Late 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 Dennis Ross, president at Kenworth of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Fla.
How did you get into the truck dealer industry?
I grew up around heavy trucks. My dad ran the terminal and transport operation for Marathon Oil in Findlay, Ohio with 160 Kenworth tractors. It was this initial exposure to heavy trucks and the Kenworth brand that made a lasting impression on me — the drivers and technicians talked about the equipment as if Kenworth engineers had designed a better truck especially for them.
This led to pursuing a career with a U.S. truck manufacturer after college. I graduated from The Ohio State University with a BSME in 1991 and proceeded to write Kenworth Truck Company nine letters (yes, on a typewriter) to get my first interview in Seattle.
How have you risen in the industry and your company to reach where you are today?
In November 1991, I started as a design engineer at Kenworth. My first big break was getting promoted, at a young age, to a sales engineer position in 1993, where I had exposure to the retail dealer sales force and larger fleet customers. Then in 1995, Kenworth was looking for an engineer to run the marketing department’s newly developed “vocational market,” and I was selected to take on this effort. Four years later, Kenworth moved my wife and I across the country to Florida so that I could transition to the district sales manager position FL/GA/SC.
In the late 90’s, Kenworth used a “guaranteed loan” arrangement to convert internal employees into dealer principals in Chicago and San Francisco. My career path/goal was to become Kenworth’s “Chief Engineer” until this new, unknown path to become a dealer principal opened. I immediately informed my mentors in Kenworth management that I was interested in becoming a dealer principal. In 2003, that opportunity came along, and I was given the chance to buy the NE FL (Jacksonville) APMR with a guaranteed loan from Kenworth.
What do you like most about being a truck dealer?
As a truck dealer, I enjoy the diversity of opportunities that present themselves on a daily basis, from helping my team add value for a customer to closing a deal or protecting the brand. Creating and maintaining this environment for my team is the most rewarding role for me at our dealership.
Describe your leadership style. How do you pilot your business?
My leadership style is “hands on.” In our small dealer setting, I have daily direct involvement with customers and team members and can be involved everything from strategic directives to discussing a service bill with an owner operator. Managing my time/skills/resources so that I lead us away from bad trends at a high level and at the same time staying connected to our 92 employees is the challenge and the balance that I strive for.
My role is to keep our team focused on providing excellent personalized franchised dealer service so that our customers can see and feel that we care about quality work, their time, and being treated fairly.
What do you believe is the most important skill for a truck dealer? How have you cultivated that skill?
The most important skill for me as a truck dealer is the ability to see the big picture and manage the business for that long game view. There are many ground level skills needed daily including seamlessly blending customer needs, capabilities of my team, OEM priorities, and profitability. Keeping all of these in balance on average, for us, means we must leave the norm at times to get things accomplished.
My role is to keep us focused on the long game, so we can recognize the difference between setting a potential bad precedent and isolated cases where we need to step up and do the right thing. It is easy to get caught up in the emotion of an opportunity in front of us, so we need to think about how our customer is perceiving the situation and future opportunities that await us down the road.
How do you differentiate your business from your competitors?
As a small dealer, we focus on personal attention with our customers as well as an expertly managed service shop in terms of timing. We work hard to have a seamless internal workflow so that the customer’s experience is professional, and they see our operation as dependable and efficient. We have a focus on the customer experience from the minute they arrive on site.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Currently, the most difficult part of my job is managing unmet expectations. This can be internal to my team or external with vendors or customers. The workplace today is out of balance between employers and employees in a way I have not seen in my 30 years of work experience. With the dynamics in the workplace now, it is challenging to figure out which action to take.
Likewise, it is also disappointing when a customer’s expectations are not met, and it takes time to figure out if it is correctable or not. There are consequences to all decisions, and in today’s technological environment, there is nearly immediate and full transparency which adds to the difficulty.
How does ATD help you run your business?
Good policy does not write and pass itself through legislatures or regulatory agencies. Rather, it is hard fought for. For a small dealer like Kenworth of Jacksonville, having the ATD and NADA understand and fight for favorable business environment policy is crucial. There is a lot of money at stake for both sides if state tort reform law is tilted one way or the other. In Florida, we had a multi-year battle over tort reform and won at great effort and expense. Without associations to pool our resources and focus our efforts, we likely would have lost this battle.
Why do you believe you were nominated for the ATD Truck Dealer of the Year Award?
Kenworth of Jacksonville is an example of a small dealer flourishing in a world of consolidation. In addition, our origins are unique. I was an engineer for Kenworth, and they took on a huge risk (yes, I can now say huge) 20 years ago when they guaranteed the loan for me to purchase the NE Florida APMR. I think that gamble has been a success for Kenworth, and I know it has been for my family.