Many shops east of Atlanta are being called on by Thompson Tools trucks, two independent distributors who both started out turning wrenches before selling them. Glenn Thompson has been an independent tool distributor for 19 years and started Thompson Tools.
“I was young, looking for something else,” Glenn said of his few years as a tech. “I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. … I was wondering how I’d support a family.”
Glenn said one of the mobile distributors who was calling on his shop knew he was dissatisfied and started talking to him about tool sales. As he investigated that company, an independent distributor also talked to him about tool sales.
“Two or three weeks later, I was driving a truck,” Glenn said.
Glenn covers rural and suburban areas just east of Atlanta, driving his tool truck more than 350 miles each week.
Mark Allen was a body man and customer of Glenn’s for about 12 years, and has been selling now as Thompson Tools for two years. More than tool sales, Mark wanted to have a positive impact on customers and to evangelize.
“I had been thinking about doing something different,” Mark said. “I’m getting older; my back was hurting a lot from leaning over hoods. … It was a crazy time to start it,” with the way the economy has gone.
Mark started out by calling on shops that Glenn couldn’t get to anymore and built his route up from that; he also had the benefit of using the Thompson Tools name and logo.
“It got him out there fast, with a name that a lot of people knew,” Glenn said. “We’re separate entities. … We do a lot of talking and sharing, and anything we can. But we’re each responsible for ourselves and what we do.”
“It’s amazing how close our routes are to each other, but how different they can be,” Mark said. “There are certain things that Glenn’s got out on his truck, that he’s sold one, two, three — in fact, [he has] sold quite a few A/C machines, and I’ve sold none — but, there’s a roll cart that I bet I’ve sold six or seven now, and he had one, priced less than mine, and he couldn’t give it away.”
The chief lesson both have brought to tool sales from their time as techs, is that customer service should always be foremost.
“I remember situations where when I would ask for something … and they didn’t care about helping me on the problem that I had with something small,” Mark said. “That irked me.”
For Mark, one example he’s run into is doing repairs and searching for parts for a broken tool he didn’t sell in the first place.
“It pays to take care of the problems that aren’t going to make you money, even the repairs that will cost you in terms of time spent.” When he finally found the needed part after weeks of searching, the tech was so happy to have the tool repaired he also spent nearly $300 on Mark’s truck that day.
“It’ll take you time to find that part,” Mark said. “Understand that they’re going to remember that in the future.”
“You’ve got to take care of your people, and be honest with them,” Glenn said. “No high pressure [sales] … If you need it great, if you don’t great.” Just treat everyone with respect, regardless of what they’ve bought.
“Tools sell themselves,” Mark said. But if you manipulate somebody to buy something they didn’t really need or couldn’t afford, they will remember that too.
The way things have been lately with the economy, Glenn and Mark have found that not forcing sales is truly essential to surviving on the truck. Both said that with the prospects at dealerships trending down, good relationships with their independent shop techs are vital.
“Some of these dealers are huge; I focus on three of them,” Glenn said. The others have lost business and techs there “don’t have the money.
“You can do just as well in a small shop, time-wise,” he said.
“Without question,” Mark added. He said that independent garages are his anchor, to the point where he’s considering dropping some dealerships altogether.
One “upside” to the economy, Glenn said, is that as jobs have become scarcer, many techs who tend to job-jump have been more likely to stay put. That means fewer skips and tracking headaches.
“That’s helped; it’s for a bad reason, but it’s still one aspect” of the economy, Glenn said.
Sales have become so erratic, Glenn said his average weekly tallies will vary by as much as $3,000. And collections still remain the hardest part of the job.
“I would love to get my money back in five weeks, but that’s not happening,” Glenn said. Ten is more likely, and not all are paying even that well.
“I’ve kept my ears open though. Some of the guys that pressure really hard to keep to that turn, lose customers. … I know there’s a fine line with this,” Glenn said.
He tries to make up for some slow payers through volume selling.
“Usually what I’ll do, I’ve got goals. I’ll say, ‘I’m going to sell five of these this week.’ As far as the money, I quit making those goals because it’ll bring you down into a depression if you don’t hit that mark. I’ll have goals of, ‘I want to move this many side cabinets.’ I learned long ago, when it’s time to go home, go home,” he said.
“I have tried to beat the bushes when it’s slow. All you’re going to get is the rats. It’s dead? Go home. It’s a sign.”
Glenn does have a few customers who are doing a layaway-type payment with him.
“They are doing it on their own accord,” Glenn said, and usually toward a bigger purchase with him. “They’ll build credit; that way I have the money to help me buy the product,” and if there’s a week where they can’t pay, “he doesn’t have the product anyway — so neither one of us is out anything.”
Both Glenn and Mark said being respectful of your customers in both sales and collections will pay off, eventually.
“When the economy starts to go the right way, it’s going to be great,” Mark said. It’s a struggle right now with long hours for little payback, but it will come, he said.
Both credit their wives with being the extra help they need to be successful right now, from helping with bookkeeping to doing deliveries.
“My wife picks up my orders, checks and makes sure everything is there that’s supposed to be there,” Mark said. She picks up repair tools and makes special deliveries; his kids help with washing the trucks and straightening up inventory on the shelves.
GETTING TOOLS AND INFORMATION
Aside from reading PD’s sister publication, Professional Tool & Equipment News, Glenn and Mark get a lot of their tool information from their warehouse agents. Glenn has used the Tools & Equipment Warehouse, nearby in Conley, since he started in the business in the early ’90s.
“When ISN hit the scene, when they came to Atlanta, I started buying more from them … and they’ve got stuff that Tools & Equipment Warehouse does not.” Glenn said he now buys from both, and it’s helped with his efficiency in ordering and stocking.
“I love ISN, and I’ve had a great experience with them,” Mark said. He likes that he can talk with one or two reps at ISN, and they always know his voice.
Both also use the tool fliers from the WDs, but have some reservations regarding the pricing.
“I use ISN’s tool fliers; in fact, I’ll use anyone’s fliers that I like,” Glenn said. “The problem is sometimes fliers have too low of prices to make money. Other times, the prices in the fliers are way too high. … I’ll give it to the customer, but I’ll say, ‘If you see something you like, please ask me about it, because some of the pricing’s too high.’
“I’d rather have no pricing at all,” he said. He also typically uses fliers from Ace and Tools & Equipment Warehouse.
Both are fans of the ISN Tool Dealer Expo as well.
“They’ve really got it going on at that show. I really enjoy it,” Glenn said. “You see the new products … you can get the deals you need, the financing that you want and it’s fantastic seeing all the products there together — if you take your time and you go to see each vendor.
“Before you go, have a game plan,” Glenn said. “Take a notepad. I have a wish list, and I make a list of new items. … Then I go back to the motel room, or to lunch, and try to review what I’ve seen, and what I feel like I could afford and what’s going to sell.”
It’s all the aspects of the tool business added up that make Thompson Tools a success.
“I enjoy it,” Glenn said. “It’s been good for me, and good for my family.”
To view a walkaround on both Glenn’s and Mark’s trucks, stay tuned to Professional Distributor’s website, www.professionaldistributormagazine.com.