When mobile tool distributor Art Richardson sold his first tire repair insert in 1968, he didn't think he would be an award-winning Cornwell dealer some 38 years later. But then again, why not? In the past, business had been good to him and his dad, Art Richardson Sr. Together they built Richco Auto Supply into a four-store chain with a big warehouse and 45 employees.
Art's first love in the business was parts, but he had to do something after selling the chain to Parts Plus in 1992.
Art eventually decided to go into distributing, first purchasing an E150 van, then an "ugly as sin" P30 step van. He now drives a 2004 18' C5500 that he bought new.
"The fact that techs bought most of their tools from the tool man appealed to me," Art said. "I knew that, given my experience and background, I could do this."
Dave Van Gelder, Cornwell district manager, thought so, too. He liked Art's background and franchised him in a Rhode Island/Connecticut territory that today has 207 customers with an average payment of $45 per week. After only his first year in the neighborhood, Art joined the Cornwell Quarter Million Dollar Ring Club in 2004.
Along his route Art hits mostly new car dealerships. But he also values smaller garages, tire repair shops, gas stations, lawn and equipment manufacturers, a huge construction company, bus repair shop, postal garage and small electronics shop.
"Business has been a little slow at the new car lots lately," Art said. "So the customer balance really helps."
Art enjoys being a mobile dealer, but he cautions the job is not for everybody. Driving around two states with upwards of $145,000 worth of inventory, Art "easily" logs 65-70 hours per week. He sees about 10-20 shops per day and will interact with only 35-40 customers per day.
"Personally, I don't want everyone," he said. "Focus on what you have and try to become the preferred tool person for that particular customer. Take good care of the good ones!"
Give 'em a good show
When he imagines that "good" customer, Art remembers his dad's advice, "If they like you, they'll find a way to buy from you. Stay on good terms with everyone and acknowledge even the hardcore competitor buyers. It costs little to do this."
Sometimes this means a little performing.
"One Christmas Eve, I broke into a Christmas carol for some good guys at a shop. They were surprised and it helped set a holiday mood."
Art believes good old-fashioned manners don't hurt, either.
"‘Thank you,' ‘Please," "Have a nice day."' You'll hear these phrases a lot from the Cornwell dealer. "I think I have a good relationship with my customers — I try anyway. I've got stressed-out service managers who come out to my truck for a five-minute sanity break. I am honored to have them whether they buy or not, but most are good customers."
"While I try to be professional," Art said, "I'm more concerned about being human. That I didn't learn in school, either." He picked up a BS in marketing and an MBA from the University of Rhode Island while building Richco. Richardson has taught at Bryant University for 28 years as a qualified instructor.
Spend time where it counts
More than 100 years ago Wilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, observed that 20 percent of a person's stock portfolio gave 80 percent of that person's total return. What's that got to do with tools? Pareto's Principle is also known as the "80-20 Rule" and can be applied to business. In tools, this can mean 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your clients. Art believes this is still true.
"Spend your time with the people who are best supporting you."
Although there are always time constraints, Art tries to be as thorough with each customer as possible. He'll turn down sales or items if he doesn't think it's in the customer's best interest.
"Most salespeople are poor listeners. They want to sell. You should be asking questions and letting customers handle tools, or keep them on a trial sale."
In his marketing classes at Bryant, Art teaches that the strategy to selling is not just making sales, but staying competitive.
"I've never made a perfect sales presentation," he said. "Not even close. If you want to be humbled every day, this is your game."
The best way to stay in the game, according to Art, is to learn from your mistakes and duplicate successes. "Try to do everything to create a positive perception of you and your products. Ninety percent of my customer criticisms will revolve around paying the bill. I can live with that. Studies show that if you satisfy 92 percent of your customer base, you've done a good job."
Compete with the best
Art was a Division 1 college athlete and loves to compete. But while he respects his competition, he does everything he can to "win". This means he doesn't publicly knock his competition. Instead, he prefers to learn from them.
"You can coexist with them (competitors)," Art said. "Just concentrate on what you do well. It's not the competition that puts you out of business — it's not selling."
Art feels it is in his "best interest to sell Cornwell products because of the service that comes with them afterwards."
Give a little extra
To keep his visits fresh, Art finds ways to add extra incentives with every sale. Sometimes he throws in small-ticket items free with large-ticket items. Lately he has "given away quite a few" windbreakers with $300 purchases. He will also give cash discounts to the great payers.
"We want to encourage them to keep paying well."
His biggest promos to date are his timeshares in Florida and Newport, RI. He offers up two a year and gives the winner flexibility in enjoying these lavish units. To enter, customers spend $100 and their ticket goes into the bag. The first winner spent over $7,000 with Art last year.
Find your perfect balance
And what happens with the unused timeshares? "When I start running on E, I get away. Diane (his wife of 31 years) and I really like Fort Lauderdale. We have three weeks there annually. I come back and I'm fine again."
While he tries to have fun with this career, Art will be the first to admit that some days are tough, with long hours and never-ending to-do lists. He cites repossessions, phone calls, paperwork and the dreaded cleaning job duties that his customers never see.
Art has no retirement plans and a head full of ideas. Give him a call. He'd be happy to be your tool man.