Never Say No

The day starts pretty early for Bob Levy, general manager of Don Kennett, Inc., a Massachusetts-based PBE jobber. By 6 a.m. he arrives at the company's flagship store in Lawrence, MA, touching base with president Dan Takesian and his son Paul. Levy then begins getting things in order for his sales route. Although he's assumed the role of general manager, Levy still hits the road four days a week to call on a variety of customers.

Levy loves sales. And like any true salesman, he views selling as an art form. He understands the importance of building a solid rapport with his entire customer base, which, unlike many jobbers who only focus on the shop owner, includes a number of technicians. He strives to treat every customer like royalty, and he's always thinking about that next tool or supply he can sell them.

That philosophy is shared by every member of the Don Kennett team, which is now 26 employees strong between the jobber's three stores in Lawrence and Lowell, MA, as well as Manchester, NH. If it wasn't, Levy says, the kind of success the company has enjoyed for more than 50 years would not have been possible.

Don Kennett, Inc. is somewhat unique. Roughly 60 percent of sales come from paint, as opposed to most jobbers who are closer to 75 percent. "We like to sell things that we don't necessarily focus on," Levy explains. Tools, safety supplies and other gadgets are among the products Levy and the Don Kennett, Inc. sales reps pitch when walking into a body shop.

Levy even got one of his customers a copy machine—simply because they asked for it. "Never say 'no' to your customers," Levy professes. "Always accommodate them. The second you tell them no, they're going to start thinking about a new supplier."

Another way that the Don Kennett salesforce will try to accommodate every customer request is by working with other local businesses, such as a hardware store. In these instances inventory is exchanged at well below retail value. "It's not the margin we're used to," Levy says, "but a few points are better than nothing. More importantly, it helps us take care of our customers and build their confidence in us."

All Shapes And Sizes - Every Customer Counts

Don Kennett, Inc. serves countless independent and dealership body shops, several industrial accounts, 10 vocational schools, and a handful of other niche customers.

On a typical day, Levy will call on at least 20 customers, as do the other sales reps. Their creed is simple: Treat each customer the same.

"I don't care if the customer is paying $1,000 or $1," Levy says. "If he pays his bills on time, he's a good customer, and deserves to be treated as such."

Levy also believes in the 80/20 rule, which says 80 percent of a company's sales are derived from only 20 percent of that company's customer base. For Don Kennett, Inc., larger body shops are at the heart of that most lucrative 20 percent. Still, Levy and the other salesmen are conscientious about giving adequate attention to everyone.

"Even though they might not buy a lot from you every time you visit, you have to regularly call on smaller shops," Levy says. "You never know when a big shop is going to fold, and when one does, the smaller shops in that market typically pick up business rather quickly. In that case they're going to need a good supplier. So you don't want to miss that opportunity, even if it's short-term.

"Furthermore, if one market's down, it's nice to have other clients you can call on," Levy goes on to say. Among Don Kennett's more unique customers are a fork lift manufacturer and a surf board maker.

"If we don't visit these types of shops on a consistent basis all year long, we're shooting ourselves in the foot," Levy continues. "Because when it does come time for them to make a big purchase, whether it's paint or other tools and supplies, it's tough to suddenly get a foot in the door."

For industrial accounts like these, Levy and the other reps are sure to make regular visits. Sandpaper, masking products and paint are obvious big sellers, but safety supplies have been in demand as well. Levy says the key is showing these customers how they can save money in the long run by using a certain product.

This is an important principle for body shops as well, although many think more short-term and are simply concerned with the price tag. That can be a struggle, Levy says, not to mention a bit frustrating. But it's nothing a little persistence can't overcome.

Sales Tips

Levy often tells customers—in a half-joking, light-hearted tone—that he's not leaving until he has an order to call in. He then proceeds to rattle off a series of items the shop (or technician) may be in need of: masking paper, masking tape, duct tape, abrasives, solvent, goggles, gloves, light bulbs … the list goes on.

"Sometimes the customer tells me he doesn't need anything this week," Levy relates. "By the time I leave that shop, I have a $50 order. You just have to be persistent, and sometimes get the customer to do a little more thinking."

Some tactics that have helped him get the busy customer's attention:

  • His "Bag of Tricks," which he carries into each shop. Levy fills a duffel bag with tools and other gadgets that a shop owner or technician might not be thinking about purchasing, but often do once they see what the product can do for them. The day we accompanied him on his sales route, Levy had a good deal of success selling spray gun hangers.
  • The "Bag of Tricks" usually works in concert with some of the weekly specials the company comes up with, which are outlined in a binder Levy carries with him. There are typically six items on special every week. Again, they are not everyday items, but they're things that almost any shop could use. And they yield a nice margin.
  • Always looking for out-of-the-ordinary products that can supplement sales and boost the bottom line, Don Kennett, Inc. moves a decent amount of body hardware, such as nuts, bolts, rivets, clips, fasteners, etc. Levy says dealing with the inventory was a hassle at first, and is still a bit tedious, but with a good system in place it's automatic business. Plus, Levy says it's something few jobbers deal with. So it's a point of differentiation.
  • Some of the shops Levy calls on set out an empty cardboard box called "Bob's Box." When a piece of hardware is running low, the technicians are trained to place one in the box. Levy checks the box every time he visits a shop, identifies the items and replenishes the inventory. That makes it easy for the busy technicians, and it's an easy sale for Levy.

Tools Of The Trade

Along with being politely persistent, Levy says one of his keys to success is making things easier on customers. This is especially important as Don Kennett, Inc. looks to differentiate itself by selling more tools and equipment. Some examples of their customer service programs include:

  • Like many jobbers, PBE-specific tools such as spray guns and sanders are big sellers. On-site spray gun service is a unique add-on this jobber offers, as Dan Takesian will go to the shop and fix a painter's gun.
  • In addition to spray guns and sanders, Don Kennett, Inc. sells a decent amount of air tools, welding equipment and accessories, and even some hand tools. The "Bag of Tricks" and the weekly specials are the primary means of promotion. In terms of suppliers, Don Kennett works closely with warehouse distributors Medco and Midstate Tool Supply.
  • Weekly payment plans are a must in the way of tools sales, which although commonplace among mobile tool distributors, is a unique service for PBE jobbers. "I get to know the technicians in the shops," Levy explains. "Once we reach a point where they're going out of their way to say hello when I stop by, I figure I can trust them to make payments on tool purchases. We talk about what they can afford and work out a weekly payment schedule," Levy continues.

"Managing these open accounts isn't a problem, as long as I get their payments in the computer right away. The tricky part, sometimes, is getting those payments. Somebody's always going to leave you high and dry. But most guys come right up to me with cash in hand. You just try to build a good rapport with them first. It's a lot harder for someone to stiff you if they like you as a person."

Ever the consummate sales professional, Levy is hard not to like. His playful demeanor, work ethic and knowledge seem to garner respect and trust from his customers—no matter who they are.

Levy and the rest of the Don Kennett staff live by the philosophy that all customers should be treated equally. It's a philosophy that's served the company well for 52 years, helping make it one of the leading jobbers in northeastern Massachusetts.

That philosophy will undoubtedly apply to the new store that recently opened in Manchester, NH. Only 30 miles from the stores in Lawrence and Lowell, MA, Manchester is a unique market that presents a lot of opportunity.

"There's a lot of growth up there," Levy adds. "We could probably cover the market from either of our other two stores, but the people in Manchester want to do business with a local company. So it makes sense for us to have a store there."

Yet another example of how Don Kennett, Inc. always accommodates the customer.

Bringing More To The Table

Don Kennett, Inc. knows that if it is going to thrive, it needs to bring more to the table than just paint and sandpaper. Its motto of always accommodating the customer has guided this PBE jobber for more than half a century. Now, the company realizes it must also help its customers improve their businesses and provide products and services that help the customer to be more profitable.

Over the past few years, Don Kennett, Inc. has been holding roundtable discussions for some of its body shop customers. Typically, 14 or so shops will attend two roundtables a year. These discussions are a great way for Don Kennett's customers to talk about common issues and share ideas. "We even brought in a financial planner to give a presentation one year," says Bob Levy, Don Kennett's general manager.

The company is also working with I-CAR in putting together a collection of technical classes. Furthermore, they've hired an outside technical rep. "When a customer has a problem with a product or procedure, we can get right in his shop and help. There are only a half dozen or so jobbers in all of New England that have a technical rep on staff, so it's a big advantage for us," explains Levy.