Perhaps the most crucial aspect of owning and operating a fleet of construction trucks is ensuring you have the right types of vehicles on your jobsites at all times. Sometimes, this is easy to do: Manufacturers offer a myriad of truck sizes, models and configurations to meet most roles, from a foreman’s heavy-duty pickup, to service trucks to heavy-duty dump trucks.
Fleet optimization can be problematic for contractors in tight urban environments, niche applications or extreme geographical conditions. Other contractors don’t have the financial resources to purchase new trucks or modify used ones, and have to soldier on using vehicles spec’d new for somebody else’s business.
Inspiration, though, can come in many forms. This month, we’ll look at two different contractors engaged in different applications and examine how they reshaped their truck fleets to best suit their businesses.
Trial-and-error leads to specially designed and built trucks
Matt Smith is president of Treesmith, based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Smith founded his company 18 years ago, doing residential tree trimming and cleanup work throughout the Southeast. In short order, the company began doing disaster recovery work in the wake of the tornados, severe thunderstorms and hurricanes that rumble across the region in the spring through fall each year.
In the beginning, Smith and his crews used chippers and shredders to process storm debris. But in 1989, while working in South Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, Smith saw a Class 7 truck with an A-frame knuckle boom and bed loading debris and knew that was how he wanted his business to evolve.
When he returned home after the Hugo job, Smith purchased a used International truck and bought a knuckle-boom loader to mount on it. “And then I got someone to build me a truck,” he says.
The project didn’t work out. In fact, it failed miserably. “This company didn’t know anything about mounting a loader – they just bolted it on the bed of the truck,” Smith says. “And I didn’t know at the time that you couldn’t put one of these loaders on a single-frame truck. It wasn’t stout enough to handle the loader – the weight and the stresses we were putting on it.”
The truck’s frame broke about a week after Smith put it to work. “I’ve been building my own trucks ever since,” he says.
Today, Smith builds large-capacity, cab-mount trucks with a Rotobec 80 Elite loader behind the cab. A bed with almost 60 cubic yards of capacity sits behind that. “We learned how to build these trucks the hard way, through trial and error,” Smith says. “A loader with a 1,200-pound grapple is really just a big wrecking ball. It’s going to tear a body up getting banged around, or by the operator dropping stumps into the bed.”
Also, Smith says, disaster recovery crews get paid by quantity – how much they haul. “At the end of the day, you come out better hauling big loads instead of multiple loads,” he explains. “So we decided to go big, building the largest dumping, grapple truck that we know of in the United States with a Hardox steel design, no crossmembers and completely protected hydraulic lines.”
His truck-building project proved so successful, Smith eventually founded Vortex, Treesmith’s sister company, which builds Smith’s own design of disaster-relief trucks for customers nationwide. Currently, Vortex is building two trucks a month for its customers, although Smith expects that number to double in the coming year.
Matt Smith’s own design for a grapple-dump truck proved so successful he’s selling them nationwide.
Smith has reached the point where he prefers to buy new trucks for Treesmith. “My guys really like Sterling trucks, and we’re starting to use a lot of them now,” he says. “Occasionally I’ll buy a used truck, and we’ll certainly build a used truck for a Vortex customer if that’s their preference.”
Either way, Smith says the truck’s specs determine if the vehicle is a good candidate for his application. “We look for heavy-spec’d vocational trucks with 20,000-pound front axles, 46,000-pound rear axles, double frames and at least 410 horsepower,” Smith says.
When asked what 18 years of building trucks for his contracting business has taught him, Smith says it all boils down to one thing: money. “You just can’t cut corners in this business,” he says. “If you have a need for a specialized truck, you’re going to spend a lot of money on it. You can either do that on the front end and make that money back or you can spend it later on maintenance and downtime, with little chance of making it back.”
Finding an elusive perfect fit
That’s a lesson similar to the one learned more than 35 years by John Schivito, president of A-Jon Construction, a concrete construction company based in Philadelphia – although his fleet optimization solution was less labor intensive than Smith’s.
“We cater to the small customer – a lot of residential work,” Schivito says. “But doing driveways, sidewalks and foundations … our volumes are too low. Big mixer companies can’t make money servicing us. So we had a hard time getting concrete when we needed it.”
For years, A-Jon crews poured their own concrete. But about five years ago, Schivito decided to get into the mixer truck business. He bought a traditional five-yard mixer truck solely to service his work crews. That purchase proved so successful he upsized and bought three more 10-yard mixers the following year.
“In addition to servicing our people, we were starting to have other companies ask us to deliver concrete to them,” Schivito says. But there were problems. Philly is a crowded city. And the big Class 8 trucks were having a hard time getting into the tight residential areas A-Jon serviced. “Plus, I had the same problem as before,” Schivito says. “I couldn’t cater to the little guy. The big trucks just can’t get out there and make enough money to cater to guys who need one or two yards of concrete.”
Schivito found his answer two years ago when he saw Mitsubishi’s Class 4 concrete mixer truck for the first time. “The light bulb went on immediately,” he says. “They’re small enough to go anywhere. Residential customers are comfortable with them. They don’t tear up streets or driveways, and the 1-cubic yard capacity mixer is perfect for my application.” On top of that, Schivito says, his drivers love the little trucks. “The small mixers have been so successful for us, we’re looking at opening up a second location next year,” he says.
As for his advice on optimizing a truck fleet, Schivito says to stay with one brand. “It’s good for your mechanics and operators, and just easier overall,” he says. “And buy new as soon as you can. If you buy used, you waste more time keeping the truck running than getting the job done. I don’t mean to sound cocky, but I’ve found that’s the best way. I know a lot of guys aren’t in the position to buy new … and I understand that. But at the first opportunity, I suggest buying new and getting exactly what you want to do the job.”