Today, Van Lingen Towing of Torrance, California, is one of Southern California’s largest and most sophisticated towing and recovery services. It serves Southern California, but it is not unusual to see a Van Lingen truck in Arizona or Nevada. The road to today’s success has run through three generations, more than 74 years, who knows how many trucks, and continuous innovation and re-invention. The story of that journey is fascinating.
Clarence Van Lingen Joins the Navy, Fights a War, and Learns a Trade
Clarence Van Lingen learned all about working a round-the-clock schedule growing up on a South Dakota dairy farm. As soon as he could, he left the farm for the Navy—just in time to be on board the USS Enterprise when the United States entered World War II. In fact, the Enterprise was supposed to be in port at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 but was running late and missed the attack. This was fortunate not only for young Clarence and the ship but especially for the battered U.S. naval forces that were in dire need of “the Big E” in those early days of the war in the Pacific.
The Enterprise was one of the very few surviving aircraft carriers in the Pacific fleet, and she participated in more major actions of the war than any other United States ship, along the way becoming the most decorated U.S. warship of World War II. This meant that the Enterprise was seemingly always in action, and either the ship herself or her complement of 96 aircraft were in constant need of repair. Clarence learned to reliably patch them up as an onboard metalsmith, making it possible for “the Big E” to keep fighting until the end of the war.
After the war, Clarence left the Navy with a Purple Heart and a new trade. In 1948, he and his wife, Inez, with the help of their families, opened a small auto body shop on the edge of his uncle’s dairy farm in Torrance, California. The auto industry was booming, and he wisely recognized that the metal smith trade would likely prosper in the thriving post-war economy.
Discovering a Need, Capitalizing on an Opportunity
As the Van Lingen auto body business grew, Clarence found that he couldn’t get tow service on weekends. This was obviously a frustrating situation, and he made it a point to chat with the local police to learn more about the issue.
The police told him that if a car needed to be towed on the weekend, people were instructed to lock the vehicle and leave it on the side of the road until it could be picked up on Monday. Sensing that Clarence might be able and willing to help, the police told him that if he got a tow truck, they would call him when their other vendor was busy or unavailable. Little by little, starting with late-night and weekend calls, the business grew and Van Lingen Towing became a local fixture. The company has always offered private and commercial towing, but perhaps due to that unique beginning, Van Lingen Towing came to specialize in service to the law enforcement and first responder community.
Clarence Passes the Torch to Robert
Clarence’s son Robert grew up in the towing industry. He learned all about waking up in the middle of the night to make a towing run with his father. And he absorbed the lessons that Clarence passed on to him over the years of his childhood and young manhood.
One of the foundation stones of today’s business—perhaps the cornerstone—is the principle to which all three generations attribute the basic success of Van Lingen Towing. Clarence was a proud man, and he simply refused to do a job badly or in a slipshod manner. (What would his CPO on the Enterprise say?) No, he would go ahead and do the job right, even if it cost him money. This same pride moved him to respect his commitments to customers. In short, he did what he said he would do.
Robert inherited the pride and learned the lessons.
By applying those lessons, he could easily scoop up the business of other towers that did not match the right equipment to the job or failed to properly train operators. Some towers took their customers for granted or treated people rudely as a general practice. Van Lingen Towing became known as a different type of business and continued to grow.
Then, there was a sea change in automobile construction. Rather than one big hunk of steel, by the 1980s cars were incorporating fiberglass, and replacing metal bumpers with plastic. Also, accidents involving bigger trucks were more and more common. New equipment was needed to deal with this new reality. And here Sean Van Lingen, one of Robert’s sons, makes a key point that other businesses can learn from.
“To be able to take care of the new kind of recovery jobs, the company needed new equipment, specialty-built to handle new types of problems. Even back then the equipment was expensive, but dad knew he didn’t really have any choice. So, he bought the tools needed to get the job done. Meanwhile, he noticed a tendency in some towers to just keep taking their fees without reinvesting in their fleet. Over time, that turned out to be a disaster for them.”
Van Lingen’s philosophy as regards reinvesting in his fleet—and investing in superior training for his people—has paid off in tangible ways. As they state on their website, their tow trucks are typically on the scene in only 8.1 minutes. For comparison, the industry standard is around 15-20 minutes.
Unique Approach to Equipment Acquisition
In 2005, the second and third generations of Van Lingen towers decided they needed to purchase a rotator. Sean explains what happened next.
“My dad and my brother really did their due diligence and they checked out pretty much all the significant manufacturers. And long story short, what they really wanted at the time was an 85-ton Jerr-Dan rotator. However, California has some very strict regulations on weight, and we just couldn’t use that model at that time. So that was kind of off the table and we bought a 1075. We took possession of it in 2007 I believe.”
Three years ago, Van Lingen Towing needed to add a second rotator. Sean continues the story.
“We took a bunch of rotators out to a training facility with several people, and we looked at all the machines very carefully. The Jerr-Dan made an impression on us, and we decided to buy it. That JD 50/60 (HDR1000) is what we currently have, and in our opinion, it is the best rotator, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, on the market. It can do anything we want it to do in California. It's got all the reach in the world, and it's engineered well.”
“Choosing the right equipment is absolutely critical,” said Robert. “I always have in the back of my mind that my own sons will be driving these trucks. I have to give them the best and safest tool. And of course, we extend that same principle to our staff—they’re all someone’s family as well. So, with all that in mind, I take a unique approach to equipment demos, although I just consider it common sense.”
“As Sean said, we took a bunch of rotators out to a training facility. But before we laid eyes on the equipment, we had someone cover up all the brand names—decals, badges, any identifying marks. That way we could evaluate the actual equipment performance, without the distraction of thinking about whether we are friends with a particular manufacturer or not, whether we like one salesman more than another, and so on.”
“And at the end of the day, when we uncovered the badge on the rotator that we considered the winner, it turns out that it was Jerr-Dan. That was three years ago, and we haven’t regretted our decision. In fact, we’re replacing the rotator we bought in 2007 and replacing it with another Jerr-Dan.”
The following year, the company was in the market for an additional heavy-duty truck. As part of their search, Sean and his wife Moiselle were walking the expo floor at the Baltimore Tow Show. A 50-ton integrated Jerr-Dan truck tricked out with the optional Side Stabilization System (SS-70) caught their eye. The trouble was that they only needed to add a 35-ton truck to his fleet at that time. He asked if it was possible to equip the smaller 35-ton with the SS-70 option. The answer put him back on his heels a bit, because the salesman said, “I don’t know.”
Sean is the only one who can really explain what happened next.
“Look, I’ve been around a while, and salesmen just don’t say that they don’t know. They tend to keep working with ‘yes’ until you sign on the dotted line. So, I explained in more detail why I wanted the option on a smaller truck, their 35-ton. Again, he says he doesn’t know. I ask him, what does he mean, he doesn’t know? And then I heard the words that won me over to Jerr-Dan as a company. He told me, ‘Well, before I could say yes or no, I would need to talk this over with engineering.’ That really clicked with me because an awful lot of manufacturers will say ‘yeah we can do that,’ but they deliver an imperfect product because the unit was built, but it wasn’t engineered.”
The Jerr-Dan salesman did not ink the deal during the show. But he did promise Sean that he would get back to him after a discussion with his engineers. As it happens, engineering gave the go-ahead, and Van Lingen ended up with the exact piece of equipment he wanted.
Focusing on Public Safety Pays Dividends
Van Lingen Towing has a customer base that skews strongly toward public safety and municipality clients. These clients have special needs, and the Van Lingen family has learned from and provided for these clients in exceptional ways.
“My dad and I learned a lot about the challenges faced by law enforcement when we served as reserve police officers,” said Rob. “We served one 12-hour shift as volunteers each week. We got to see firsthand how police dispatchers work; we saw how fire dispatch works. And working alongside full-time sworn officers in the field helped us understand what the police officer is looking for, which really helped us tailor our business to meet public safety needs. We got the opportunity to understand the law enforcement pressures that define what they need from our industry.”
“And that's when we realized that it's no longer a police contract. It's a public safety contract, which encompasses a lot more than a drunk driver or an accident. It includes city resources that are involved in hazmat and environmental situations. It includes the fire department’s extrication techniques and being aware of the importance of remediating any liability risks the city may otherwise be exposed to.”
“Here’s an example,” Rob continued. “The DTSC, the Department of Toxic Substance Control, may come out to an incident and say that the accident scene needs to be cleaned up better. And they have very specific requirements. We saw that getting certified to meet their standards would be a great opportunity for us. Not that there is big money in it, but because it's so heavily regulated now. If you are going to be cleaning the street after an incident in California, it makes sense for towing companies to be certified in hazmat remediation.”
Indeed, clearing an accident scene in a timely manner requires the right people, proper training and certification, and the right equipment. Van Lingen Towing considered these requirements and decided to address them head-on. As a result, the company purchased its own state-of-the-art Haz-Mat command trailer and developed its own Incident Management Response Team.
“Our close relationships with public safety clients have made us hyper-aware of where the gaps in service are,” Robert said. “We look beyond traditional towing tasks and ask ourselves if there is a gap between where our services leave off, and what the client needs next. Rob mentioned the Haz-Mat program we created—that’s a good example. Another example is law enforcement’s need for access to impounded or wrecked vehicles while still protecting the chain of evidence.”
As any law enforcement officer will attest, the chain of evidence is sacred. The very smallest transgression, the most minor mishandling, can lead to a judge ruling that evidence is inadmissible. That means a case may be dead, and a bad guy walks, free to commit more crimes and further endanger the community. Robert adds, “We proactively put policies and procedures in place to prevent that from happening.”
Today, this critically important issue is addressed by the three secure facilities owned and operated by Van Lingen Towing, all of which cater to the needs of law enforcement. Each location features a Public Safety Impound Facility that is available to local law enforcement agencies 24 hours a day. Police investigators can bring in the car, access it 24/7 thereafter using their own security code, and use Van Lingen’s on-site selection of tools and lifts to examine the vehicle for evidence in a controlled environment. These sites are protected by video surveillance that digitally records and stores data from over 30 cameras, providing a continuous, uninterruptible video record of the entire examination. There are several evidence retention areas on site, as well as a report writing room for the officers’ convenience.
The learning and benefits go both ways. As reserve police officers, Robert and Rob became very familiar with the sophisticated Computer Aided Dispatch software used by public safety telephony/radio dispatchers. The benefits of knowing where every resource and incident is in real-time—and being able to see it on a map!—would obviously be of use to Van Lingen Towing.
Of course, the majority of the special features of public safety CAD would be of no use to a towing and recovery service, and the prices for such software typically start at around $100,000. So, it fell to Sean to figure out how to create a custom CAD that was tailored to their needs.
The company brags a bit about this achievement, quite understandably, on their website. It says, “At Van Lingen, we have spent over five years and tens of thousands of dollars perfecting our computer-aided dispatch system, and we’re still working to make it even better. All our strategically located trucks are equipped with GPS, so we know where they are at all times, what direction they are heading, and how fast they are traveling. More importantly, we know how close they are to the accident scene, so when you call to ask when our truck will arrive, instead of telling you, “They’ll be there soon!” we are able to say, “they’ll be pulling up in two minutes and 35 seconds”.
The Past Continues to Inform the Future
Clarence taught his son and grandsons the importance of pride, hard work, and the mental flexibility to adapt, change, and even re-invent, the business. Sean and Rob, his grandsons, have worked with their father to double down on their key business areas and to be, not just willing, but eager, to embrace new technology and new business models.
Robert is being honored this year by induction into the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame, one of 10 to be so honored from the United States, Australia, France, and Japan. The Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame was launched in 1986 to recognize individuals who have made substantial contributions to the towing and recovery industry.
The future looks bright for Van Lingen Towing, but Robert is not willing to see his company rest on its laurels. He sums up the company’s mission this way: “We set the standard and we continue to raise the bar.”