Providing fleet-service truck-seat repair has been the financial backbone of my auto upholstery shop since we first opened our doors, and it could be big business for you too – so long as you know what you’re doing.
Here are some tips to help you prepare for this lucrative and often overlooked sector of the auto upholstery industry.
With the amount of service industries utilizing trucks for their work, it really isn’t hard to drum up business with even a basic advertising strategy comprised of fleet-service tailored ads and cold calls.
My shop’s biggest accounts include all of our local school districts and municipalities, which supply us with a steady stream of busses, trash trucks, dump trucks, fire trucks, police vehicles, ambulances and heavy equipment seats.
We also service our water company’s enormous fleet of trucks, several construction and landscaping crews, and of all our neighborhood truck-supply and repair shops. Fortunately, our shop’s location is close enough to the Philadelphia International Airport that we can service their trucks and all of the surrounding airport shuttle busses too. We’ve even done many jobs for Philadelphia’s public transportation system.
The point is, the list of potential clients is endless. In time you’ll be able to develop just as many accounts as I have – hopefully even more.
The easiest way to get started is to introduce yourself to all of the truck supply and repair shops in your neighborhood. It’s very common for truck owners to ask their mechanics about seat repair. If you develop a good relationship with them, they’ll either bring truck seats to you themselves or recommend their customers go to you directly.
What You’ll Need
To keep up with the heavy workload and quick turnaround time required of fleet services, you’ll need to keep your inventory stocked at all times with the necessary materials and hardware. These companies won’t wait for shipments to come in, so it’s important that you stay on top of your inventory.
The most important thing you’ll need to have on hand is vinyl. Softer, more delicate vinyl like Allante won’t cut it for the amount of abuse these seats will be put through, so stock up on much heavier gauge truck vinyls in all of the most common colors – including medium and dark grey and beige; and, of course, black. It also doesn’t hurt to have a roll of red and blue vinyl for the older trucks.
Beyond just the upholstery, expect to see mangled foam cushions, broken piano springs and even the occasional cracked frame (which will need to be sent for welding if you can’t do it yourself). Therefore, other important items to keep in stock include 1” and 2” sheets of high-density foam for cushion repair (no one destroys foam cushions quite like truck drivers), seat springs in a variety of sizes, and a roll of carpet jut padding to cover the springs so that they don’t cut through the foam.
Doing the Work
I usually abide pretty strictly to the “Good, Fast, Cheap” model of doing business – which says that any customer can pick two, but certainly can’t have all three. However, fleet services are the only exception to the rule. They require a healthy balance of all three.
Fleet work must always be done fast, with typically a one- to two-day turnaround time.
Remember, these are work trucks. So the longer these vehicles are held up at your shop, the more the owner loses potential revenue. Combine that with the cost of repair and you’ll have an idea of how much the job is really costing him. If you make him wait too long, I guarantee that he won’t be back with more business.
Which leads me to the good and cheap, which I believe go hand in hand.
My shop gives better deals to fleet clients than walk-in customers because of the large amount of work they bring us – which, on average, is about one to two seats per week from each account. However, cheaper prices doesn’t mean low-quality work. It’s imperative that you strike a balance between a quality repair and a reasonable price – which isn’t difficult if you understand your customer’s needs.
Fleet-service managers are willing to sacrifice on looks, so long as they receive a comfortable and quality repair that will stand the abuse their drivers are sure to put it through. For example, you may normally recommend that a customer recovers his whole base cushion because replacing just two panels with new vinyl would stick out like a sore thumb. However, redoing a single bolster on a truck-seat backrest is good enough for fleet managers, so long as it’s done properly.
Other ways to cut down on costs without sacrificing quality is to topstitch panels instead of using French seams. Also, when redoing an entire seat, make its face panels out of one piece of vinyl with two pleats to simulate an insert panel and bolsters. You’ll achieve a similar look in a fraction of the time that it would take to recreate the original pattern.
Time is money. The more of it you can save for yourself, the more money you’ll save for your customer.
I’ve found that one of the biggest advantages to fleet work is that the majority of accounts never ask about price. They simply drop off a truck or seat and sign the receipt when the job is complete.
Not having to estimate the cost of repair beforehand prevents me from ever getting burned by surprises on the job. After I complete a seat, I reflect on the time and cost of materials involved and assign the job a fair price for both my client and myself.
However, be aware that most accounts will pick up the job, leave you a purchase-order number and pay the balance by check within thirty days. Fleet services rarely ever pay on the spot.
Learning through fleet work
As someone who repaired his first truck seat at age 17, believe me when I tell you that doing fleet work is a great way for entry-level trimmers to hone their skills.
Rebuilding dilapidated seats over and over again will help new trimmers master such important skills as pattern making, foam sculpting and proper seat-cover installation techniques.
In fleet work, a truck seat’s upholstery is usually in such bad shape that you can’t take it off and trace it. Instead, you’re forced to freehand your pattern. What’s more, the foam is usually so shot that you’ll have to reconstruct and shape it by hand.
Mastering these skill early on creates expertise, and helps distinguish the very best trimmers from the mediocre ones. These skills also carry over into the restoration and custom end of our industry, helping trimmers become better all around.
I highly recommend fleet work for every shop. It’s an excellent source of income and a great way to train employees on the many nuances of our trade.