Smile. Collect. Sell. These three words are written in permanent marker on the inside of the door of Dave Putits’ tool truck, only visible to him when the door is closed and no customers are aboard.
Dave, a mobile distributor for Cornwell Tools in Southern California, let’s these three back-to-basics words keep him grounded to the essentials of the business. Though sometimes the route may seem overwhelming, he knows the basics can keep him going.
Dave most recently was a battery salesman, and has a degree in molecular biology. But he got hooked on the tool business nearly a decade ago when he wanted to open his own business. He hasn’t looked back.
“The tool business I found fascinating in that you do the whole thing,” Dave said. “I do collections, I do the inventory, I do the sales, marketing … the whole thing. And there are no employees, so I don’t have to worry about people not showing up.
“That’s what intrigued me about the tool business, is it all depends on me. So that was kind of interesting.”
Dave’s route covers some areas of inland Southern California in Riverside County that are growing urban areas. He runs a typical five-day route, and doesn’t go for too much shift work.
“If you can’t do it in five days, you’re not going to do it in six. So why waste your time?” But he does schedule his time carefully to maximize his stops, and he rarely takes breaks.
“I stage my day. … If I know there’s a section of shops that are open from 12-1, then I’ll be able to hit them while the other shops are closed.”
One advantageous aspect of Dave’s route is the ability on some days to pull into one strip mall and make four or more stops, as each storefront is a different repair shop, whether general, specialist or collision repair.
“I don’t think they have this too much around the rest of the country. I hear from other guys … where they do miles and miles of driving. Where for me, especially on Thursdays, it’s pretty tight in one area because I’ve got these malls.”
And when it comes to PBE/collision repair stops, Dave doesn’t shy away from making inroads on future sales.
“I start out saying hi to the preppers,” Dave said. “Sooner or later, they’ll be bodymen helpers and then they’ll be bodymen. It takes time.
“I think you’ve got to be a little more folksy with [PBE techs], get down, say ‘hi’ to everybody, make sure you’re sincere … show up all the time and try to help them out.”
More than just saying hi, Dave concentrates on customer service for all of his 350 or so customers. In Riverside County, that means many customers where English is a second language — Dave does speak some Spanish, enough to get by. And he doesn’t let any language barrier deter from making a sale or maintaining top customer service.
He even helps out with registering his customers for warranties on purchases.
“I register my guys,” Dave said. “A lot of my customers are Mexican, Latino … and I speak to them the best I can, and so they trust me. …
“You need an email address to do some of the warranty stuff, well, some [techs] don’t even have computers. … So I call [warranty information] in personally for them so they know I’m taking care of it, that it’s all covered, and everything’s good. They trust me to do that for them.
“I really didn’t do any more work other than a 10-cent phone call; but they perceive it as I did a lot, and that’s half of taking care of a customer, is their perception.”
COLLECTIONS ... AND OTHER ADVICE
Dave is big on customer service (smile). But when it comes to having tools on the street, his biggest piece of advice for newer distributors is to have a diverse customer base.
“Start off building your business wide, not deep. Wide meaning get as many customers as you can, and not getting too deep on any one of them. Get as many $20 bills in a day as opposed to $50 and $100,” Dave said. The important thing is to guard against expensive skips.
“I don’t get too many tools, too much money all on one guy. If he moves or I don’t get my pay out of one guy, I’ve got four other guys who will give me the $20.”
Dave also advised that newer distributors should wait on that boat purchase.
“In the beginning, hang on to the money that you’re making, because in about three years … you’re going to go through a growth spurt where you’re going to need that extra capital.” Dave said you don’t want to be in a bind when “new people are coming to you that want to buy tools. … You want to have the capital to run with it.”
“Another important thing is not to buy toys, boats and all that until you’ve been in the business for a while,” Dave said. “Some think because they’ve got a wad of money in their pocket at the end of the week that they’ve made it, after a month, two months or so… but you should hold off on all those RVs, boats and stuff until … you get past your growth spurt, make it up one level.”
Dave said after the three-year growth spurt, there can be more.
“There was another level that I hit at about another three years … the shop owners who now trusted me, and wanted a brake lathe, and two scan tools, and a couple compressors and all that.”
In general, Dave likes to spend about half his collections on the business.
“I order about half of what I collect to buy. That keeps my books balanced, and I don’t get too overextended. And that works out pretty good.”
Though Dave found a business where he doesn’t need to hire employees, he does enlist the help of his family. His two boys help with washing and cleaning the truck and inventory, and his wife, Chris, also takes care of inventory and the financials. She even helps with the books for another Cornwell distributor.
“I work the truck, work the customers, bring it all home to my wife, sit down at the end of the day with the kids and she does everything, the balancing of the books; she also helps other tool dealers with their books,” Dave said.
“I learned this all on the fly,” said Dave’s wife, Chris. “I asked a lot of questions … I didn’t understand this business at all, with all this money in the door. No one tells you what you’re supposed to put back on your truck. …
“In the beginning everything went back into the business and we lived out of our savings account, until about month three. Then there was a little money.”
Chris said the most important part of keeping the business financially strong is budgeting, both for home and business, because they are so intertwined.
“We’re really stringent on our budget; we don’t spend over our budget at all.”
She also said support from Cornwell has helped with business planning.
“Cornwell’s become more advanced on … finance classes, which I think is a spectacular thing.
Chris also has advice beyond the books for other spouses of mobile distributors.
“Become involved. Become heavily involved,” Chris said. “I think the most successful tool dealers have probably the most involved wives. And they can do something simple. I tend to do a lot for David because I choose to—it’s our business. I don’t think that it’s David’s business. I try to make it easy.”
Beyond being involved, Chris said being attentive to the money helps, especially on the domestic side, for building budgets and not taking too much away from the business. Her final advice is to be understanding.
“When your husband’s cranky … you don’t understand the stress that he’s gone through in a day of people not paying him and giving him the song and dance.”
And all the help from Chris on inventory and financials keeps Dave focused on the tools and selling.
“It would take away from me being able to get out on the street selling and collecting if I had to run to the bank to make deposits or take time out of the day to do my books.”
One part of the business Dave doesn’t skip are the tool fairs, both the big annual Cornwell show and the smaller district and regional events. He goes for the morale building, learning opportunities—and tool deals.
“It’s great to get away from the business a little bit, meet other tool guys; you can still talk shop but you’re kind of away. And I pick up little tips all the time that I take back and put into use,” Dave said. And regarding the time away, “just the deals alone that you get there, the money you can save, is well-worth the time and money you lost from not going.”
Not that taking time off for the company tool rally or a vacation is all about missing collections.
“We run credit cards while we’re on vacation,” for those techs who have a card on file, Chris said. “I bring my credit card machine with me, and everybody who has a credit card, they’re getting swiped a payment. ...
“So, over the course of a vacation, we can make anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 for the week.” Chris also said they do have some top-notch customers who will, of their own accord, do catch-up payments when Dave returns to the route.
Dave Putits has found success by utilizing strategy, customer service and family teamwork every day he’s on the road. And, of course, he never has a chance to forget the most important parts of the day.
Smile. Collect. Sell.