Stoops among continent's 5 biggest Freightliner dealers

July 30, 2007

Jeff Stoops' big-rig truck and trailer inventory is worth tens of millions of dollars--a number that might leave the city's cult-of-personaltiy car dealers speechless, or questioning their manhood.

Yet, unlike some of the Brylcreemed barkers who sell cars, you won't find Stoops on television, screaming of a summer sell-down on "Saturday SATURDAY, SATURDAY!" Nor do his salesmen roost like vultures out front of his showroom.

In fact, there is no showroom--just a rack of vehicle brochures that tout rather odd features, such as "increased belly, leg and elbow room."

Move over, purveyors of pregnant roller skates: Central Indiana's top salesman of burly vehicles--if not vehicles of all sorts--is shifting into year 20, and he's demonstrating that the big money is in trucks, not cars. A new, long-haul tractor can fetch $100,000 to $200,000.

At annual revenue topping $325 million--the bigger car dealers here are in the $100 million to $200 million range--Stoops Freightliner has driven into the ranks of the top five Freightliner dealers in North America. The dealer chain employs more than 600, including about 325 in Indianapolis. Its truck and trailer inventory these days is at $50 million, and that's low.

Now Stoops is looking for a higher gear. Next year, he plans to open a $7 million dealership in Fort Wayne to replace an existing one. Plans are in the works for a local facility dedicated to fixing Freightliner-based motor homes, a function now intermingled with his south-side big-rig dealership. And his eye is ever scanning for other truck dealers in the region to buy.

Unlike some car dealers, Stoops didn't work his way up at Daddy's dealership or buy his pedigree from a business school and wealthy investors. He earned his stripes in the cab of a badass big rig, starting with a dump-truck-driving summer job while attending Ball State University to become--of all things--a teacher.

"Nobody grows up wanting their kids to drive trucks," said Stoops, who apparently didn't grow up in a trailer park. He's from Markleville, a wee town in Madison County.

Unlikely career

Stoops wanted to be a coach ever since junior high, when he busted his leg in two places while playing basketball. Because of the injury, he wound up keeping stats for the team. His Ball State degree earned him a job in South Madison schools as a teacher and basketball and baseball coach.

That lasted three years. In 1975, he walked into his principal's office and said he was quitting his $7,000-a-year teaching job--to drive a truck. Silence. "He said, 'If you stay one more year, you will have achieved tenure status and they can't fire you,'" recalled Stoops, who has maintained a coach/trainer's physique that many a 59-year-old would give up Budweiser for. He easily gets away with wearing a Freightliner-red alligator shirt, tucked in.

But what Stoops' colleagues couldn't understand back then was that he strived not for job security but entrepreneurial adventure.

"The thought of failure never enters your mind."

Driving a dump truck for the city highway department while in college had an effect no career counselor could comprehend.

"I got kind of smitten by these trucks when I was driving part-time," Stoops said.

Later in the 1970s, after quitting teaching, Stoops had accumulated a dozen trucks in his fleet. His income was more than three times what he'd earned as a teacher. In 1985, Burlington Northern Railroad made an offer to buy his Stoops Express business.

"I decided I wanted to take it easy and retire," he said. "That didn't last long."

As one of his daughters told him then, "Dad, when are you going to get a job? You're making us miserable."

Turns to truck sales

So at age 39, Stoops looked at buying an International Harvester dealer, but the truck maker was struggling. Eventually, Portland, Ore.-based Freightliner offered him a store, which he opened in 1987 and which now occupies 46 acres just south of Interstate 465 and west of State Road 37.

Stoops thought it would be easy going. After all, he knew the business. But as it turned out, many of his would-be customers were his competitors when he owned Stoops Express. They weren't eager to buy from a former rival.

But Jeff Stoops is a "good guy" and was able to win them over, said Doug Williams, president of Indianapolis-based Venture Logistics. Williams, whose trucking firm employs 450 people, used to work for Stoops. He's a loyal customer of the Freightliner firm.

Jeff Stoops "is one of those 'what you see is what you get' kind of guys," Williams added.

Having gotten up to cruising speed, in 1999 Stoops snapped up an Ohio dealership, which got him two stores in western Ohio and one in Fort Wayne.

Six years ago, he started selling DaimlerChrysler's Sprinter vans, which are growing popular among contractors and delivery firms. Up until last year, Stoops Freightliner held the title of world's largest seller of the $30,000 Sprinter vans. It helped to even out the effects of the heavy truck cycle, in which orders tend to ebb and flow every four years or so, depending on when fleets wear out and ahead of the latest EPA-mandated pollution requirements that make each succeeding generation of truck more expensive.

Stoops also has received a boost in recent years from Indianapolis-based Celadon Trucking, which owns about 2,500 trucks. The giant carrier that crisscrosses North America has the leverage to command favorable prices from numerous dealers, but it also needs responsive service. That includes the ability to specially equip trucks and to tackle warranty issues that need to be resolved quickly.

"The Stoops Freightliner organization has worked very well with us. They've really stepped up as a dealer," said Paul Will, chief financial officer of Celadon.

As it turns out, service and parts are even more important for these types of vehicle vendors than for car dealers. Stoops expects the service and parts units of the business to cover virtually 100 percent of his costs--with truck sales providing the profit.

By contrast, parts and service often cover about 60 percent of the costs at automobile dealers.

Unlike the auto business, which is struggling with customer retention and loyalty, "truckers tend to get with a brand and stick with it," Stoops said. "He's almost yours to lose."

Nor is buying a truck an emotional experience for a fleet, as it would be for an individual buyer. Look at most any truck brochure and it is productivity and repair and operating costs that are underscored, not rich Corinthian leather.

Branching out

Stoops' dealer chain is looking beyond its bread-and-butter big trucks. Most of the big diesel motor homes on the road have Freightliner chassis. But Stoops figures most retirees who drive them don't want to hang out in waiting areas with truckers.

"We're looking at expanding to put in a motor home oasis," he said--perhaps along Interstate 70, either east or west of Indianapolis.

Stoops still drives a Freightliner from time to time, to satisfy his truck gene. Recently, he was walking through the shop, admiring a fancy paint job being applied to a 1987 Freightliner and wondering why someone would spend the time and money.

He got his answer three weeks later, when a group of employees--who bought the truck on Ebay--gave it to him in recognition of the firm's 20th anniversary, this summer.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with it," he said. "It's a pretty nice truck. I guess I'll have to keep it."

You can be sure it won't show up in a TV commercial.

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