Thu November 19, 2020
Giles Lambertson – CEG Correspondent
Tri-State Trailer Sales sloganizes that it is "single-minded" in its approach to serving customers. "We're the trailer specialists," company President and CEO Joe Mancino declares on the firm's website. That is, the company sells and services new and used semi-trailers, the rolling stock behind the truck tractor.
Big diesel-powered truck units provide the motive power, of course. But the company focuses on those platforms that trail behind and actually carry all the ag products, the finished and raw steel, toys and heavy equipment, Corn Flakes, petroleum products and furniture that America ships from place to place every single day.
Tri-State Trailer Sales helps keep it all moving smoothly from coast to coast.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pa., the 35-year-old company is identified with three states: Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. To serve that region, it operates four dealerships — the other three being located in Lancaster, Pa., and in Hubbard and Cincinnati in Ohio. Each is a full-service parts, service, sales, rental and leasing operation.
But the regional identity is misleading, Mancino said.
"For the Pittsburgh branch, the bulk of business comes from the tri-state area. However, we also have a pretty vast inventory of new and used trailers and sell coast to coast, from New England to Florida and across the country to Texas and California."
While customers needing service or parts usually will go to a dealership within a 50 to 100-mi. radius of home, buyers of trailers transact business deals with Tri-State from anywhere in the nation. The company's effective market is national, partly because of an 8 ½ by 11 multi-page quarterly sales bulletin it began publishing eight years ago.
"It's a good-looking, full-color, professionally done publication," Mancino said. "It's a relatively expensive means of advertising but it has a long shelf life. We thought print marketing was going the other way as a medium. Turns out it was going our way." Six thousand copies were printed the first quarter it was published. For the latest quarter, 45,000 bulletins went to press.
Mancino said the bulletins have produced sales from every state. It's easy to see why: A cornucopia of products is offered anyone who leafs through the pages. The fourth-quarter bulletin, for example, promotes among other things new and used trailers for sale, rental and leasing deals, an appeal to buy used trailers, a "parts blow-out special" on such things as air springs and shock absorbers, and an offer to replace a 53-ft. dry van roof for just $2,695.
Tri-State also advertises online, of course, and interacts with customers through local publications. Whatever the medium, it is all about trailers — including parts for and repair of personal utility trailers.
The Tri-State Trailer Sales story began in 1985. However, the pre-story goes back another 20 years to the career of Frank Mancino, father of the current CEO. Frank Mancino got into the industry as an office clerk in a Fruehauf Trailer dealership. He worked his way up to office manager and into sales and eventually became a branch manager at a Scranton, Pa., Fruehauf factory branch. Management saw what he could do and transferred him to a failing Fruehauf dealership in Minneapolis, Minn., in hopes of making it more profitable.
"Trailer sales were lacking and the parts department was struggling, so he went in and cleaned house," said Joe Mancino of his father's makeover. "He hired new people and started hitting the streets visiting big accounts. He kept on, slowly picking away at the competition, just basic salesmanship stuff. He turned the branch around in about a year and a half."
The success not only impressed Fruehauf executives, it stirred something entrepreneurial in Frank Mancino, according to his son. "He thought, ‘You know, I've made Fruehauf a lot of money over the years. Why not do it for myself?'"
So, he did. With his wife, Marian, Frank Mancino became a Trailmobile dealer and opened Tri-State Trailer Sales in Pittsburgh when his son Joe was in the eighth grade. The boy had gotten a taste for helping out Dad back in Scranton, going into the dealership every Saturday to help put away parts and inventory stock. "It was a blast." With the family move to Pittsburgh, Joe Mancino continued to help out in the parts warehouse — this time for his father's new company and as a paid employee.
That evolved into full-time employment, even during the years he was enrolled in community college night classes. The younger Mancino thus dates his service with the company back to the eighth grade. His sister, April Slebonick, is company treasurer and the other second-generation member of the family business.
The dealership soon moved to a more accessible location on Campbells Run Road in Pittsburgh. In 1994, a modern facility was built on Grand Avenue in metropolitan Pittsburgh near Interstate 79. There the company took root and operates today on 10 acres out of a 30,000-sq.-ft. building, to which a new sales and leasing office recently was added.
Acquisitions followed as the dealership expanded. In 1996, Tri-State Trailers acquired a Trailmobile dealership in Lancaster and operated it as a branch location. Two years after that, the Hubbard branch was opened. After two more successful years, the dealership purchased and opened its branch in Cincinnati. Two of the three branches are 10 properties with 25,000-sq.-ft. buildings.
Does Mancino eye more expansion? Not right now. "We're eyeing how to expand our lots to fit in more trailers," he said. "But … if the opportunity comes up to buy a trailer dealership in a strategic location, we might do it."
All the dealership stores are parts, service, sales, rental and leasing locations. They offer customers a full array of branded new and used trailers. The company represents 12 manufacturers, including such staple brands as Reitnouer, Heil, Transcraft, Landoll and Vanguard along with more niche products like two relatively new lines, XLSpecialized and Dorsey.
"Not all the trailers that manufacturers build are built by other manufacturers, too. So, we add lines to complement what we have," Mancino said.
Notably missing from the company lineup is Trailmobile, upon which the sales company was founded. The manufacturer went bankrupt in 2008.
Besides new and used equipment sales, each dealership has a shop capable of repairing or fully overhauling a trailer. Commonly, this means brake and drum replacement, or air and electrical system repairs. Technicians also take on body work, as well as floor and roof replacements. At two of the four locations — Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — techs are certified by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to repair dry bulk and liquid tank trailers.
All of these brand offerings and services add up to busy dealerships. Tri-State Trailer Sales regularly ranks among the top ten in sales in the industry, living up to its motto, We make business easy, guaranteed. Said Mancino: "We are one of the largest full-service trailer dealerships on the East Coast."
The firm created an auxiliary division to handle rentals — TSTL Inc. Trailer Rental & Leasing. It aims to meet the needs of a certain slice of the trailer market, according to Mancino. Consequently, it doesn't offer as many refrigerated units and dry freight haulers as some other leasing companies.
"We operate a little bit differently than anyone else. We have the reefers and vans, of course, but we have more flatbeds and specialized equipment, like 55-ton hydraulic detachables and Landoll traveling axles, extendables and drop-decks. Not that many people rent specialized equipment, so that's our niche."
TSTL also is more flexible on rental contracts. Mancino noted that "one of the things we do that most don't is daily rentals of any piece of equipment. A customer can rent a trailer for just one day. Most companies don't do that. We do multi-year leases, too, but we're known for the short-term rental."
The company also is known for the breadth of its inventory, new and used. By design, the shiniest new stuff isn't always on the lot. That's because Mancino doesn't believe in bringing all of the company's inventory from a manufacturing plant to a sales lot. It can be a poor investment in shipping costs to do so, he said.
"Logistics are costly with trailers. We don't move too many to a dealership location because at least half the time you don't know who'll be buying it. We may have a Vanguard trailer at a plant in Indiana and we bring it here to Pittsburgh and finally sell it to someone in Georgia. We save a lot of money by not moving it here from the plant."
As for second-hand trailers, they are far more numerous at Tri-State than might be expected from usual trade-in traffic.
"You can't bank on trades to get used trailers in your inventory. We go out to current customers, to prospective customers, and to auctions and we'll buy one trailer or a hundred. We just completed one deal last week for several hundred trailers."
The company's biggest sales year was 2018 — "That was a good year for everybody" — and the worst year for sales was 2008-09, which kicked off a memorable recession. Then there's this year — pandemic 2020. Sales were impacted appreciably in the first months of the year.
"I have a lot of friends in the industry all over the place and everyone was in the same boat. No real capital expenditures were being made by end-users. But after three or four months, things began to loosen up."
What happened is that lockdowns and resulting economic disruption altered the character of the market. Construction activity slowed in the beginning, so hauling of heavy equipment on flatbeds slowed, too. Auto manufacturers cut production so coiled steel and other supplies weren't being hauled to factories and auto plants.
"Some companies temporarily parked some of their flatbeds and went into the dry freight van business, or got more into the business," Mancino said. "People don't stop eating or taking showers, so food and soap and other general commodities — all that everyday Amazon and Walmart stuff that people always are using — still needed moving."
Sales of dry freight vans began to surge. The bottom line for Tri-State Trailer Sales: After a slow start, overall revenue year to date is in line with last year.
The approximately 100 employees of Tri-State Trailer — including 18 sales personnel — are not all Mancinos, but they feel loyalty to the company as if they were. The president calls the relationship "tight-knit" and observes that "overall, we do not have high turnover here. Quite a few people retire from here. We have some who have been here for 30 years or more. Some have been here from day one."
He attributes the inclination to stay employed at Tri-State to things like a good benefits program, but also to a management open-door policy across the company.
"A mechanic was in my office today. He wanted to talk about something. It's like that at any location. I don't like to say that someone works for me. We work with each other."
The attitude is the same in the dealership's relationship with the communities in which it operates. The company targets a core group of small non-profits that it supports year in, year out.
"It is something my father always did," Mancino said, "and we have continued to do it, as a company and as a family."
With all the moving parts of a multi-location company selling an extensive product line and delivering a broad range of services to customers near and far, how does the chief executive of Tri-State Trailer Sales keep it all together? He says it is a matter of staying calm.
"I have done this little thing all my life: You get a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. On one side, you draw a plus sign and on the other side, a minus sign. Whatever issue or item you needed to decide, you write down the positive and negative consequences of a possible decision. You can't afford to make split-second decisions without putting in the thought. I do this with myself and when working with company directors and vice presidents."
With 35 years calmly in the books, Mancino foresees changes coming in the market or other factors that might result in Tri-State doing business differently. In the weeks after Nov. 3, a possible change of administration in Washington was on his mind. "It's hard to say with the election outcome. I don't want to do too much assuming. We need to pay attention and react if there is a change in policies. We all kind of know what could happen. We'll see." CEG