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Getting to know Harman Heavy Vehicle Specialists

By Ian Johnston, Vice President, Operations and Marketing

Please briefly describe the history of Harman HVS.

Harman Heavy Vehicle Specialists, Ltd., was established 78 years ago in 1938 as Harman Supply Company as a brake, friction and general supply company in Kitchener, Ontario. Through the 1950s and 60s we became Harman Automotive Supply, an automotive jobber, before moving on to being a complete heavy-duty truck and trailer focused WD in the mid-1980s. Since then Harman HVS has grown into three locations, with driveline manufacturing, complete heavy-duty vehicle service bays and a long-term employee base with more than 50 employees.

Please briefly describe your company’s distribution structure: What do you sell, who are your vendors, who are your customers, etc.?

We sell a variety of major vehicle system components and parts for heavy trucks, trailers and equipment, as well as mid- and light-duty utility trailer. We sell all the major heavy-duty brands: Meritor, Bendix, Haldex, Grote, Baldwin, KIC, Federal Mogul, etc. We carry 1,000 of SKU’s from more than 160 vendors selling directly to fleets, repair garages, construction companies, small manufacturers, municipalities, owner operators and the general public.

What separates Harman HVS from competitors in its marketplace?

What has always differentiated Harman HVS from its competition is our level of service. We are the service leader in our area for knowledgeable counter sales people, level of available inventory and our level of accurate timely delivery. If you don’t have service you are simply selling the same boxes as everyone else.

How do you believe customers perceive your business?

I think our customers view Harman HVS as fair company. We try to treat our customers as fairly as possible, meaning we will offer great service, a great customer experience for a fair price. We are not the cheapest place to get your parts but we strive to be the best place to get them.

How and why have your customers stayed loyal to your business?

I think our customer loyalty comes down to the long-term relationships we have built over the years with our customers and the dependability our company has become known for. But with all long-term relationships a lot of focus has to be put onto developing and maintaining these relationships as they constantly evolve.

What is one thing most customers/suppliers don’t know about Harman HVS that would surprise/impress them? (i.e., tell us something about Harman HVS we don’t know)

Over the past 30 years Harman HVS has sponsored more than five different racing teams and was a founding partner in the Meritor Motorsports NHRA Drag Racing team. Our teams have won seven national events and numerous regional events in a variety of motorsports categories over the past three decades.

What does Harman HVS mean to the Johnston family?

Harman HVS means a great deal to the Johnston family. With my father Jay and I now being sole owners of the business, Harman has been in the Johnston family for 61 years, making me a third-generation family member in the business and the fourth-generation of ownership. This is a tremendous honor to be a part of and with so many great long-term employees there has always been a real family atmosphere at Harman. And since I’ve been coming into the shop and warehouse since I was 2 years old, Harman HVS really has become a part of who I am.

What are the pros and cons are for working for a family-owned business?

How does the saying go, “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family”? I guess that is really the only con of working for a family-owned business, and being part of the family is that you have to sometimes deal with other family influences or dynamics that may not be present in non-family businesses. But to that point this also is a major pro, is that in is a family business and you are family! To me, the level of care, trust and commitment to the employees in a family business is often higher than that of a larger corporation and I truly enjoy working in that family oriented atmosphere.

What makes Harman HVS a great place to work?

The people! We are blessed with having a great group of many long-term employees who really care about doing a good job. It makes for a great work environment when we are a team and everyone on the team is moving towards the same goal.

How vital is it to have quality employees entering your business from younger generations, and how are you trying to recruit these younger professionals?

It is vital to any organization to constantly be looking to the next generation for its quality employees and future leaders. Harman is a bit of a unique scenario in where 25 percent of our employees on the parts distribution side have worked for us 20+ years, but on the service side our average tenure is about seven years. Another major difference in the service division is that half the staff are born in the 1990s, versus many of the employees on the parts side are Baby-boomers or GenX. So it is very interesting to see the new dynamics that come out of multi-generational workplace and how the process continues to evolve. Recently we have been using a local vocational college’s graduate placement program to recruit and assess new additions to our team.

Do you feel Harman HVS is in the position to change with the times? If so how?

I believe that Harman HVS is in a good position to change with the times partly due to our focus on technology drivers and our re-investment into our company. Every year we consciously try to make Harman HVS grow and to become more efficient in our core business while looking for new opportunities to augment what we do. Over the past seven decades we have had to re-invent our company three times to remain successful in our marketplace, and it’s this entrepreneurial spirit that I think helps us be positioned for the future.

Do you have any advice for the next generation, as they work in this industry?

Get involved! This industry is on the cusp of a major change-over with the exiting of the baby-boomer generation over the next decade and the opportunity this is going to create is going to be massive. The ones that will be the most successful at seizing this opportunity are going to be the ones with the most experience and the most knowledge. Getting involved early in your career will give you the most exposure to knowledge and the expertise that the current leaders have before they retire, leaving you in the best position to move forward when they do.

What are your goals for the long-term future of Harman HVS?

My goals for the future of Harman HVS are to continue to grow our company across multiple business platforms. Whether that is through new product lines, new market segments, business acquisition or new sales territories, Harman HVS is poised for substantial and sustainable growth in the future.

Why did Harman HVS join GenNext? How can GenNext help Harman HVS’s employees?

I am a founding member of GenNext (along with Steve Hansen at Minimizer Fender and Edward Kuo at Datalliance) and Harman HVS joined immediately. GenNext is a great vehicle to helping train and mentor your young employees via their monthly webinars and annual training expo, but it is also a great mentoring tool. One of my managers and I also are members of the GenNext mentoring program, and I have been really impressed with the feedback I have received on the mentoring side. I also feel that GenNext will become a more viable recruitment tool for businesses looking to hire new blood into the industry, especially as it develops and grows its partnerships with Northwood University and other vocational colleges.

What are the three most pivotal moments in your career that you either learned from and/or that got you where you are?

Pivotal moment No. 1 came when I was taking an extended traveling break after University for eight months across Canada and in Southeast Asia. I learned quickly from others while traveling that if you look like a sheep the wolves will come out to feast, but if you look like a wolf they’ll likely stay at bay. Being confident in yourself and what you are doing is important.

Pivotal moment No. 2 came over a number of years while being a board member and eventually President of the Board of HDAC (Heavy Duty Aftermarket Canada). Being involved with totally re-vamping an industry association over an eight-year period, while working with a group of very distinguished business leaders, was an incredible experience for me. I learned so much from these individuals and working in a board environment taught me a great deal of diplomacy as well, something you may not learn in a smaller family business.

Pivotal moment No. 3 came while we were moving our business last year. Despite trying to be involved in all the aspects of the move and business integration, I had to learn to ‘let go’ and allow others to lead and control their aspects of the project. It taught me to really value and trust the input of my employees, which has been a huge asset to our company over the years. If you have the right employees, empower them to make decisions and create direction as they are the experts at their jobs.

Are there any industry leaders that have influenced you/mentored you? Who were they and how has their knowledge assisted you?

I have been very lucky to be involved in this industry since I was a kid and as a result I have had the opportunity to know and be mentored by so many individuals it is really hard to mention them all. First and foremost, my father has been a huge influence and helped mentor me through life and this industry since I was born. I really am lucky to have my father as a business partner and not only him, but all the friends he has made throughout the years in this industry. They have been so kind and helpful to me as well.

I think my other major industry influences have mostly come through being on the HDAC board of directors. I have had the privilege to work with so many great leaders and fantastic people it is almost impossible to list. But getting to mentor under past Presidents like Robert Siddell, John Pellegrino, Liza Fontaine and Marc Brazeau, as well as having the whole Board of Directors working with me, I have really been blessed to have this level of support from the heavy-duty industry.