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Business Observer Thursday, May 14, 2009 13 years ago

Entrepreneurs to watch: Service-Oriented

Oscar Horton prepared for the economic downturn and got his truck dealership oriented toward more service business.

Oscar Horton prepared for the economic downturn and got his truck dealership oriented toward more service business and less new truck sales.

Oscar Horton is a planner. And when he felt the economy shifting down, he made the needed changes at his truck dealerships, Sun State International Trucks, in Tampa, Sarasota and Haines City.

He spoke with his staff, vendors and suppliers and put more emphasis on the service part of the dealership and less on new truck sales. And like everyone else, he cut costs.

“In the truck market, you can see it coming,” Horton says. “Our business is now driven by parts and service. When you don't buy new trucks, you have to work on the old ones.”

That adjustment meant that Horton did not have to lay off any employees. But he has taken advantage of attrition in a few cases, and not filled positions.

Experience helped in this case, as Horton, 57, drew from his lessons as a truck manufacturing executive. He remembered the careful planning the company went through lowering production when a slowdown was coming.

Besides planning, the other key since he bought the money-losing dealership in 2000 has been communication, Horton says. He offers a financial literacy class for all of his staff and he shares performance and cost numbers. The more the staff knows what is at stake, the better people can focus on doing their jobs well, spending time on the important tasks.

Since buying Sun State, Horton has tripled revenues and boosted profit, too.

The key numbers Horton shares with staff are the costs that the dealership needs to stick with in order to succeed and beat the competition. Without a cost structure, things would get out of control, Horton says.

“It is very difficult to have a discussion of profit with an employee if they don't understand the business,” Horton says. “We work hard to have a culture where everyone knows they have an important role to play.”

While truck sales and rentals are down, truck leasing has been stable. This is a business where people buy and lease trucks to transport goods. But the economy has hurt those people, too. A new truck can cost from $50,000 to $150,000.

“We want to work with customers to figure out a way to get through this,” Horton says. “Customers have all geared back.”

Horton battles in a competitive market that includes well-known nameplates such as White Freightliner and Mack. Some of the same vendors make parts for many of these trucks. What sets International apart, Horton says, is its customer service and service network.

“We all operate as one big family, so if you are in Miami or Jacksonville, you can roll into that shop,” Horton says.

Horton bought Sun State in 2000. His goal was to be No. 1 in all segments of the truck market. International is in first place in medium-duty and service trucks and is No. 2 in long-haul trucks.

Horton sits on International's 12-member dealer council, which advises the company on production and dealer issues.

The company is beginning the process where the dealers become part of the business planning, he says. “There's no point to build 100 trucks a day when we only need 10.”

Horton is married and a father of two, including one daughter who works for International in Illinois in the engine division. He rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work and for fun, taking side trips to places such as Daytona.

His family is the reason he left International corporate in Illinois and bought the dealership. He was seldom home, working for the parent company, traveling to different facilities. His older daughter didn't see her dad much.

While on a business trip to Germany, International's vice president of dealer operations approached Horton.

“He said I looked like hell,” Horton says. “He asked me what I would do next. Even if I got to the head of the company, there would be more, not less of this.”

There was a dealership for sale in Tampa. Horton was 49. So he made the move.

“I was just coming into my own,” Horton says. “And I was not away from home.”

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