PLYMOUTH — The housing crash devastated firms in construction — site developers, home builders, carpenters, electricians — but the seismic waves went far beyond that epicenter.
Kim Pelletier, president of Truck Builders of Connecticut, moved to Connecticut in 1982 and was a mechanic for land-clearing firms during the recession in 1990 and 1991. He thought he knew what to expect this time.
In 2007, there were 28 people working at the firms he co-owns, in excavating, rock crushing, but mostly in assembling dump trucks or trucks with cranes on the back. At the busiest time of year, there would be 25 new trucks in the yard — so full, they'd have to park across the street. "We ran two shifts trying to keep up."
"There was work," Pelletier said. "Money was cheap."
And then, the bottom fell out. New emissions standards made new heavy equipment cost $180,000 rather than $130,000. Gas went up to $4 and $4.50 a gallon for the first time, and the operators didn't have fuel surcharges in their contracts. And, of course, the demand for new houses dried up.
"We filed over $7 million in gross revenues in 2007," Pelletier recounted in his trailer office, a nameless gray cat lolling on his paper-covered desk. That year, the company put 186 dump trucks together from scratch.
In 2008, revenues were $850,000. They assembled just six new trucks.
Pelletier wound down his own excavation service and his rock-crushing business, selling his equipment.
Before the recession, he'd done a little bit of refurbishment work, where an equipment owner keeps the original cab and engine and chassis with its six wheels, but overhauls the rest of the body.
Now he had to find as much of that work as he could, to support what employees he had left.
Refurbishing the body of the truck, as opposed to buying new, saves about $100,000. Pelletier said his work will last 15 years, and if the rest of the truck wears out, it can be moved to a new chassis.
"A lot of towns can't afford new trucks. The cash flow issue applies to everybody, right down the line."
About 75 percent of this repair work is for commercial companies, and the rest is municipal, but Pelletier is working on expanding that segment. "They pay their bills," he said wryly.
From 2009 to 2012, a number of their longtime commercial customers closed. Even the firms that survived, "You still couldn't collect what was owed to you," he said. Now he's changed his payment schedule, to get more money up front.
He said the commercial repair work has grown faster so far.
In 2013, Truck Builders had $1,425,000 in gross receipts, but that still wasn't enough to break even, five years in to the recovery. He thinks he'll cross back into the black in 2014.
In his scramble for new sources of revenue, Pelletier started thinking about how to solve a longtime problem for municipalities. Many of the salt-spreading plow trucks have a conveyor belt that sends salt to an opening just in front of one of the rear wheels. The trucks are rear-wheel drive, and having salt there, instead of just falling off the back, helps them get through on snowy roads.
But that conveyor belt system was very prone to rust, for obvious reasons.
"You could wash it, but you couldn't really see it," Pelletier said. "They all had the same salt trapping areas. That created rot issues, structure failures."
Maintenance shops at the towns wanted to be able to take off the conveyor belt, but Pelletier thought they were so heavy and large, that wasn't practical, except at the end of the season. But what if the conveyor system stayed down when the truck bucket tipped up?