Independent Tool Dealer Keeps Three Trucks Moving

Independent Art Ellis focuses on service, consistency in his approach to selling tools in S.C.


Independent Art Ellis focuses on service, consistency in his approach to selling tools in S.C. 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...


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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."

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