Aim Drives Growth With Diversification

GIRARD, Ohio — Tyler Marley uses an air-powered impact wrench to change the tires on a truck in the Aim NationaLease garage at 1500 Trumbull Ave. The 25-year-old is nearly complete with the second year of his diesel-technician apprenticeship at Aim, and he says he’s looking forward to his career with the company.

“I’m actually learning quite a lot,” Marley says. “I had worked dead-end jobs and figured this would be a good career.”

Aim started its apprenticeship program about 14 years ago to address the challenges of hiring technicians, says chairman and CEO Tom Fleming. The company typically brings in 10 to 12 apprentices annually throughout its 121 branches. Each apprentice is assigned a mentor at his respective branch, takes part in a week of classroom training, then is tested quarterly while being trained on the job.

Some 40% of the technicians at Aim have come through the program since it began, Fleming says.

“It’s probably been one of the best things we’ve ever done from a stability and training standpoint,” he says.

Still, hiring skilled technicians and drivers is a challenge. 

On any given day, Aim operates “generally 100 people short,” which can lead to thousands in lost revenue, he says. Average pay for technicians and drivers also increased by about 10% last year.

“At some locations, we just work overtime,” Fleming says. “There are always opportunities for more business that we just can’t get.”

Despite the challenges hiring presents, Aim enjoyed a record sales year in 2018, he says. What began in 1962 as an affiliate of McNicholas Transportation – a company founded by Fleming’s grandfather in 1904 – has since separated from the family business and continues to expand in size and scope.

Since branching off in 1982 with 29 vehicles and six employees, Aim manages a fleet of more than 11,000 vehicles and 1,200 employees throughout its operations. Most of the operations are located from Chicago and east, and south to Georgia, he says.

“The family business ended up shutting down and, fortunately for me, separating from it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened,” Fleming says.

Aim has three main operating companies. Aim NationaLease handles corporate leasing and vehicle maintenance, while Aim Integrated provides total distribution services at 61 locations nationally, including the vehicle, driver and insurance. 

And in 2013, Fleming’s son, Scott, opened Aim Services to provide distribution for the oil and gas industry.

Fleming never set any specific growth goals, he says. 

As he purchased more assets and increased the scale of the company, he was able to be more competitive with pricing. The challenge, he says, is learning to manage increased numbers of people and assets spread out over a larger footprint.

Tyler Marley is nearly finished with his apprenticeship at Aim NationaLease and says he looks forward to his career with the company.

To better manage its assets, Aim established an integrated-logistics department at its headquarters that provides live updates on the condition and location of it trucks, as well as remote diagnostics to expedite repairs, he says. 

“Today, I tell people we’re an IT company with trucks,” he says.

As Aim acquired other companies throughout the United States, it picked up good people along the way, but it was sometimes difficult getting the employees to adapt to the company way of doing things, Fleming says. Aim tried adapting new employees gradually in some cases and all at once in others, each to varying degrees of success, he adds.

Incorporating former owners is particularly challenging, he says, because they can be “emotionally attached” to their way of doing things and will try to run the business the way they always did.

“The lesson I’ve learned is that if you buy a company, you’re better off not to take the owner with you,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the people you hire that makes you successful, but it’s those you’re not afraid to fire.”

In other instances, some companies had better practices in place, so “you have to go in with sort of an open mind and not a big ego” and be willing to change, Fleming advises

As the company continues to expand and diversify, Fleming remains active with nonprofits in the community, which “helped me both as a manager and as a person,” he says. He looks to continue the transition of ownership to his sons, co-presidents Scott and Geoffrey Fleming. 

“It’s a great opportunity to work for a successful business,” Geoffrey Fleming says. “And it’s even more of an opportunity and reward to work for a family business that your family can trace back through the generations.”

New areas for growth that complement the existing services of Aim include expanded warehousing and in-depth logistics operations, as well as managing private fleets for customers, he says. 

“As they’re growing their fleet, it becomes a challenge to manage your maintenance in-house,” Tom Fleming says. “We’ve grown to be maintenance experts. So that’s something we’re really trying to expand on.”

Fleming is also keeping a sharp eye on automated trucks and how to integrate that technology in the future, he says. It’s something the company has just started to consider, but implementation will ultimately be driven by customer need. 

Despite autonomy, he says there will still likely be a driver behind the wheel to provide human interaction.

“The qualifications could be reduced from where they are today, which could help us deal with the driver shortage that we see on a daily basis,” he says.

Scott Fleming continues to find ways to expand Aim Services, which hauls water used in hydraulic fracturing, as well as cement and provides flatbed services to customers in the Marcellus Shale play

Aim Services maintains a fleet of 50 trucks and employs 50 drivers there, though “we can really grow anywhere and move anywhere,” he says.

“It just depends on our customers,” he says. “The goal is to continue growing every year, 10% to 20%.” 

Pictured above: Aim NationaLease grew from a company started by Tom Fleming’s grandfather in 1904. His sons, Scott and Geoffrey represent the fourth generation of the family. The company operates 121 branches from Chicago to Georgia.

Editor’s note:
This is the first in a four-part story entitled “They Grew from Small to BIG” that originally ran in the May 2019 edition of The Business Journal. CLICK HERE to order your copy and stay tuned for other small-to-big business stories and videos on our website.

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