Your full-size truck is essentially a fully secure warehouse space and storage space, as well as a rolling billboard.
As a landscape contractor, you have three key assets in your business.
First, there’s your expertise. You have to know everything from agriculture to zoology, and everything in between.
Second, there’s your human assets—those who work for you and represent your company.
Third, there is your rolling stock—your truck or trucks.
You may not think of your truck as a money making asset . . . until you imagine running your business without it. Without your truck? Your landscaping business would be impossible.
Every serious landscape service provider wants the same thing from his vehicle: the best way to get the right people and equipment from Point A to Point B at the lowest possible cost. That should be the minimum; your truck can actually be more powerful than just a people-and-gear mover, especially if it’s fullsize.
“Your full-size truck is essentially a fully secure warehouse space and storage space, as well as a rolling billboard,” explains Tony Bass, of Atlanta, Georgia’s Super Lawn Trucks, Inc. “Start with warehouse and storage space. It’s easy for a landscape contractor to think that he needs an elaborate home office facility with storage. But with every enclosed full-size truck—instead of the usual pickup-and-trailer combo —you instantly gain secure storage and warehouse space that you’d otherwise have to pay for.”
There are also big marketing advantages for the contractor. “Your trucks are your most visible advertising asset,” Bass goes on to say.
“On the street, it can get more looksees in fifteen minutes than a great website might get in a day. With the right logo and commercial art, your truck can work every minute of every day, if you’re thoughtful about where you park it.”
Bass lays out the economics. “A regular billboard in America has an average cost of $1,500 a month. If you’ve got great graphics on your truck, you could be talking about an $18,000-a-year advertising benefit.”
Right now is both the best of times and worst of times to make a change in this key strategic asset.
“If you’re in the market for a used truck, it’s a horrible time to be buying,” says Mike Dingman, vice president of purchasing for ValleyCrest Landscape Companies in Calabasas, California. The world’s largest privately-held landscape contracting firm, ValleyCrest operates worldwide.
Dingman should know something about the truck market. He oversees 6,000—no, that is not a misprint— vehicles for the firm. Not all of these vehicles are landscape trucks, but plenty are.
“It’s a terrible time to buy a used vehicle,” he repeats for emphasis. “In the current topsy-turvy economic climate, diesel fuel costs more than gas, and the market for used vehicles is at an all-time high. That’s why, if you’re buying a truck, you’re better off buying new. In fact, because demand is down, it’s a great time to sell what you’ve got on hand and purchase a new truck.”
With the twin goals of having the right vehicles on hand and keeping his monumental fleet fuel bills under control, Dingman constantly a d j u s t s t h e ValleyCrest fleet. He acknowledges that he bruises e g o s i n t h e process.
“I’ve got guys who love their big Ford pickups. And I want to put them in a smaller Ford pickup, because I do the evaluation and see how that big pickup they love is just too much truck for the work I see them doing. They could run cheaper and leaner in a smaller truck with better mileage. Well, they get upset, and make excuses for why they shouldn’t change vehicles. It’s a macho thing. But macho is not good economics, macho is just macho. My job is to make sure my fleet has the lowest cost of ownership possible for the work that needs to get done, which is why I’m constantly adjusting it.”
Dingman says that in addition to figuring out exactly the use to which your vehicle is going to be put—how much you’ll be hauling, how far you’ll be driving, how much crew you need, etc.—you’ll also want to establish your cost of ownership for the vehicle. He defines cost of ownership as the price you pay to acquire the vehicle, plus what it costs to run it per mile in fuel and maintenance, and what you can expect to make back when you sell it.
In years past, Dingman says, you might run a truck until it costs more to repair than it does to run. Now, in this attractive used truck resale market, you might elect to sell it instead.
One way that Dingman manages costs of ownership is by replacing pickups and conventional engineforward trucks with so-called cabover-engine (COE) trucks, also known as cab-overs. COE trucks are those highly maneuverable vehicles that have their cabs directly above the front axle. They’re sold with cabs and chassis; landscape contractors can add just about any kind of body they want, whether open or closed.
These days, COE trucks are available both from Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, based in Logan Township, New Jersey, and Anaheim, California’s Isuzu Commercial Truck of America. (Hino Trucks, a division of Toyota, enters the fray later in 2012).
Both the Isuzu N-series and the Mitsubishi Canter series are offered in various weight classes. Gross Vehicle Weight Ratings range from 12,500 to 17,995 pounds for the 2012 Mitsubishi Canters, and from 12,000 to 19,500 pounds for the Isuzu N-series. Each manufacturer offers chassis that can handle bodies ranging from ten up to twenty-two feet, and both have regular three-man and extra-large seven-man crew cabs available.
Landscape contractors can purchase the Isuzu equipped with either gasoline or high-efficiency diesel engines, while Mitsubishi COE trucks are outfitted with high-efficiency diesels. Each line of diesels is in full compliance with the latest Environmental Protection Agency regulations for particle emissions, with sophisticated systems to capture and neutralize pollutants. Transmissions are automatic.
As for fuel economy, both diesels and gas engines are several cuts above the industry standard of even provider in Greenville, North Carolina, whose company covers ten counties in the eastern part of North Carolina. He recently purchased a ‘cab-over,’ and emphasized the safety issues in his decision-making.
“In peak season, I send nine field crews, and employ upwards of thirty people,” he says. “I couldn’t find drivers I felt good about to pull my engine-forward truck.
“It’s all about line-of-sight,” Tabel says. “Your typical pickup has a twenty-three-foot line of sight from the driver to the feet of someone standing in the road ahead of you. Our COE has an eight-foot line of sight. If—God forbid!—a little kid chasing a ball darts in front of our COE, or a pet dog rushes into traffic, a half-decade ago. A conventional truck, these days, could run at eight to ten miles a gallon. COEs, whether gas or diesel, might run at thirteen or fourteen miles a gallon. Compared to engine-forward trucks, and even some pickup-and-trailer combinations, your fuel bill is a lot more satisfactory with a COE.
Every landscape service provider knows that a truck accident, especially one that takes your truck out of service, is disastrous. That’s why safety-conscious contractors are turning to ‘cab-over’ trucks.
Corey Handley operates WAC Corporation, a landscape service trailers. Pickups and trailers are hard to maneuver in an urban area. Their taillights go out, we get summer thunderstorms here, and trailers are difficult to handle in slippery weather. With ‘cab-overs,’ the drivers can always see where they’re going, and they don’t need a commercial license.”
Both Todd Bloom, president of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, and Brian Tabel, manager of retail marketing for Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, underscore the superb visibility advantage of COE, as opposed to the pickup-plus-trailer combination, or even a conventional the driver has a better shot of seeing the kid in time to stop.
The Mitsu- bishi COE has the same line-of-sight advantage. “It can literally be a life-saver,” Bloom declares. “When you couple the visibility factor with the remarkable turning radius of the COE–the cab is literally on top of the front axle—it’s just a much safer truck to operate. You just don’t have the same number of costly my-guy-ran-into-themailbox or my-guy-dinged-a-Beamer -in-the-parking-lot accidents.”Fewer minor accidents—minor in that no one gets hurt, not minor that of a MINI Cooper.”
Maneuverability pays dividends, no matter what the season. “So many landscape service providers now, in the north country, do winter snow removal. The parking lot and driveway maneuverability of a cabover is unsurpassed,” Tabel explains. “With a light fiberglass plow to keep weight off the front axle and our advanced visibility, the COE is ideal for that operation.”
With all these pluses, Bass has seen real movement by contractors toward eliminating the pickup-plustrailer combination in favor of the cab-over-engine configuration. “We’re putting more bodies on cabover-engine chassis all the time.”
What will the future bring for you and your truck? One trend is toward alternative fuels, like liquefied natural gas. Indeed, the Isuzu trucks can be specially outfitted to handle these fuel sources. Yet the magic bullet—hydrogen fuel or electric engines—that will slash your fuel bill and protect the environment are still years off.
“My job is to be on top of everything new,” explains Dingman with a grin. “Small operators can’t possibly do the same kind of research and testing that we do. There are lots of places in the landscape business to innovate. Figuring out exactly which truck to drive isn’t one of them. I’d advise smaller companies and contractors to go to school on what we do, and innovate someplace else. If they want to know what we’re doing with our trucks at ValleyCrest, they can call me.”
Maybe it’s time for you to follow his lead and make your way to a COE.