Shop Talk with Kennedy Diesel

Dec 2, 2009

John Kennedy of Kennedy Diesel has been through all the typical elements of life pretty much anyone in our business has experienced. He started out as an enthusiast before making the big leap to take the business full time, or should we say it took him full time? He still is very much a “hands on” guy, preferring to personally work on his customers’ trucks instead of doing more mundane, everyday tasks. And he, like so many others, uses the Internet for business. All this has made Kennedy Diesel a winning entity for John. And with any winning formula, there are specific components and sequences we can all learn from.

The Specs

Let’s start with a few specs. Kennedy Diesel is conveniently located almost in the exact middle of Wisconsin, and it has been a diesel specialist for 14 years. They have two buildings in their rural city of Loyal. One is 1,750 sq. ft. and used as a warehouse, shipping and service center. The other, at 1,600 sq. ft., is used primarily for dyno tuning. The two buildings keep the noisy side away from the paper and phone work. Kennedy Diesel is a family business with occasional part-time help when bigger projects and work load demand. Their part-timers usually work under a type of training program which, as John Kennedy says, “…actually works well as sort of an apprenticeship which becomes a mutually beneficial situation.” Kennedy himself handles tech support and research and development where he says his, “…level of personal involvement keeps me in touch with what is going on.”

Try This Instead

The primary line of work at Kennedy’s is high performance and aftermarket enhancement installations and upgrades. The typical industry sequence is helping a customer decide on what they want and then hooking them up with it. They don’t do routine service work or engine builds.

Within that structure, Kennedy often ends up warning buyers about putting too much additional power on their engines as their base motor or driveline may not be able to handle it. He sometimes has to talk a customer out of a selection they have their hearts set on. Citing the too-much-power example or the just plain not-going-to-work-effectively-on-their-particular-package example, he tells them openly to avoid the purchase. He has seen that happen time and time again, and it is that lack of understanding by consumers in the market that may have Kennedy building engines in the not-so-distant future.

Lifelong Dream

Taking a look at the opposite direction on that timeline, along with some quick math on how long they’ve been in business, and one can easily deduce that 14 years ago, diesels were not the mainstream product line they are today.

So how did Kennedy take his hobby to market? The usual way:

“I started in this business as a hobby and for supplemental income,” he says. “I eventually went full time because I enjoyed it so much more than punching a clock. To be able to ‘soup things up,’ tinker on projects and make money at it is a lifelong dream come true.”

Sound familiar?

Kennedy goes on to point out his favorite parts of the business, “I enjoy doing tech and sales questions. I really enjoy sitting down in a truck on the dyno and working out various performance tunes as much as time will allow.”

In a clear-cut example of using delegation the correct way, Kennedy prefers to stay away from the web sales. “I let our online store do the order taking so that I can stay focused on the daily Q&A calls that often come in faster than I can keep up.”

His least favorite part of the job? He quickly answers with, “Paperwork.” It must be a successful formula; Kennedy Diesel handles almost 4,000 invoices a year.

Ask The Man Who Owns One

With all the brands of diesels on the market today, Kennedy has bypassed the majority of them for one single brand. He has a clear cut leader in sales (as well as a personal favorite) and says it is, “Far and away the Duramax. I am a GM guy through and through. I started with the 6.2, then the 6.5, and finally the Duramax came along and really launched my business. I prefer to stick with what I know and that is the GM diesels.”

When asked about the other brands in this surging market, he points out his clever logic for avoiding them with, “Sure, I could learn the Power Stroke and Cummins just as well as the Duramax, but that would limit my connection with the Duramax as it continually evolves.”

In keeping with the old saying about asking the man that owns one, his own personal rolling diesel inventory includes, “a 2002 2500 crew cab long bed LB7, a 2005 3500SRW crew cab long LLY, and a 2007 2500 extended cab short bed LBZ.” Notice how he lists them by the engine number rather than the body style—the mark of someone that is truly at one with their diesels.

That begs the question of whether or not he gets involved in local diesel events, both with his own trucks and those he prepares for others. His quick answer is, “Absolutely. I’ve set up a lot of trucks for customers including tuning two-time Diesel Power Challenge winner, Michael Tomac.” And as for taking his equipment out for some racetrack flogging and not-so-subtle advertising, he says, “I run my own truck at some of the local events, and assist with track prep at the Loyal Truck Pull.”

So, how has he done with his “House Trucks?”

“I’ve competed and won the Diesel Page Pull Off in Montana numerous times with both my 6.5 and my 2002 Duramax. I took High Horsepower honors at the 2005 Weekend on the Edge with 739 rear-wheel horsepower on a basically mechanically stock engine.”

That last stat deserves repeating: He created a whopping 739 rear-wheel horsepower with a basically stock diesel truck engine. Like so many in the business, he drives his business cards, and maybe they should say, “Ask the man who owns one.”


Logic would also dictate that Kennedy Diesel use the normal promotions to attract interest and further develop their brand themselves, and they do. They’ve had Open House and Dyno Day events in the past but at the moment, their busy schedule of the past few years won’t allow it.

On the other hand, in what may be another great example of delegation and good business, Kennedy smiles and says, “We find that many of our most satisfied customers do a more than adequate job of promoting our products and services.”

Kennedy promotions also include a very simple but highly effective website. The Kennedy website also is a well-known source for free tech tips, advice ranging from modifying air intakes to reading codes to identifying what pumps the customers have.

The ease of use is also increased by a few safeguards that help web readers to identify their engines and stay within the parts for those specific engines. When clicking on Kennedy Custom, for example, readers are first led to a menu of engine designations. Once one is chosen, only then do the actual products and prices become available.

Market Observations

Despite being super-busy, Kennedy still watches the market closely, always studying it for trends and patterns. Like the rest of us, he sees the high fuel prices, but he also notices the secondary effects on the rest of the markets. He points out that as prices increase, the price of materials and therefore parts and assemblies go up. The cost of fuel has its own specific results on business and their customers.

As Kennedy says, “We see a definite trend towards interest in alternative fuels and improving fuel economy. Customers seem to be a bit more conservative with their orders these days, and they’re more focused on fuel economy than raw performance.” Still, Kennedy sees, “It’s swinging more toward the fuel economy thing.”

Yet, the effectiveness of diesel versus gasoline mileage is still paramount. How does Kennedy Diesel get that information to their potential and new customers?

Kennedy replies, “While we do see many ‘first timers,’ most of our customers are already familiar with diesels. They know how they perform, and the fuel efficiency that goes with them.”

But there is a tremendous loyalty, right? Kennedy adamantly agrees, “Most wouldn’t have it any other way, as a turbo diesel is the only vehicle that will pull their loads.” Make it a Duramax diesel and you’ve got yourself a loyal Kennedy customer.

As for the overall state of business today, Kennedy says one small but powerful part of it may be moving a little too quickly. “The Internet has been a great thing for the diesel performance market,” points out Kennedy with simple logic. “Things are happening much faster than they would have without it. Unfortunately, with all of the good can also come some bad. It’s a ‘buyer beware’ world out there. It’s really easy for someone with little to no knowledge to set up a cyber shop and sell product.”

So what can customers wanting good diesel performance do to safely invest in their trucks? Kennedy supports the basics and says, “I suggest that shoppers do a fair amount of research to make certain that the company that they are dealing with is a real brick-and-mortar facility and not just a clearing house.”

He goes on to point out the specific dangers buyers can run into. “Many of these clearing houses have low prices and slick sales people, but they have very little actual hands-on experience or working knowledge.” That’s smart advice from both a participant and business man heavily involved in diesels.