Steady Growth for Work Truck Sector

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Auto Truck Group

A surge in year-end equipment orders got 2013 off to a good start for commercial truck and equipment manufacturers as aging vehicles begin to be replaced, but an uncertain economy, stubbornly high unemployment and continuing political discord in Washington, D.C., are combining to temper enthusiasm for strong growth this year, executives said.

“Buying decisions are based on future forecasts, and with the uncertainty out of Washington, [commercial customers] feel that things are still not that great,” said Mark Oldenburg, national fleet manager for Toyota. “They’re all still very cautious.”

“I’d guess you’d say I was cautiously optimistic,” said Jeff Messer, president of Messer Truck Equipment, an equipment distributor and upfitter in Westbrook, Maine. “The last couple of years, we’ve been bumping along. Not shrinking, but not going gangbusters, either. It’s been a slow and steady growth. But starting last August and September, we’ve seen renewed optimism from our commercial customers.”

Truck and equipment manufacturers finished 2012 with the third straight year of what has turned out to be slow, but steady, growth as the industry inches back toward pre-recession sales levels. Sales of chassis, bodies, trailers, axles and all other equipment were estimated at about $113.2 billion for 2012, about 15% higher than 2011, said Stephen Latin-Kasper, chief economist with the National Truck Equipment Association, the trade group representing the truck and equipment industry. In 2010, the value was about $75.9 billion, Latin-Kasper said, or about 40% below the sales value of $127.4 billion in 2006, the last high watermark.

However, growth through the past three years has been uneven across the various light- and medium-duty commercial truck sectors. Energy was a big driver from late 2010 to early 2012, as fleets outfitted trucks for oil and natural gas exploration. Utilities and telecommunications operations were other growth areas. On the other hand, equipment sales to construction fleets, state and local governments and even the service sector — all traditionally key markets — were either down or flat. The light and medium portion of the construction business has only recently been able to begin recovering from the collapse of the housing market. And state and local governments are still saddled with debt, said Latin-Kasper.

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