Defined simply by the attainment of profits, the accomplishment of goals and the achievement of purpose, success is not so easily acquired. When it is realized, it’s typically due to a multitude of factors. While there is no set formula for success, there are many common components contributing to it.
Overwhelmingly, successful equipment dealers credit their employees as one of the biggest reasons for their success. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a business. The customers wouldn’t come back,” claims Chad Gerondale, sales manager for Construction Machinery Industrial (CMI), a family business his father launched in Alaska in 1986. “It’s all about how they serve our customers.”
Although the company has expanded to four locations (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan), a family atmosphere persists. Some of the company’s first employees are still there. “They don’t leave,” Gerondale says. It’s not just the good benefits package, although picking up the tab for workers’ health insurance for the rest of the year is “truly a benefit” in his eyes. It’s hiring the right people and spending time training them, introducing them to CMI’s processes and corporate culture.
Furthermore, it’s trust and inclusion in the business that generates loyalty. “We give our people autonomy in decision-making because we trust their judgment.” Gerondale believes their employees emulate the family’s pride and become invested in the business. “Road jobs here are 24 hours a day,” he says. It’s not unusual for a product support specialist to get a midnight call from a customer who needs a part. One employee went to the shop after receiving such a call, but when he couldn’t find the requested hose in stock, he took one off a machine on the lot and drove it out to the customer.
“Building a team is the biggest challenge,” reveals Yadi Rodriguez, marketing manager for Sonsray Machinery. Owner Matt Hoelscher bought the Case dealership – and about a dozen others – seven years ago as an investment. “He assembled a passionate core team. It’s not just a job; they are important and contribute to our success,” says Rodriguez.
Another family business, Swanston Equipment Co., credits its success to a “good mix of tenured people and fresh blood,” according to Molly Swanston, heavy equipment sales. “Fresh eyes are great,” says the fourth-generation businesswoman. “It gets rid of the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality. It means we’re open to new suggestions, from technology to social media.”
She says management recognizes and tracks contributions from their 60 employees at three locations – Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and Fargo and Minot in North Dakota – and notes their impact on the business. “We’re a people-centric place,” Swanston says. “We care about families.”
Even at a small dealership where her dad gives the employees pickles made by her mom, corporate culture is a “big thing,” she admits. Nevertheless, dedicated ownership and leadership by practitioners in the business are essential.
So is hiring the right employees. Swanston says that although they have experts specializing in different areas, they are also open to candidates with experience in other industries. “We’re not focused on a specific job. Great customer service and a willingness to learn are crucial attributes.” Ultimately, she concludes, the company has a “good mix of people, brands and styles,” with their main focus always on the customer.
A successful equipment dealer becomes embedded in their customers’ business processes. “Their success is our success,” Gerondale believes.
“We get to know our customers,” Swanston adds. “We know their goals and adapt to their needs. They can count on us.” That means responding to weekend calls.
Sometimes it means more than that. CMI has had to figure out new ways to stay in contact with customers due to travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19. In a region with a lot of remote jobs and few, if any, roads, getting a tech to the site to fix equipment and still comply with restrictions is challenging.
Getting the right equipment to the customer is equally challenging, but, as Gerondale says, “We stand behind what we sell.” When a new product didn’t work out for a customer, CMI made it right. “We sold an ejector bed on a truck to ConocoPhillips,” he recalls. “It didn’t work out.” They bought back the $500,000 piece of equipment and bought a different one from another manufacturer with a different specification.
Understanding the importance of product support, particularly in a remote region without roads, is why CMI deals with premium manufacturers. “If we don’t have parts in stock, they have to be flown in. Access is difficult. Big parts are expensive or slow; they can take a week and a half on a barge from Seattle.”
Customers need to be able to trust a dealership beyond getting a fair price. “We are practitioners of what we sell,” Swanston continues. “We don’t just sell machines; we own them.”
Establishing trust has been a priority for Sonsray. “The previous owners abandoned the business,” Rodriguez reveals. “We had to convince people we were here to stay.” Informing people that there’s an authorized Case dealership on the West Coast and building a brand identity has been hampered by Case’s shutdown during COVID-19, with parts from China delayed. “Parts and service and rental are our bread and butter. We make money by taking care of our customers.”
The right equipment and technology
Taking care of customers includes competitive pricing, in-house financing and in-house warranties extending beyond manufacturer warranties. “Case does a good job with finance options, but we have new equipment specials, like 0% interest for five years on compact equipment,” Rodriguez says. “We try to make [buying] easy.”
According to Dylan Pellerin, marketing coordinator, partnering with vendors has contributed to Bottom Line Equipment’s success and growth. The heavy equipment and specialty attachment sales and rental company now have seven locations throughout Louisiana and Texas, serving industrial, heavy civil infrastructure, energy, commercial and demolition contractors along the Gulf Coast.
“Over the last decade, we have seen an accelerated pace of technology being integrated into the machines we rent and sell,” Pellerin observes. GPS-equipped machines have become a standard feature, increasing uptime, accuracy and safety. Their platform, Bottom Line Link, collects data from a multitude of manufacturer-specific telematics systems and monitors a multi-brand heavy equipment fleet from one dashboard. They can monitor machines remotely and dispatch service technicians to address any issues the machines are reporting, in some cases before the customer is even aware of the problem.
“Customers appreciate productivity, fuel consumption data and analysis to help them better manage their equipment costs.”
Customers are now demanding machine and grade control technology. There are several significant suppliers of grade control, from lasers to GPS to satellite, so Bottom Line partners with industry leaders. “A large portion of our fleet is machine-control ready,” Pellerin says. “As a preferred equipment supplier on most of the major projects along the Gulf Coast, we are always looking to have the latest technology available, as our customers utilize these tools to increase their productivity.”
CMI works with manufacturers to balance inventory and timing. “We need equipment we can rent 365 days a year.” Gerondale talks about the seasonality of Alaskan construction. “During the winter, we’re not renting pumps or excavators. We need a product mix to generate revenue in the winter.”
Even in “normal” times, logistics are necessary in Alaska, where weight restrictions make it difficult to move equipment in the spring, so fleet movement must be planned in advance. “We move heavy stuff before the restrictions start,” Gerondale explains. “We coordinate shipping from the manufacturers and to the customers, who want rental gear ready to go so they can pre-stage equipment on-site.” He says that this year, due to COVID-19, they have more equipment sitting in the yard, not rented, than he’s ever seen.
Timing has been better for Swanston Equipment, with sales this year ahead of last year’s, largely because equipment for road-building projects this year was sold in March and rental has picked up since COVID-19 struck. However, Swanston admits, “We’re worried about 2021.”
Forming partnerships with the manufacturers eases some of that worry. Swanston has a longtime relationship with Bobcat. “Quality products make a difference,” Swanston says. “We make a major commitment to keep our customers working. Manufacturer support is part of uptime.” She says parts support and availability are critical, and they’ve been known to call the manufacturer for help to service their customers expeditiously.
Marketing and more
Machine sales at Sonsray have also increased, Rodriguez reports. She attributes the uptick to marketing. They’ve also been aggressively promoting rentals during the pandemic, allowing customers to lock in a special rate for the entire year by renting a backhoe in May.
Sonsray’s marketing plan also includes trade shows, online ads and a few local magazine ads. Rodriguez has been learning about digital marketing to amplify the company’s branding and reinforce growth. “We post a lot,” she says. “Google likes lots of posts; it keeps us relevant.”
Visibility is critical, whether in the virtual online world or in real estate, where “location, location, location” has long been an important adage. With that advice in mind, Bottom Line recently opened a service center in Broussard, Louisiana, with highway frontage and “great visibility,” Pellerin says, along with “a spacious yard for our equipment, plenty of shop space to service our equipment and a multitude of other accommodations” that he predicts will help boost sales and enable faster service.
Visibility goes hand in hand with memorability. Swanston believes longevity and legacy play a significant part in her company’s success. “Our name is recognizable.” But she says setting department goals and focusing on accountability, with key performance indicators for every department, contribute to that success. Communication is critical for data-driven business platforms. “We update the dashboard daily and hold monthly meetings with department heads.”
In it “for the long game,” Swanston says they know the market. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing to learn and exploring new methods, new information, new ideas and a variety of resources.
Among those, she says, “AED is a great resource we tap into.”