The trucks stop here
In the right place at the right time with great service and selection, Whited Truck Centers have earned a place in the market selling and servicing trucks of all shapes and sizes
By Kathryn Buxton
By the time Jon Whited sits down for a mid-morning interview, he has crammed a lot into just a few hours. He has to. With three different truck centers under the Whited family name – in Presque Isle, Bangor and Auburn – and multiple product lines, as well as an active service department and used equipment division, there is plenty to do. After a quick trip to Topsham to deliver a part to a customer, Jon settles in at the family’s Auburn dealership, a sprawling facility that includes a new and used car and truck dealership, an RV center, an extensive service department and a new and used commercial truck and trailer dealership.
Though there is still a smattering of snow on the ground and Whited’s biggest customers in the logging and construction industries are waiting for the ground to dry out before launching the 2014 work season, Whited is looking forward to what he believes will be a strong year in both markets. All of the maintenance bays at the Auburn service center are filled with trucks in for service in anticipation of a busy construction and logging season. He said the market for new and used trucks has been building steadily since June of last year. Then there are the intangibles.
“I think people are tired of sitting around and are thinking let’s get this economy going,” said Whited. “It looks like it’s going to be a good year.”
He measures his optimism in dump trucks. “We used to sell 60 to 80 dump trucks a year,” said Whited. “During the worst of the recession, we only sold three or four – maybe 20 total in the past several years. This year we’ve ordered 12 for spring.”
As a sign of the Whiteds’ bullishness, the dealership is looking for a fourth location – somewhere in York or Cumberland County – that will enable them to better serve their customers in southern Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“We’re looking near Saco, but we haven’t found the right place yet,” said Whited, who envisions the new location to be smaller than Whited’s Auburn and Bangor locations and similar to the Presque Isle store, with a strong parts department and full complement of service technicians.
The business has changed considerably since Jon’s father, Bob Whited, founded the original Bangor truck dealership – then called Bangor Ford – with John Linnehan in 1985. The two had worked in vehicle sales together, and saw an opportunity to build a business selling and servicing quality trucks. The dealership’s mission statement published prominently on Whited’s web site emphasizes service and quality: “Our mission is to build life-long relationships and to exceed our customers’ expectations. Our success is measured by team work and our dedication to customer satisfaction while providing ‘First Class’ quality products and services at cost-effective pricing.”
Those are words, Jon said, his father has lived by – that and a belief in building personal relationships with his customers based on honesty and good value.
Bob Whited bought out Linnehan in 1991 (Linnehan continued to operate car dealerships in central and Downeast Maine, but no longer sells commercial vehicles). Back then, as today, the primary market was commercial trucks for the construction, long haul trucking and logging industries. Whited initially was a single Ford truck dealership, but since has expanded. Bob Whited added the Presque Isle location in 1994 and expanded to Auburn in 2001. The new dealership provided the chance for Jon, who had joined the family firm in 1994, to step into a leadership role.
“My dad said ‘We have this opportunity in Auburn,’ and I said ‘I’ll go.’”
The mix of brands has also changed. What began as a straight-up Ford truck dealership in the late 1980s is now a much more diverse business. Over the years, Whited has added different lines to the business, as Bob and Jon have identified different niches. They now sell several different types of trailers – Mac, Etnyre, Stairs and Dorsey – including log trailers, live bottom trailers and lowbeds that are big sellers in the forest products industry. In Auburn, the company added an RV division in 2001 that does a brisk business in both sales and service.
When Ford rebranded its big truck division with the Sterling name in 1998, Whited became the “go to” dealership for the classic, American-made commercial trucks. In 2008, when the recession hit, Daimler Chrysler, Sterling’s parent company, decided to no longer make the Sterling brand. Whited sold the last of its Sterling trucks in late 2008. (Whited continues to be a major seller of Ford brand Super Duty pick-up trucks.)
Jon Whited said that, despite the loss of its banner brand, he and his dad saw an opportunity to expand once more. As businesses throughout New England were downsizing their fleets, Whited began systematically building a strong used equipment division, established on the same principles as its new vehicle dealership.
“We saw the chance to purchase undervalued used equipment, refurbish it and pass it on,” said Jon. “We bought as much as we could get our hands on.”
That proved a smart move. Their market included longstanding customers who still needed good equipment but didn’t want to tie up precious cash on new equipment. The addition of the used truck division saw the Whiteds through the early days of the recession.
The Whiteds have always been bullish on American made trucks, so in 2009, when the chance came along to become the northern New England dealership for Peterbilt trucks, they jumped. Founded in 1939, Peterbilt manufactures medium- and heavy-duty Class 6 through Class 8 trucks at plants in Texas, California and Quebec and carries a good reputation in the business, made stronger in recent years by fuel efficiency rankings that are up to double the industry standard.
“Peterbilt is the gold standard in American-made trucks,” said Whited, who said that the brand has been a strong seller since Whited took it on.
At the heart of the business, according to Jon, is a good working relationship between the two Whiteds. Bob Whited, CEO of the company, oversees the financial end of the business, managing investment decisions and keeping an eye on the bottom line. Jon manages the day-to-day operations, logging a fair amount of mileage every week traveling between the three locations.
“We work well together, and I have learned a lot from working alongside him,” said Jon.
The Whiteds have been keen to support their communities and the industries they serve, building relationships with industry leaders and helping out when and where they can. Whited is an MBTA member and is a frequent sponsor of the MBTA’s Infrastructure Development Golf Classic and other construction and transportation industry events, such as Maine NAWIC’s annual Construction Expo in Augusta. Whited is a member of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine and the Shriners. The company also supports the Maine chapter of the National Kidney Foundation, in memory of Bob’s stepson Nate, who died of the disease in 2008.
Jon is quick to credit the Whited staff for their hand in the dealership’s continued success. The company has a solid core of experienced administrative, sales and service professionals at all three locations. Pete Webb, well known to MBTA members, has been instrumental in the growth of the business as vice president and general manager. Craig Cousins, who joined Whited as a mechanic just a few years after it first opened, now oversees the firm’s busy parts and service division. He said that the Whiteds are good to work for and that their sense of ethics and fairness extends not just to customers, but to staff as well.
“They treat you well, and that makes you want to work hard,” said Cousins, who has worked for Whited Truck Centers for the past 25 years. He said one big challenge he faces is finding young talent to join the company. “They don’t know what a good living you can make as a mechanic,” said Cousins. “But it does take training and a talent for the technical.”
Whited’s IT Manager and Assistant Sales Manager Sue McAvoy is a 13-year employee who has high praise for the Whiteds as employers and as business people.
“When they decide to do something, they are all in,” said McAvoy. “If they are sold on something, they sell their employees on it. They are gung ho, and as an employee you can feel that energy. It makes you want to do your best.”