Big Hitter

Apex Tool isn't your typical warehouse distributor. They're not looking to add locations. They have no interest in offering product options down to the third and fourth tier. Their inventory will never hold thousands of SKUs, and the same guy who answers the phone just might pack your order and carry a business card that says owner.

Apex Tool isn't your typical manufacturer. They don't own a factory or employ hundreds of people. Outside of crossing the Puget Sound into Canada for a single item, they don't import products from overseas. Nor do they mass produce thousands of a particular tool.

Rising from the farm fields and country roads of southern Indiana, Apex Tool doesn't try to be typical, and their customers appreciate it. Originally founded in 1972 by a mobile tool dealer who worked out of a van in selling heavy-duty tools up and down the eastern part of the country, Apex is now owned by Bob and Fred Neff. This father-son team worked for Kent-Moore before deciding to go out on their own.

"I was born into the business," explains Fred Neff. "My dad would let me come on his sales calls. Pretty soon I was the only 9-year-old in the world who could counterbore an engine," he laughs.

Taking over where their predecessor left off, Apex now operates out of a 20,000-square-foot warehouse with a strict focus on heavy-duty tools and equipment. They carry products from Tiger Tool, OTC, Adobe Air, Associated, and they're one of the largest NEXIQ heavy-duty scan tool distributors (see sidebar on page 29) in the U.S. They also manufacture and distribute their own line of heavy-duty line pullers, seal installers and timing pin tools.

Made To Order

"Almost all of our manufacturing is done in Eugene, OR," explains Fred Neff. "We work with a number of small machine shops in producing our line of Apex Heavy-Duty Tools. So they're not being punched out by a machine operator in large volumes. Rather, our products are being made by tool makers who take a lot of pride in the product's craftsmanship. Quality control couldn't be better, and the end result is a precision-forged tool that you can't find just anywhere.

"Also, because of their specialized nature, the biggest run of tools that we do is about 100. So, again, this helps ensure better quality while keeping costs down. The end result is a premium tool at a good price that, in many cases, the customer can only get from us," explains Neff.

Production is based primarily on the Neff's feel for the business. Their background lends a great deal of credibility in deciding what tools to create and how many to make. This also minimizes back orders and margin-reducing overstocks. In fact, there's enough extra storage space that Neff opened a DIYer tool store and consignment center for everything from lawnmowers to toolboxes.

The rationale behind Apex's niche approach stems from product gaps that the Neffs saw while servicing the heavy-duty industry. "We're focused on the heavy-duty truck mechanic," explains Neff. We want the small guy to have the same opportunities as the larger fleets and dealerships."

Much like the current situation on the light-duty side, heavy-duty vehicle makers are also trying to capitalize on service by limiting the amount of diagnostic information and tooling that's available outside of their dealer network. "The non-dealer is being shut out," continues Neff. "So we specialize in creating and selling tools that wouldn't otherwise be available to the independent repairer."

Although Apex does sell to some end-users, Neff states that their best customers are mobile tool dealers. "With a typical cost of $300 to $500, these products are better suited for the mobile dealer to buy and sell. This allows the end-user to pay for it over the course of a couple weeks, instead of all at once. We also have special distributor pricing to help this process along," he states.

Their Knowledge Is Your Power

The prospects of selling tools this specialized can be intimidating, but Neff says Apex is well-suited to service those without a background in heavy-duty products. "Our staff is comprised of mechanics and people that have been in the field. The person on the other end of the phone has some experience using these tools. We often have the mobile dealer describe the situation, and then use that information to fill the order," states Neff.

In addition to their size, durability and usage patterns, heavy-duty vehicles also differ from their lighterweight cohorts due to the urgency behind their repair. "We're proud of the fact that 90 percent of all orders placed before 3:00 will go out that same day," states Neff. "This is key in heavy-duty service because the longer that vehicle is off the road, the more money its operator loses. In many cases that truck is someone's livelihood. It's not like they can get a loaner and go about their business. The urgency is greater here.

"So I think this is another instance where being smaller helps us. We're able to turn things around very quickly in order to keep these vehicles on the road. Sometimes this means driving packages to UPS. It doesn't really matter because our number one goal is to take care of the customer. We'll do whatever it takes to get someone out of trouble and back out on the road."

It's a service that mobile dealers can then pass along to their customers.

The physical location for Apex Tool is a little out of the way, but it does help keep costs down. In contrast, the company can be easily found on the web at The website fuels a growing customer base that now stretches across the country, and globe.

This includes Russia, where vehicles that have fallen out of warranty in the U.S. are being sold in mass. An e-mail and a wire transfer has the tool on its way. To help support more conventional sales avenues, Apex will be unveiling a more in-depth catalog, their first in nearly three years.

Apex Tool is not your typical company. And thankfully, they're willing to share that atypical approach in allowing you to better serve the heavy-duty community.