Oscar Horton has mostly stuck with a consistent strategy for some 20 years, tinkering enough to build a $150 million brand.
Established in 1902, International Harvester is one of the oldest and most well-known brands in trucks, tractors, buses and engines, and although it’s been through several recent transitions — including a name change, to Navistar, in 1986 — a constant presence, since 1974, has been Oscar Horton.
Now the president and CEO of Tampa-based Sun State International Trucks LLC, Horton joined the company as a Memphis-based farm equipment salesman whose territory included rural Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi — not exactly friendly turf for a young Black man trying to make a name for himself in business.
“I saw things you wouldn’t believe, heard things you wouldn’t believe,” says Horton, now 67. “But this one gentleman, Bob Romer, he said, ‘You stick with me, and I’ll stick with you.’ He put me through every training program that International ever had to offer. He promoted me every chance that he could.”
Romer, in turn, recommended Horton to Dan Ustian, who would go on to become CEO of Navistar in 2003. In the late 1990s, when Horton, then based in Chicago and overseeing the company’s foundry that made engine parts, told Ustian he wanted to go into business for himself as a dealer, he received the company’s blessing — albeit somewhat reluctantly.
“He said, ‘Honestly, I'd hate to see you go, but it won't be like you're going and leaving us. You are going to represent our product in the marketplace.’ And he was very instrumental in me coming to Tampa.”
‘When you’ve got a $100,000 truck sitting around, staring you in the face every day, that’s not a good thing.’ Oscar Horton, president and CEO of Sun State International Trucks LLC
And what a boon Horton’s 20 years in Tampa have been for Navistar’s brands. Under Horton’s leadership, Sun State International Trucks LLC, a separate Tampa-based entity, has grown its revenue 540%, from $25 million in 2000 to $160.1 million in 2019. From 2014 to 2015, revenue increased from $108.3 million to $161.7 million, when Horton made two key acquisitions in Lakeland and Haines City. After consolidation, the company, with 200 employees, now operates in Tampa, Davenport, Brooksville and Sarasota.
“Our goal, certainly, is $200 million and beyond,” Horton says. “We thought we could get close this year until that virus came along.”
The coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a challenge for Sun State International Trucks, especially because the company’s portfolio of Navistar-affiliated brands now includes IC Bus school buses — and schools opening back up in the fall is a big unknown.
Horton says sales this year actually aren’t down as much as he anticipated, and he's been able to weather the crisis with some cost-cutting measures. “We’ve taken advantage of [employee] attrition, but we haven’t laid anyone off," Horton says.
The company is also more cognizant of its inventory. With walk-in sales down, Horton directed his staff to keep orders to a minimum.
“A lot of the trucks we have out here on the lot, we’ve financed them with somebody,” he says “So when you’ve got a $100,000 truck sitting around, staring you in the face every day, that’s not a good thing. We normally would carry more inventory, but we’re down to just ordering the trucks that we need when we get them sold.”
In addition to acquiring rival dealerships and adding more brands to Sun State’s product lineup, Horton has also made growth-driving innovations in such areas as customer service and parts, which helped keep revenue flowing during economic downturns. “The products we sell, they are not emotional buys,” Horton says. “You are not gonna talk someone into buying a $150,000 truck if their business is not good.”
Case in point: The company now offers mobile service, and instead of selling parts directly to customers that have their own technicians and workshops, it will issue items on consignment, essentially, for the customer to have on hand, just in case they need it.
“When you use it, you pay us,” Horton says. “All we need is the right to come around and check inventory now and then.”
Horton foresees continued short-term success for Sun State, the pandemic notwithstanding. But it’s the long-term forecast that concerns him. Both his daughters, Kelli and Alison, work for Sun State, and he says the rise of electric vehicle technology will bring a reckoning if they choose to retain ownership of the business after he retires.
“I want this to be more than a one-generation family business,” he says, “but it’s going to take a huge capital investment.”