Back in June 2020, Spartan Motors, a well-known name in the fleet industry for over 45 years, sold off its emergency response unit and changed its name to The Shyft Group.
Currently, The Shyft Group is focused on moving forward and expanding its presence in the commercial fleet industry. They cater to a variety of commercial, retail, and specialty vehicle brands, including Utilimaster, Royal Truck Body, DuraMag, Magnum, Strobes-R-Us, Spartan RV Chassis, Builtmore Contract Manufacturing, and Blue Arc (check out this video walkaround!).
John Dunn, an experienced industry veteran, was appointed president of Fleet Vehicles and Services (FVS) for The Shyft Group in January 2023. As the head of the business, Dunn is responsible for all aspects of the company's operations, working closely with his team to develop a strategic vision and oversee its execution..
An Interview with John Dunn of Utilimaster
Recently, Work Truck had the opportunity to speak with John on current industry trends, how The Shyft Group and Utilimaster fits into the future of fleet, and the changing demands caused by the growth of electrification:
Work Truck: How does your background in operations and education as an engineer help you in your current role with Utilimaster?
DUNN: Our business at Utilimaster is building and upfitting fleet vehicles – within that business, operations, and manufacturing excellence is fundamental, a core tenet. I look forward to working with our operations teams to continue to drive quality and output performance.
WT: Having just joined the company, what has your focus been on?
DUNN: We’re in such a dynamic industry, hitting the ground running has been key. First and foremost, my attention has been on ensuring we continue to deliver the best products, support our customers, and improve in ways that sustain that.
We’re lucky to have such a great team of people who make that happen, so my next focus is ensuring I’m supporting our folks to continue that great work.
WT: Specific to Utilimaster, can you discuss the impact of Velocity on the fleet market and how you met last-mile delivery customers’ needs during the pandemic?
DUNN: It will sound cliché, but Velocity has been a game-changer in the fleet market. It delivers on durability, capacity, efficiency, and driver safety, and it’s right-sized for a large portion of the last-mile delivery space.
Velocity is an excellent example of our Work Driven Design process, as well as our experience and agility in designing and building fleet vehicles for 50 years.
The product line was expanded and deployed during the COVID peak in response to our last-mile delivery customers’ demand for a smaller Class 2 and Class 3 walk-in van that could meet the rigors of product and service delivery without sacrificing the cubic storage of traditional step-vans.
Utilimaster effectively created a niche market that it owns 100% of with three applications:
- Ford chassis (F Series).
- Ram chassis (R2).
- Mercedes chassis (M3).
WT: How are customers’ needs changing regarding what they’re looking for today with a walk-in van?
DUNN: We’ve seen a trend for some time now that hasn’t changed: commercial fleets and drivers expect many of the same safety and comfort features for their work trucks as they do in their personal vehicles.
The men and women who operate these vehicles are priority No. 1 for our customers, which means they ask OEMs, bodybuilders, and upfitters alike to focus on how we can all make their jobs and lives safer and more comfortable.
One example is our new Rapid Cab Cooling System, which we had on display at Work Truck Week. With demand for last-mile delivery still surging and drivers often working through the day’s heat, this rapid cooling system helps drivers avoid heat exhaustion and complete their routes with less stress.
WT: It’s clear that electrification is a growing trend in commercial fleets. What do you think about the future of electric trucks in terms of challenges and opportunities?
DUNN: Seeing all the momentum in this space as we move industry-wide to reduce emissions and leave the world a better place for future generations is incredibly exciting.
The opportunities are significant, and we’re seeing it firsthand at Shyft. The company launched its own electric vehicle brand a little over a year ago, Blue Arc EV Solutions, to offer last-mile and other customers purpose-built, commercial-grade all-electric vehicles.
We’ll be going into production with Class 3-5 electric vehicles later this year. At Utilimaster, we’ve been building bodies on and upfitting electric and other alt-fuel vehicles for almost 15 years, and we have a lot of experience there.
As for challenges, I agree that charging infrastructure across the country needs to continue developing, and it’s a positive sign that we’re seeing large public and private investments to address this issue head-on.
With respect to batteries, it will remain critical to secure the supplies of raw materials needed to support increasing demand.
WT: How is Utilimaster working with other divisions in the Shyft Group family to get EVs to market?
DUNN: This is a good question, and I’m happy you asked. It’s important to understand this history or evolution. The decision to launch Blue Arc EV Solutions and create our own electric vehicle brand was born out of our expertise in two areas, chassis design and manufacturing with Spartan RV Chassis and body building and upfitting with Utilimaster.
That’s a 50-year heritage in specialty vehicle chassis manufacturing and bodybuilding for last-mile delivery that we’re leveraging, which is why we sometimes refer to ourselves as “the anti-startup.”
Then add the chassis and body expertise to the coast-to-coast manufacturing footprint and service infrastructure we have across the Shyft family of brands, and that’s how we’re primed to deliver EV solutions at scale.
WT: At Work Truck Week this year, we started to see more upfits of commercial EVs. How do the integration of body and chassis manufacturers and upfitters change in the new EV environment?
DUNN: This is another area where we have a leg up due to our company structure and expertise across brands — our business is integrating with chassis manufacturers, and we’ve upfitted thousands of alternative-fuel vehicles over the last decade and a half.
With our years of experience, the learning curve regarding new requirements to move from ICE to EV isn't very steep.
Similar to how we train our teams on the packaging design and layout of new gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles coming into the market, we study the design of a new EV and plan our upfits accordingly.
As you can imagine, the most critical thing is protecting the battery pack and its contents and clearly understanding where the “no drill” zones are located.
WT: What trends are you seeing in vehicle availability/order to delivery in your segments?
DUNN: There have been and continue to be headwinds in the manufacturing supply chain, no question. We’ve worked hard as a team to manage through it, and we’ve been encouraged by the support being provided by our partners to help mitigate the impact. It’s safe to say that supply chain constraints and inflation/rising costs will continue to be part of our business as we look ahead.
WT: And How is Utilimaster’s North American manufacturing footprint helping with these challenges?
DUNN: I think our customers are the real winners here. All our locations have flexible manufacturing capabilities so that we can shift product production to the right facility at the right time for our customers’ needs. We are well positioned to cover all regions of the country, with locations on the East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast.
WT: Looking to the future, what are you excited about over the next five years?
DUNN: Utilimaster just celebrated 50 years of service to the fleet industry — 50 years! That’s a real testament to the adaptability and track record. That said, with all the new technology and electrification happening now and consumer trends still pointing upward, I’m excited for the next five years in the work truck industry, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it with Utilimaster.
WT: Anything else you want to share with the Work Truck readers?
DUNN: As the fleet industry flexes to more electric vehicles, I look forward to using my automotive experience to help navigate Utilimaster through the changes. This is an opportunity to re-evaluate our business and increase the partnership with our customers. Together, we can improve last-mile delivery performance and the driver’s safety and comfort.