During much of his 27-year career in banking, even as he rose to president of Emprise Bank, Maurice Linnens was thinking about running another kind of business.
“I was a lender — I loaned to guys like me,” said Linnens, president of Kansas Truck Equipment. “I felt like at some point in time I wanted to see if I could walk my talk.”
Twenty years later, it’s safe to say he could and did. As the distributorship for Blue Bird school buses, Kansas Truck dominates that market in Kansas while also providing truck “upfits,” commercial vans and mobility equipment for commercial and private customers.
Kansas Truck was opened 60 years ago this month by two brothers-in-law, Sterling Freedman and Robert Gilman, in a former scrapyard in west Wichita where the business is still located today.
“They both went by Bob,” Linnens said. “It never was really clear why they did that. People told me that Sterling got tired of everybody calling the company and asking for Bob so he just adopted it.”
The two Bobs started by providing upfitted truck chassis for the agriculture and railroad industries. Three years later, Georgia-based Blue Bird offered them the Kansas distributorship for school buses.
Two decades after that, they started carrying what’s known as a medium-duty bus made by ElDorado National, now located in Salina.
“It’s a product like the little connector buses Wichita Transit runs – that’s our product. Hotel and rail car shuttles.”
The company’s truck equipment division sells and installs items such as snow and ice removal equipment, storage systems, lifts, cranks “and about anything you can mount on a truck,” Linnens said.
The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 led to Kansas Truck’s mobility division. After school districts asked the company to install wheelchair lifts and special doors, other customers began to do the same.
“Now we have a full line of transportation-related equipment for someone who is physically challenged, whether it’s a simple hand control, wheelchair lift, adaptive seats, wheelchair accessible vans.”
Linnens and two silent partners bought Kansas Truck in 1999. Today, school bus sales comprise about 60 percent of Kansas Truck’s business, with its other product lines splitting the rest. The company expanded onto adjacent property on south Tyler Road in 2008, when Linnens’ wife, Rita, joined as marketing director to help push the mobility division.
“We needed showroom space,” he said. Customers “make a much better decision by being able to kick the tires, so to speak.”
Kansas Truck employs about 25 people, including the Linnens’ oldest son, Brian, who started as a bus salesman 17 years ago and is now chief operating officer. “He pretty much runs the company day to day,” Linnens said.
Rita Linnens retired last year and Maurice said he works from home a couple days a week.
“We’ve tried to remain employee-centered and customer-centered,” Linnens said. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that we have a lot of tenure on the staff.” Two brothers have been with the company for 42 and 47 years, respectively, and Richard “Zack” Zackula worked there 48 years, playing a big role in its mobility division, before his death last year.
Linnens said his foray into business succeeded despite his being “not very mechanically inclined. I don’t know much about buses and trucks.” Instead, his approach was to hire and retain people who do, then “stay out of everybody’s way.”
Kansas Truck Equipment
Address: 1521 S. Tyler Road