Rick Hodges, of Watkinsville, Ga., has been a mobile tool distributor for nearly 20 years, the last nine as an independent covering Athens and the surrounding area. He went independent in order to grow his business, and with sales last year near $700,000 it's clear he has.
Not that he’s doing it all on his own. Rick is quick to credit his wife, Krissi (or “Ms. Rick” to some techs), for her assistance on the route.
“My wife is a huge part of my business,” Rick said. “Between UPS, collections and all the little [stuff] that I don't have to do, she's worth of a lot of money every week. … I haven't been to UPS in 15 years.
“She keeps me out here, turning the money.”
One of the big things for Rick is that Krissi does a collections run for the business every Friday, calling on all the customers that he misses one way or another during the week.
“You're either going to pay me—I can take checks, credit cards, winning lottery tickets, cash—and if you don't, my wife will look you in the face on Friday.” During the week, Rick marks his sheets next to customers that miss payments. “I don't even speak to her about it … she goes through the list every Friday morning, and she'll go visit the guys I've got marked. They know her … they know she’s coming.
“And a lot of guys have a whole different attitude in front of a woman,” Rick said.
“A lot of times, I’ll get a $100 bill,” even from some of the customers who would only pay Rick $15 each week, Krissi said.
“I kind of grew on them,” she said. “At first they were a little apprehensive. Not anymore. Actually, my name and number is on the business cards too, so if they can't get him they can call me.”
Where collections can be the hardest part of the job, Rick feels lucky to have Krissi working on accounts every week.
“Everything else is a cakewalk,” Rick said.
Krissi said she also helps out by doing all the “menial tasks,” including building roll carts and welding carts, checking inventory, doing computer updates, going to the bank and more, “like a secretary-plus.”
She also makes deliveries of needed tools and special orders.
“If something comes in on an off-day and they need it, I'll take it out there. … I think that's when [the techs] started liking me, when they realized I wasn't just there to get their money.”
Both Rick and Krissi like the freedom of adapting the business to their needs, whether it is an occasional impromptu day off or modifying the route days like Rick did when he took Mondays off to care for his ailing father.
“I guess because we've been out here, and we service them so well, that's not a problem,” Krissi said.
Rick’s Tuesday through Friday schedule wound up a regular thing and both are enjoying it. Krissi likes the extra time they get together and Rick said his “burn-out factor” has gone way down.
Rick found an added benefit: with Fridays being big high school sports days, he was prepared for time away for his son’s wrestling tournaments.
“I worked Fridays up to a certain point, and I’d tell everybody ahead of time, ‘When I miss you Friday, I'll be there Monday morning.’ So I'd zip out Monday morning for a couple hours and be home by lunch … without missing anything in my week.”
Working with ISN
With numbers like Rick’s, it’s apparent his approach to a “shortened” work week (he’s still doing 12-14 hour days Tuesday through Friday) is not a hindrance. In fact, he said he is among ISN’s top distributors.
A big part of his sales is his ability to stay on top of new tools, which he credits to reading Professional Tool & Equipment News and regular updates from ISN by fax and from his ISN regional sales manager, Greg Gann.
Rick has always keyed on stocking a variety of tools and a lot of new product on his truck, which led him to start using a warehouse (later bought by ISN) in addition to his flag.
“I took a back corner of my truck, and I basically dedicated it to ISN stuff, just a small section, for about a year,” he said. “Then I sat down and realized, out of that little section, it had become 50 percent of my sales. That kind of told me what people were looking for.”
The realization became a major influence for him to go independent.
“Compared to what I was used to, the fill rate is a lot, lot better at ISN. When you order, you're pretty much going to get it.
“I'm on a program where if it's new, and I think less than $300 or so, they just ship it to me. I don't need them to call me or ask me about it, I just want X amount. Of course, Greg's been great about knowing what I like and what I want on my truck.”
Rick considers Greg’s efforts one of the best assets to his business.
“Greg follows up on everything. He's to the point and doesn't waste a lot of time,” Rick said. “When he retires, I'm done.”
Apart from Greg’s stewardship and ISN’s fill rate, Rick and Krissi enjoy ISN’s annual tool expo. And particularly the boat they won last year.
“They always treat us very well; it's a lot of fun,” Krissi said.
“We used to go just the two of us, but now that our kids are old enough to go off on their own, we'll bring them. They go to the parks all day, and we just go and mingle and shop. Usually he shops and I keep a book—at every booth he just says what he wants and I mark it down and we turn it in. It's definitely a partner system on that.”
Going to the tool expo “does jog my memory on the good items that I've totally forgot about,” Rick said. “I always go thinking, ‘This year I'm not going to spend that much money.’ And I walk away spending $20,000.
“I think a lot of guys are afraid to buy inventory,” he said. “I know you've got to take some money to buy it, but I've taken a lot of chances. At one point when I wanted it to grow, instead of worrying about the money, I just ordered. … The day I started that is the day my business went from decent to really taking off.”
In fact, Rick’s truck seems packed with tools, top to bottom and front to back. And no toolbox in sight.
“I actually do a lot more toolboxes than people realize, I just don't load them on this truck,” Rick said. “I have them all drop-shipped.
I've known these guys for so long, most of them. … I always tell them, ‘Look, I'll drop-ship that box in, and if it's not what you're looking for, I'll pick it up and I’ll sell it to someone else.
“I've never picked one up.” And that saves Rick the time of moving boxes on and off the truck, and gives him that much more room to display other tools.
Rick hasn’t regretted going independent starting with his first stop minus a flag.
“Really, it went better than I expected,” Rick said. “I set up a worst-case scenario and I knew I could survive on that. But actually, my business went up.”
Communication was key to the switch.
“I passed out a letter to all of my customers telling them exactly what I was doing, where I was going to be for two weeks, how I was going to handle it. When I came back, I knew after the first stop I went to that it was going to work. I remember, I called my wife and said, ‘It'll be OK.’
“One of the big mistakes I think most independent guys make—why I took two weeks—is some people will be leery when you're gone,” Rick said. “I swore I would not come back out until this truck was right: all my decals were professional, plenty of inventory. I didn't come out looking like I'd be gone tomorrow.
“I think a lot of guys, instead of just going after it, pick at it and think, ‘Is this going to work?’ It won’t, unless you really go after it,” Rick said.
Rick and Krissi also credited to their software provider in easing the transition.
“I've got All Software (now AllSoft Technologies). Al Larson was really good to me, especially in the beginning. I could literally call him up and say, ‘This is great, but I need this.’ And in a few weeks I'd have an update.”
AllSoft solved one of Rick’s perceived deficiencies of going on his own.
“Everybody said that there would be two downfalls for going independent. One, the computer program, which is not a downfall, it's awesome (using AllSoft).
“And, two, a lot of guys live on contracts through the company … I don't like them. Everybody thinks that if you can't do contracts, you can't survive. It’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Without contracts, Rick said all the money he collects every week is his.
“It'd be hard to do—to go independent without somebody like ISN. They make it definitely worth it,” Rick said.
He's successful because he treats people just like he wants to be treated,” Krissi summed up. “You know, out there, everybody thinks the world of him. When his dad died, he had customers at the funeral. … He just treats everybody like how you would want to be treated. He'll do anything for you.”