Ian Ritter
Custom Truck Contributor

Custom One Truck’s transformation of the Northeast neighborhood’s eastern end of Independence Avenue might seem subtle compared to Pendleton Heights’ road closures and ongoing infrastructure work.

There’s plenty happening, though, at the former Armco steel plant campus where fleets of white-painted heavy equipment vehicles gather around either side of the avenue, as well as that part of the Blue River’s channel, close to I-435.

Hurried drivers down that stretch on their way to or from I-435 likely aren’t aware they are passing through an onsite workforce of close to 1,000 or that Custom Truck is a New York Stock Exchange-traded company, with a “CTOS” ticker symbol to show for it, since the spring of 2023.

Ongoing work at the I-435 interchange and on the campus is making the company’s headquarters an eastern anchor of the neighborhood again.

When Custom Truck founder Fred Ross and his family business took over the Independence Avenue site after seeing a “For Sale” sign in 2005, not many ventured it would again become an economic-engine headquarters where thousands of heavy industry vehicles are produced, sold, and rented around North America and beyond.

Armco Steel’s gloried past as an employer of 4,500 and breadwinner for the Sheffield neighborhood was long gone but the large Ross family, that grew up only blocks away in a crowded house on Chelsea Avenue, could see how its history could fit their out-sized vision.

A big part of that had to do with the buildings Armco left behind. Their steel structures were sound, with enormous functional interior cranes that seemed well-suited for building trucks and assembling heavy equipment. 

The Ross family had no idea that the initial 17-acre location, with all 250 Custom Truck employees, would turn into the headquarters of an operation with 37 other facilities in North America, a fleet of 10,300 vehicles and a 2,500-plus-person workforce. So far more than $75 million has been put into building improvements campus wide.

The hundreds of bucket, digger, and dump trucks, as well as cranes and other vehicles surrounding the stretch of Independence Avenue, display the hard work achieved by Custom Truck, and what’s happening here is duplicated in locations all over North America, from Tallahassee, Fla., to Sacramento, Calif.

If the company’s degree of growth and success was unexpected, the decision to have Custom Truck’s headquarters in the Northeast neighborhood is deliberate, states Chris Ross, one of Fred’s 11 younger siblings, who is also operations manager at Custom Truck. And it wasn’t because Chris and Fred’s mother lived close enough to cook meals for workers at the new site, though that didn’t hurt.

A greenfield area outside of town – likely with the help of tax incentives – to build up the business was an option for the Ross family at the time, but they were more interested in projects rebuilding the urban core and took on the many challenges of establishing new operations at a former steel mill. The campus already came with a stop on the city bus route, a small but important detail for part of the company’s workforce.

“It’s about bringing things back to life,” remembers Chris, who stresses that corporate citizenship and uplifting the area with job creation was part of the family strategy. “We decided to invest in the area and make it our home. This was the place we wanted to set the flag, and it’s been good for us and really good for the neighborhood.”

Growing up in a three-bedroom house in the neighborhood gives the large Ross family a personal perspective on what the area needs to put it in a better position to gain economic traction. Custom Truck is in partnership with Northeast High School and Lyrik’s Institution, a nonprofit that secures paid internships for inner-city youth. 

Besides adding the needed jobs to the community, Custom Truck supports Bishop Sullivan Center, Sheffield Place, and other organizations that serve residents in need daily throughout the neighborhood.

Support is also found in the Custom Truck workforce which “takes all comers,” said Chris, emphasizing the company’s active veterans and women’s empowerment organizations. 

When customers and investors visit Custom Truck’s headquarters and receive a tour of the facility, which is not uncommon, they are often drawn to the history of the site and the Northeast. 

“We tell them our story, but we’re also selling them Kansas City, the Northeast area, and these plants and how we’ve brought them back to life,” said Chris, who contends visitors come away with an honest feel for the place. “Our marketing is not just our product, it’s our story. It’s a tremendous marketing tool because we can show customers what we’ve done.”

Construction work is ongoing on the eastern edge of Custom Truck’ campus near the interstate. Meanwhile, a recently renovated 220,000-square-foot historic warehouse on the other side of campus was honored with a Capstone Real Estate award earlier this year.

Company executives hope to host an open house for the community at Custom Truck’s campus so that Northeast residents can learn more about the exciting company in their backyard and where it’s headed.