Bob Mitchell’s late father, B.B. Mitchell, sat in the back seat of his Buick land yacht with the Kenworth Truck Co. official who would ultimately award their heavy-duty truck franchise in Alabama. B.B.’s son and future business partner, twenty-something Bob Mitchell, was behind the wheel of the huge Buick.
“I drove a small car, I wasn’t used to a big car like that and I was also very nervous,” Mitchell recalled in a recent interview. “As I backed up, I turned the car into a huge parking deck column, crushing in the driver’s door.”
About 30 days later, on Christmas Eve 1977, the Kenworth decision-maker told the father-and-son partners that they would be the new Kenworth dealer headquartered in Birmingham. On Feb. 1, 1978, the Mitchells opened their new dealership.
“We literally were a mom-and-pop operation,” said Mitchell, who is the CEO of the privately owned family business, TRUCKWORX. “When we started it was me, my father, my mother, no employees, no customers.
“The Kenworth name brought our first customers to us,” Mitchell said. “We placed an ad in the paper and word went out we were the Kenworth dealer. People were looking for good trucks and great service. Word of mouth soon got out and our business began growing.”
Shortly after opening for business, the Mitchells were at dinner with the same Kenworth decision-maker. Leaning over, he told the elder Mitchell: “‘Do you know why I chose you and your son to be our dealer?’”, Mitchell said.
“He said it was because the first words out of your mouth after your son crushed your car were, ‘That’s okay Bob, I shouldn’t have parked the car that way,’ and I figured right there you two would be good partners.”
The Mitchells were operating in an Alabama business climate, which the Wall Street Journal had called “tort hell,” where many companies, including theirs, were being hit numerous times with frivolous lawsuits.
They joined the Business Council of Alabama when it formed in 1985 to fight Alabama’s tilted tort climate, which it did successfully starting in the mid-1990s. Today the BCA operates to ensure a continued level playing field for business.
TRUCKWORX is in its 40thyear as a full-service Kenworth heavy duty truck dealer. It employs 400 men and women in nine locations. It’s one of Kenworth’s premier dealer groups, servicing the entire state of Alabama, more than half of Mississippi, the Florida Panhandle, and an area surrounding Columbus, Ga. TRUCKWORX also sells Isuzu and Hino medium duty truck, Bluebird school buses, and several lines of trailers.
If you travel on Interstate 65 in north Birmingham, at Finley Boulevard you can see the huge Kenworth sign atop the 100-foot tall double poles. That’s TRUCKWORX’s headquarters. Over the years TRUCKWORX expanded into Dothan, Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville, Thomasville, Alabaster, Tuscaloosa and Jackson, Miss.
Mitchell’s father opened a truck dealership in Tennessee with a partner and Bob attended the University of Tennessee. By the time Mitchell graduated with a business degree, his father had sold his portion of the dealership. Mitchell entered a competitor’s management training program, and he worked with the competitor for four years.
He and his father decided to try to acquire the Kenworth truck dealership in Birmingham, which had recently gone through a change.
“Kenworth is very picky about whom they make dealers and over a period of time the applicants got weeded down to a couple of choices,” Mitchell said. “My father and I were in the mix.”
The “head guy” wanted to meet the Mitchells. So, they gathered at an agreed-upon location where young Bob Mitchell crunched the huge Buick and ultimately won the dealership.
The Mitchells have made it through up and down business cycles.
Truckworx recently had to go through the 2008-09 recessions. “It was a difficult time for everyone, but in 2010 our business began to slowly come back. It’s been growing steadily since then and today our industry is at the highest level I have ever seen,” Mitchell said.
The December 2017 tax cut was a great help along with the Trump administration reducing regulations imposed by previous administrations, Mitchell said.
“The biggest impact Trump has had is developing a business-friendly climate and lowering taxes,” Mitchell said. “Our customers are allowed to keep more of their hard-earned money and many chose to invest in new trucks.”
Mitchell said starting a business requires the same devotion to several principal rules, which also apply to successfully running a business.
“I have learned one key truth over the years, and every good business person will tell you same thing — if you have good people, you have a good company. I don’t care what business you are in,” he said.
“Also, never give up. My father would never give up on anything especially his dream to be a Kenworth Truck dealer,” he said. For the labor-intensive trucking industry, a challenge is the constant need for drivers.
Mitchell said 18-year-olds should be allowed to earn commercial driver licenses and operate the big rigs. The legal minimum age today is 21.
“By the time many men and women get to be 21, they’re already in another vocation and we have lost them,” Mitchell said.
He said he believes the driver shortage could be alleviated by technology that will allow driverless long-distance trucks.
For a dealer, a great challenge is finding qualified service technicians, who can make an excellent living but who require extensive training. That’s one reason TRUCKWORX is involved in the training program at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville.
For a family owned business, change is inevitable. TRUCKWORX is in its second generation of leadership and Mitchell, who has owned the company for about 25 years, knows it’s rare for a family business to be operated by a third generation of the founder.
A son-in-law, Will Bruser, is president of the company and a partner and stockholder. A son and another son-in-law are instrumental in the business.
Mitchell reminisced about jamming his dad’s car into a column and winning the Kenworth dealership.
“When we started out, I had $5,000 and my father sold his house to get another $45,000. That was all we had. We gambled every penny of it to be a Kenworth dealer,” Mitchell said. “We’ve worked hard for 40 years. We are proud of all of the jobs we have created in Alabama and Mississippi from our family business.”