Strategic, Long-Term Thinking Pays Off By Mary Sedor
Article Date: 02-01-2009
Copyright(C) 2009 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.
AED's 2009 Chairman Bennett Closner says that all of his business decisions are based on reaching long-term goals for his dealership, namely achieving 100 years in business.
Given the current state of the economy and the unprecedented challenges facing the construction equipment industry, many equipment dealers have enough on their plate determining how to make it through the next year much less the next five. AED’s 2009 Chairman enters his post at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty, when the industry needs a strong leader who thinks in terms of long-term strategy. Fortunately, AED’s new Chairman, G. Bennett Closner, is a self-professed long-term thinker. In fact, he says he’s probably better at long-range thinking than short-range.
He is the president and CEO of Closner Equipment, originally based in San Antonio and now located in nearby Schertz, Texas. The dealership specializes in concrete, asphalt and compaction equipment.
Closner Equipment was founded in 1946 by J.J. and George W. Closner, Bennett’s uncle and father, respectively. Originally named Engineered Sales, the company’s first line was Barber-Green Co. In 1952, the company changed its name to Closner Equipment and became a member
Over the years, Closner Equipment has been shaped into the “boutique” company that Closner describes today. The company has locations in Austin and Schertz, Texas, and represents Gomaco, Barber-Greene, Dynapac, Mauldin, Superior Broom, Putzmeister, Minnich, LeeBoy, Rosco and Lincoln. Closner Equipment covers central, south and west Texas, and exports construction machines to Mexico, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
For more than 60 years, Closner Equipment has remained a family business and is now in its second generation of ownership.
“It’s a very rare thing to have an entity that survives that long under a single family,” said Closner. “What I like about our business is that after you’ve invested 60 years in something – that’s a lot of nights and weekends and long drives – I can’t see letting that kind of investment and momentum and relationship just stop by saying, ‘Well I think I’ll retire or sell my business.’ ”
Gaining Corporate Experience
Growing up in the business, Closner says he recalls a different business model in the 1960s.
“Manufacturer relations lasted decades,” he said. “I remember that manufacturers would sometimes come to our house at night, have dinner and show 16 mm movies of their products. It was a big production, setting up the screen, projector and speakers. We found it entertaining and would look forward to those nights.”
Closner earned his bachelor’s degree in business from Texas A&M University in 1971, and followed it immediately with a Master of Business Administration also from Texas A&M.
Upon graduation, Closner decided that south Texas might not be the place for him, so he went to work for Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) in Pittsburg, Pa. A week before he was to begin, Closner married his wife Susan. They had a one-week honeymoon and then set off for Pittsburg.
Over the next 10 years, Closner also worked for Allied Signal Corp., and he and Susan lived in five different states. But when he was laid off in 1981, Bennett and Susan decided it was time to move back to Texas.
“I didn’t go to work for the family business right away,” he said. “We came back to Texas, looked around, and then decided to try it for three to five years to see if it would work out. At the end of that time, we decided to make a commitment to it and go the full distance.”
After working in a large corporate environment, Bennett says he was looking for a change and found that the corporate setting was not for him.
“I’m very hands-on in business,” said Closner. “In my corporate life I learned that you’re a very small cog in a very big global wheel, and you never have the final decision.”
He also found it much more enjoyable to work outdoors and be involved with infrastructure construction.
“I think I probably enjoy the business of the business more than anything,” he said.
In 1982, Closner joined the company with an outside sales territory. Over the years, he also served in marketing and manufacturer relations, information technology, sales management and finance. He acquired the business from his brother Frank, his parents and other family members in 2003 and became president and CEO.
Closner credits his time spent outside of the equipment industry with shaping the kind of strategic thinker that he is today.
“During my corporate tenure, I was in charge of strategic planning for a segment of a large corporation,” he said. “For three years, all I did was think about strategic moves this division should make. The timeline started at five years and went out from there. After doing that for three years straight I just started thinking long-term all the time.”
When he came into the family business, Closner discovered that his previous corporate experience had been like a dress rehearsal for his future role with Closner
“Thinking long-term seemed to infiltrate my decisions, and so now it seems like every decision I make goes back to that strategic planning position,” he said. “I think about every decision I make in terms of what the consequences will be in five or 10 years. We want to stay in business in the long-term.”
One of the biggest influences on Closner – both on how he makes decisions and the type of manager he has become –was Pat Gibson, a career sales employee at Closner Equipment. Gibson taught Closner that the decisions he makes now impacts the company years down the road.
“He showed me how product knowledge, courtesy and hard work can create very long-lasting customer bonds,” he said. “I saw through Pat that decisions he had made and problems he solved for customers or manufacturers 10 to 20 years earlier were still benefiting our company. It was then that I decided that there are two ways of doing business: One is long term and one is to hit a home run but it’s not fair to the customer. I decided that trying to do a win-win situation was better than win-lose situations where we won but sent the customer down the wrong road.”
Texas in ’09
What Closner says he loves most about the CE industry is the complexity, pace, being outdoors and working with civil contractors. His typical day involves a mixture of every aspect of dealership management – from sales calls and human resources issues to inventory planning, financial issues and even road trips.
The highway budget in Texas is $4 billion per year, and the state distributes $300 to $400 million per month in work, says Closner. As a dealer with a tight focus on paving and infrastructure, Closner Equipment works closely with the smartest contractors in the state and is involved with the largest, most active trade associations including the highway-heavy group of the Associated General Contractors of Texas.
While they didn’t feel the downturn until the summer of 2008 in Texas, 2009 is nevertheless expected to be weak, said Closner.
“We’re not very optimistic about ’09, unfortunately,” he said.
In 2009, the federal highway bill is up for reauthorization, and considering the size of the highway program in Texas, this bill could have a tremendous impact on the state. However, Closner says that he doesn’t expect to see a positive impact for some time.
“Most contractors in Texas have been eating away the back log, and most that are highway based will probably work through their back log by the second quarter,” he said. “We’re shifting to other opportunities short term, but we can’t find enough to replace a program that’s as big as highway.”
For now, Closner Equipment is focusing on governmental work and energy-related work.
“It’s a difficult environment right now, but we’re pushing service work and we’re active in getting our contractors to repair their machinery,” he said.
Since 1982, Closner says he’s been through several downturns but nothing like this one.
“This downturn has global implications and reaches across all segments of the economy,” said Closner. “But, having said that, the government stimulus now is also much greater than in the past. I expect most AED dealers to weather the storm.”
AED Plays Key Role
When asked to name the biggest influence in his professional career, Closner says AED played a major role not only in giving him key ideas for his business but in also allowing him to give back to the industry.
He first attended AED’s Annual Meeting in 1983 in Chicago with colleagues from Closner Equipment.
“I liked it immediately and found it to be a tremendous source for ideas and inspiration,” he said. “I have attended every convention and most mid-year events since then.”
Closner says that after many years of attending AED’s Annual Meetings, seeing the proverbial light bulb click on during convention is never a problem.
“I’ve got a list of 50 good ideas from AED that we haven’t implemented yet,” he said. “That’s 80 percent of the challenge. The biggest revelation I’ve had is how hard it is to change the direction of the ship once you decide you want to change it.”
Closner has served on AED’s board of directors since 1998, and he has served on the Product Support Round Table, Rental Round Table and Finance committee. Closner says that the goal was never to become the Chairman, but he’s excited to be here.
“I think most people start out participating in AED because it makes sense, and one day you end up in leadership, and think ‘how did that happen,’ and ‘I hope I’ll be able to contribute,’” he said. “You simply attend lots of events and participate in AED because it is relevant and beneficial to your business, then one day the nominating committee calls and you decide leadership is a way to give back.”
And no two chairmen are cut from exactly the same cloth.
“AED’s leadership comes from a very diverse pool, geographically, by dealership size and in specialization, and I think that is one of the strengths of AED,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about AED and about all the people that came before me, and so many were prominent in the industry…but I’m looking forward to it and I know it’s going to be exciting.”
As Chairman, Closner says he will continue the priorities set by his immediate two predecessors, Paul Campbell and Les Bebchick, which include public policy advocacy, workforce development and membership retention.
“These are serious goals that can only be achieved over long periods of time,” he said. “I hope that 2009 is remembered as the year AED reinvented itself. We hope to refocus on the three key issues that have the greatest long-term benefit for our members.”
He also sees a serious need to attract more young people into the CE industry.
“Construction manufacturing and distribution are a little out of vogue and may represent the “old economy” to many of today’s youth,” he said. “We need to find a way to attract future leaders so we can evolve.”
Outside of the industry, Bennett and his wife Susan love spending leisure time together outdoors. Closner says they are avid tennis players and they enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities.
The Closners have three sons, each married, as well as two grandchildren. Their oldest son Kyle, a graduate of Texas A&M University, works as an IT manager for Capshear, a technology implementation company. Their middle son, Jon-Bennett, a University of Alabama graduate, works as Closner Equipment’s Austin-area manager. Their youngest son Myles, also a Texas A&M University graduate, works in wholesale marketing for Pepsico.
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