Truck Centers, Inc. was named the 2014 Successful Dealer Award winner Wednesday night at the conclusion of the first day of the Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference in Dallas. The award was sponsored by Automann, USA.
In 1970, Milton John Hopkins III financially backed a small group who wanted to buy a White Motor Truck franchise in Highland, Ill.
In the nearly 45 years since, the dealership has evolved into Truck Centers, Inc. – a network of seven dealerships across Illinois and Missouri.
The Hopkins family currently operates its truck empire as active members of its management team.
However, that wasn’t always the case.
“He was a silent partner but had majority ownership control at the time,” says John Hopkins, the son of Milton John Hopkins III and current president of Truck Centers, Inc.
“It was a very, very small business,” he recalls. “It operated in a little four-bay shop right in among houses, little bars, apartments … you just kind of parked on the streets with your trucks and pulled them in the shop.”
John started working around the shop right out of high school in 1970 stocking parts shelves, handling some shipping and receiving and parts delivery.
“Often times you would deliver those parts in the back of one of the manager’s cars or in the back of my own car,” he says. “You had cylinder heads, cylinder kits, and you put them in the trunk and, of course, your front wheels would barely be touching the ground.”
John ran parts for about two years until 1972 when he was one of the last waves of young men drafted in the U.S. Army to support the war in Vietnam. John served as a legal clerk in Germany for 547th Engineer Battalion before returning to the dealership two years later in sales.
John plugged away in truck sales for roughly two years. In 1976, Milton Hopkins suffered a serious heart attack, and his father’s health wasn’t the only thing needing the family’s attention.
“At the same time – remember my father was hands off (in managing the dealership)– our business had outrun its capitol, There was no capitol left in the business and we were out of trust by $160,000 to the bank.”
When the bank called the note, John and his sister Charlotte pledged personal assets, including the equity in their homes, to the bank and committed to get the business back on track.
“We were able to convince them to give us a shot,” he says. “Ever since then, as a whole, the company has done really well.”
As the 70s rolled into the 1980s, the company became a Freightliner dealer, expanded into Mt. Vernon, Ill. and was named Freightliner’s Regional Dealer of the Year in 1979, barely two years after being awarded a franchise.
Accolades, anniversaries, expansions and acquisition highlight most of the next 30-plus years for the company.
Beyond its expanding footprint, John Hopkins says among the most notable changes he’s seen in the industry have been the needs of his customers.
John cites the immediacy in which customers expect service to be performed and the demand for capabilities nearly around the clock among his company’s most significant changes.
“When I first started, it wasn’t a big deal if a truck was down for a couple of days waiting to be worked on or waiting to be looked at, or waiting to get the parts in,” he says. “Now, every minute of every day counts for every one of our customers, primarily because of the driver situation (shortage) and new CSA requirements … it’s just required them to dramatically change their business model, which has required us to go out and be proactive and change our business model.”
To better adapt, in 2000 TCI erected a 24,000 sq. ft. training center and staffed it with two full-time trainers, each certified by Freightliner and Detroit to offer their classes.
“We run that training center 50 weeks a year,” TCI executive vice president Katie Hopkins says.
The dealership also offers classes to its customers and other dealers in the region.
“Primarily, we’re just trying to keep our technicians on the cutting edge of what is needed,” Katie adds.
And training isn’t limited to the technician staff. TCI truck salesperson Ron Donze is the only salesman in Freightliner’s dealership network to win its top sales award every year since its inception.
“In that case, I don’t think there’s any miracle or magic wand we have. We can’t claim anything there,” John says. “Ron’s been with us for 30 years-plus. He did a lot of that training himself. It was his own instilled work ethic. It was being a man of integrity. As a result of that his has been constant referral upon referral upon referral.”
The company also has made a commitment to help the families of its employees in their educational endeavors. The company installed a scholarship program five years ago and awards up to seven winners each year.
Awards are not based on the applicant’s field of study.
Much of the scholarships and training opportunities were made possible by the company’s success and growth, but even as the company as grew, it has remained a family business.
John Hopkins says plans are in place for his children, Katie and Justin, to eventually transition into leadership roles, along with Trevor and Tyler Yates, the children of his business partner Mike Yates.
“They all play an active and important role in the business,” he says. “So (the goal is) to continue to allow them to grow and become the absolute leaders of the company when Mike and I decide to retire.”
“If Mike and I both disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow morning, the company would be in great shape.”