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The Key to Future Trucking Industry Success: Investing in Young People

Learn how the heavy-duty trucking industry can improve when hiring and training young people, as well as the advantages of being an HDATP member.

Episode 267: The heavy-duty parts industry is a PEOPLE business. In this episode, you’ll hear from Mark and Ethan Decker of Jerry & Keith’s, and Tom Labat from Vander Haag’s.

These two parts distributors share an understanding that building relationships and investing in people are essential to success in the heavy-duty parts industry. They are also both members of HDA Truck Pride and these interviews took place at their Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

From left to right: Ethan and Mark Decker of Jerry & Keith's. Tom Labat of Vander Haggs. In this episode, Learn how the heavy-duty trucking industry can improve when it comes to hiring and training young people, as well as the advantages of being a HDATP member.

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Transcript of Episode

Jamie Irvine:

You are listening to The Heavy Duty Parts Report. I’m your host, Jamie Irvine, and this is the place where we have conversations that empower heavy-duty people.

I’ve always said that the heavy-duty parts business is a people business. In this episode, you’re going to hear from Mark and Ethan Decker of Jerry and Keith’s, and we talked to Tom Labat of Vander Haags. Now these two parts distributors, they share an understanding that building relationships and investing in people is the pathway for success in heavy-duty parts. They’re both members of HDA Truck Pride and these interviews took place at the HDA Truck Pride Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado that we attended a couple months ago. So first, let’s hear from Mark Decker about the very beginnings of Jerry and Keith’s and where they’re headed in the future.

Mark Decker:

Hi, I’m Mark Decker with Jerry and Keith’s out of Bakerfield, California. I’m the CEO.

Jamie Irvine:

Mark has been in the heavy-duty industry for over 50 years. He’s been the CEO of his company for the last 20 years. Mark, welcome to The Heavy Duty Parts Report.

Mark Decker:

Thank you.

Jamie Irvine:

We’re at HDA Truck Pride’s Annual Meeting, and it is great to have an opportunity to talk to some of the independent entrepreneurial people in our industry who are really part of the heart of the Independent Service channel. So Mark, you’ve been in this business a long time. It’s a family business and you’re second generation. Is that correct?

Mark Decker:

That is correct.

Jamie Irvine:

So you took over from your father. Did he just hand you the reins of the company or did you have to work for it?

Mark Decker:

No, I’ve been here since I was 16 years old, working all my spare time, all my holidays. There was no golden spoon in Jerry and Keith’s. We were a very poor family from Oklahoma and we started with $2,000 that we borrowed from my grandfather and put the company together from there. And God’s been very good to us to bless us and multiply it.

Jamie Irvine:

Well, I know from my own experience of building businesses and doing it that way, you have to be very, very creative sometimes. You have to make deals with people. This is a people business. So how did companies help you along the way as you were establishing the business?

Mark Decker:

Well, as you know, the heavy parts business is a relationship business as you see here at HDA. It’s so important to us all to corroborate and work together. Corporation, my dad got involved with them out of Fresno and they were good enough to consign parts to us and we put ’em in an old container out back, and that was the start of the parts business for Jerry Keith’s.

Jamie Irvine:

So did you only stay in the parts business? What was part of the formula of your success over the last 50 plus years?

Mark Decker:

The formula for our success, I would have to say parts and service. Service was where Jerry Keith’s started. Parts was later. The combination of the two have been critical to our success and still is today.

Jamie Irvine:

I think as we move forward, we’re going to see that be a formula of success for all the independents going forward. Let me ask you something. In all the years that you’ve operated the business, if you could come down to one or two things that contributed to your success and the longevity of your company, what would those one or two things be like? What advice would you give someone who’s maybe starting in parts today?

Mark Decker:

It’s a people business and the quality of your people that you have on your team is critical to success. Of course, good funding. Don’t overspend yourself, work hard, reinvest in your company. Don’t go out and spend all your money, you reinvest in your people. That is the key to the success of the business is the team we have that do us every day.

Jamie Irvine:

No, absolutely. I know when I started in the business, my mentor, one of the first things he told me is, ‘Jamie, it’s a people business. Always has been. Always will be.’ So now you’re coming to a point in your career where you’re looking to the future and it’s no longer me necessarily being the CEO of the company. Let’s talk a little bit about succession planning. It’s been a family business. First of all. Is it going to stay a family business?

Mark Decker:

Yes, it is. I’m proud to say I have five children. Years and years ago, I’d say 10, 20 years ago, I went to each one of ’em and ask ’em because I believe in succession planning starts way back. You need to be involved in this when you’re young, not when you’re 60 and say, oh, I need to go. You need to start planning this. And I’m very fortunate two of my children have decided that they would like to make this their career and carry on during keys into the third generation. Ethan, my son and my daughter will be joining us in June to take it forward and I’m going to try to start backing away.

Jamie Irvine:

Okay. So one just before we talk to Ethan, one last question. Did you give Ethan reins of the company early or did you make him work like your dad made you work?

Mark Decker:

He’s done what I have had to do, come cleaning toilets to reline brake shoes, to delivering parts to earn the respect. You cannot command that respect or give that title away. But no, he’s still working very hard.

Jamie Irvine:

That’s good.

Mark Decker:

It’s a real blessing.

Jamie Irvine:

It’s been wonderful to meet you. Thank you for taking some time and we’re going to have Ethan join us next. Okay, well thank you James. Thank you. I really enjoyed my conversation with Mark, but I was also interested to talk to his son Ethan, because I wanted to get a better understanding of where someone from the next generation of heavy duty parts people sees the business going and how he plans on taking his business, which is a legacy family business. To the next level, let’s talk to Ethan Decker from Jerry and Keith’s.

Ethan Decker:

Hi, my name is Ethan Decker with Jerry and Keith’s at Bakersfield and I’m currently the Operations Manager.

Jamie Irvine:

Ethan, so great to have you on. We were just talking to your father. We’re at HDA Truck Pride’s annual meeting. Now you’ve been in the heavy duty parts industry since you were 16. So we’ll just say that that’s coming up 10 years. You’re almost ready to celebrate your first decade in the business your dad was telling us that didn’t necessarily just give you the title operations manager. He made you work for it. So what was those early experiences like in the business?

Ethan Decker:

Oh, it was tough. It was really hard kind of coming in. You had to work with under people, around people. And when you first start, they always think you’re just kind of the golden spoon child, right? No matter what. So there was tough going at first, but then over these years, I mean there were some employees that didn’t have great thoughts about him, but now I respect the heck out of him and we worked so great together because we earned the respect.

Jamie Irvine:

Mark Twain said when he was, I think it was something like this when he was 16, he thought his father didn’t know much and then by the time he turned 18, he thought his dad knew it a lot, but he was the one that changed. So sometimes your perspective changes as you get more experience, but it’s also kind of like, what? I’ve got the golden spoon. I’m cleaning a toilet here, guys.

Ethan Decker:

That’s true. Yeah, that was one thought.

Jamie Irvine:

So now you’ve got a nice foundation in the business. You’ve had the opportunity of working with your dad who’s got 50 plus years’ experience. You’ve got some great people in your company that have been mentoring you. You’ve been in a management position and you’re about to take a leadership role in the company. So as you look forward to the future, what do you think is going to be important to change in the business in order to maintain competitive and successful moving forward?

Ethan Decker:

So, the biggest thing that’s probably to change is we got to be more relevant with the current workforce. The biggest problem and hardest thing to deal with is acquiring new talent. Younger people such as myself around my age group, it is hard. Like they said, they don’t want to just come to work and give their life to work. They want a purpose, they want to do other things. The challenge and the future is trying to keep what we do so great and we’ve done for 55 years, and also expand to get new people in it because it’s not very attractive to them at this time.

Jamie Irvine:

Well, and this industry is in many ways, it’s one of the best kept secrets because once you get into it, I mean it’s absolutely amazing. But at the same time, younger people, they don’t necessarily understand the career opportunities that come. They don’t understand the wage potential. Right. And also the demand, which is great for them right? So what do you think you’re going to have to do to promote your company to young people to get them to join?

Ethan Decker:

I would say just show them. You got to show ’em too that you care. It’s not a just about work thing. Some people are really into the whole, they want to chat, get to know everybody, want to know what you’re doing on your weekends. Some of ’em not so much. So it’s just really different. It’s hard to say exactly, but I would say you just got to be involved and act like you care and show that you care, not act like you got to care and actually follow through with that.

Jamie Irvine:

I think you’re right, Ethan. People have to really see that not just what you say, but you’re actually backing it up with action. Otherwise, they kind of see through that pretty quickly. And you’re right too. I think taking an individual approach and not trying to get just a one size fits all approach to your staff is really critical. Beyond employment and people in the business, what other areas are you going to focus on? Is there anything in technology? Is there anything in the way that you go about parts and service that you think will have to change as we move forward?

Ethan Decker:

I think the biggest change is what’s going to be probably is of course technology because it’s huge. It’s always changing with the trucks and trailers nowadays going on so fast to electric and smart things and smart trailers. It’s going to be changing pretty quickly. But I don’t think it requires a dramatic change, especially for the business. Like I say, I go back to the, we’ve been doing it for 55 years, we’ve been doing something right? We’re here. So we keep those core values and then improve on and just keep doing what we do best really.

Jamie Irvine:

Well and it sounds like because you’ve got that people focus, investment in those people, investment in training, adding the whatever technology. Few years ago it was diagnostic tools. What is it going to be next? There’s going to be changes in the tooling. Focusing on those things are definitely going to help with instilling, when you combine that with the culture you’ve already built, I think you’ve got a winning formula.

Ethan Decker:

Yeah, it’s definitely, I think we’re on the right track. We do invest a lot with training now that we’ve kind of come back out of this. Now we can see people again from Covid, my reps and other people, I say, hey, please come in, let’s train, let’s train, train, train. It’s very important to, and it also, it means a lot when I’ve talked to the guys and tell ’em and they go, Hey, thank you. I appreciate that. It’s another way of showing I care about you. I care about our business, I care about our customers. I’m more than happy to do this training and show you, and this is let’s grow the business.

Jamie Irvine:

Your dad started this interview with the very, very accurate statement that this business has always been about people, always will be. And I think that you have embraced that and that means I think you’re going to be very successful. So from all of us at The Heavy Duty Parts Report, we wish you all the success and thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us.

Ethan Decker:

No, thank you for having me on. Thank you.

Jamie Irvine:

We’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. We’ll be right back. This episode of The Heavy Duty Parts Report is brought to you by Find It Parts your ultimate destination for heavy-duty truck and trailer parts. Discover a vast range of [email protected]. Don’t spend hours a day looking for parts. Instead visit finditparts.com and get them right away. Parts availability and quality have a big influence on fleets and owner operators’ total cost of operation. If they can’t find a part, it means more downtime. If they install a low quality part and it fails, it means even more costs like tow bills, hotels, meals for the driver and lost revenue. That’s why we recommend Sampa. They manufacture a wide range of advanced parts for commercial vehicles. Their website has an intelligent product search engine and broad coverage of suspension, steering and fifth wheel components. Expect More. Expect Sampa. Visit sampa.com today. Vander Haags is another HDA Truck Pride member that I got an opportunity to sit down and talk to while at HDA Truck pride’s annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. It was a great opportunity for Tom Labat and I to discuss the important issues that are impacting the heavy-duty parts industry in 2023. Listen in to my conversation with Tom Labat from Vander Haggs.

Tom Labat:

I’m Tom Labat with Vander Haggs Incorporated. I’m the Director of Purchasing.

Jamie Irvine:

We’re at HDA Truck Pride’s annual meeting and I’m sitting here with Tom Labat. He has almost 40 years’ experience in the business. He’s been in his current role for the last 12 years. Tom, welcome to The Heavy Duty Parts Report.

Tom Labat:

Thanks Jamie.

Jamie Irvine:

So, let’s talk a little bit about the challenges that independent parts and service companies are experiencing in 2023. We had lockdowns a couple years ago. We had major supply chain issues. What would you say is the most pressing problem of 2023?

Tom Labat:

I would say our most pressing problem right now is continues with our growth, is people. We have expanded significantly over the last, during Covid and people have are so important to us. They’re the reason we can’t expand and take care of our customers

Jamie Irvine:

And finding people, it’s not just finding people, finding the right people. Putting them in the right roles. And then there’s that long training period. I know when I started in parts I went through, I started sandblasting parts and then I kind of worked my way up and took, even when I first joined the counter, it was a long time before I think I was useful to anybody and I had some mentors that were really patient, which was nice. So what are you doing now as you move forward? When you do bring people into the organization, what are you doing to try to help facilitate that and speed up the training as much as you can?

Tom Labat:

We try and set up a mentor program for our incoming people. Typically, it’s our parts lead in each of the stores. They’re able to spend some one-on-one time with them, help them find out what their strengths are and their weaknesses, and then work with them on building up the confidence as they go forward working with our customers.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah, that mentor mentee relationship is so important. I know when I was in parts, I remember coming and asking my mentor, I said, what’s this Bendix part? I knew it was Bendix. I was so proud of myself. And he said, Jamie, I can either tell you the part number or I can show you how to find the part number. It’s your choice. And I said, show me how to find the part number. He was a great mentor. So he also told me though that I remember he said, how do you get 20 years’ experience in the business? And he said, come see me in 20 years. So some of this is hard to speed up. As you’re moving people through the mentor program, what do you find is the thing that really accelerates their training the most?

Tom Labat:

I think what impacts them the most is just knowing that they’re important to us. They feel that comfort level with us. Our culture within Vander Haags is such that we want them to succeed. We want them to know that with success comes rewards. If it’s advancements in a different position in the company, we’re so diversified that they may come in as a parts person, but go to truck sales or whatever, some other division that we have.

So we want them to be comfortable in their current position that that’s coming into the company, but we want them to know that there’s a lot of things out there that they can grow with and expand their strengths.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah, yeah. No, absolutely. So when you come to HDA Truck Pride’s annual meeting, it’s an opportunity to get access to education. There was some great sessions yesterday, some really motivational stuff for leadership like yourself, but in addition to that, you have the opportunity of meeting with suppliers. So from a parts perspective, how are you guiding the company moving forward? What are you really focused on right now at this show?

Tom Labat:

Right now, we’re just looking for, as we’ve expanded, grown as a company, we’re coming to our supplier partners and saying, what more can we do? How can we help you? Maybe cut down on freight expenses on orders, if we place larger orders, do some negotiating with some of them if we can. We are looking for a couple different product lines right now, and we have a mix of real high quality suppliers through HDA Truck Pride that it’s opened the door to us that we didn’t have before, not being an HDA Truck Pride member.

Jamie Irvine:

So I’m going to share with you the seven golden words. This is how you end every negotiation. Is that the best you can do? And then you go quiet. It’s amazing what people will do. Yeah. Okay. So one last question as you like. When you and I started and we were being taught, we were using paper catalogs. The world and our industry has changed a lot since then. So how are you viewing the adoption of technology as you look towards the future with Vander Haags?

Tom Labat:

Vander Haags, if there’s a new piece of technology out there, we want it, we’ll get it. We realize that it is the future. You can’t hesitate on it. If you don’t have it, you’re not, you’re not going forward. You’re not moving forward. That’s right. We are absolutely very technology-orientated and we want to be in the forefront.

Jamie Irvine:

Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for taking some time. I know you’ve got some suppliers you got to go see. Go use those seven golden words and get a deal.

Tom Labat:

You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

Jamie Irvine:

That’s right. Thanks Tom. Thank you. Well, as you can see from these two interviews, both of these companies have used a strong focus on people relationships and mentorship to grow their business and to continue to be successful as things in the trucking industry continue to evolve. Did you notice another key to their success? Being members of HDA Truck Pride.

Ethan Decker:

It’s really important. Probably. I mean, I don’t want to downplay the other aspects of it with HDA meeting with them and everything, but I mean, the Booth show and meeting with your suppliers is honestly one of the most important parts because we get to thank them for all their support, get to say, hey, what can we do better? Are we doing enough for you? Because it’s all about that relationship. I can call my rep and say, hey, I need this done. And absolutely. So for us, it’s very important.

Tom Labat:

Yeah, it’s one thing to be a part of a company like Vander Haags, but when you’re part of HDA Truck Pride being part of something greater than yourself, you’re helping other supplier or distributor members throughout the rebate program.

It’s opened up doors for us for other suppliers that we never had opportunities to reach out to and build relationships with. And it’s been truly a blessing for our company to be a part of HDA Truck Pride and everything that they’ve brought.

They’re made available for us to be successful as a company and to keep our customers on the road, keeping them successful also, because it’s not about us. Yeah. It’s about that end user and that customer. We’re nothing without them.

Jamie Irvine:

The independent parts and service channel supports the trucking industry, which is the backbone of society. HDA Truck Pride is the heart of that independent service channel and as a group, they support the men and women who work in independent parts and service members of HDA Truck Pride benefit from a large network of independent repair shops and parts stores, over 450 repair shops and over 750 parts stores.

They also get access to resources like H D A Truck Pride’s University, and of course, they have access to a wide range of suppliers and manufacturers. If you’re interested in becoming an HDA Truck Pride member, head over to hdatruckpride.com today to learn more. My name is Jamie Irvine. I’m the host of The Heavy Duty Parts Report. Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode.

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