Something Completely Different

As we pulled into the driveway at our first stop of the day, Linda noted how much the place had changed since they were here last year. “You stop here once a year?” I ask. “Yep,” says Bill. “We’ll restock his shop supplies for the year.”

“Do you have other customers like that?”

Bill replied: “All of ‘em.” Linda clarified: “Oh, some of them stop by the store once or twice, but 95 percent of our customers we see only once a year. That’s why it’s better to bring it out (to them) … because they can run in to their shop to see if they need something rather than being in town and trying to guess.”


Store on wheels

Independent distributors Bill and Linda Assman (pronounced ‘Ozzman’) sell tools, shop equipment and shop supplies to farmers and ranchers in South Dakota -- all of South Dakota. Their warehouse/store is in Pierre, the state capitol, but they run the business out of a 40-foot trailer, which Linda calls their store on wheels. In business for 29 years now, Linda confirms that “It’s hard work, but we’ve got super good customers, and we’ve fine-tuned (the business) over the years.”

It took about two years for Bill and Linda to build their route, and it takes a full year to cover 40,000 miles and see about 400 customers. Each stop takes at least a couple of hours, and some days they make only one stop. For customers 80 miles away, it’s an overnight trip, and some are 200 miles away. Parts of the route require weeks of overnight stays at hotels that have become as familiar and friendly as their customers, returning only on the weekends to restock.

The farms and ranches in South Dakota are huge, and so are the tractors and other machines. Farmers have always maintained their own equipment right there in their own workshops, so that’s where Bill and Linda go to service their customers. One of their most important products, and the one that first got them involved in this business, is a nuts-and-bolts assortment.

Unique circumstances

During setup or maintenance of the equipment, a farmer will need to replace a lot of the same few sizes of nuts and bolts. Bill said after placing a full assortment in their shop, it takes only one season for a customer to recognize how much better it is to have the right sizes on-hand rather than trying to scrounge what they need from a bucket of left-over hardware. When Bill and Linda return the following year to restock the drawers, the customers are ready to look at anything else on the truck.

Bill said he understands what his customers need because he and Linda had been farmers too. “We know you don’t go in and sell everything you possibly can and not worry about next year. We want to go back there next year, and we want him to like what we sold him so he’ll trust us and buy more. That’s really really critical.”

Of course, just as critical is standing behind their products. “We absolutely guarantee every tool that goes out that door (because maybe) we don’t sell them everything they need, but they rely on everything we sell.” Meeting that guarantee is different for Bill and Linda than it is for distributors who see their customers every week. Bill explained: “We have to deal with suppliers on the phone who don’t really understand what we do. They ask how old the tool is, and we know darn well it’s out of warranty, (so) we have no choice but to warranty that tool ourselves.” This has made them extremely choosy about which tools they stock.

Another difference with this business is the way they handle special orders. ISN and Oklahoma Rig & Supply are their main suppliers, but Bill said they also go online to buy tools and equipment. Telephone service is spotty over much of their route, so when they are able to call the supplier, “It’s absolutely critical that somebody picks up the phone. Then we can order it and have it shipped.” Bill said if he calls and gets an answering machine, “I’ve lost the sale.” But when they have Internet access, they can order from Amazon and the tool is delivered in a day or two.

Booming business

Business is good for Bill and Linda right now because it’s good for their customers too. Due to a special tax break last year, a lot of farmers built new shops, and some built their first shop. Linda said “It’s nice to see guys that didn’t have a decent place to work put up a nice shop.”

She described a customer who went from a dirt-floor two-bay garage to a beautiful new building where “they can do it all. You can’t believe the stuff they go through … they’re an all-day stop for us now. I’ll bet 90 percent of what they have in that shop they got from us.” They just built two more, and Linda said she’s really looking forward to stopping there this fall.

When asked if they have any repair shop customers, Bill said they did stop at garages when they first got started, “but it just doesn’t make sense for us.” Linda explained: “Garages would like us to stop, but you have to have a lot of patience, and it’s nickel-and-dime stuff. We just don’t have time to do that.”

Indeed. Their farm customers spend a big part of their annual tool and supply budget all at once, and they pay in full. “And most of them know what we’re selling them is stuff they’ll use.” Bill says, “It breaks my heart to see something we sold last year sitting right where we left it. We enjoy it when they use the hell out of it. It makes you feel good.”

They introduced one tool to their customers that gets used a lot: the Makita cordless impact driver.

“Those impact drivers have made us more friends than anything we’ve sold,” says Linda. Bill explained that after each impact, it releases and lets the bit or socket reset on the fastener. “You don’t strip the screws. That’s how we sold them. We’d give the guy a three-inch screw and have him drive it into a piece of wood with a drill, then drive one in with the impact driver. Every one of them bought the impact driver.”

So Bill and Linda are a team and they sell more than just tools, and their customers are not professional mechanics, and it takes a year to cover their route. But there is one way in which their business is the same as any other tool distributor. Linda says, “You have to really care about who you’re selling to … we just want to provide an excellent service.” Bill says, “You want to give them something you know they’ll get some good out of. When you come back next year and they say ‘I love that thing,’ that’s what makes me happy.”