he move to electrification is affecting every facet of the auto industry, including the contract manufacturers that marry chassis produced by automakers with their own proprietary bodies.
One of the largest upfitters is J.B. Poindexter & Co., a company headquartered in Houston whose roots trace back to the early 1980s. It posted revenue of $2 billion in 2020 through eight business units that build everything from hearses to box trucks.
In late fall last year, the company added EAVX to its portfolio. The Ann Arbor, Mich., unit will work exclusively with electric vehicle chassis manufacturers.
CEO John Poindexter spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Did Amazon’s order for 100,000 Rivian vans validate the electric powertrain for commercial fleet vehicles? Did it kick-start this move we are seeing away from internal combustion engines in fleets?
A: I don’t believe it kick- started anything. It was an element of a natural progression. But that progression may not move as rapidly as the public thinks. There are numerous impediments to the electrification of the means of locomotion, but the movement is inevitable and determined. The only question now is the pace. The Rivian order was certainly an important factor in the formation of EAVX, our initiative to establish the leading position for the classes of delivery and transportation vehicles that we are active in the market, Class 3 to Class 7.
There seems to be a lot of hype around electrifying fleet vehicles.
It’s real easy to make an order, get the PR, get the public recognition, get the applause and worry about the consequences later. We view the move to electric as inevitable, promising and exciting, but we also view with a degree of caution the pace from small, prototype runs to sizable, delivered vehicle orders.
How disruptive will electric fleet vehicles be to your established manufacturing system?
In the entirety of our corporation, we have almost 60 manufacturing facilities. Nearly every one of them one will require alteration for the EV age and for alternative-fueled vehicles.
You have built your company by buying and integrating other companies. Do you ever foresee J.B. Poindexter & Co. buying an EV manufacturer?
No. Our position in the market is this: We are body and vehicle builders. We are not builders of the chassis and the means of locomotion. That is a separate and entirely distinct business and one where the greater pace of technology change is going to be concentrated.
As the upfitting business adapts to the EV era, what is J.B. Poindexter’s role going to be?
We want to be the permanent, lower-margin but high-volume supplier of bodies and intermediate delivery vehicles. We feel our duty and our economic advantage is in serving our customers to assist them in selecting the optimum chassis for their needs. We are content with lower margins.
Do you foresee a move to consumer-intended EV fleet vehicles? For instance, if Ford, General Motors and Rivian make available their electric chassis to upfitters, would the business units in your company be interested in producing bodies for them?
Absolutely. We have two ways to do it. One is through Reading, which provides service and utility bodies. Secondly, Reading has a separate division that upfits a variety of work trucks.
Will electric fleet vehicles last longer than their ICE counterparts?
The bodies we make for our delivery customers, such as step vans, last through multiple engines. The body is durable. We’re ready for an increase in the term of service of the chassis along with the body.
Is the internal combustion engine dead?
I’m a big fan of the internal combustion engine. I think it has a long future for many applications while EVs and other forms of locomotion find their way over time.