by Sean Kilcarr
More truckers are using chrome to stand out from the crowd
Dress up any truck with a slick paint job, banks of bright lights, and gobs of chrome accessories and you’ll grab the attention of just about anyone anywhere you go in the U.S. Yet it’s also common knowledge that taking a truck from a simple cargo-hauling big rig to a rolling work of art can cost really big bucks—the kinds of bucks that often are hard to come by in the freight world these days.
However, more truckers are choosing to take that “leap of chrome” these days—and not just to feed a hungry ego. A lot of small fleets, for example, the kind operating 15 to 50 trucks, can be found turning one or two of their tractors into glitzy “show models” as a way to reward veteran drivers and recruit new ones.
Others are finding that even a little bit of glam goes a long way in terms of getting the attention of customers. Turning their trucks into rolling calling cards of sorts appeal to a shipper’s pride in getting their freight pulled by such unique pieces of decorated aluminum and steel.
“I’d say about 60% to 70% of our customers in the chrome shop are doing it simply for self-satisfaction; they want their trucks to display a unique ‘personality’ and appealing look,” explains Bryan Martin, owner of 4 State Trucks and head of the “Chrome Shop Mafia” made famous on the Country Music Television show Trick My Truck.
“But there is a growing percentage of customers— individuals and small fleets alike—that are ‘going chrome’ for different reasons: to create an appealing image for clients, to attract and retain experienced drivers, or a little of both,” he says.
“We’ve got three small fleets in our shop right now, each one operating between 30 to 50 trucks, that are each dressing up one of their tractors to send to trade shows and other public events to help their recruitment efforts,” Martin adds. “In fact, over the last eight to nine months we’ve seen a real uptick in small to medium-sized fleets asking us to do a truck ‘up to the nines’ for them.”
Kevin Vinson is one driver that readily responds to such glamorous incentives. A 10-year veteran with Hoewing Trucking, a seven-truck fleet out of Canton, MO, Vinson is assigned to drive a one-of-a-kind rig by his employer not only to haul a variety of goods but enter into show truck competitions where possible.
“The only time I get nervous about driving this nice truck is when judges are looking at it,” he told American Trucker during the 2012 Shell Rotella SuperRigs competition in Joplin, MO, earlier this year. “It’s my pride and joy.”
Looking different and thus catching the eye of potential customers is why Chad and Lisa Berry invested time and money into the family’s purple and white tractor-trailer—not green and gold, even though they are based out of Appleton, WI, where the traditional colors of the nearby Green Bay Packers NFL team typically hold sway.
“We wanted to be different; to stand out,” says Lisa Berry, who handles the administrative side of the business while Chad does the driving. “Besides, I’ve always been a fan of purple and white.”
REFURB VS. NEW
Several other factors are at work in this ongoing chrome revival as well, 4 State’s Martin says. For starters, while his chrome shop saw work fall steeply off in 2008 and 2009,with 2010 only a passable year, a strong resurgence began in 2011 that continues well into this year, in part due to the market entry of higher priced 2010 emissions-compliant trucks.
“A lot of our customers, who typically operate eight- and nine-year-old trucks, got to the point where they’d normally buy a new truck, and then they saw the new sticker prices,” he explains.
According to industry data, on average, OEMs added roughly $1,800 to $3,000 to the base cost of a Class 8 truck in 2002 to meet the first round of federal exhaust emissions regulations, followed by an extra $5,000 to $10,000 per truck to meet the 2007 rules, and another $6,700 to $10,000 to meet the final round of emissions mandates in 2010. In sum, then, new 2010-complaint trucks can cost as much as $23,000 more than 2002 models—a big hike that’s convincing some of Martin’s customers to refurbish and rebuild their old trucks rather than buy new ones.
“That’s what’s been happening over the last year and a half to a degree,” he says. “They’re finding they can completely overhaul their old truck and engine for less than buying new as well as afford to spend a little extra to make it look nicer and different than it was before.”
It ain’t chrome all on its own …
Chrome shops rarely operate in a vacuum in the trucking industry, simply because there isn’t enough steady business to keep any one of them going. That’s why many of the best chrome shops in the country —like Bryan Martin’s “Chrome Shop Mafia” — function within a larger parts & service structure, which, in the “Mafia’s” case, is 4 State Trucks.
Made famous on the Country Music Television show Trick My Truck, Martin says he specifically expanded 4 State’s new, used and salvage parts mix at his 40,000-sq.-ft. retail location just outside Joplin, MO, to create a “one-stop shop” environment designed to meet almost any parts need for a wider range of customers.
“The key for us is parts diversity,” he says. “We don’t want all of our eggs in one basket. That’s why we offer new parts, used parts, and a ‘yard sale’ style setup for salvage parts so we can appeal to all levels of parts needs within trucking.”
Martin’s philosophy is to offer a Walmart Super Store retail environment for parts, yet couple it with a mom-and-pop approach to service, an approach that’s worked successfully for 4 State Trucks since its founding in 1979.
“We figure if we get someone in here once looking for a particular component, and we have it in stock and win them over with our service, they will always come back,” he says. Martin credits that approach to helping 4 State Trucks weather the Great Recession and sluggish economic recovery of the past few years.
“When times get tough, there’s a lot more demand for used and salvage parts,” he adds. “And when times get better, sales of new parts, chrome accessories, full chrome shop work, etc., begin to rise. We want to be in a position to serve both ends of the parts market so we keep business coming in during the rough patches.”
The same philosophy holds sway at Outcast Kustoms, another premier chrome shop and collision repair facility located in Mooresville, NC, a town located just off I-77 on the outskirts of Charlotte, NC. Outcast is the brainchild of April and Kelvin Locklear, who opened their first chrome, fabrication and repair shop in Florence, SC, back in January 2000, followed by the Mooresville location in July 2011.
Reality TV fame in no small part helped April and Kelvin expand their chrome shop business— just as it did 4 State’s Martin. Kelvin served as the lead designer for a time on the same Trick My Truck program, as well as stints with Speed TV’s American Trucker program and the Travel Channel show Outrageous Rigs.
Locklear’s Mooresville shop, officially called the K&L Chrome Shop and Collision Center, is a 46,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes two paint booths (one large enough to hold big rigs, the other a smaller unit for painting body components), a plasma cutting machine for sheet metal fabrication, and all sorts of other truck repair equipment.
While crafting custom trucks and conducting assorted chrome work is what fires the creative juices of the Outcast team, it’s not steady business. The real bread and butter of Locklear’s operation is collision repair work for truck owners, carriers, municipal fleets, and just about anybody else who walks in the door. Indeed, Outcast is looking to get into front-end alignment work to further diversify its service offerings as well as its customer base.
Chrome looks good, but it usually just can’t pay the bills by itself.