First and goal

John Wolfe has been a Matco dealer for more than 20 years. Every year since 1995, this Plainfield, Ill. tool dealer has achieved the company’s Top 150 Distributor Award, often finishing in the number 20 spot, or number 14, or number 6. Now for four years in a row, from 2006 through 2009, John Wolfe has been Matco’s Number One Tool Dealer. How did he become so successful in the tool business?

“It helps having goals,” John says, “Be responsible for yourself, for your own destiny.”

When asked about those goals, John says he tries to achieve a specific dollar amount each week rather than selling specific products. But there is one product John tries to sell on a regular basis. “Usually it’s a toolbox.”

What to sell and how to sell it

Logically, in addition to being number one in sales all those years, he was also number one in toolbox sales. He attributed that success to good prospecting.

“Everything begins with finding a prospect. If you don’t find a prospect, you’re not going to be able to do two things: make a presentation, or close a sale.”

John described prospecting as “not talking yourself out of talking to someone about a toolbox.” He said it’s easy to tell yourself that a prospective customer “doesn’t want one or need one, or he’s been crying about money anyhow.” Instead, John says “Just bring it up. You have to.”

John’s success is also the result of lessons learned early in his career, and one is the importance of everyone’s time. When he entered the business in 1990, John says “it was a social business. You would go in to a shop, socialize and hopefully they’d buy something from you. You sort of get where you can (by) being social.” John says socializing is still an important aspect of selling, but over the years it has become less so because, for his customers and their employers, time is money.

“The bosses want (technicians) in and out. They don’t want them on the truck socializing.

Although John tries to keep his talks all business, he knows it’s still important to at least engage the customer a little bit.

“Maybe enough to a point where they develop trust, but make your sale and move along to the next guy.”

How John uses his own time has also changed over the years. His first four years in business he worked Monday through Friday. But for the next 12 years he worked a four-day week, sometimes taking off an extra day mid-week and working Saturdays. In 2006, he returned to a five-day week to cope with a difficult market, and the strategy paid off.

In 2007, John became the first Matco distributor to top $1 million in sales. The following year was even more difficult because of the economy, but John says he still did better than most other distributors. He noted that 2010 would be similar. “This year, I’ll probably be in the top 10.”

Starting out

John joined Matco at the age of 24, but before that he had worked for two years as a tech, then for another four years managing a series of gas station/mini marts for Mobil Oil Company.

John says this gave him a working knowledge of management, accounting, marketing and other skills that helped prepare him for being a successful tool distributor. His last gas station also had service bays, where the oil company allowed John to run his own repair shop. That arrangement lasted only a year, but it gave him a taste of self-employment. Several tool trucks stopped at his shop each week, and that’s what gave him the idea of becoming a distributor.

It was a struggle at first because John’s territory was one that Matco hadn’t occupied for quite a few years.

John says a distributor’s second and third years can be harder than the first because “you have advantages in the first year that aren’t there later.” Those fleeting advantages include having new inventory, new sales techniques and fresh motivation. One more advantage that is quickly missed when it’s gone is start-up money, and an inexperienced distributor can be tempted to use it incorrectly.

“I was naive; I took a lot of money out of the business.” But he was still attracted by the advantages of self employment, and that finally motivated him to do what needed to be done.

When asked what advice he would offer to someone struggling after only a few years in the business, the first thing John said was “Be careful how you spend your time.”

‘Cultivating’ a customer base

One of the most important things a distributor can do is to pay attention to how he’s running his route, making sure it’s being done efficiently. John drives only about 300 miles a week, but he still visits about 300 customers. John stops at a variety of shops, including mom-and-pop shops, large chain shops, one car dealership, some heavy truck shops and two small airports.

He also says you “can’t stay away from a place just because there’s a lot of turnover. Go where the money is, don’t be afraid of it.” That said, it’s also important to “prospect at shops that offer promise; don’t spend time where you’re not succeeding.”

And how does he handle those customers once he’s working with them?

John advises it’s important “letting customers know you care about your business.” He does this by making up his own fliers and his own contests for customers. “Do things over and above just showing up regularly, because people appreciate those things.”

Patience is also important. John says he thinks of a tool territory “like a farmer’s field: it takes cultivation, it doesn’t happen in one season. Some territories are better cultivated than others, but they can all be brought around. It just takes time.”

Goals, personal responsibility, time management: concepts that are familiar to anyone who drives a sales route for a living. They’re also part of a balancing act that needs to be adjusted from time to time, and to some people, that’s the art in selling. Some of John Wolfe’s art hangs on the wall of his tool truck, in the form of four Number One Nationwide medals.



Top 5 Tools

  1. TOOLBOXES. (He had three on the truck – “I’ve got a lot more at home. If I could carry 10, I’d carry 10.”)
  2. 1/2” impact guns
  3. 3/8” and 1/4” air ratchets
  4. 1/4" cordless impact gun
  5. Ratcheting wrenches