Starting From Scratch

Word of mouth is a powerful thing, a fact that Cornwell dealer Kevin Baker understands very well. “I’ve found as long as I treat my customers right, they will recommend me to their friends. Some of those shops have become some of my best customers.”

In a small town like Indiana, PA, Jimmy Stuart’s hometown, personal recommendations are important. Kevin’s territory is focused on this old coal mining town in the hills east of Pittsburgh. When the mines began closing, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania remained as the only big employer in the local economy.

However over the past decade, the Marcellus Shale natural gas fields have created a lot of new opportunity, especially for Kevin’s business.

“About a dozen well companies have set up shop on Airport Road. They employ a lot of people in the area, and that’s boosted my business too. A lot of my customers work on fleets and specialized (drilling) equipment.”

Getting Started

Seven years ago when his enlistment in the U.S. Air Force ended, Kevin returned home “looking for something to do.” His father had a long career in tool sales, and as a Cornwell District Manager it was easy for him to show Kevin the business. Kevin liked what he saw.

“There had been no Cornwell dealer here for four years when I took over this territory. All I did was go to the phone book to find the shops. My dad and I spent a couple of weeks scouting them out (and) I just started going into garages and introducing myself. It started out kind of slow, but the guys eventually realized that I was showing up every week. Some had some broken tools and I took care of the warranty for them, and then they started to buy tools.”

Kevin’s business includes a fairly even mix of new-car dealerships, independent shops, heavy duty shops, fleets and a few customers that, like the drilling companies, maintain their own machines. One of these is a family-owned landscaping business. “Nick (the landscaping business owner’s son) was visiting one of my customers when I stopped in, and he asked me to stop by his place. They’ve bought two toolboxes and the tools to fill them, all in less than a year. They asked (another tool dealer) to stop by too, but he doesn’t seem interested, so they said ‘OK we’ll just deal with you.’”

Kevin’s inventory reflects the variety of his customers’ businesses.

“I try to keep a little of everything on the truck; heavy duty, electronic stuff, air tools… I love selling air tools, and they move pretty fast too. Usually if a guy buys a 1/2” impact, pretty soon he’ll want a 3/8” impact, then an air ratchet and then maybe a drill or a die grinder ... once they get started it’s not hard to keep them rolling. Usually if you can show a customer how the tool will make the job go easier or faster, especially the flat-rate guys, they’ll buy anything that will make the job quicker.”

But Kevin was quick to add that big-ticket sales are not everything. “The little things count too, I won’t pass up a 10- or 15-dollar sale… I make sure to take care of the little things, so when it comes time to buy something big they’re thinking of me.”

His Own Tools

One tool that’s important to Kevin’s business is his image. “Guys want to get on the truck and see a neat, clean store. It makes a difference with your customer.”

Kevin drives a 2007 GMC 18-foot box with a Duramax engine. It’s quiet and roomy, and the inventory is laid out so there’s no empty space, but no clutter either.

We visited Kevin on a rainy day and made several stops at muddy truck yards, but his truck always looked neat and tidy inside.

Kevin noted that his own appearance is just as important, a point he said is brought up each year at the Cornwell Tool Rally. “The guys in the dealerships all wear uniforms and it looks professional. I want my customers to look at me as a professional, so I wear a uniform too.”

Other tools in Kevin’s business utilize technology that makes him more efficient and profitable. He told us the company’s inventory management software “is really helpful with the paperwork, and the system has come a long way too. It’s still evolving but it gives us a lot of capabilities we didn’t have before.”

About two years ago Kevin began using a smartphone for his business. “It’s really come in handy because Cornwell has gone pretty much all electronic. I’d call for customer service and maybe wait till the end of the day for an answer. But if I email the question, I’ll hear back pretty quickly, and my phone lets me know when the email comes in.”

According to Kevin, the other important resources are his wife of two years and his parents, especially his father, Ken Baker. Although now retired, with all that experience to draw from, it was no surprise when Kevin said “Dad still helps me.”

Giving 100 Percent

Kevin drives about 450 miles to see just over 200 active customers in a 60-hour week.

His average turn is seven weeks, but he intentionally slows that down around the holidays. “Even though it’s less each week, I (can) still collect money in the slow times; keeps my cash-flow going.” He says skips have been an issue over the years, “but it’s not hard to manage.”

When asked what he would advise someone just entering the business today, Kevin didn’t even have to think about his answer. “I would tell you to go for it 100 percent. It’s a perfect opportunity to own your own business. With the quality of the tools and the customer service I get from the company, all the resources are there to be successful.”