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Ryan Spence stepped onto a tool truck right after graduation; it’s the only job he even considered. Perhaps that’s because, since his father had a long career in the same business, Ryan had an up-close-and-personal view of the life of a professional tool distributor.

After a few ride-alongs, including riding with the company founder who told him more about the business and the opportunities, Ryan took the plunge. It’s been seven years since Ryan joined USA Tools, and he says he’s never looked back. “I like the business, like sales (and) like doing my own thing. It’s something different every day.”

The business plan

USA Tools is a network of independent dealers in the west-central part of Florida. Founded in 1989 by Ken DePies, the founder’s original plan was to recruit retired tool dealers to operate small trucks on a three-day route.

But business grew too fast for such a modest plan, so DePies dissolved the group, generated a traditional full-schedule route and recruited his son Paul to operate a second route. That part of Florida is known for having a ‘transient community’ of techs. DePies’ plan was to build a network of completely independent dealers who could transfer accounts within the group instead of having to track down individual customers when they move from one shop to another.

Today Ryan Spence is one of twelve independent dealers associated with USA Tools, and he’s proof that the strategy is working. Although he said skips are the most difficult part of the job, he said they are “not really an issue lately. They don’t go very far, so they’re going to pop up somewhere. There’s usually another USA dealer who finds them.”

The route

Ryan was assigned a territory around Brandon, FL, just east of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area. He built his route from scratch through cold-calls.

In addition to independent automotive repair shops and one dealership, his route also includes heavy equipment dealers, salvage yards (automotive and heavy truck), body shops, and a few marinas. Ryan said his marina stops used to be quite profitable, but that part of his business almost completely dried up in the recent economic recession, “because they’re not selling boats anymore.”

In the industrial area where we rode with Ryan, there are so many shops that it takes him two days visit them all. Another part of the route includes about 10 night-shift stops, which Ryan completes in one night. Many of his customers speak only Spanish, and although Ryan speaks only English, he said language is not a problem.

A bigger issue is the dramatic decrease in the number of customers at the industrial equipment shops that make up so much of his Monday route. One shop went from 20 techs down to just three. When asked if the stop was still worthwhile, Ryan said he wouldn’t think of abandoning that stop. “Your customers rely on you. It’s not just the brand or the product, it’s the service we’re selling too.”

It’s apparent that his customers return the loyalty. At one of his salvage yard stops, even though Ryan is not the only tool distributor they see, the business owner made sure Ryan was paid even though most of the techs were out that day.

In a typical 50-hour week, Ryan drives about 500 miles to visit 120 shops and collects from about 235 people. His total customer base is closer to 350 people, but many pay cash so they’re not all on his books.

The right products

Ryan stocks his truck almost exclusively from Integrated Supply Network (ISN), and he buys about three months’ worth of inventory from their tradeshow every year.

“They keep (the ISN show) entertaining; you’re not just looking at tools all day.” Last year the show included raffles for a variety of prizes, including several new cars. Ryan says they also offer great deals on tools, and most importantly, they offer “excellent” service to their customers. “They’re always there for you. If you have a problem with something, they take care of you … they stand behind their products.”

Whether it was the products or the way they were displayed on the truck, Ryan didn’t seem to have to do much selling that day. When we pointed out that almost every customer at each stop knew what they wanted to buy, Ryan noted that “A lot of it’s just impulse…(if I) keep the guys focused on tools instead of talking about the ball game, it leads to more sales.”

When asked about his approach to selling scan tools, he replied “Some guys know what they want, but most guys want to try something out first.” For this reason, he loaned a new Launch X431 to a customer, fully expecting the customer to buy it the following week. “A lot of times when you put it in their hands, if it’s a great product, it’s going to sell itself.”

Ryan was a young man fresh out of college with no business experience or product knowledge. But with help from experienced and caring people, and with a lot of dedication, he built a successful business as an independent tool dealer in a territory filled with stiff competition. He made it look easy, but he wanted to make sure we didn’t get the wrong impression.

“Lately I’ve noticed a lot (of new dealers) don’t stick around. It’s a tough business…a lot of people think it’s easier than it is. It’s a great business as long as you want to put the time into it.”

For Ryan Spence, hard work, good teachers and good luck seem to have come together at just the right time.

 

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