Proof Positive

They say you can’t keep a good man down. Al Zdenek is proof of that.

Zdenek, a 32-year veteran of the mobile tool trade, gained greater perspective on a number of things February 8, 2006. He learned an appreciation for how most personal possessions can be replaced, but human beings cannot. He obtained some perspective on the quality of the human condition from the way his friends and neighbors reached out to him. And he realized the true power of a positive attitude.

At 3:00 a.m. that fateful morning an electrical fire began its attack on Zdenek’s garage. An attack that turned into a full-out assault on his home and all its contents when a couple of gas cans were caught in the fray, literally blowing the roof off of his garage.

Thankfully, no one was hurt, but among the irreplaceable photo albums and countless antiques stored in the upper portion of the garage, the Zdenek family also lost:

  • Two dirt bikes.
  • A Cadillac Escalade.
  • A Ford Lightning pick-up truck.
  • $100,000 in tool inventory.
  • A tool truck.
  • A gun collection that included several rare pieces, like German Lugers.
  • A 1967 Pontiac Firebird with a 502.
  • A recently remodeled house with all of its new finishings, furniture and appliances.

“After all of that,” states Zdenek with a smile, “the key was keeping a positive attitude. From a business perspective, I was off my route for 6 weeks. But I bought a new truck, set it up by myself and got back at it. SK provided some free graphics and Triple A Tool gave me a great deal on a couple of Sequoia toolboxes. Both of those things helped a lot.”

Although the warehouse distributors he buys from offered additional time in paying his bills, Zdenek didn’t see the need. “Once I got back on the route, my guys started right back up with me, and having close to $40,000 on the street helped replenish my cash flow,” he states.

“However, one of the sadder days was sticking $30,000 into my inventory, and it didn’t even fill up the truck. That’s when it really hit home. It was going to be a while before I was back to pre-fire levels.”

Al Zdenek’s business before the fire - that’s a place most mobile dealers would like to be.

Answering The Call

“I was amazed the first time I walked on a tool truck,” recalls Zdenek. “I was working as a purchasing agent for a business that bought from the local Snap-on guy. So one day when he pulled up I went to take a look. That guy sold me something just by having it on the truck, so I figured I could probably get somebody to do the same thing,” he laughs.

The year was 1974, and Zdenek would cover his initial start-up costs within the year. His journey in the mobile tool business would later see him assume a role with Cornwell as a district manager before going the independent route in 1986. “My primary line is SK Hand Tools. I feel like they’re a great tool with good margins, and I don’t have any limitations placed on my sales territory,” states Zdenek.

His current route covers the western portion of the San Fernando Valley, which lies about 35 miles to the northwest of Los Angeles. It’s a large area that Zdenek “cherry picks” in selecting the best accounts to feed his business, with customers offering up average weekly payments of $40.

His primary suppliers are Integrated Supply Network, where he enjoys dealing with Robert Yanez, Weiss Tool Distributors, Triple A Tool in nearby Torrance, where he buys from long-time friend Lloyd Wright and takes advantage of the Sequoia tool storage line, as well as tapping into the same day pick-up provided by Mike Feges and Feges Tool.

You Gotta Love It

For 32 years Zdenek has succeeded in a business where about 15 percent fail in the first two years. The reasons behind his longevity stem primarily from one attribute that can’t be taught, and another that must be learned.

“I still have a few customers from my Snap-on days,” states Zdenek. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is that it’s as much about me as it is the products. I enjoy what I do and people can tell. Personality is so important in this business. When you make the customer feel good, they like working with you.

“I also make a point of listening to everybody’s problems, but I never tell them mine. They know that I got hit pretty hard by that fire, but on the bright side, I didn’t lose anybody. The bottom line is that there’s a reason for everything, so you just persevere, do things the right way and trust that it will work out.

"My feeling is that things happen for a reason, so you take what you’ve got and do the best you can to make it better. It’s all about having the right attitude. Customers see that and appreciate it.”

His personality is especially helpful in dealing with a significant number of Spanish-speaking customers. Even though he doesn’t speak much Spanish, this group still trusts him and has proven to be a great customer base.

Zdenek has also learned the importance of getting people on the truck. To improve his foot traffic he always has candy, cookies or donuts at the ready, and lays down a rubber mat on the truck’s floor to provide a more comfortable environment for his customer’s tired feet. But more importantly, his shelves are stocked with what his customers want and need.

“I carry what my customers tell me to carry. If they ask about it, I find out how to get it as quickly as possible and have it to them either the next day, or the next time I see them. That’s one of the reasons I buy from more than one source. And if I’m going to sell one, I’ll buy two more. So I price shop each of the WDs to get the best deal for me and my customer.

“I also look through Professional Tool & Equipment News, as well as the different fliers and catalogs I receive. My goal is to find the products that I know will save my customers time and make them money. Because if I can get excited about it, so will they.

“I’m not afraid to break-up sets either,” he continues, “to fill in what they need, like one socket or a missing piece. I’ll just re-order that particular item later. The key is to have whatever they ask for and never hassle them about warranties. I’ll just take care of it and figure out what I need to do later. To help save them money, I’ll also order the part and let them replace or fix a tool themselves.”

All of these best practices and lessons learned have helped Zdenek build a successful business and a comfortable lifestyle. With some hard work and a positive attitude, he’s confident both will eventually return to the way they were.

A number of cultures tell stories of the mythical Phoenix, a bird that would consume itself in fire, only to be re-born from those same ashes. Upon re-birth the bird was stronger, wiser and more colorful. In looking at the before and after pictures of Al Zdenek’s tool truck, you can see he’s emerged from the ashes in a similar fashion.