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April 2012
The Family That Works Together
By Barbara Fagan

     When asked what it’s like to be part of a family business, sister and brother Joy and Tom Cook smile. “It’s challenging,” replies Tom. But when they begin proudly talking about the company that bears their family name you can see that’s only part of the story.

     Cook Truck Equipment, currently in its 91st year of business, is a manufacturer and distributor of commercial truck and van equipment. They partner with companies like Ford, General Motors, Dodge, Freightliner and Reading, among others, to provide specialized equipment solutions for commercial vehicles.

     “We start with an incomplete vehicle,” Tom Cook explains. “We have the chassis here but it’s an unfinished truck until we put something on the back of it, or in the case of a van, it’s blank until we install something in it. We’re an upfitter.”

     The “something” that’s added depends upon the need of the end user who could be a self-employed plumber with one truck, a public utility company with a fleet of vehicles, or anything in between.

     “It’s an unusual business,” says Tom Cook.

 

All in the Family

     Joy Cook, vice president and chief operating officer and Tom Cook, president and chief executive officer, are the third generation of Cooks involved in the business which began in 1921 in a building on Wilkinson Boulevard, originally constructed during World War I as a laundry for nearby U.S. Army Camp Greene.

     Their grandfather, I.M. Cook, Sr. started what was then called Southern Auto & Wagon Company with a cousin and focused on manufacturing commercial wagons and truck bodies as well as body repair on all types of vehicles. During the late 1920s it was said that the company was the largest vehicle repair facility between Philadelphia and New Orleans. But the Great Depression brought a drastic drop in business.

     “After the Depression, they began just repairing trucks,” says Tom Cook. “No one else was doing that then, and over the years, the business eventually morphed into more of the truck equipment side.”

     “Our father started working here after school,” continues Joy Cook, “forming fenders by hand and doing all the lettering. That was done by hand then too.”

     It’s a familiar story to Joy and Tom Cook who both also started work in the business while in their teens. Joy Cook began after finishing high school, and while on parts runs would pick up younger brother Tom from school and bring him back to work for the afternoon.

     “I started off as the assistant janitor when I was 15 to save up enough money for a car,” recalls Tom Cook. “But since then, I’ve been the welder, the painter, the shop foreman, the parts manager and the salesman. If it’s done here, I’ve done it. I grew up in this business.”

     It’s clear that this business is a family legacy and that Cook Truck Equipment has been strongly influenced by each generation. Joy and Tom Cook’s parents, Murrell and Katherine (Kitty) Cook have also made a mark on the business that continues through today.

     Murrell Cook designed the building on Harlee Avenue that the company has occupied since 1961. The unusual cross-shaped construction with bay doors opposing each other along the walls allows vehicles to easily move in and out as work is completed. Murrell Cook was innovative in other ways as well.

     “Father worked with Jefferson-Pilot Communications in the ’70s to develop the first WBTV mobile news van,” Joy Cook explains. “They wanted to put a giant antenna, a platform and a ladder for a cameraman on the roof. Father designed and built it.”

     Murrell Cook was also involved in the industry as a whole and served as treasurer for the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) for many years. The company has been a member of the association for 46 years—one of only six companies nationally to hold that distinction.

 

A Woman’s Place...

     And while businesses involving trucks are traditionally male-dominated, Kitty Cook has been involved with the business since 1957 and became secretary and chief financial officer in 1967.

     “Mom has always had a strong presence in the company,” explains Tom Cook. “As comptroller and treasurer, she always questioned whether money needed to be spent.”

     It seems Kitty Cook was a tough negotiator at home as well as the office. Tom Cook tells a story of how his father and brother Ivey, who are avid car collectors, saw a beautiful used 1986 silver and blue Rolls Royce Corniche at an auction and bought it. Murrell Cook hid the car in a garage and everything was fine until the check covering the car purchase came through the bank and Kitty Cook saw it. Then everything was anything but fine. But the story has a happy ending—Kitty Cook fell in love with the car and now the Rolls is officially known as “Kitty’s car”.

     Kitty Cook may have been the first woman to play an important role at Cook Truck Equipment but she isn’t the last. About one third of Cook’s current employees are women, and with Joy Cook as majority owner, the business qualifies as a majority woman-owned business.

     After a 20 year career managing a recording studio in Raleigh, Joy Cook returned to assist the family business in 2001, first by managing the company’s website remotely from Raleigh and then by moving back to Charlotte two years ago to take on her current executive responsibilities.

     Women also head up sales at Cook Truck Equipment. Robin Baker started out handling administrative duties and is now the head of sales for van upfitting. With 20 years of industry experience, Sandy May Howser came on as sales manager last year.

     “Men will come in,” Tom Cook says, “and ask who they can talk to about a truck body and Sandy May will say, ‘Well, that’s me.’ They look doubtful but once she has a few minutes with them, they realize that this isn’t someone who’ll have to look in a book to get the information. She knows what she’s talking about.”

     Women are not just in the office or out on sales calls at Cook Truck Equipment, they are also in the bays working on vehicles. The lead installer for vans is Holly Calloway. She’s been upfitting vans for the last seven years.

     “Holly has a real knack for detail,” says Joy Cook. “That’s very important in this business.”

     “This business is a skill,” adds Tom Cook. “We can act as a consultant before the truck sale. Someone can come in and say, ‘I need to carry widgets but I don’t know what I need to carry widgets,’ and we can tell him what truck works best for that and what equipment we can install or custom build to help him.

     “Our business depends on us having a truck underneath what we add to it so we’re very in tune with what Ford or Chevy or Dodge is doing. We have to know what’s down the road for those manufacturers in order to match it up with our equipment so we can advise customers, ‘Did you realize that GM does this?’”

 

The Third Generation

     Tom Cook took on the responsibilities of company president when he was only 25 and has seen a lot of changes in the industry in the couple of decades since.

     “We saw a trend in the industry 15 years back,” he says, “and decided to become a holding location for the dealers. So between the mid to late 1990s, we started keeping a pool of vehicles here ready for upfitting for any dealer. After upfitting, the dealer picks it up from us just like he purchased it from the manufacturer directly. We’re a pool for both Ford and Freightliner now.”

     Tom Cook’s also seen tough times from the recent recession. “Our biggest year was approaching $10 million in sales and we were experiencing a consistent 20 to 25 percent growth each year—until 2007,” he explains. “We were definitely affected by the downturn in the auto industry and the general lack of consumer confidence.”

     “People weren’t buying new trucks,” Joy Cook says. “They were repairing the trucks they had and cannibalizing parts from the trucks sitting idle on their yards to keep the old trucks running.”

     “It was tough,” Tom Cook adds. “You start looking for business to keep your employees working. We pushed harder for repairs. There are very few people out there who have the training to do what we do on the upfit side. We didn’t want to lose them. Plus, in a small company you make relationships with folks.”

     “You know their wife or husband’s name, their kids’ names, maybe even the name of their dog,” Joy Cook says.

     “Fortunately, the industry and the company rebounded in 2010,” adds Tom Cook. “We had almost 30 percent growth in sales last year. We may even exceed that this year because now we’re also marketing directly to larger truck fleets in advance of them getting their budget. We see what isn’t working for them and what they plan to do with the next set of trucks. We can use our expertise and our manufacturers to put together something for them.”

     Being proactive and knowledgeable about new industry trends is one of the reasons Cook Truck Equipment continues to grow. Tom Cook regularly attends the NTEA-sponsored Work Truck Convention. Not surprisingly, one of the hottest topics currently is fuel economy.

     “The way we upfit trucks in North America is completely different from the way it’s done in Europe,” he explains. “Some of that is due to infrastructure and space, but a lot of it is because Europe has been dealing with high fuel prices for a long time now. At prices of $8.00 to $10.00 per gallon in Europe, you can’t afford to drive a truck that gets only 10 miles per gallon.

     “We represent Reading and they’re producing a vehicle now built of a hybrid of aluminum and steel that decreases the vehicle weight by 25 percent. Well, as soon as you decrease the weight of a vehicle by 25 percent, you’ve increased your fuel economy 25 percent.”

      “One of the biggest things now for all manufacturers is a new fuel that’s not really new—CNG or compressed natural gas,” Joy Cook injects. “CNG is about a third of the cost of natural gas and if you can drive 15 miles on natural gas, you can drive 15 miles on CNG for one third of the cost. What comes out of the tailpipe is also cleaner.

      “At the NTEA show last week, GM unveiled their first factory-produced commercial bi-fuel truck. It takes both CNG and regular gas. And Freightliner’s building an electric truck. There’s even an offshoot of the NTEA now called The Green Truck Association.”Whatever the future holds for the industry, Cook Truck Equipment is poised for success, something Tom Cook says is only possible because of the company’s employees.

     “The team you work with everyday has to be your biggest asset,” he says. “We’ve got a great group here. My brother Ivey has three children and if they want, they can be the fourth generation of Cook Truck Equipment. But if that turns out not to be the case, I’d be very happy to see Cook Truck Equipment as an employee-owned business.”

     It would be a different kind of “family” but a fitting continuation of the legacy of Cook Truck Equipment.

 

 

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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