To have a successful business, you have to find a need. Then you have to fulfill that need by being the best at what you do. Know your expenses. Have great, highly trained employees. Pay attention to details. If you can’t be the best at what you do, why bother?
Back in the last century, in the very early ‘70s, I was working for Road Service towing company. I was doing a majority of the driving and all the driver training. We had one customer, John Becker owner of Individual Services, who had an extremely difficult shop to back a car in with a tow truck. I was one of the few people who could do it in the first shot.
One day after putting a car in for him, John told me, “One good towing company in town could put at least three others out of business.”
That stuck in my head. Since I was doing all the work anyway, I seriously considered it. My boss’s daughter and I had become friends. He didn’t like it and fired me, the only time in my life I was fired. At the time I had nothing else to fall back on.
Pat Ward, a friend whose father owned South Side Bank, was doing car repos for other financial institutions. I towed all of Pat’s repos. Pat knew of my situation and believed in me enough to loan me $5,000 of his own money to buy a used tow truck from a local service station.
Several of us were sitting around one evening trying to come up with a name for my new company. One of my friends, Butch Madden, said as a joke, “Why don’t you call it Big Towing Co. Then you could answer the phone and say Big Tow.” We all laughed. With my weird sense of humor, that’s what I went with. It was a company name that was easy to remember. That’s very important in a stressful situation.
Then I had to decide on company colors. A lot of thought went into this. People are upset enough when they are having car problems. When the tow truck shows up, they don’t need to see a mad color. A calming color is better for the customer’s disposition. Red is a mad color, the same color of the truck I just bought. That was out. Blue is a calm color. I picked Cadillac Firemist Blue. It’s a bright metallic only used on Cadillacs and is very pleasant to look at. No other tow trucks in town would be that color, so my trucks would be unique.
For the lettering I went with chrome for a nice contrast. All the other trucks in town had painted lettering. I found some 3M chrome sheets that had to be special ordered and made my own letters since stencils that size and style weren’t available. The B and the I were fairly easy. I had some trouble with the G. It was slightly shorter than the other two letters. But by that time I was sick of making templates and stayed with the slightly smaller G. Because I used the same stencils as long as I was in business, all 22 of my trucks ended up with a slightly smaller G. No one ever noticed.
All of my trucks were painted and lettered identically. Except for a small ID number on the front fender, they looked the same. That made it easy for the customer to identify my trucks and company. Also easy to identify was the giant chrome big toe on the side of the trucks. The slogan on the side was, “In a Jam? Call Big Tow.” The paint was polished slick so there was no orange peal that is common on all paint jobs except for custom cars. You could read a watch in the reflection from several feet away. Besides looking extremely shiny, it also made washing the truck easier.
The station where I bought the truck was across from the Court House downtown Peoria. Also across the street was a vacant lot where the old jail was. It had been filled with sand. At least once a day someone would pull into the sand and get stuck. I was trying to paint and letter my truck but the station kept calling me to pull these people out of the sand. So off I’d go with a partially painted/lettered truck to make some money. It took a lot longer to get the truck done, but that sandy lot was a gold mine for me just starting out.
Back at that time there were a lot of service stations and small garages working on cars. Since all the service station owners were familiar with me from driving for the other towing company, they started calling me. They knew I was good at getting their customers taken care of in a timely manner without damage. The company I was driving for wasn’t as important as the service I was giving.
My goal for Big Towing Co., Inc. was to get the car to the place of repair 30 minutes after they called. All of the towing companies in Peoria were located in the south end of town. I found a house in the middle of town to operate the business. Since I wasn’t storing cars, a house was suitable. The answering service answered the phone and dispatched the calls by radio. Being located in the middle of town cut down on driving and response times and made quick responses doable, saving at least 30 minutes on each call. Between calls I could hang out at home in the middle of town. The other towing companies had to return to the south end making them use more time and fuel and be less efficient. All my drivers lived in the middle of town. They could go home between calls instead of driving to an office in the south end. It was another driver benefit and time saver.
As my company grew and my used tow truck was getting near 100,000 miles, I had to get a new truck. Very few of the other towing companies bought new trucks. I did it to make my company stand out. I always ordered new Chevrolet Silverado cab and chassis with all the extras…power windows, power locks, stereo, leather. No other companies bought trucks that nice. That was my office. I wanted it nice for my customers and my drivers. I bought all my chassis from McComb Chevrolet…about one new truck a year for 22 years. I never let a truck get over 100,000 miles on it. I didn’t want down time for repairs.
I did a lot of work on a new truck before putting it in service. It was easier to work on new instead of doing repairs in a must-get-running situation. It was less pressure to fix everything that could go wrong before putting it in service than trying it fix something when you have customers waiting.
Most of the towing part of the trucks was bought from Zips Equipment in Iowa. I made my own wiring harnesses for the back half of the trucks. I saved money because Zips didn’t have to wire the back end. When I worked for the other company, we always had electrical problems in the winter. That’s the busiest time of the year. Down time is a killer. I used heavy duty wire wrapped and run through plastic tubing. All connections were soldered and inside weatherproof housings. I never had wiring problems. No down time.
The new chassis were ordered with the cheapest tires I could get from the factory, resulting in a discount off the price. Then I took it right to Rocket Tire, traded those tires on the best tires I could get. Rocket always gave me a good trade-in price. Never had tire problems. Since the shocks that come on the new chassis were only good for about 10,000 miles, I took those off right away and put on good heavy duty shocks. No down time for later repairs. I sold the take-off shocks to another tow company.
The trucks for the other company I worked for always had front end problems. I eliminated all of that by installing a leaf spring crossways under the front going from A-from to A-frame. It made the truck ride a little rougher, but I never had to replace ball joints or other front end parts. I also added a couple extra leaf springs in the back to make it stronger. No down time.
The front push bumpers were custom made. I always took off the new stock bumper from the cab and chassis and replaced it with the heavy duty unit. On the front of the push bumper I installed dock bumpers. Those push bumpers saved the front ends of several trucks. And they were very distinctive, setting my trucks apart from the competition. I sold the stock bumpers to a body shop.
One time I got a call from a customer with a Ford station wagon on the top floor of a parking garage. Tow trucks don’t fit in parking garages. I had to push that heavy car by hand all the way down four floors of the deck. Talk about breathing heavy when I was done. When it was time for the next truck, I ordered one without a boom, just a wheel lift. I made a fold-down bracket for the light bar. Big Tow had the only tow truck in Peoria that could go in parking decks. As an added bonus for having no boom, you didn’t have to duck your head when walking behind the truck. It had a winch mounted in the middle for pullouts. That was my favorite truck.
Big Towing Co., Inc. was the only towing company in Peoria to purchase completely new and modern tow trucks, averaging about one new truck per year. My company was the only towing company in Peoria to give continuous extensive training to its drivers and was the only one in Peoria to have a driver win a state driving skill contest and have a truck be judged as best in the state. Big Towing Co., Inc. was the only towing company in Peoria to be featured in national trade publications. Big Towing Co., Inc. was the first towing company in Peoria to computerize its office. It was the first tow company in town to use tow trucks with hydraulics. The other companies were still using mechanical units. It was the first company in Peoria to use wheel lifts to haul cars instead of the old slings that rubbed against the car bumpers.
For drivers, other companies would just stick someone in the truck and let them go. The going rate for driver’s pay in Peoria was 25 percent. I paid my drivers 30 percent because they were better trained. I trained my drivers for two weeks before letting them out on their own. I’d take the new driver to the back of Landmark parking lot. Then I’d make him practice backing a car into parking spaces for hours and days using orange cones to mark the corners. I’d make them do it until they could back the car in without hitting the cones. Remember John Becker and the hard place to back in? My drivers all had to be able to get into his shop. Sometimes the customer would call a different tow company. John was so fed up with other companies trying to back in, he would make them park the car on the street in front then call us to put it in the shop. Of course the customer then had to pay two tows. Backing cars into shops in the winter quickly was essential. The shops didn’t want to let all the heat out while getting the car inside. All my drivers were excellent at backing up.
And John was right with his prediction. One good towing company in town would put at least three others out of business. Big Towing Co. Inc. would become the oldest towing company in Peoria. At least 40 other towing companies went out of business. John Becker was my inspiration.
I sold the company to start another business. Unfortunately, the guy I sold it to had problems. The towing business was a cash business. He thought all the cash equalled profit. It doesn’t. He got into drugs, lost the trucks, lost the business, lost his wife, lost his kids and lost his house. And Peoria lost a good towing company.