Ron Thomas has worked at The Larson Group’s first location, Peterbilt of Springfield, since 1988 and aims to play mentor to newcomers the way the Larsons mentored him.
“Keeping Customers For Life” is a phrase often heard if you have any kind of relationship with The Larson Group, which recently announced it has been in business for 30 years.
And if you’ve been a Peterbilt of Springfield customer for even one of those years, Ron Thomas may be a familiar face to you.
From the age of 27, the now Operations Manager has dedicated his talents to the dealership’s service department. Even more impressive, for 17 of his 29 years with TLG he held the Service Manager role.
“Which is a record, by the way,” said Ron. “Now, it’s such a demanding job. I don’t think you could do it much longer than that. See what it’s done to me?” He chuckled and pointed to his gray hair.
To some, gray hair is a symbol of age. But to Ron, it’s a symbol of friendship.
Ron remembers the 27-year-old version of himself talking strategy with a younger President and CEO Glenn Larson in the first, tiny Peterbilt of Springfield.
“We’re going to get old and gray together,” Glenn would often say.
“And we did,” Ron smiled. “We got old and gray together.”
Ron struck up a friendship with Glenn “from the get-go” and was never given a reason to work for anyone else.
Even when the Springfield shop was jam-packed with trucks and only seven mechanics to work on them, Ron felt solace with Glenn “holding the reigns.”
THE FIRST FEW YEARS
Ron landed the Service Manager position. Routinely, he was arriving to work at 5:30 a.m. and closing around 7 or 8 p.m. every day.
“We were terribly busy,” Ron recalls. “In fact, at times we’d call Glenn down from the office to come help us.
At that point, the small team was running out of room in a nine-bay shop, which was so narrow that technicians would have to pull the trucks in at an angle. Also during this time, Glenn had acquired his first John Deere dealership (Larson Farm and Lawn) and was required to be on its premises daily.
“So, he asked me to run the store while he went to John Deere for 12 months,” Ron said.
Throughout that year, Ron played interim General Manager and was overseeing the service department and body shop. The time had come to move.
Glenn came to Ron and said, “I want you to find a piece of property and build a truck shop.”
Ron was familiar with acreage on I-44, just east of Springfield, where he baled hay. And every year when he baled the hay, the property owner would show up.
“The guy showed up and I got his number. Glenn called him,” said Ron.
Today, a much larger and more efficient Peterbilt of Springfield sits on that once hay bale-covered property.
As the industry changed and fleets continued to grow, TLG had the most experience with owner-operators.
“We didn’t fool with the big fleets,” said Ron. “We were fairly small and growing.”
Fast forward to 2017, owner-operators are seldom seen – an aspect of the industry Ron misses sometimes.
He said, “That’s how we started. You were dealing with the owner and the operator. You weren’t talking to a dispatcher or a road breakdown person. You were talking to the guy who owned the truck and made a living with his truck.”
A man who takes customer service seriously, and maintaining relationships with customers even more seriously, Ron made sure owner-operators were taken care of well.
“When an owner-operator is having continued problems with his truck and having a hard time making a living, he’s trying to feed his family. It’s very, very serious to him. And that’s the way we took it – very seriously,” he said.
As TLG built its reputation of keeping promises and providing excellent work, Glenn had realized that in order to grow in the future, they needed to get into the fleet business.
Ron said, “He’s always watching that business front for us. Always one step ahead.”
He continued, “It’s hard to work for a company for 30 years and tell somebody the boss has always done what he said he was going to do. Most of the time the boss has mostly said he was going to do. Glenn’s done everything he said he was going to do.”
“The Service Manager today – I hired him as a kid at 17 years old,” said Ron. “Mechanics told me, ‘This kid’s not going to make anything. You might as well get rid of him. All he wants to do is talk.’ And he is a communicator. But he’s a very sharp kid, too.”
Today, Brian Nimmo runs a bigger service department than anybody in mid-United States, according to Ron. “And does a great job,” he said.
“Raised here from a pup,” Brian is coming up on 25 years employed at the dealership.
“We used to talk about hours of service as a Service Manager. A Service Manager doesn’t last anywhere for more than four to five years,” said Ron, reiterating his 17 years in the role.
Leaning heavily on continuing the culture of TLG, Ron likes to think Brian knows exactly how to take care of customers, and has every intention of passing that down to his new mechanics today.
“Lots of youngsters out there,” he said. “And Brian has done a great job of finding the same kind of drive that he does. To think like he thinks. One of these days, one of those pups will be a service manager. That stuff moves downstream. We’ve got a lot of up and coming new kids that we’re pretty proud of.”
With Brian in charge of the department, Ron has no doubt that someday, one of those youngsters will take charge.
“Service Managers… really, really hard job,” Ron said. “It’s very, very demanding. And it’s not only demanding when you’re here. It can be demanding at home. You have that phone with you all the time.”
THEN AND NOW
“There were lots of other folks at other dealerships who would spread the rumor that there’s no way those guys are going to make it,” Ron remembers. “They’re doing way too much for the customer. That can’t last. And it has lasted. And we still have many, many customers today that we had 30 years ago.”
While the customers and several employees have stuck around for the vast duration of TLG’s existence, many changes had to happen in order to grow. It’s not like the company it was in 1988. And the employees who were there in the beginning are certainly not the same either – noticeably in the hair region.
“We both had black hair when we started. And now it’s all gray,” Ron laughed again at his symbol of friendship with Glenn.
“It’s out of everybody’s control. The personal stuff with the big guys. I miss seeing Glenn every day. But Glenn’s so busy. That’s part of a growing company. When you start so small and move to so large, things do change and you don’t get to see the people you love to death every day. But you know they’re taking care of business,” Ron said.