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Jesse Wheeler left behind an opportunity to be a part of a Fortune 500 company and other corporate business opportunities to return home and reinvigorate the family truck shop.

The third generation owner of Wheeler Truck Sales & Service in Kansas City, Mo., has used his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree to build the business and boost its infrastructure, while staying true to the shop he knew as a kid.

In his first year, Wheeler already found himself turning down potential clients and business for his medium and heavy duty truck services because the demand was too high. Now, he’s looking for more out of his six-stall shop in hopes of opening the doors for continued growth.

Wheeler began his careful rejuvenation by implementing modern updates to the business, started in 1965 by his grandfather, that included a new management system and more efficient shop processes. He’s also listened to the shop’s long-time techs for new ideas and built on the shop’s longstanding client relationships.

“It’s a challenging and interesting industry, but I believe that with a successful business model it has a real potential for growth,” Wheeler says.

Outside Experience

Growing up around the shop, Wheeler spent his childhood years working in the salvage yard, cleaning and moving piles of scrap and parts. In high school, he then moved into the shop, sweeping floors and doing busy work.

His father, Ronald Wheeler, offered him a full-time position as a service advisor while he took undergraduate classes for corporate finance online at night. His plans evolved into getting an MBA and landing a destination job in the corporate world.

Wheeler then moved away to complete his masters at Indiana University.

“I wanted to broaden my experience,” Wheeler says. “I got some different viewpoints on business and how to apply the same principles along the way.”

It wasn’t until one of his classes allowed him to do a case study on the service industry that he got a fresh look at what could be done with the family business. Then, Wheeler began getting serious about going back home.

In June of 2013, he made the decision to continue in the family business.

“There’s something about having your name on the door,” Wheeler says. “Knowing that your decisions can make a huge difference.”

Too Much Ambition

Since becoming the owner, Wheeler has implemented numerous updates, from getting rid of paper bookkeeping to reinvigorating the shop floor.

“It’s been different, in a good way,” says Don Adams, who has been a technician with Wheeler Truck Sales and Service for 21 years. “We’re getting things up-to-date and where things need to be.”

Not all of Wheeler’s initial ideas, though, like providing GPS tracking of vehicles and data acquisition services, have had the immediate impact that he had hoped, while others simply need more time.

“My time tables were way out of line. I thought I could get it all up and running by month six,” Wheeler says. “Here I am at the end of year one with none of that done. Sometimes you have to revise your expectations.”

Wheeler’s plan is to have add-on services for customers, including truck washes and mobile trailer repairs, hoping to be a one-stop shop for his already loyal clientele.

As for Wheeler’s GPS and data acquisition service—which would have enabled him to monitor his customers’ trucks, allowing his shop to be better prepared for scheduled repairs—he’ll wait for truck technology to catch up and become more standardized.

“When you get down to it, whether you’re a Fortune 500 [company] or a six-bay shop like we have here, it all boils down to the same things,” Wheeler says. “You’ve got to be diligent with tracking revenue drivers and expense drivers, and to differentiate yourself in the marketplace.”

Wheeler has learned how to curb expectations and focus on the things that can make an immediate impact on his independent shop.

The Small Things

To maximize growth and find the time to manage important accounts, Wheeler has focused on shop floor efficiencies and streamlining the work-order process through a variety of processes:

FROM THE INSIDE OUT: Most of the changes Wheeler and his team have completed aren’t noticeable to customers, but, Wheeler says, they greatly affect the customer experience. Photo by Grant Meeks

1. Making the shop’s workflow faster began with a pair of whiteboards, one dedicated to routine service appointments and another to bigger repair work alongside the scheduled items for the week.

“We have it very visual so that the techs can just look up at the boards and get an idea of where we’re at with the work that needs to be done, and the work that is coming,” Wheeler says.

While he still records and follows all of his work orders and accounts on the computer, Wheeler says the benefits of putting up a quality visual schedule gives his techs the ability to know very quickly what needs to be done.

“You can see what’s got to be done, and what absolutely has to be done that day. We can focus on those, and then look at the future repairs we can work to get out whenever we can,” says Ron Hedrick, who started working at the shop for Wheeler’s grandfather, J.W. Wheeler, 29 years ago.

2. Wheeler also spent time reworking his shop’s previously messy and disorganized inventory. Adding shelving and consistent organization has cut down on the time it takes techs to find parts.

Being able to see just how much inventory they have in stock makes it easier for the business to track cash flow.

“When you’re double-stocking your inventory you’re just leaving cash on your shelf,” Wheeler says. “We can track all of that better now.”

3. Most of Wheeler’s improvements to the shop’s facilities probably wouldn’t be noticed by visitors, but the benefits experienced by his employees are enough to make the floor, literally, seem brand new.

Before the shop was a service station, Wheeler says it served as a truck wash, complete with in-floor drains that had for years been covered with metal plates. So, Wheeler had the nearly 6-foot deep holes filled with concrete. Not only did the new floor help efficiency, but it also boosted morale.

“When he got rid of those that was a blessing,” Adams says. “I had been rolling over those for 20 years. It’s made a real improvement.”

“They stuck up nearly a half an inch, and they’d tear the wheels right off our creepers,” Hedrick says.

4. Wheeler also set out to improve the shop’s feel. Spurred by feedback from his techs, he had the inside of the shop repainted white and installed new lighting.

“The painting was very simple to do, but it was something the guys wanted done,” Wheeler says. “Constant improvement; it’s a culture change I’m trying to grow here.”

To make room in the already crowded and busy shop, Wheeler also cut a hole in the side of the shop to add a garage door. The new door leads out to a storage container for the shop’s tools.

History of Service

While he’s worked to make positive changes, Wheeler knows the business has thrived on keeping its focus and service unwavering. He has worked to balance the shop’s history with its future growth and make the necessary changes to stay competitive.

“He’s young and he hasn’t been around this a long time, so he asks a lot of questions,” Hedrick says. “He wants to know, so he asks us how and why we do what we do. When he talks to customers he has that knowledge, and he can tell them exactly what’s going on.”

Nearly 50 years of history doing business in the area has set Wheeler’s shop apart. Taking advantage of that history, he says he has made it a point to include those years of service in his marketing campaigns.

Servicing fleet accounts has always been a specialty of the shop, Wheeler says. Keeping large accounts happy and running not only assures the shop business, but allows for quality customer relationships.

“We try to make it so that all they have to do is pick up the phone,” Wheeler says. “We focus on quick turnaround and keeping their trucks on the road. All they have to do is let us know, and we take it from there.”

With a reputation of quality service and care, Wheeler says he is able to smoothly bring on new accounts and that clients can quickly reach similar levels of familiarity and comfort.

“We’ve just taken what’s been done here over time and structured it to show people what we do, how we do it, and why,” Wheeler says. 

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