One is an MBA, whose background in the commercial trucking industry, not only in South Florida but internationally, has merited numerous awards and wide-ranging recognition. The other started his trucking education at 16 in a service bay with a wrench in his hand, learning the business from the shop floor up and helping his family turn a one-truck operation into a company that sold for $100 million less than two decades later.
Yes, their backgrounds are as different as could be. But their partnership has Kenworth of South Florida poised for significant growth and success in a market where the Kenworth brand had almost flatlined barely 15 years ago.
“We are now partners,” says Eric Johns, the young wrench-turner noted above who recently bought a 49 percent stake in Kenworth of South Florida. “We are going through an awesome restructuring phase right now. It’s a new beginning, and we are doing great things for our customers.”
Optimistic words, to be sure, but Johns’ confidence is well founded given the turnaround that has been engineered by dealer principal Todd Hays, who bought the dealership in 2006.
“I bought a screwed-up mess — that’s the legal term,” recalls Hays. But Hays also remembered the days when the local dealership had helped Kenworth form a powerful presence in South Florida, particularly the 1970s, 1980s, and especially from 1990 to 1996, when Hays worked for the dealership. But aggressive takeover tactics by another manufacturer soon turned the national and local trucking landscape upside down, and Hays’ employer sold out. That event set in motion a 10-year period of multiple ownerships and generally rudderless direction for Kenworth of South Florida, until Hays purchased his old employer in 2006.
“It was a broken dealership, slowly going out of business,” Hays recalls. “The brand was damaged, and Kenworth was almost non-existent in South Florida.
“But I knew what Kenworth had been there in the heyday, so I hit the street. I immediately re-engaged with all the companies, particularly the big asphalt companies, we had been doing business with. We had to overcome some negative connotations, given how they had been treated after the sellout, but we started securing some huge orders.
“It was grass roots, completely organic growth. But I put us back on the map.”
“The map” provided some additional challenges for Hays, both in terms of geography and the cultural differences in local populations and the companies doing business there. He decided the best way to serve the diverse customer base was with multiple locations. Starting with a base location in Fort Lauderdale, he opened a new full-service location in Fort Pierce in 2012, and another in Riviera Beach in 2014. A fourth location in Fort Myers extended the company’s reach to Florida’s west coast in 2015. None of the locations is more than 90 miles from another.
“Having multiple locations was a key,” says Hays. “I could win business with large accounts with branches throughout South Florida and support them with parts and services, but also go after each unique individual market, because they’re all so diverse and different.”
Johns, meanwhile, was on his own career arc, one which also pivoted in 2006. That’s when his father, for whom he had been working since his high school days, sold the family trucking business. Johns then opened a heavy-haul business and noted that much of his cargo was made up of trucks headed for sale or auction. He soon found the sales side of the trucking business to be more interesting than the side he had been on.
“At one point in time, our family was one of Kenworth’s biggest customers in the Southeast,” says Johns, who held various roles at his father’s company. “But when my father sold, I realized very quickly I didn’t want to run trucks. I wanted to sell them.”
Johns transitioned to a used truck dealership, then ran a dealership for another manufacturer before coming to work for a Kenworth dealership in the Southeast. He quickly climbed the ladder, earning frequent national recognition for Kenworth sales before becoming Kenworth’s number one vocational salesperson in North America for 2019.
Despite his success, Johns hungered for a bigger piece of the action.
“My experience at the dealership basically gave me a doctorate degree in the ins and outs of how the dealership really works,” Johns says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“It taught me how customer retention is, of course, the key to everything. Customer satisfaction needs to be at the highest level. From the sales side, from the fixed operations standpoint, I learned how to run a dealership. I learned what works and what doesn’t work. I learned what absorption rate meant and how absorption rate applies.”
Hays saw the value offered by teaming with Johns, and the two formed plans to partner. And Johns saw the opportunity to someday buy out his partner.
“We are two people very much involved in the business, and Eric aspires to buy it out one day,” says Hays. “It’s a nice fit.”
Adds Johns, “We both understand that until somebody sells something, nothing happens, whether it be a truck, a part off the shelf or a service ticket. Todd is one of the best salespeople I’ve ever seen but he’s also a great fixed-operations guy. He runs his company very well and is very diligent in his work.
“And I think what I bring is an ability to look at things from a customer’s perspective that a lot of dealers can’t do. I understand what it means when a truck is late. I understand what it means when a truck is down. I understand that uptime is everything because when I was on the other side of the desk, if a truck went down it was a major problem.”
The partnership has already delivered results. For example, Con-Tech Manufacturing, a large national cement-mixer body builder headquartered in Dodge Center, Minn., continues to place large orders for Kenworth T880s, spec’ed with a fully integrated PACCAR Powertrain.
“We as a dealership made the decision to invest in the customer so we could grow together,” says Johns. “Con-Tech was founded with the mission statement that ‘The customer is our boss,’ which is something Todd and I fully embraced, because we believe the same.”
For Hays and Johns, helping customers succeed with Kenworth trucks is a story they expect to see repeated frequently in the months and years ahead.
“It is the World’s Best truck not just because we are a dealer for Kenworth,” Johns says. “It’s because I ran them. My family’s business depended on them, and now our customers’ businesses depend on them. And they make the most reliable product on the market. I believe that to this day.”