Diane Benck never set out to be a trailblazer. Yet, here she is.
The vice president of general operations at West Side Tractor Sales on the outskirts of Chicago is the first woman to be named chairwoman of Associated Equipment Distributors (AED).
“It always takes me aback when people say, ‘Look at what you accomplished and how you stepped into an incredibly male-dominated business,’ ” Benck says. “I just kept trying to blend in and be one of the guys all the time. But at this point in my career, I do realize that I’m a role model for women starting out in this business. It wasn’t my intention by any means, but certainly is something that I’m very proud of contributing to the industry.”
Benck and her brothers, Steve and Tom, grew up working in the family business founded by their parents, Mary and Rich, in Naperville, Illinois.
“We all started working in the dealership while in high school and college,” she recalls. “We did a lot of manual labor. Since I was a girl, I was spared the wash rack but spent many hours putting away parts, counting o-rings, answering phones and having an assortment of odd jobs over the years.”
Her original intention, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and earning a master’s degree in psychology, was not to work in the equipment distribution industry. Yet somehow she couldn’t drag herself away from the business.
“My goal was to be a psychologist,” Benck recalls. “After graduate school, I had a full- time job as a therapist and I was also teaching a couple classes at a community college. As if two jobs weren’t enough, I couldn’t depart from my duties at West Side Tractor. I looked in the mirror and said ‘Why can’t you quit there?’”
After some much needed soul searching, she accepted that she and West Side were inseparable.
“It wasn’t so much about the tractors or the industry,” she says. “But I wanted to continue to play a part within the family business. So I quit my other jobs and dedicated my career to West Side Tractor. As I reflect on this journey, it has become one of the best decision I ever made.”
The skills Benck acquired as a psychologist, particularly those related to communicating and listening, have served her well in the equipment industry.
“Those are skills I certainly carried into managing employees, as well as supplier and customer relationships,” Benck says. “In fact, I still use those particular skills occasionally by doing group therapy between sales and service or service and parts.”
By her own admission, she is also the family therapist and the “glue” that holds the family together.
“I think the fact that I love family businesses and what they represent, including all of their messiness and complicated relationships is the psychologist in me.”
Vital to running a successful family business is looking at what strengths each person brings to the table.
“Myself and my siblings have different areas of expertise that we bring to the table,” she says. “One particular area my family has been exceptionally skilled at through the years is understanding what each person has to offer, and we will often say, ‘Hey, you’re better at that than I am. Would you mind taking care of this for me?’ It is important to first and foremost do what is right for the company and set our egos aside.”
Today the three siblings are equal partners in West Side Tractor, which their parents turned over to them in 1986. Steve is in charge of machine sales and the company’s specialized rail business, while Tom manages the consignment and used equipment fleets.
“In general, Steve and Tom are great at building customer relationships and are very knowledgeable of the industry and machine application,” says Diane, who ran the company’s parts and service department for years. “They are excellent at getting out on job sites and helping the customer figure out what they need. That’s not necessarily my strength.
“Do I have work boots in my office? Yes, but I’m generally focused on our internal operations and giving quality service to customers. One of West Side Tractor’s main priorities is to push the team in a positive way to improve metrics, both financially and in customer service.”
Providing quality service while advocating for those in the equipment distribution industry is also part of what she wants to continue to offer as AED’s new chairwoman.
“I think AED has really done a great job of enhancing all the programs and offering new educational opportunities, and I want to continue down that trajectory,” she says. “I want to continue to offer top-notch education for the next generation entering the industry.”
This includes AED members in Canada.
“The association’s presence wasn’t strong in Canada, and we have recently made new enhancements towards our Canadian members,” she says. “I want to continue to make sure we have a strong value proposition for the Canadian dealers in our association and hopefully be able to continue to increase membership there as well.”
Here at home, Benck will be keeping a close eye on what’s going in Washington D.C.
“I think staying on top of advocacy and continuing to enhance our government affairs program has always been a prime objective for me with AED and definitely will be during my chairmanship as well.”
In Benck’s eyes, the happenings – or non-happenings – in D.C. are some of AED’s biggest challenges moving forward. Particularly of concern is the tax reform measure that recently passed. “I was very impressed with our efforts in Washington D.C. during this monumental restructuring of our tax code. AED staff and the board worked overtime to make sure our interests were represented. I told some dealers recently that AED justified the last 10 years of dues they’ve paid to the organization by the efforts that were put forth for them in D.C. during the last few months.
“It is mostly positive, but the devil is in the details,” Benck says. “Congress and the Senate are trying to do us a favor, too, as smaller and midsize companies. My biggest worry is that sometimes in their effort to do right, there are unintended consequences.”
Aside from tax reform, Benck sees the lack of a long-term infrastructure funding plan as the next biggest challenge facing AED.
“We haven’t raised the gas tax in, I think, 30-some years,” she says. “A lot of states have now put on a gas tax, but federally they’ve been very concerned about increasing that, because it hits the lower end of the income group when you increase a gas tax. The revenue pot just keeps getting smaller and smaller. It’s challenging to find bipartisan support for new funding mechanisms.”
While Benck doesn’t have a ready solution to the infrastructure issue or the tax issues, she does promise that AED will continue to advocate for its members.
“Can I say what will happen? I have absolutely no idea; I have no control over it. But we’re going to fight hard to get the point across in Washington.”