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Alberta Kenworth dealer turns 40

CALGARY, Alta. -It may have been billed as just a birthday party, but as it turned out GreatWest Kenworth's 40th anniversary bash went beyond a mere celebration, featuring demonstrations, presentation...

CALGARY, Alta. -It may have been billed as just a birthday party, but as it turned out GreatWest Kenworth’s 40th anniversary bash went beyond a mere celebration, featuring demonstrations, presentations, and even some prognostications as well.

The well-attended event, held at GreatWest’s southeast Calgary digs on Sept. 9, saw friends, customers and Paccar reps chow down with management and staff of last year’s Kenworth Silver Award Winner for Dealer Excellence. Also on-hand were non-human guests such as Kenworth’s new T700, the Paccar MX engine display trailer and an assortment of other demonstrations and trucks both modern and vintage.

GreatWest, a family-owned business with five locations across Alberta currently, was started by the late Jack Street in 1970, and is now operated by his grandsons Paul and Jeff Storwick. Paul Storwick, who has been involved with GreatWest for most of those 40 years, says he’s seen a lot of changes during that time, including the evolution of the company from a multi-brand dealership to one that focuses solely on things Kenworth and Paccar.

“At one time we were a Hino dealer,” says Storwick, “and were very successful and very happy with that. But we’ve pretty much recognized that being a single source dealer is a real advantage and I don’t think we’re going to do anything else.”

The 40th anniversary party gave GreatWest the opportunity to show off its Calgary renovations, which Storwick says were finished only a few weeks before the bash.

“We put in a lot of great new things,” he says, “including parts shuttle lifts that are really impressive, 38-feet high.”

He likens them to “a big vending machine, so when a guy comes in and orders a part they punch in a number and the machine spits out a tray and there’s your part, all marked and ready to go.”

The new system, he says, is a real time and hassle saver.

“Before, we used to say ‘Well, we think it’s in warehouse three under section five, aisle four and I’ll be back in an hour with your part’ – but now it’s right at your fingertips. So the efficiencies are greatly improved with the shop and the front counter service being able to just grab the parts.”

The installation of the towers was the heart of the Calgary store’s renovation, Storwick says. “We punched a hole in the roof, essentially, and put these new lifts up. And then we just kind of went on and continued revamping the whole front end. It’s been impressive to see.”

Storwick was 13 when he started at GreatWest.

“I started cutting the grass, sweeping the yard, washing trucks,” he says. “And then I went into the shop and turned wrenches for a while.” Later, he earned his trucking licence and drove for a time before going into sales.

“I’ve kind of been through the whole program,” he says, “so I’ve kind of seen this business evolve and grow.”

That growth included two Great- West outlets in Medicine Hat, at different times, and a sojourn in Peace River.

“We pulled out of the Hat in 1983 when the last recession period hit, but now we’re back again,” Storwick says in a nod to a business climate that seems to be rebounding somewhat from the challenges of the past few years.

The company’s growth has also seen “pretty much all of our stores rebuilt at this point,” Storwick says. “We’ve probably put upwards of $25 million dollars into new buildings in the last seven years or so.” During that time, he says, GreatWest opened a new store in Lethbridge and refurbished the Red Deer and Grande Prairie operations, the latter of which was also moved to a new location in nearby Clairmont.

One thing Storwick says isn’t about to change going forward is the Calgary location’s, er, location, which has remained the same since they first got into the business.

“It’s the only central truck dealership in Calgary,” Storwick points out. “Most of (the others) are out in the Foothills area, in the southeast, and while ours isn’t necessarily the most convenient location, many of our customers tell us it’s great because we’re right off Deerfoot Trail (Highway 2) and it’s easy to get to.”

Still, a growing business generally needs increasing elbow room, but Storwick says that, rather than building a new operation somewhere else in the Calgary area, they’re going to grow outward from where they are now.

“We have three or four buildings behind us that we own,” he says, likening the situation to a kind of a campus environment. “We have another shop directly behind and another warehouse directly behind it and we own the building beside us as well, which we currently lease out, so we’ve got lots of opportunity to grow and expand.”

Storwick hopes some of that eventual expansion will be in conjunction with the success of Paccar’s new MX engine.

“We’re really excited about the MX,” he says, acknowledging that Paccar’s in-house engine has been a long time coming. “When Paccar does something they take their time and do it right and make sure they’ve got the best they can produce,” he says.

The GreatWest co-president says he hopes the MX will account for up to 70% of the company’s engine sales within the next five years. “At this point, Cummins is still our number one supplier and probably will be for the next little while,” Storwick says, “but that will change as Paccar’s MX engine catches on.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Storwick thinks the MX will be a tremendous product.

“The test cases on the engine right now are proving to be very good,” he says. “People are recording up to 9 mpg in the flats -they’ve got a thousand test engines out there and so they’re launching the MX with very good confidence. It’s a great engine; everyone that drives one has been very impressed.”

As for the new Kenworth T700 that was on display at the 40th anniversary bash, Storwick has nothing but praise.

“It’s a state-of-the-art truck,” he says. “The test results so far have been fabulous; the aerodynamics, the MX engine, the fuel efficiencies. I had a chat with the driver earlier today and he absolutely loves it. It’s comfortable, quiet, maneuverable -it’s a tremendous answer to the fleet truck and the on-road business. I think it’s going to have great success.”

Another high-tech innovation GreatWest is promoting is its new, Internet-based parts ordering service.

“We’re one of the first dealers to offer it in this industry,” Storwick says. “And I’m really excited about the launch. Our customers can go online confidently, order a part and we’ll ship it to them just like any online business does.”

Downtime being such a critical factor to the industry, Storwick says, he thinks it’s time for such an online solution and despite the fact that users could be closer to other Kenworth dealers when they break down, doesn’t see the potential for it to cause any territorial conflicts.

“It’s not a discount parts program,” he says, “it’s just a convenience and availability thing. Say the driver breaks down in the bush north of Thunder Bay. He’s got an online source where they already have an account that will ship it there and make it happen.”

The new service also includes an online chat feature that lets customers communicate right from the Web site.

“We’ll be monitoring the guy while he’s ordering,” Storwick says. “You could be online ordering something and we’re at this end watching and can say ‘Hey, I see you’re looking at (whatever); how can I help you?’ It’s very intuitive and interactive. We’re pretty excited about it.”

While Storwick sees GreatWest continuing to advance, he doesn’t see a lot of major changes happening in the near future to the overall industry itself.

“It’s a very mature business,” he says. “We certainly could see improvements in fuel efficiencies and possibly the types of fuel we’re using in the engines themselves, but I don’t believe the configurations of trucks are going to change very much.”

Storwick does anticipate a push to have greater weight load limits on roads in the US, which will allow more doubl
e and triple trailers, and perhaps a greater acceptance of hybrids as well.

“I think there’s a specific market for hybrids, certainly in the inner city,” he says, “but right now the hybrids are expensive beasts and I don’t think the economies of scale are there yet. But soon.” He sees hybrids as being just another alternate fuel choice, like LNG or CNG. “If we could get these things to run on water,” he says, “we would.”

The GreatWest boss’s crystal ball also sees technological innovation helping to create some almost science fiction-sounding innovations that could someday make the highways safer and more efficient for everyone.

“I’m kind of a futurist,” Storwick admits, “and I think we might be heading right toward the Jetsons.”

The world Storwick envisions could see a driver take his vehicle onto a grid, punch in his destination and be whisked along automatically at a pre-selected speed and with a predetermined gap between vehicles, “totally automated, like a train on the highways,” he says. “You just get on the grid and go.” He claims such a scenario would be safer, if only because everyone would be travelling at the same speed and there’d be less passing because of that.

Storwick sees such automated roadways as being great for major, long-distance thoroughfares, but imagines drivers would retain manual control of their vehicles on urban or secondary roads.

Such a scenario could be not too far off, either, what with GPS and computerized systems such as adaptive cruise control and the like.

Whether visionary or pie in the sky, technological innovations such as those envisioned by Storwick are definitely coming, perhaps sometime in the next 40 years. For now, however, Storwick and GreatWest are content to concentrate on what he says is their bread and butter: the oilfield business.

“Our product has been successful in the oilfield for a long time, so that’s what we focus on,” he says. “Probably 60% of our business is related to the oilfield business and our market share is often up to 50% in certain categories -and most of our sales staff are experts and well-regarded in that field. They understand the product, they understand the oilfield service business.”

GreatWest employs about 120 people in Calgary currently, about a third less than it did before the recession, but Storwick says things are turning around.

“The last few months have been steadily increasing,” he says. “There’s some optimism out there again on the oilfield services side. People are buying.”

He doesn’t think the boom times will be coming back anytime soon, though. Rather, he anticipates some ups and downs as the industry experiences slow, steady growth over the next few years. “Growth will be nowhere near what we saw in the previous decade,” he says, “and we’ll just have to adjust for that.”

One area in which Storwick sees growth coming is in the medium-duty marketplace, thanks to the evolution of Kenworth’s medium-duty trucks.

“From Class 5 to Class 7, the products have really found a home in our market thanks to their quality and durability,” he says.

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