcome.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

To identify one thing as the “most difficult” is challenging, because the industry is ever-changing. Currently, it revolves around meeting customer needs with the products and people needed to provide service. Supply chain constraints in the past three years have taught us the need to be independent; finding a way to provide complete vehicles, services and other tools beyond normal expectations.

Innovating specific solutions, and maintaining and growing that network, is the challenge. For example, remote training for customers, or being a reliable resource for managing breakdowns nationwide, like remote service and fleet “concierge.” The longer I’m in the business the more intrigued I am, and I still find the business challenging me. There is always a chance to problem solve and develop opportunities for improvement.

How does ATD help you run your business?

ATD’s work on regulatory issues and government involvement as a collective voice for the truck dealership is invaluable. Increasing our industry's capacity in the country's capital, utilizing the relevance and resources of all heavy truck dealers nationwide in support of transport initiatives, creates our position as an essential industry. Additionally, economic research and reports, along with ATD benchmarks and 20 Group comparisons, help with business planning and forecasting.

Why do you believe you were nominated for the ATD Truck Dealer of the Year Award?

Having spent 45 years in this business, I have lived the American Dream. I walked in off the street looking for a job, and with the efforts of many helping hands, built a sales empire in the industry that has engaged my family 100%. We take pride in having second- and third-generation Valley people on board. The Dream is still possible!

I have been fortunate to have participated in many significant moments. I was directly or indirectly involved with the opening and sun setting of major truck manufacturers. I had direct involvement in half a dozen emission related pre-buy situations. On one dealer council, I was involved in strategy sessions to keep the company from going bankrupt — charged with reducing the cost per vehicle to maintain profitability and avoid bankruptcy, as GM and Chrysler did at the time.

Throughout the terms of eight presidents and various iterations of congressional leadership, I’ve been blessed to have grown from truck salesperson, to manager, to dealer, to the CEO of a company with $1 billion in sales. I’ve managed through acquisitions and the company has flourished, with more than 680 strong team members, including friends and family.

That family has grown too — along with my two children from a recent marriage, I’m blessed with nine adult children who have all chosen various career paths within the enterprise. I would honestly say we’re living the dream of being commercial truck dealers.

As Henry Ford said, “You say I started out with practically nothing, but that isn't correct. We all start with all there is, it's how we use it that makes things possible.” Amen, Henry!

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