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Mike Hess has been a Mac tool distributor for 22 years. Eleven years ago he hired his brother, Leroy, to drive a second route. For three years Mike was Mac’s Number One distributor, and for four years, Mike and Leroy were Mac’s Number One “Two-Man Team.” Mike plans to be Number One again, because he works hard to be “One of Two.”
Mike explains that in any given route, there will be two successful tool distributors. With flat-rate pay structures and the drastic reductions in flat-rate times in recent years, plus economic issues still plaguing the automotive service industry, plus competition from Internet tool sales, Mike says it’s rare for one route to support more than two distributors. “Two (distributors) are going to make it, the third will struggle, and a fourth won’t survive.”
Off the beaten path
Mike has developed two strategies to make sure he’s always one of the two. One is the way he has carefully built and maintained a profitable route. Even in shops where Mike is the most successful distributor, he knows he’ll always be competing against at least one more successful distributor, and maybe one or two others.
That’s one reason Mike says there is less business available at dealerships compared with smaller shops: the techs’ business is divided among many tool distributors. Mike still considers his dealership stops necessary, but for the amount of time spent versus the amount of money collected, he only wants to stop long enough to service his loyal Mac customers.
About one third of Mike’s route consists of stops in the farm country of Lebanon County, PA (east of Harrisburg), mostly shops that no other distributors visit.
Some of those customers he sees only twice a month, like a school bus fleet operator, a small excavation business, a classic car restoration shop and a few others who are far enough off the beaten path that no other distributors have bothered to look for them. He found these shops just by “driving along, always on the lookout for opportunities.”
Opportunities are definitely there. Even though more windshield time is required to see these customers, Mike gets all of their tool business, and he knows the time-to-dollar ratio is in his favor.
Averaging about 650 miles to see 350 customers a week, Mike is constantly grooming his route, rearranging or replacing stops to look for a better return on his time.
Once each year, he examines his schedule and replaces the ten least profitable stops. He says there are two shops he knows he should replace now, but he likes the people so he keeps stopping there.
Another key to his success is the understanding that, at most of his in-town stops, “Nobody needs me. If I stopped coming here, another truck would be here tomorrow and (customers) would still get their tools.” He understands that each customer’s business is a privilege that must be earned with service and professional respect.
The importance of professional relationships became very clear when Mike and his brother experimented with trading routes. Even though the same names were on the truck, Mike learned that Leroy’s customers are indeed loyal. “The very second I walked in, the resistance was there. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. I got calls from my customers (who his brother visited that day) telling me ‘Hey, I’m dealing with you.’” That experiment ended after one week.
The day we rode with Mike, he dismounted the truck at each stop with a new air-powered cutoff tool with an extended head, great for removing the rear axle on Windstar minivans (Ford TSB 03-16-1). Most techs recognized its value right away and Mike expects to sell several copies of that tool in the coming weeks. We noticed that no one asked how much it cost and mentioned this to Mike. “The longer you do this professionally, the less they ask about price. It takes time, but eventually they like to deal with you, look forward to seeing you come in the door. No, they don’t buy every week, but they wouldn’t want you not to come.”