Counterbalanced With Customer Service

Century Trading Company and mobile dealer Rick Hege balance their businesses with respect for the customer, and each other.

Through a mutually beneficial joint venture, Century Trading Company (CTC) President Marcia Germann and mobile tool distributor Rick Hege joined forces in 2004 to offer each other a hand, and their customers a team effort in delivering better service and greater selection.

“When I was with SK Hand Tool as a district manager, Marcia was one of my accounts,” Hege says. “I told her she was in a unique position to begin a mobile tool business, which is cheaper than opening two locations. And she did it. She made the investment and bought the truck.” Hege wasn’t Century’s first mobile dealer, but he began the business two years ago after he decided to take a break from his district manager position at SK.

According to Hege, he transitioned from district manager to a mobile tool dealer who specializes in SK simply because, “I enjoy people—meeting them and listening to their problems. I also don’t like to be cooped up in an office, and I like having the independence to set up my own schedule and route.” It was a smooth transition for Hege, who now operates from the driver's seat of a tool truck with SK emblazoned on each side and CTC’s logo spread like a banner across the front.

Hege has a background in, and comprehension of, both sales and tools. “I took care of the mobile program for SK, and was the motor sports liaison. That’s where I learned the ins and outs—what to do, what not to do. When I started here, I just restocked the truck and reorganized it. Then I established my base in Fort Wayne, IN,” he says.

“I have no designated territory—no restrictions. And even better, I have the option of whom I sell to. Although I work for Century, I run the truck as a mobile business separate from the warehouse. It’s like a second store on wheels.”

Lending A Hand

Although Hege and Germann independently operate separate arms of CTC, one hand tends to help the other. Germann takes care of buying Hege's products, whether from her store or an outside source, as well as brunting the cost of the truck's operating expenses. In turn, Hege provides CTC with an expanded customer base and the convenience of mobility.

They can also offer each other product information and advice. CTC has added some items due to Hege's suggestions, and vice versa. Although Hege says, “I stock my truck from Century’s shelves usually once a week,” and CTC’s website confirms, “The truck offers a similar product mix as the store, plus lines specific to mechanics’ requirements,” product selection varies a bit.

The duo’s customers also differ, but barely. Hege admits, “About 60 percent of my customers moonlight, working on farms to supplement their wages as techs. They work days, nights, weekends, whatever it takes. So it makes you want to help them out.”

Whereas the store’s clientele is based on industrial contractors, DIYers and local farmers, Hege says, “Basically I service shops dealing with heavy-duty truck, trailer and diesel repair. So it’s primarily truck dealers, implement dealers, etc.” It’s plain to see that even with a bit of a different customer base, Hege and Germann’s customers’ interests overlap, but are singularly targeted.

Hege believes, “Each dealer should know their marketplace, and serve them accordingly. I carry larger wrenches and impact sockets, and other tools in larger sizes or with more power in order to suit my heavy-duty and agriculture customers.”

Harmony In Customer Service

The real connection between the two is not their mailing address, but a focus on customer service, which they define as going beyond the call of duty to satisfy and retain the customer. “The customer always comes first,” Hege says. “That has always been Marcia’s philosophy.

“It’s all about taking care of your customers. Respect them. Be fair to them. Don’t lie to them. I encourage my customers to do whatever works the best for them, and I try to look out for their interests, too. I consider some of my customers friends. We don’t necessarily socialize, but they know they can call me any time. I don’t care when, as long as I can make them happier.”

And that’s where Germann steps in to supplement Hege’s customer service. He says, “I can still get products to them right away if it’s an emergency because if it’s not on the truck, it’s at the nearby store.” If it's something CTC doesn't carry? “Then I use Medco Tool because of their good service and selection.

“Every item has a warranty or can be repaired, too. CTC also runs specials. SK is 50 percent off for a week twice a year: once in spring, and again in fall, conveniently around planting seasons. Marcia also sends out fliers with special prices on certain product lines, and I use the same specials on my truck. I pass those savings onto the customer.”

Hege also credits part of CTC's success to his and Germann’s relationships with manufacturers: “Being a mobile dealer that’s direct with a lot of lines has its benefits in terms of the product availability, ability to offer specials and the power to take care of warranties.” With the volume Germann is able to buy, Hege's pricing is lower than most, and it trickles down to his customers.

Marcia and her husband, Doug Germann, bought CTC five years ago to secure it as family-owned. Dave Kohart, Marcia’s father, founded the store in 1968 in Van Wert, OH, as an Army and Industrial Surplus Store. Since then, the store has evolved from a surplus store into the structural steel and scrap iron business to, currently, a retail entity that carries more than 13,000 SKUs. The company still maintains a steel yard, and has since added a metals recycling center. As Germann herself says, “We're whatever the market needs, when they need it.”

They’ve Got His Number; But He’s Got Theirs, Too

Hege tries to cut down on the possibility of being a victim of skip accounts. He says, “I serve more-established businesses. And I don’t just sell to techs. I also serve companies like McAllister Caterpillar and Waste Management.” He uses the Tool Manager computer program from All Software to keep track of customers’ needs and wish lists, but he also uses it to store their information, such as phone numbers, addresses, drivers license numbers, etc. That way, if someone loses or quits his job, Hege can call or send notes as reminders to pay him.

“I extend a certain credit limit to customers—some more than others—depending on payments, how long they’re at a shop, how well I know them, etc. I had a customer who moved to Florida, and he still regularly sends me checks to catch up on his bills. As a last resort, however, I turn skip accounts into an agency.

“I take products into shops, but I don’t push them too hard. I’m not a high-pressure salesman. If you need it, it’s for sale. If you don’t need it, it’s not really a bargain then, is it? I’m a firm believer that if someone needs something, they already know it. And then it’s just a matter of having what they want.”

With approximately 200 customers on his route in metro Fort Wayne, along with the neighboring areas of Decatur, Berne and Grabill, IN, Hege says, “I hit a lot of small shops nobody else goes to. Some places I hit only have one or two customers.”

Then again, he also hits some shops with 18 – 25 customers, maintaining an average of eight techs per shop, stopping at an average of 9 – 12 shops a day, four days out of the regular work week.

Torqued About S-K & CTC

What does he do on the weekends? He sells tools and equipment off his truck at the Auto Racing Club of America (ARCA) RE/MAX Series. ARCA drivers race stock cars similar to NASCAR, but often with older or smaller bodies. The series made SK their first official hand tool, which gives SK dealers the ability to sell tools at ARCA races. Hege believes he may work between 10 – 12 races this year, including the Winchester Motor Speedway and the Milwaukee Mile.

CTC also participates in the ARCA RE/MAX Series since Hege suggested the possibility. Germann deciding to sponsor the racing team of 20-year-old Justin Allgaier. Their sponsorship for the #16 car began June 16 at the Michigan International Speedway and lasted four more races.

Words Of Wisdom

ermann says, “I really commend Rick for what he’s done. He’s built a great customer base out of nothing.” Here are some of his tips to do the same for your business.

  • “I get to go to Las Vegas once a year. I regularly attend AAPEX (www.aapexshow.com) and SEMA for tool and equipment information. From previously working at SK, I already had a million contacts who now help both Marcia and me, and it’s nice to see them every once in a while.”
  • He says he uses informational materials from manufacturers as well as Professional Tool & Equipment News (PTEN) to learn about new tools and equipment.
  • “I’ve actually had techs come up and ask me to stop at their shops. Word of mouth is critical, which is why reputation is important.
  • “Competition is good, too. It gives my customers a choice, and when they buy from me, I feel even better.
  • “If you’re usually there Mondays at 8 in the morning, and you can’t make it, call the week ahead to let them know. It’s common courtesy.
  • “If you tell your customer you’re going to do something—do it. If you work hard, and you’re consistent, it’s amazing how much you can sell.
  • “If a customer looks too busy when I'm there, then I just let them know, ‘I’ll catch you next week.’ If they need something, they know they can call me.”

Hege mentions he typically works about 9-1/2 – 10 hours a day, but it always varies because he’s willing to do whatever must be done to leave his customers content. Similarly, Century Trading Company follows up on this rule of customer service to provide a balance that’s worth achieving.

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