Trucker’s buddy

Todd Dills | April 01, 2012

PROFILE/JEFF ZEHRER

Inspired by lifetime friend with ALS, owner-operator launches toolbox system for driver-side storage compartments

Central Minnesota-based owner-operator Jeff Zehrer in 2011 made good on a friend’s legacy. ALS sufferer Ken Stepan, in the last “three to four years of his life,” Zehrer says, really began pushing him to pursue an idea the pair had held since 1984.

Today, Zehrer has sold more than 1,000 units of his own custom-designed Cubby Buddy toolbox in a little more than a year. Designed for truckers, the storage system comes in 10 different models with mounting configurations for a truck’s driver-side storage compartment, offering quick and easy pullout access to tools on the road. “If you need a half-inch wrench,” says Zehrer, “instead of wrestling your old toolbox, you can get your tools out just like that.”

Zehrer started trucking as a company driver in 1981. When he bought his first truck in 1984, he was surprised by the difficulty he had finding a convenient toolbox for the driver-side cubbyhole. “It was a pain to bring the toolbox I did have in and out,” he says, and Stepan proposed a wooden box with pullout drawers, sized to fit the space. “He was going to build me one,” Zehrer says, but time and life intervened.

Zehrer, in the meantime, learned what it takes to run a business in trucking and other arenas — for six years beginning in 1996, he and his wife, Debbie, dedicated business partner and a frequent passenger on his runs today, built and operated a bowling alley. After returning to trucking leased to Hensley Inc. with his Freightliner Century and Great Dane dry van, Zehrer’s doing better than ever in income, even through the recent recession.

All of which provided him the needed resources, five years ago, to follow through on the toolbox idea, resurrected in conversations with Stepan. “He was the one pushing me to get this done,” says Zehrer, so “I built my first prototype in the home shop.”

The four years of preparation work that followed ranged from designing the brushed stainless box and drawers (with handles built in) to working with U.S.-based fabricators to get the best product for the lowest gross cost (West Central Metal Fab in Alexandria, Minn., won the job) to filing a patent for the toolbox’s cradle. Many different prototypes were built before Zehrer finally put the seventh one in his own truck and sold his first unit a little more than a year ago.

“If you need a half-inch wrench, instead of wrestling your old toolbox, you can get your tools out just like that.”

Jeff Zehrer

Most of the units he sells mount in a cradle secured to the floor inside the storage compartment with just “three carriage bolts,” he says, a simple matter of drilling right-size holes and tightening the bolts. “Some of the floors in truck cubbyholes are flat. A few models, though, once you open the door, the floor is lower” than the bottom of the opening. “You can mount the toolbox high,” he adds, and “all the newer [toolbox] models can be mounted from the top,” directly under the floor of the sleeper compartment, as well.

After securing the cradle and the toolbox to the cradle, you’re in business. Individual prices for all base models (with cradle) and various add-ons range from “$75 to $185,” says Zehrer.

Response from driver customers has been great so far, Zehrer says. One of his first booth visitors at the Louisville truck show in 2011, however, approached with a demeanor that suggested he wasn’t about to say anything positive. What eventually came out, though, validated the care with which Zehrer approached building the Cubby Buddy system to maximize storage volume and optimize ease of use. “I opened it up and didn’t think everything would fit in there,” the driver told Zehrer. “But I started putting everything from my box into your box and, next thing I know, my box is empty and yours isn’t close to full yet.”

“That put a little wind in my sails,” Zehrer says.

Cubby Buddy will be demonstrated at all the major trucking shows this year.

What’s in a name

The “Cubby Buddy” name has origins with work Zehrer did with a vocational school in his Minnesota hometown. “The teacher wanted a project for the kids,” he says, so the teacher had two groups attempt to improve the toolbox design. “One the kids in one of the groups had an uncle who trucked — and I’ve always called the storage compartment a ‘cubbyhole.’ He said ‘Cubby Buddy’ one day and it stuck.”

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