Joe Laux is honest about it. He doesn’t love the harsh, cold winters of the upper Midwest. Between the bone-chilling winds and regular blizzards that bombard Wisconsin and Minnesota for months on end, Laux says he knows there are dealers in other regions who don’t experience the same weather challenges he and his team at River States Truck and Trailer face each winter.
But Laux also knows that as tough as winter is for his team, it is twice as hard on his customers. And for someone as committed to his customers as Laux, when the temperature starts falling each year, he can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I’ve always believed part of good leadership is being involved,” says Laux, who joined River States Truck and Trailer in 1993 and has served as president since 1995. “I want to be here working with my team and supporting them so they can continue to serve our customers.”
And at River States, serving customers has always been priority No. 1.
“We believe in consistent, repeatable and dependable customer service at all times,” Laux says. “That’s what we want our customers to expect and that’s what we want to deliver.”
Founded as a White and Freightliner dealer in 1972, River States Truck and Trailer has grown over the past four decades into a six-location dealer covering both sides of the Mississippi from and operated from its headquarters in La Crosse, Wis. Though it no longer represents White trucks, River States remains a Freightliner dealer and also sells Sprinter vans. The company has a finance department and state-of-the-art body shop and, across its entire network, employs nearly 200 people.
The company is heavily committed to customer training. In addition to the standard system and component training courses found throughout the dealer channel, Laux says River States holds educational seminars on bonus depreciation and vehicle financing and connects customers with tax professionals and investment firms. Each offered at no cost, Laux says these value-added services help strengthen the partnership between River States and its customer base.
“Anyone can sell you a brake drum,” he says. “The way business is changing today, it’s not just about the sale. It’s about customer support. The more our customers are willing to partner with us, the more we can help them.”
But River States Truck and Trailer didn’t become the first three-time finalist in Successful Dealer Award history (2015, 2016, 2018) based solely on its customer commitment. The business also is impressively engaged in the communities it serves.
“I think when you do well in business, and I’m proud to say River States has done well, there is an obligation, almost morally, that you need to give back,” Laux says. “That’s something I’ve always believed and always wanted us to do. We have been fortunate and I want us to assist those who may need our help.”
River States’ list of community service activities is vast. Highlights include donations to the National MS Society, Boys & Girls Club, Red Cross, United Way, Humane Society, YMCA Strong Kids Campaign, multiple food banks, a women’s shelter, an annual Toys-for-Tots drive and Quincy Treehouse, a St. Paul, Minn.-based non-profit organization for at-risk teens.
That list doesn’t even mention Laux’s and River States’ commitment to education. Laux is one of the top donors to the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. In 2016 he worked with the university to establish a scholarship for a marketing student. Laux challenged all UW-L marketing alumni to donate to the fund and it is now the largest and among the most prestigious scholarships available to an undergraduate student at UW-L.
Laux also personally funds a year of tuition for both a marketing student and the top overall junior in the College of Business Administration, as well as donates to the university’s athletic department.
In the trucking world, River States in 2000 developed an apprentice technician program for student diesel technicians. Upon admittance, the program provides students with tuition reimbursement and part-time employment as a tech at one of the company’s locations. Each apprentice technician is teamed with a mentor to help reinforce the classroom curriculum with hands-on, real-world experience. Laux says the program has been extremely successful and has been awarded to 36 diesel technician students to date — many of whom have become full-time River States employees after graduation.
“We’re also working to create more programs at local high schools and universities,” Laux says. “If we can bring in more talent like the students we’ve brought in through our program, I think our industry will be fine for another 20 years.”
He says that’s his ultimate goal for River States. He wants the customers relying on the dealership today to know they have a partner who will be there for them for decades.
“We are not a transactional dealership,” he says. “This is a relationship-oriented business. We want to provide great experiences for our customers.”
This is the fourth of five profiles on our 2018 Successful Dealer Award finalists. Four Star Freightliner, Gordon Truck Centers and The Larson Group were previously featured; Truckworx will be featured the next week.