One of the most critical decisions Chris Ott has to make is when to replace commercial vans that are the lifeblood of his business. Ott owns Area Wide Refrigeration, a St. Louis-based company that repairs ice machines, coolers and other equipment for restaurants and bars.
Area Wide, which has a fleet of six vans that typically get replaced after 35,000 miles, is among General Motors’ customers that scaled back its van purchases during the recession.
“I held off buying for a year or so, as bars and restaurants were hit the hardest during the recession,” Ott said. Area Wide resumed changing out its fleet in 2012, when it acquired two new vans.
This year, Area Wide is in the market for two more.
“I have to have them for my business,” Ott said.
Businesses, ranging from big corporations to small contractors, are again buying full-size commercial vans, which is a big business in the St. Louis region.
The recession, followed by a sluggish recovery, led many businesses to halt or slow down purchases of vans such as the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana full-size vans that are built in General Motors’ assembly plant in Wentzville.
“Now we’re in a very nice recovery,” GM’s van product manager Joseph Langhauser said. “Businesses are opening their purse strings, and we’re starting to see the numbers trend back up.”
Wentzville has long been a major source of the country’s commercial vans. More than 2 million full-size vans have rolled off the GM assembly line since December 1995, when the plant switched from making passenger cars. No other GM plant builds them.
IHS Automotive forecasts that annual commercial van sales in the U.S. will grow to 400,000 by 2015, a 27 percent increase from 2013, and GM is positioning itself to take advantage of this growth despite new competition and recent troubles related to recalls.
GM commercial vans surpassed 150,000 in sales annually in the mid-2000s, according to automotive consumer research website Edmunds.com. But sales began to decline sharply in 2008 and 2009 as the financial crisis took hold and many companies began scaling back on expenses and buying fewer vehicles.
“A decade ago, vans were at an all-time high, and 2009 was a watershed year where it was half the number sold,” Langhauser said.
GM sold 153,168 Express and Savana vans in 2006, but sales fell the following three years, dropping to 66,466 in 2009, according Edmunds.com. That led GM to pare its workforce to a single shift.
“It was the whole truck segment, everything fell, not just vans,” said Gary Meteer, director of commercial solutions for IHS Automotive, an analytics firm based in Northville, Mich. “With the recession, there were no goods to be moved. People extended their buying cycles because they weren’t putting the mileage on the vehicles.”
Over the past three years, sales have rebounded, inching closer to the 100,000 mark once again. With sales flowing to sizable buyers, including U-Haul, AT&T, Comcast and DIRECTV, GM’s commercial van sales totaled 95,792 in 2013, down slightly from the 97,458 vans sold in 2012.
The Wentzville plant has been operating two shifts since January 2012, with a third shift for stamping operations. In addition to the vans, this year the Wentzville plant will begin producing the redesigned Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups.
About 60 percent of GM’s vans made in Wentzville are cargo, 25 percent are cutaways — which come with the front of the van built but the rear open so it can be customized — and 15 percent are passenger vans. Eighty-five percent of the vans that come off the line in Wentzville are white, and the next biggest seller is bright yellow, typically used for school buses business