According to Ceccarelli, one thing just led to another. He followed his nose, pursued his passions, straightened out his values, and wound up just about as happy as anyone has a right to be.
But that would be about him. What’s more important, he says, are the people who intervened in his life, who took the time to help him out and point him in the right direction. “I know this story is about me, but I have to give credit to all the people who have helped me, including my employees, my wife Laurie, my sons Ben and Alex, and Donnie Cruse,” Ceccarelli said. “Without them, I don’t think I would be here. I’m sure of it.” There’s also a rancher named Asa Black, but more about him later. “There’s a saying in our shop that you can see the farthest when you stand on the shoulders of giants,” Ceccarelli said. “You meet people along the way that help guide you. I wouldn’t be here without them.” Well, Ceccarelli may have had a lot of help through the past 42 years, but from the look of things, he had a speck of gumption of his own.
A Day in the Life
It’s a brisk November morning in Mountain Home, Idaho about 40 miles southeast of Boise. By 5:30, Ceccarelli is pulling into the parking lot of the 10,000-square-foot building that houses In The Ditch Towing Products, one of the top design and production facilities for innovative towing products in the country. This is also the home of a separate company, Idaho Wrecker Sales, distributor of Chevron and Century for Idaho, Montana, and Northern Nevada. And it is the headquarters of Aircraft Recovery Solutions (see sidebar).
It’s about 30 degrees. Clear skies. The sun is breaking over the Trinity Mountains. At this time of the morning, the serenity has yet to be disturbed by jets from the nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base. It’s a place where taking a walk is called hiking by the rest of us.
Ceccarelli’s the kind of guy that gets just a little misty-eyed over something this beautiful. “I’m very thankful to be living out west,” he said, mentioning his cabin. “If you’ve never gotten up in the morning in the mountains and made breakfast and smelled the coffee….” His voice trails off for a moment before he resumes. “Well, how many times in your life will you do that?”
As other employees begin to arrive, the production day begins and excitement builds. The facility for the three businesses includes eight production bays, two paint booths, and requires a full-time engineer on site (Take a virtual tour at www.wreckerbuilder.com/tour.htm).
They do their own machining, have a CNC high-definition plasma cutting table, 3-D computer modeling, and a 130-ton CNC press brake for bending up to 10-foot sheets of steel. The facility has a full-service fabrication shop and can completely restore or customize new and used tow trucks or carriers.
Ceccarelli has delegated control of his successful tow truck dealership, Idaho Wrecker Sales, which opened in 1994, to one of the managers who worked his way up from the paint booth. The product line includes wreckers and carriers with custom installation of towing equipment, detailed painting, and custom graphics and lettering.
Ceccarelli also runs Aircraft Recovery Solutions specializing in recovering and retrieving aircraft, including disassembly and transportation of disabled or wrecked airplanes. For $3,999, towers can come to Boise in May for a three-day training session in airplane recovery run by Ceccarelli.
But almost all of his focus these days is on In The Ditch, specializing in designing and producing new towing products like the recently patented Speed Dolly, a lightweight self-loading dolly for recovering disabled vehicles with a wheel lift or sling.
It’s just the kind of innovation that is propelling Ceccarelli to his own mountaintop. “We’re going to unveil some stuff (at Florida’s PWOF tow show) that will blow away the industry,” he said. “That’s how cocky my crew is. We’re so excited. It’s so hard to keep what we’ve got contained.
“The Generation 2 Dolly design will be unveiled in Florida. It’s never been seen before in the world. It’s under total secrecy, behind closed doors. We think it’s that big. And we have a car carrier design that is going to rock the industry.
“If you watch our web site, since November of last year we’ve introduced over 500 new part numbers. We’ve invented, developed and marketed 50 new products. And we have 90 new distributors. Everyone in this company wants to leave their mark.”
Ceccarelli has been in the towing business since 1990. He is a WreckMaster certified instructor in light, medium, and heavy-duty recovery, air cushion recovery, and a leading authority on airplane recovery. He was president of the Idaho Towing and Recovery Professionals for five years, served on the state Traffic Incident Management (TIM) committee and was voted WreckMaster of the year in 1999.
In November, Ceccarelli was named Towman of the Year by American Towman magazine and featured in a cover story in the January 2008 issue. So, he knows his stuff. But how did this guy who left home at age 14 get to the point where he’s flying all over Europe talking about the next generation of towing equipment and the future of the industry?
The Cowboy Life
Ceccarelli won’t say why he left home at 14. He shrugs off the question, saying, “Somebody out there had it worse than me.”
Piece together a few details and a story of sorts will emerge. Ceccarelli was riding rodeo and didn’t have a parent to sign the releases or anybody to take him for medical care when he got hurt. He was living on his own, trying to go to school, and having a tough time making a go of it.
That’s where Asa Black stepped in. Asa’s gone now, but Ceccarelli’s son’s name is Alex Asa Ceccarelli. So that tells you something.
Asa was a real cowboy with a big ranch, big enough for ranch hands and multiple families – two sons with their own houses and families – to live together community-style. Asa and Ceccarelli struck a deal when Ceccarelli was about 16. If Ceccarelli worked hard on the ranch, stayed in high school, and didn’t cause trouble, Asa would sign his rodeo releases, pay his medical expenses, and feed him. “They said they lost money,” Ceccarelli said. “I ate more than I worked.”
But Asa gave Ceccarelli much more than food. He ingrained a work ethic in the boy that stuck and he taught him ingenuity. “When things break, you have to solve the problem,” Ceccarelli recalled of those days. Asa and his wife also taught the young man some ranch-style manners. “If someone came to the house to work, they got fed. When the neighbors helped brand the cows, they got fed a good big lunch to thank them for helping.”
He learned that his word was his bond. “You say what you’re going to do and you do it. If you’re late, you’re saying your time is more important,” Ceccarelli said. The young man learned to take his hat off when he ate and show respect to his elders.
“I was at a point in my life where I was on the fence and one side was really bad and one side was really good and Asa kept pulling me toward the good side,” Ceccarelli said. He tells the story of the Indian who was asked how to make a canoe. The Indian responded: “It’s easy. You just cut away the tree.”
Of his own life, Ceccarelli says: I knew what I didn’t want to do. No drugs, no prison. I wanted to treat people decent and leave a mark on the world. So, everything fell into place. Like the canoe, I stripped away what I didn’t want to be.”
What was left was a keen curiosity into technology and an inventive streak that wouldn’t stop. “When I was 10 or 12, I was doing design work, fixing a neighbor’s lawn mower. I remember to this day she paid me three dollars. Somebody paid me for working with my hands and using my mind,” Ceccarelli recalled. “It was too easy.”
What Ceccarelli is doing today wouldn’t be called easy, but he’s still using his hands and his mind. “It’s frustrating the amount of money and investment it takes to make a product. You invent something, get a patent, get product liability insurance, create a process for making it, create part numbers for replacements, advertise, set up distributors, set up a credit approval process. Those are all the things you don’t see from the outside,” he said. “When I look way back in the towing history at NoMar, Weaver, Holmes, I pay great homage. Anybody who can invent something, then develop, market it, and realize a profit is extraordinary. It’s a lot of work.”
To sum up his life experience, Ceccarelli just says, “You don’t have to be great to start. But you have to start to be great.” His professional life in the towing business began in 1991 in Bruneau, Idaho, a town of 300. “You couldn’t overnight UPS,” Ceccarelli recalled. “Every phone call was long distance.”
Eventually, Valley Towing operated five light, medium and heavy trucks, a Landoll, and air cushions. In 1994, a driver rolled and totaled one of the wreckers. Ceccarelli had to drive five hours to find a truck with rusted wheel wells, a smashed exhaust pipe, rusted floorboard, and a broken windshield.
That did it for Ceccarelli. He talked to the people at Chevron. They gave him a line of credit and asked how many trucks could he sell? He said he figured two or three the first year. He ended up selling 18 or 19. Idaho Wrecker Sales was born.
Eventually, he sold the towing company but as wrecker sales took off, so did its repair business and his innovative technical solutions. Ceccarelli began to think bigger, about solving bigger problems. “It was insanity,” Ceccarelli said. “The police would send us 90 miles to a location at three a.m. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The car’s down the embankment and we can’t get it with a car carrier. We needed better information or we needed to solve the problem.”
The obvious design question was whether it was possible to design a carrier with recovery capability. The solution, Ceccarelli believed, was to design a winch system while stabilizing the carrier to pull the weight.
The idea for the SidePuller™ was born and the SP8000 was first publicly offered for sale on June 6, 2002. Installed on a carrier or wrecker, it combined the capacity of a car carrier with the recovery capability of a wrecker.
Today, there are two additional models: the SP12000 and the SP20000. The SP20000 has a 20,000-pound planetary winch, winch tensioner and free spool, hydraulic stiff legs, flipper foot spades, eight tie-back points, two removable D-rings, and a center pivoting boom head.
When Miller Industries approached him about licensing and distributing, Ceccarelli jumped at the chance. “I’ve had a long relationship with the engineers and managers at Miller,” he said. “They could take our product and go worldwide with it. It’s been unbelievable to have them producing, selling, and servicing that product.”
Ceccarelli could focus once again on his first love: inventing. “A lot of towers wanted a lightweight towing dolly. Now, I had capital freed up from licensing to Miller. I could start research and development and spent about eight months designing,” Ceccarelli said. “I got so excited watching the birth of that dolly that I realized we could design a whole new company around it. I wanted to design at my own shop and then license the products out. Donnie Cruse let me use the name In The Ditch, and by November of 2006, we were on our way.”
Ceccarelli hired a mechanical engineer, built new offices, and hired more people. “Now we can’t even catch our breath. We had our new products unveiled at the Tokyo tow show and sold dollies and SidePullers. Now we’ve got them in Europe and Japan. They’re all over the world.”
Ceccarelli’s goal is to become the number-one towing accessory manufacturer in the world. He has agreements with independent companies to design products. “We’re really good at designing and building quickly,” he said.
Fast & Lean
Design has gone high-tech since Ceccarelli started. With the help of consultants at Tech Help, the company has streamlined its processes and purchased three-dimensional computerized design and engineering equipment. They can do rapid prototyping on new designs, test them, and tweak them before going into production.
In 2007, the company won the Idaho Spirit of Continuous Innovation Award. “With Tech Help, we went from hand-cutting to computer-cutting and took our assembly processes from four days to one day,” Ceccarelli said. “They helped us establish a new, quick, lean philosophy.”
Ceccarelli has learned a lot from the past. Now, he’s focused on the future. “I want to know how cars will be towed 20 years from now,” he said. “I’m continually looking at better ways to solve problems. In Europe, I was looking at buying a laser for my shop that starts at a half-million dollars. People are laughing at me like I’m Dr. Evil and want to take over the world. Well, yeah, I do!”
Ceccarelli ended up buying that laser and in February he will break ground on a brand-new 10,000- square-foot manufacturing facility dedicated to innovative techniques.
Meanwhile, employees are working hard and having fun during these exciting times. “If somebody has a bad attitude, they can call ‘Wiffleball!’ and everybody goes out and plays,” Ceccarelli said. “It’s pretty hard to stay mad. It happens about once every 60 days. If there are customers there, they join in.”
Once a month, the company has a cookout with entertainment, scavenger hunts, or guest speakers. They play bingo, Family Feud, golf, dodgeball. They have a “dartboard of death.” Anyone with perfect attendance gets to throw for a half day of paid vacation, a $100 bill, or a mystery gift.
Ceccarelli invests in his employees, recently spending $14,000 on training for managers. He paid for everyone to spend a day at a Zig Ziglar conference. There are inspirational quotations on the walls like: “Never doubt that a few passionate people can change the world.”
“That’s all it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s never been a million people at once changing something. It’s one or two dedicated people.”
Ford, Lynn. “Master of Design.” Towing & Recovery Footnotes, Mar. 2008, pp. 25–29.