Youngstown Kenworth, Inc. Celebrates 50 Years
Tom Mikes, founder, and director of Youngstown Kenworth, has always loved trucks. As a little boy, his Mom said he used to ride his bike to the end of their street in Seven Hills, Ohio every day to watch the trucks work as they were building Interstate 77. When he was 16, he went to work for a used truck dealership washing trucks and eventually became a mechanic and ran the shop. He was drafted in 1966 but joined the Navy Seabees as a mechanic in a construction battalion instead.
After two tours of duty in Vietnam, he got an early out to attend college and graduated from Kent State University in 1971 with a Business Degree specializing in Transportation. That is where he met Gerri and they got engaged. He then spent a year looking for just the right job opportunity while she finished school. He was offered jobs by Yellow Freight, Roadway, and McLean but he turned them down. He was looking for something
special. He finally accepted a job offered by a Kenworth dealer in Akron to open a dealership in Youngstown, Ohio in 1972. Kenworth Motor Truck Company, a subsidiary of PACCAR
International, was a Seattle truck manufacturer that made premium, heavy-duty trucks and was just penetrating the eastern truck market.
In 1972, Tom and Gerri got married and moved to Youngstown to start Youngstown Kenworth. The Company started with a small facility that had two sales offices, an office for the general manager, a receptionist’s desk, a bookkeeper’s office, a parts department, a service department with 8 bays, and a 2-bay body shop. Some 15 employees were hired over the next few months and YKI opened its doors at the end of 1972.
At first, YKI catered to steel haulers and the ancillary steel trade since Youngstown was a steel center. Since steel was heavy and customers generally hauled overloaded, Kenworth trucks were a natural, offering a luxurious vehicle with high horse power that could handle the weight.
After a few great start-up years, Youngstown Kenworth faced its first challenge. In 1977, all the steel mills in Youngstown and Warren closed. It was a very dramatic event for the Company. The market for most of its business evaporated overnight!
But YKI adapted and began to focus on selling high horse power, luxury trucks to various industries all across the country who passed by on Interstate 80. They soon developed a customer base and a reputation for stocking large quantities of these high-powered trucks. Customers started calling from all over the U.S. and the Company soon became dominate in this market.
The rest of the Country was not experiencing the market devastation that YKI was facing in Youngstown. Other dealers in the country were expanding their parts departments to include a visual inventory and Kenworth Motor Truck Company was putting pressure on Youngstown Kenworth to follow suit. So, in 1978, Youngtown Kenworth undertook its first renovation to enlarge its office space and add a visual parts department. Although it was not extensive, it gave the Company additional room to grow.
`YKI went after every segment of the market that used these high-powered vehicles including industries such as oil and gas, logging, cranes, general freight, tankers, milk trucks, and chemical haulers to name a few. It also focused on the parts and service business building a reputation for quality work that pulled customers in from around the country. The Company employed the best technicians it could find and helped them to develop their skills through training and opportunity.
By 1983, YKI had grown to 24 employees, but business had slowed down due to high interest rates which made it difficult for owner-operators to finance new trucks. Again, parts and service were ramped up to carry the company through the slow down.
The early 1990’s through 1999 were boom years. The economy was doing well due to the technology boom. Business was great and businesses were consuming a lot of trucks.
In 1995, the industry started to change to become more fuel-efficient as mandated by the Federal Government. Youngstown Kenworth was once again forced to adapt to a new truck of the future. While keeping the old customer base intact, YKI began the ordeal of change. Customers hauling heavy loads needed the old high-powered trucks, but the government was calling for fuel efficient, smaller motors which were okay for customers pulling van freight. YKI attempted to meet the needs of both types of customers despite being hampered by government regulations.
Again, the market dipped into a recession in 2000. The boom years were over. But it was a mild recession and the market gradually rebounded and business was good once again.
YKI was running out of room and decided to do a major renovation in February 2007 at its current location rather than build a new dealership. More sales and administrative offices were added; the parts department was expanded, and new sales offices were added; the mechanics lunchroom was remodeled; a drivers’ lounge was built; and a focal front entrance replicating the front of a Kenworth truck complete with exhaust pipes, front grill and bumper was designed and built. Construction took over a year and a half to complete finishing in October 2008. As the finishing touches were being made, the economy went into a major depression and business came to a standstill.
Those were trying times for Youngstown Kenworth. Many businesses had to close their doors. But YKI’s financial institutions supported it because it had a great relationship with the banks paying promptly or early on all of its loans for 36 years and they knew that Tom was a seasoned businessman that could direct the company through this hurdle.
After a few years of struggle, business came back again and started to regain ground.
In 2012, Thomas Mikes, Tom and Gerri’s oldest son, graduated from college and realized that truck dealerships had a very small, if any, presence online. So, he and a friend started an online parts store called Big Rig World. They set up a small photo booth and took pictures of parts and put them on line for sale. The website allowed a person to see who was looking at a part anywhere in the world and what part they were looking at. He also built a new website for YKI, expanding its online presence for truck sales, parts, and service. Eventually Thomas hired two other people to help with Big Rig World. The company had modest growth each month while Thomas was managing it from London where he was attending school, and then from Copenhagen, Denmark and Africa where he worked for two years for Maersk, a worldwide shipping company.
In 2018, Thomas decided to accept Dad’s offer to come home from Copenhagen and enter into a two-year training program to take over the management of Youngstown Kenworth and allow Dad to “retire”.
Besides training for the Youngstown Kenworth management position, Thomas, and his wife Jen, decided that there was a lot of opportunity in the Ecommerce realm and decided to both focus their efforts and investment in Big Rig World. At the beginning, all hands were called on deck drawing on experience and grit from existing YKI employees and from Tom's brother Tim, who was in college in Public Health at Kent State University. From data scraping to cleaning warehouses, brainstorming to figuring out how to ship a truck bumper to another country, it was teamwork and a vision that got Big Rig World back into growth mode. Sales grew 2,000 percent from 2018 to 2021.
The year 2019 continued to be a big growth year for YKI. Kenworth Truck Company offered dealerships an opportunity to open TRP after-market parts stores in satellite locations in their territories. YKI decided to locate one on the river in East Liverpool to take advantage of the oil and gas, over the road, and fleet business in and around southern Ohio, northern West Virginia, and southwestern Pennsylvania.
TRP East Liverpool opened in late 2019 with 3 employees. It rapidly expanded to compete in the all-makes OEM market and now has 7 employees. Recently, TRP launched a mobile service division to service trucks in the field.
Business was booming once again, and service work had to be turned away because there was not enough building capacity to handle it all.
To address this problem, YKI decided to add on to its facilities for a third time and a building renovation was undertaken in 2019 to expand the shop and add 9 flexible bays with an overhead crane that could be reconfigured to handle any size truck. Also added were more service offices; a second-floor overhead parts storage area; a parts counter that services the shop; a new mechanics’ lunch room, and a conference room.
In true fashion, just as the new addition was completed in 2020, COVID hit, and all non-essential businesses were shut down. The transportation sector was considered an essential service and could operate, but business was way off. YKI managed to keep everyone working with government assistance, even though sometimes they were cleaning and painting the walls because there was very little work at times.
Once through that debacle, Youngstown Kenworth was back in business, trying to hire good workers to fill an increasing demand for services. Like everyone else in business, that was and still is, a difficult task.
In 2021, the old Alline Building was renovated into a state-
of-the-art facility and Big Rig World moved in its new facilities in
the Spring of 2022 with 7 employees. Not only were new offices renovated, but the entire business system and processes were redesigned to be prepared for future exponential growth. Recently, a large warehouse was completed and put into operation. Within days, Big Rig's team will have grown to 15 employees in our Ohio location, 4 full-time developers and marketing professionals contracted in Warsaw, Poland, and 10 data analysts outsourced from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The transportation industry is a very cyclical industry, quick to turn up and quick to react and turn down to economic cycles. Over the past 50 years, Tom Mikes has been adept at assessing the market and shifting focus depending on where he thought the demand would be a year before it happened. It was difficult to do and did not always work out. The hardest part was to predict way into the future to order trucks that had a year or more lead time.
Business is feast or famine in this industry. When it is good you can breathe and relax a little. When it is bad, it is very bad, and you have to be able to trim way down to survive the downturns. It is difficult because you are affecting people’s lives. But it is very necessary if the Company is going to be there to continue to offer employment in the future.
Through the past 50 years, the dedication and hard work of Youngstown Kenworth’s skilled and talented employees has grown Youngstown Kenworth into a dynamic company with a solid customer base and a great reputation in the industry worldwide. The company grew from having a purely mechanical product to now offering a highly technologically complex product. The new equipment is more and more technologically advanced demanding very high-tech mechanics trained in computers and electronics to service it.
Youngstown Kenworth also changed its focus over those years – from serving a local steel market, to a national market and now, under new and more globally thinking leadership, to a worldwide market through ecommerce.
YKI now employs over 80 people who work together to deliver the best service to the customer. The employees and longtime customers are Youngstown Kenworth’s biggest assets and they, along with the next generation of leadership that is taking over the helm, will be instrumental in carrying the company into the future.
Youngstown Kenworth is already positioning itself for the future when electric and fuel cell trucks begin entering the market. It will adapt to future change as it has done in the past focusing on providing the best service to its customers in an ever-changing economy.
Pictured from left to right: Ernie Miller, Sales; Thomas Mikes, President; Tom Mikes, Chairman of the Board; and Dave Claypool, Sales.
Left to right: Thomas Mikes, President; and Tom Mikes, Chairman of the Board.