One thing that mobile tool dealer Art Ellis seems to know backwards and forwards is the value of a dollar — that's why everything in his life is already paid for or cash on delivery, from his tool trucks and inventory, to his house, personal truck and more.
Oh, and you read that right: trucks. In addition to his own route covering the tri-county area around Charleston, S.C., he financially backs two other dealers who help him provide tools and service to the area's mechanics and technicians.
Art's been a mobile tool distributor since the late 1980s, including two stints with two of the major brand tool companies. He found, though, that for him the road as an independent was "a lot sweeter."
On a typical day, Art is up at 5 a.m. and making his first call by 7 a.m., and it's the first of 30-35 stops he has scheduled each day. Those 35 stops will range in type as well, from dealership mechanical and body shops to county maintenance garage, and independent auto repair stops to the maintenance departments at a dairy (heavy-duty truck mechanics and equipment maintenance folks). They know Art has pulled up when he blows the truck's train-type air horn Art calls one of his "best investments."
On being independent
"I realized people weren't buying a name, they were buying me," Art said.
But there were hardships in building up the business for and by himself after leaving one of the companies; he was left with too little inventory. But he kept making stops anyway.
"I didn't have enough tools to fill up one side of this truck," Art said. "I found that if I was consistent, calling on the customers even though I didn't have what they wanted, I'd be sure to have it for them the next week."
And as customers began to rely on him more, he turned that money into inventory.
"And now I've built it," Art said. "I started taking my profit and turning it back into inventory; building it, building it, building it." And now he's built his independent business to the point that he keeps three trucks full, plus a backup inventory space.
He runs three trucks?
Art's other two trucks are manned by David Bernier and Mahlon Wallace. Bernier has worked for Art for about three years, and formerly was an auto mechanic for 20 years. Wallace is the new guy, at it for just a few months, and is a former Marine.
David estimates that about 30 percent of his route is former Art customers; for Mahlon it's closer to about 80 percent. But they will change some customers back and forth as needed depending on expanding routes and geography.
"If you can listen to what Art will tell you, and take it, and do what he's telling you … you'll be very, very successful," David said. "Art's willing to help you, and will help you any way he can so you'll succeed.
"We can't not succeed as long as Art is helping us."
The less experienced Mahlon finds that he leans on both Art and David for support, from tool knowledge, to using the sales software, to how to setup his truck, to sales and skip help. He's set to replicate David's inventory on his shelves (that way when he can't find something, he can call David, who should know.)
One of the top things Art teaches by example — and the other two replicate — is that customer service is of primary importance.
Service is first
Art said the auto maintenance arena "is a service-oriented business that doesn't get the service it deserves from everyone," which becomes his inspiration to do more than the rest. Whether it is a special request on a tool, repair, etc., Art seeks to make his customers happy.
"If he's got to have it, I'm going to get it for him, one way or another," Art said. "I'd rather get it shipped and pay the $8 or $12 or whatever freight than miss the sale to one of the other tool trucks.
"If they're working on an automobile and need a tool, and no one else in the shop has one, I'm going to get it for him."
Art asked one tech whether he still wanted a tool he'd been looking at the week prior and the tech apologized and said he'd bought one "online cheaper." Art said it wasn't a problem — he just hoped the "internet tool truck" would be by in case he needed it replaced or serviced.
This exemplifies Art's attitude towards his work — he wants the techs to work and have the tools they need, but more importantly, the service they need if there is a problem. Art wasn't offended the tech sought the lower price.
"We don't sell so much a tool as we do our service," Mahlon said, summing up an important lesson he's learned from the other two. "Techs know that when they come on my truck and say ‘Hey man this broke,' I'll say ‘It did? Here, let me have it.' … and that's what people remember."
They also echoed that part of service is knowing your customer, from what he needs and wants, to what he can afford.
"I've seen guys when I was a mechanic, the tool guy would let him run up (a bill) too high, and they'd try to hide from the tool guy because they couldn't afford it anymore," David said. "But give them what they need and keep them in an affordable budget … they'll be your best customers."
The service is important in gaining top customers who look forward to seeing the truck every week. And being there every week is one of Art's keys, alongside great service, to being a successful distributor.
See you next week
Art is "never sick, and rarely takes a day off." While Art has some bi-weekly customers, he "tries to see everyone every week — that way you stay in front of them, and you don't take the chance of missing them on a payday.
"Techs can pretty much set their time clocks by me arriving every week," Art said. "I'm usually there within a 15- to 20-minute timeframe every week. It does both of us a service, because they know I'm going to be there, and they know if they need something I'll have it most likely and they can set their schedule around that."
David echoed Art's sentiments.
"If you're 20 minutes late, [customers] are calling you … I think in the tool business the biggest thing is consistency. Be there. If something happens, be sure to call somebody at that shop.
"I'd say with 80 percent of my customers, I never get out of that truck. I just roll up and they know what time I'm there. They're looking for me and come on out to the truck."
Another way Art adds to his business is through an annual discount sale to clear out inventory. Held on a Saturday morning at a local BBQ place, all the techs know about it and most show up.
"What we do is I save all my repossessed tools, trade-ins, used stuff, overstock, discontinueds and just tools that are not moving and save it for one big sale," Art said. "The sale is mostly cash and we turn nonproductive stuff into moneymakers. I'd rather take $10 for a $20 tool that's been sitting for a year … and take that money and turn it into something that I'll make $60 with.
"These guys have learned that they're going to get some good deals. We start the sale at 7 a.m. … there will be guys sitting there at 6 a.m. waiting.
"Last year, in a matter of two hours — at discounted prices — I did $13,000 in cash sales."
It seems no matter what Art chose, he was destined to be successful in business. Hopefully, the mechanics around Charleston are grateful, not only to have Art as a tool dealer, but also that he is personally grooming other tool dealers to take over after he retires … or at least slows down.
"I don't ever want to retire," Art said, "but I want to be in a position in a couple years to just work two or three days and enjoy some time off."