A Career Full of Changes


After years of installing and servicing stationary engines all over the world, Ed Nolan decided he’d had enough travel. Back at the shop in Rockford, IL, he talked with their tool distributor about becoming a tool man, then contacted Mac Tools.

He said picking a tool company was easy. “Mac Tools was my only choice and I have never regretted my decision. I couldn’t imagine being with any other company than Mac.” Ed has been a Mac Tools distributor since 1984.

Basics of business

His customers are dealerships and independent shops, truck garages, heavy equipment shops and aircraft mechanics (lots of 1/4” drive). Ed calls the truck and equipment shops “a comfort zone” in his business because the mechanics “spend big money to get what they need to do the job. They take their job seriously and spend what’s necessary to make it easier.”

He said many of them don’t use credit. “They’ll buy something for two or three hundred dollars and pay cash.” That said, Ed also points out that “I couldn’t be here without all of my customers. They all make up the day. Some spend money and some I (just) learn from, but they all matter the same.”

Ed likes dealing with independent shops too. “Once you win their trust and credibility, they start to rely on you for a lot of things, not just tools: tire changers, wheel balancers, hoists, A/C machines, those kinds of things.”

We saw current-generation Mac toolboxes in almost every shop we visited with Ed, but he says he doesn’t sell a lot of toolboxes. “That’s a bonus thing for me. Tools and service is where I build my business …There’s a lot of guys selling lots of toolboxes, but (when) they’re not selling toolboxes, they’re not selling anything.”

Adapting to changes

Rockford was a big manufacturing town, but most of that is gone now. Because of this and the economic recession, many truck shops have closed or cut back.

“I used to have more truck shops working (three) shifts. Mondays I would leave the house at 6:30 AM and get home after midnight after catching the second shift guys. Sometimes I’d be there at 5:30 the next morning to catch the third shift. That’s pretty much all gone,” says Ed. “But that’s OK, I was younger then.”

Ed noted that some fleet garages still work second shift because the trucks run in the daytime. “Monday is (still) my late day. I can pretty much fit all my second shift stops into a Monday night.”

Ed faced a major problem earlier this year when medical issues kept him out of action for three months. But his business returned along with his health. “I’m not going to set any records this year, but as soon as I got back on the truck, things got right back up to where they were, and it’s still as busy as ever.”

He notes that a bad economy and three months off could have put him out of business, but Rockford is a big town with many auto, truck, equipment and fleet shops, plus a fairly large international airport (it’s a UPS hub). This not only helped Ed survive, he said his last two years “were probably my best two ever, not by leaps-and-bounds, but all-in-all and back-to-back.”

During that time Ed sold a lot of big ticket items to the small independent shops. “I think it’s because the economy is down and they’re not selling as many new cars, and the small shops actually got busier fixing cars.”

Inventory and layout

We asked Ed about the layout for his truck. “Flashlights need to be colorful and in your face,” so they share a prominent space with work gloves. “Gloves don’t sell if they’re not displayed.” The truck is full without seeming cluttered, which Ed says is a challenge. “It’s a tool truck, not Macy’s, so there are certain things you have to put on the truck. But you need to have things that will jump out and grab people.”

We asked if his inventory has changed over his years in the business. “That’s a problem. I’ve got a garage full of stuff that’s not popular anymore.”

One of the newer tools on his truck is Mac’s new Precision Torque brand of combination wrenches. It’s hard to imagine long-time customers buying something so basic as a set of wrenches, but Ed says they’re different from anything he’s seen before.

“I got really excited about them, and in this business if you’re excited about something, you’ll sell it. Guys pick up on your excitement … I’ve sold more of these in the past two or three years than I sold sets of (other) wrenches over my whole career. I’ve got guys buying the whole set, trading in their old wrenches, even other brands.”

Plans for the future

Ed plans to convert his business to a franchise. “All Mac dealers (hired) now have to be a franchisee. I have the option to remain an independent Mac distributor or convert, and I plan to convert … As an authorized distributor, I own nothing but my tools and my truck, but (after converting) I will own my route. That would give me the option to sell the route or hire someone to run it if I want to retire.”

Ed couldn’t say how many customers he sees in a 75-hour week, but there are about 250 on his books (plus cash customers). Even though he takes off the week after Christmas, he says during the rest of December he normally doubles his business for the month.

“Every promotion that didn’t sell (over the past year) is on sale ‘cause it’s inventory time. We’re dealin’, we’re movin’ stock and companies are at the end of their fiscal year, so business is good.”

Since Ed’s business survived a bad economy and forced medical leave, we asked his advice to new distributors starting out.

“Be patient, don’t expect too much. Good things come to those who wait. You will not make it big immediately. Like airplanes used to be when taking off from an aircraft carrier; when they leave the end of the deck, they go down a little before they climb. If you don’t hit the water when you first start out, you’ll climb.”

By working hard, working to his strengths and taking advantage of opportunities, Ed Nolan has indeed climbed above the flight deck.