Matco Tools distributor Chip Thurston has been at this for awhile; he’s seen ups and downs in the economy affect his business several times since he started selling tools in 1987. He has some solid advice for any distributors on weathering out the storm.
“Service is my big thing. That’s number one in my book,” Chip said. He added to watch your bills and purchasing and buy smart, but outstanding service is the primary goal.
“I really pride myself on [service]. I try not to forget any little thing. If a guy needs a little thing, you might spend 15 minutes on looking up a number,” Chip said. “It’s that little stuff that really counts, and it comes back to you.”
He considers this economy worse than any he’s sold in since he started, but good customer service is essential all the time anyway.
“Even when things are good, there’s heavy competition,” he said. “You really need to up service when it comes to competition,” whether it is other trucks, parts stores selling more tools or the Internet resellers and eBay.
The Internet is a huge problem for mobiles, Chip said. “So I try to educate my customers that I provide a service, and a payment plan. The warranty issue — I take care of it. If it’s just a repair issue, I still take care of it. That’s just the service part of it. They need to know that I provide a service, and you pay a little extra for a service.
“They can’t call eBay when they have a question about a special tool.”
Another of Chip’s concerns related to the economy is that he would like to have more money on the street right now.
“My turns are pretty decent … my biggest concern with this economy is not so much the collections, but I want to get more money on the road, so I have more to collect.
“The guys that you want to do business with are being conservative,” he said. “But you just make sure you’re reliable, there every week, punctual. And have a good attitude. That’s the big, huge thing. Even if you’re having a bad day, crying on the inside, still be smiling on the outside. Keep your service level up.
“Guys need to be able to count on you.”
Chip covers shops in and around Lansdale, Pa., a half-hour west of Philadelphia. Prior to that, he was a mechanic — until his Matco distributor found out he was looking for something new.
“I wanted to get my own business going. I was really looking for a shop,” Chip said. “They ran this by me, and I liked it. And here I am. I was really hungry to do something on my own.
“It was a little scary in the beginning. I was young. Not really an outgoing-type guy, but you learn to talk to people. Rejection is a hard thing. I experienced that a lot in the beginning.”
Almost worse than straight-up rejection were the “We’ll sees,” Chip said.
“You get that, ‘We’ll see if you’re here a year from now.’ Well how do they expect me to stay in business if they don’t come on the truck?” Chip asked. But you have to show up every week to gain the business, he said.
“You’ve got to do it, but you keep it short and sweet. Plant the seed. Just smile, say ‘You guys need anything?’ Alright, see you next week. Be polite. They’ll probably come around quicker than six months.” It is awkward to deal with, Chip said.
Now, 22 years later, Chip has built his five days up to about 500 customers he’s seeing every week in everything from one-man shops to multi-bay dealerships.
Chip said every day is different for him, and he spends one to two days a week calling on second- and third-shift shops.
“I prefer a late start. I set my days up that way. … Like the last two nights I worked, I worked until one or two in the morning,” Chip said. He follows that with a late start, but on that day he still doesn’t get home until about 9 p.m.
Chip feels his business is a bit unique because “everything wrong seems to work for me.”
“I really don’t consider myself a salesman. I consider myself a mechanic that sells tools, and I’m happy with that title, and that’s how I actually feel. I can show guys how to use the tools,” he said. “But I’m not a pushy salesman.”
He even tends to avoid the tote-and-promote.
“Some of my customers want me to come in and show them everything, spread it all out. It’s just not my technique or style,” Chip said. He added that he found he had a tendency to forget or miss a tool after displaying his wares, “something gets left behind or I’ll get distracted by another tech calling me over.”
He counters that by carrying less in and keeping closer track on what he does.
“It’s just the way I am,” Chip said. “I can deal with my weaknesses and figure them out.”
One unique thing an outsider will notice about Chip’s business is his truck — it’s the same one he bought in 1987 when he started out.
“I love this truck … for an ’87, the front’s pretty modern looking yet. It’s still going, 22 years. It’s still pretty solid,” Chip said. “I like the walk-in vans. You don’t have to jump out of it,” and back in at every stop.
Chip is considering buying a new truck, but is waiting out the economy. His Precision only has 171,000 miles on it.
“The only reason I’d buy [a new truck] is probably because the fuel economy would be better. And image. I had this [repainted] about six or seven years ago … For a year, guys would say, ‘You finally got a new truck,’ ” he said.
“With tough times it’s even harder to make a truck payment. … I keep my money in inventory; try to get it out on the street.”
Like many distributors, Chip takes advantage of deals from Matco throughout the year, and especially at the annual Tool Expo, and stores overstock in his “garage/warehouse.”
“Extra stuff from the expo, I try to stock up on a lot of stuff that I’ll sell over the year. You can’t carry all of it on the truck,” Chip said. He makes a special effort to take advantage of any deals he can find in consumables.
“Hand soap. Our hand soap is awesome. I’ll get more of that [at Tool Expo], because it’s a consumable, like the gloves. … Jerky, it’s worth having it.
“And the Redback shoes that we sell are awesome,” Chip said. “I keep a few sizes. … Once I get a guy in them, they always come back for more. Majority of the guys are getting two years out of them. The Redbacks are just fantastic.”
He always keeps a toolbox on the truck, though he admits the toolbox sales are “cyclical.”
“It just seems like it’s something in the air. All of a sudden, it’s box season, and they’re all talking about a new box. … But guys are watching their spending right now.”
When it comes around to “box season” again, Chip has a tool cart in the garage that can move onto the truck, and he also has pictures on his cellphone of used toolboxes available from his inventory.
Besides consumables, and outside box season, Chip estimates the bulk of his sales are in pneumatic tools and hardlines, particularly specialty tools.
“Special application tools, I keep a lot of that stuff … guys usually call me first when they need something. I want to make sure I have what they need.”
It’s one thing to carry the right tools; it’s another to collect after the sale. You need to have a good relationship with your customers, yet minimize your time with the problem ones.
“I’ve met a lot of great people, that’s probably what I really look forward to, seeing certain guys,” Chip said. “Of course, there’s a handful of ‘I can’t wait until we’re done,’ people, too. But I’ve met a lot of super people doing this.
“Some guys are just tough, always wanting discounts. Or they don’t want to pay you.”
Chip said he had a tough time with skips and non-payments in the beginning.
After being “burned” several times, “you kind of learn from that. Then you get a little wiser,” Chip said. “I read people. I want to meet the guy, talk to the guy and see where he’s coming from. And if seems like he’s going to be a risk, I’ll hold him off. Right away he wants to start an account, and he has nothing to put down. That makes me a little leery.
“I’ve actually avoided some high-volume turnover shops. Basically I give shops three strikes. … That’s it. Then I just stop going there.”
Not that his route is changing on a regular basis, though.
“I get calls all the time of a customer leaving for a shop that I don’t go to. It’s hard, it’s really hard, to squeeze someone in, once you have a route set up,” Chip said.
There is a certain amount of loyalty built up, both ways.
“If the guys aren’t buying, I can’t just stop going there. If it’s a couple months, it always turns around. I just feel obligated to service them if they’ve been doing business with me for so long.
“I try to limit myself now. Like some of the dealerships are just slow. … Normally you’d spend a couple hours in there seeing 15 guys, and if they’re not doing a whole lot of business you need to move it along. See everybody to take care of their tools and service and stuff, but you need to do it in a manageable amount of time and head out.
“That’s one trend I’ve noticed. Dealerships usually take up a lot of time. Back in the day, it was worth good money. Now, I can do a bunch of those mom-and-pop shops, and they pay you very well.”