Fleet Body Equipment Company designs, fabricates, assembles and services custom-built trucks focused primarily on the railroad industry. David Soyka reports on how this niche company integrates comfort, functionality and utility to help customers who are working on the railroad, all the livelong day.
It’s like a big jig saw puzzle,” says Bryan Boehm, sales manager for Fleet Body Equipment, in explaining what his company does. “We design a solution that puts together the hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanics for whatever application a customer needs performed – whether it is a crane or a hoist or a simple transport of tools and people – and put it on a chassis that is rail-ready to work on track.”
The company was founded in 1982 to sell maintenance trucks that could ride on railroad tracks. About 10 years ago, we realized that what our customers – which comprise both the major railroad companies and the contractors that service them – really needed was just not a truck, but for someone who could integrate all the products they needed on a single vehicle in a seamless package,” Boehm says. “Today, that type of ‘one-stop-shopping’ is the value-added service we offer. Whether you need a light-duty pick up that tips the scales at 10,000 pounds GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) or a heavy-duty material handler with a 56,000-pound GVWR, a $40,000 vehicle or a $300,000 vehicle, we have the processes in place to get it made exactly to the customer’s specifications.”
He adds, “There are a lot of small shops that could assemble a truck, but none of them have the breadth of resources and industry experience we offer. We deliver a vehicle exactly to specification, and all the customer has to do is put the tools in it. We can do it more cost-effectively than anyone because of the relationships we’ve developed with our suppliers at all levels of the supply chain. Which means that, if it came down to it and the customer actually even needed the tools in the truck, we could supply those as well. No detail is left unaddressed.”
What particularly makes Fleet Body Equipment unique, however, is not only can it assemble a truck tailored to a required railroad application, it also anticipates these needs. “Standard lead time is to build a truck to order is anywhere from four to six months,” Boehm notes. “What’s typical in the railroad industry is that they tend not to do a lot of forecasting. Usually when customers put an order in for a truck, it’s because the vehicle they had just died or they realize they don’t have anything in their fleet capable of something they need to do. So, we maintain an inventory in what we call our Railroad Ready program. We’re one of the very few suppliers that do this. Our competitive advantage is that while someone else might have to wait to get a vehicle in six months, we more than likely have what customers need in our inventory and can get it to them in about a week.”
The tricky part, of course, is anticipating demand with your stock levels, particularly when your inventory represents a $3-$5-million investment at any given time. “Trends do change,” Boehm notes. “One year we sold over 50 models with extended cabs, then the next year, hardly any. So, you can’t rely solely on history. It’s really a question of knowing your customers, knowing what’s going on in the industry and having the right mix of stock so that for the majority of orders you can tweak what you have to fulfill the customer’s needs.” That said, Boehm emphasizes, “If we can’t perfectly match what a customer needs from our inventory, we don’t try to force it on them. We work with them to get what they need it and get it to them as quickly as we possible can. If we can’t fulfill through stock, we have to look at other options.”
Needless to say, effective supply chain management is crucial to the company’s success. “We don’t sole source anything,” Boehm says. “Duplicity in suppliers first of all ensures that you can always get what you need, when you need it. Also, it helps get you the best price.”
Over the years, amenities have become more important features, Boehm notes. “We rarely sell anything that has crank windows. Comfort for the workers is a big concern, so typically our vehicles have CD players and power windows and air conditioning and bucket seats. This is not to say that if a customer wanted the bare bones version, we couldn’t supply it. We don’t push options, we supply to stated customer needs.”
He adds, “A vehicle’s working life-span can get in the range of 15 to 18 years or more. However, sometimes you need to upgrade your equipment because of changes in technology. One of the applications vehicles are used for is rail testing. There are, for example, new laser and ultrasonic systems that do this, and there’s also ground penetrating radar for examining tunnels – a far cry from old-fashioned visual inspections.”
Fleet Body Equipment is a multi-million-dollar-a-year division of a multi-billion-dollar-a-year private company. FBE currently employs about 100, and maintains service and assembly centers in Kansas City, Mo. and Fort Worth, Texas that total 80,000 square feet combined. While sales are concentrated primarily in North America, Fleet Body Equipment has sold to Europe, Mexico, South America, the Middle East and China. However, Boehm notes that the company’s focus is domestic due to the nature of the business. “We’re serving a small niche market and a lot depends on proximity and relationships. Word-of-mouth reputation is our best selling point.”
Indeed, Boehm emphasizes that relationship-building is fundamental to Fleet Body Equipment’s continued success. “We’re focused on more than just the initial sale. We provide cradle-to-grave service that includes the best warranties in the industry. We have authorized field service shops, so if there is a problem, a customer doesn’t have to worry about dealing with someone hundreds of miles away. We are always the point contact in resolving a customer issue, but we do work with fully trained people in the field who can resolve a problem. We’ve got a huge customer base, and by keeping that base happy, we can depend on repeat business.”
Boehm notes that, given the current state of the economy, some railroad companies may be holding off on new purchases, opting to fix what they have and wait a year or so, “We still have plenty of sales. These vehicles are used to maintain the railroad infrastructure, so it’s not the kind of thing you can put off indefinitely. You can’t keep putting off necessary maintenance just because you don’t have the right equipment that Fleet Body can provide. Proper rail maintenance ensures the safe and efficient running of your operations.”
People unfamiliar with the railroad industry frequently have the misconception that it is a relic of what was once a more prosperous business. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“I go to parties, and, of course, people ask what you do, and then you get this reaction that, oh, aren’t the railroads a dying industry? So then I point to things that might be in the room, the furniture, the food, the light fixtures, and I ask them how they think all this stuff wound up here,” Boehm says, “and the answer is that at some point it was transported by rail. People whose only experience of railroads is getting on Amtrak are only seeing things from a commuter perspective. They see some rough patches where the train has to slow down, and maybe the cars aren’t the latest and greatest. But, the fact is that American commerce depends upon an effective and efficient national railway system. Even without taking into account the cost of fuel, you can’t feasibly truck everything everywhere. Somewhere along the line, the most direct and economical route for bulk transport is rail. That isn’t going away, and it isn’t suffering. On the contrary, it’s expanding and will continue to expand into the future”.
So for as long as there are railroads – which means for quite some time in the foreseeable future – Fleet Body Equipment will provide the equipment to help ensure that trains continue to run safely to their appointed destinations.