As many in the industry will tell you, the towing business is like a family. Many companies are handed down from one generation to other - some more successfully than others. And while there is no “secret recipe” to a positive and prosperous transfer of business, there are steps companies should take to help ensure success. Below, two tow companies share their experiences and what worked from them.
The Johnson Groups
In 1978, a young Bill Johnson opened up a small autobody shop in his hometown of Granby, Massachusetts. More than 30 years later, Bill and his wife Tracey own a myriad of transportation and towing businesses including Hampshire Towing in Massachusetts and New York-based T&T Towing.
The Johnson’s two children - Rob and Dave - grew up in the business. In fact, Rob began towing vehicles the same week he got his driver’s license when he was 16. At that time, the company had just one flatbed and one wrecker. Now they have a fleet of over 30 units in addition to all their ancillary equipment.
“There was no nepotism involved. It was just about doing the job correctly,” said Rob. “I was making good money as a teenager and enjoying it.” Rob opted to forgo college and start working full-time in the family business shortly after graduation.
David started out in the business cleaning the garage. He decided to go to college and eventually became the bookkeeper. “Rob and Dave really bring their own strengths to the business,” said Bill. “It’s a great blend having both kids.”
With the Johnson sons in the business for nearly over two decades, transitioning the company to them seemed like the right thing to do. Bill admits that succession planning for his family began years before Rob and Dave started in the business.
“The preparation begins when you are a parent and trying to bring up a proper adult,” Bill explained. “As far as the business goes, sometimes you have to step back and let them make mistakes.”
Bill offered two examples. The first was when Rob wanted to save money by buying retreads in lieu of new tires. Bill was reluctant but allowed Rob to do what he thought was right for the company. The result? A blown tire that translated into significant damage to a truck.
Rob then discussed switching from standard transmission to automatic trucks, explaining that younger drivers typically do not learn to drive manual vehicles anymore. Bill said it was one of the best decisions they ever made as a company.
Dave is also taking the business into the 21st century. He transitioned the company from paper-based accounting to online QuickBooks and has a heavy say in any purchases or acquisitions. “Dave has to be the tough guy because Rob and I always want to buy stuff and expand,” Bill added. “It’s tough trying to tell your dad and big brother ‘no’.”
One area of the business the family has agreed on for more than 25 years is using Jerr-Dan as its fleet provider. “We bought our first Jerr-Dan truck in 1994,” said Bill. “They have a great product, and it also helps that their lending company and dealer network are great to work with. They put together a winning team all the way around.”
While there is no official transition date, Bill said he feels confident that when he does step down the business will be in good hands.
Rob concluded, “The good thing about our transition is we are allowed to make decisions. Sometimes family members are so controlling they don’t allow the younger generation to make any changes. My brother and I have a lot of latitude.”
Hawkeye Truck & Wrecker Sales
For more than 20 years, Danny Ward has owned and operated Ward’s Wrecker Sales in Bono, Arkansas. In 2004, Danny met Travis Mears who had recently started his own truck and trailer business. Danny would call Travis when he needed parts for his fleet and later bought used chassis from him as well.
Over the years the two developed a friendship. As Danny contemplated retirement, they discussed a succession plan for the Jerr-Dan distributorship part of his business. “Last year he decided to semi-retire,” explained Travis. “He said he would put in a good word for me with Jerr-Dan.”
While Danny’s opinion got his foot in the door, Travis and his brother/business partner, Scott, still needed to convince Jerr-Dan they were capable of taking over the business. This meant presenting Jerr-Dan with a business plan and meeting other criteria to ensure he would be a successful new distributor.
Jerr-Dan played a big role in the transition as the company transitioned from Ward’s Wrecker to Hawkeye Truck & Wrecker Sales. After flying to the company’s corporate headquarters, Travis attended both orientation and a distributorship meeting. This all happened in February, right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “The timing may not have been the best, but fortunately we have not suffered as much as other industries,” Travis said.
Danny, who continues to sell used heavy-duty trucks and wreckers, constructed a building next to Travis’ business, which allows them to keep in touch as they continue through the transition. “What started out as a business relationship evolved into a business friendship,” Travis added. “We still help each other when needed, but our businesses are distinct.”
Travis was also able to acquire both an experienced salesman and an installer that were employed by Danny. This made the transition even smoother since Travis was spared the time and money it would take to find new employees. Travis was even able to retain Danny’s business phone number he had for over a decade.
Another person who was an invaluable asset during the transition was the brothers’ office manager for 20 years, Debbie Tharpe. “She has been instrumental in our ability to maintain and grow our companies throughout the years,” Travis remarked.
Reputation is Everything
Succession planning can be even more challenging if the company’s reputation is at stake. Fortunately, both The Johnson Groups and Hawkeye were able to transition their stellar reputations along with the businesses.
“It’s important to do the proper vetting to ensure everything is in place and make sure you’re working with a good business with a good reputation,” said Travis. “A lot of towing companies are brand loyal and you have to have quality people and product that you can stand by and demonstrate the advantages of switching.”
For the Johnson family, it was important their children not feel pressured into taking over the business. “They didn’t force either one of us into it. If anything, it was the complete opposite,” said Rob. “There is a lot of give and take on both sides.”
Both companies have been happy with their success during succession planning. The longevity of the relationships as both family and friends went a long way in developing the trust and camaraderie needed for a seamless and profitable transition.