Mobile tool distribution has a bright future if 28-year-old Carrie Lake is representative of the new generation. In just a few months, this intelligent, personable and innovative young woman has more than doubled the customer count in a semi-rural section of northeastern Michigan that had gone...
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Carrie Lake groups different types of merchandise together to get customers to walk the entire display area.
Carrie Lake tries to be creative in how she displays tools in her truck.
Tools are displayed in bundles and in individual packages.
Carrie Lake looks up a product in the Mac Tools catalog for a customer.
Photo credit: Tools are displayed next to the Mac Tools catalog next to the truck entrance.
Hammers are displayed right above an enclosed apparel cabinet near the cab of the truck.
Carrie Lake rings up a sale for a customer.
Carrie Lake takes a call from a customer.
Photo credit: Merchandise is displayed on top of a toolbox in the truck.
A customer shows Carrie Lake a photo on his smart phone.
A customer buys a raffle ticket.
Carrie Lake visits a boat repair shop, one of her "tote and promote" accounts.
A customer looks at a screwdriver set.
With the help of her mechanically inclined husband, Carrie Lake refurbished a used truck for her mobile tool business.
With the helpl of her mechanically-inclined husband, Carrie Lake refurbished a used truck for her mobile tool business.
Carrie Lake visits a boat repair shop, one of her "tote and promote" accounts.
Mobile tool distribution has a bright future if 28-year-old Carrie Lake is representative of the new generation.
In just a few months, this intelligent, personable and innovative young woman has more than doubled the customer count in a semi-rural section of northeastern Michigan that had gone without a Mac Tools distributor for more than six years. Given the amount of time that had lapsed since the customers in this area had seen a Mac Tools truck, the ambitious Lake has managed to mend a trail of “broken fences,” rebuild the former customer base, and more than double it.
And given the fact that Lake had little more than her own determination, some familiarity with the local community and a supportive husband, her success demonstrates that the mobile tool distribution business holds great opportunity for young people willing to learn the business, put in the long hours and do what needs to be done to make their numbers.
Like many young people with limited resources, this Tawas City, Mich. native had tried a number of jobs before coming across the opportunity to invest in a mobile distributorship. After graduating from high school and getting married, she tried various retail sales jobs to supplement her husband’s construction worker income. She eventually earned a medical technician certificate and got a job as a medical staff assistant, but she still was not fulfilled, personally or financially.
When she learned through word of mouth that Mac Tools was looking for a mobile distributor, she was immediately interested. She remembered that as a child, her uncle, a railroad worker, used Mac Tools. She became more interested when she learned there was only one mobile tool distributor in her market. “There’s definitely a need for a Mac Tools distributor in this area,” she says.
The local economy has been improving, thanks to the revival of the automotive industry since the Great Recession hammered Michigan. With more people working, the auto service and repair shops have been getting busier. The tourism industry, which Tawas City and the surrounding Lake Huron communities heavily rely on, has also improved in recent years.
The more Lake learned about the Mac Tools franchise opportunity, the more sense it made to her. Having grown up in the area, she already knew many of the businesses.
She contacted Mac Tools, which arranged for her to ride with a mobile distributor in another market. Mac Tools wanted her to have a good idea about the job’s demands before having her come to the company headquarters for training.
And the more she learned, the more convinced she became that operating a Mac Tools franchise was for her. The company told her she would get out of the business what she put into it.
From day one, she has been working 80 hours a week. “I’m still learning a lot,” she says.
Assisted by her husband, who is familiar with automotive technology, she shopped for a tool truck and found a 16-foot-long, 1999 International model for $20,000. She was able to qualify for a conventional bank loan to buy the truck and the franchise starting inventory.
Lake set up a payment plan, and to date, she has been making payments without any difficulty. Given the fact that she’s still in a growth mode, her future is bright.
The right mindset from the start
Lake did not grow up in a business family, but she learned from her own work experiences what mindset she needs to succeed in business.
“You’ve got to be a people person,” she says. “You have to be motivated. You have to work to get paid. It’s not easy being your own boss.”
Mac Tools gave her a list of about 350 customers the former distributor served. Lake expected there would be some resistance when she went to visit former customers. She didn’t expect they would be meeting her truck with open arms after a six-year absence. But when they saw she kept coming back, week after week, at the same time of the week, they began to come out and see what she had to sell.
Winning back some of these customers required replacing parts with expired warranties.
Lake wasted no time finding new customers; people who didn’t have any previous exposure to a Mac Tools truck.
In the 100-mile radius she serves, there are clusters of towns with small businesses that need tools. These include automotive shops with one to three employees, construction firms, excavators, building maintenance firms, rental centers, boat repair shops and outdoor power equipment dealers.
Speaking of excavators, she observed: “One guy might be moving the dirt, but there’s still a guy at the shop who’s got to fix it. They need sockets and impacts and wrenches. There are mechanics everywhere.”
While these small businesses don’t make a lot of big purchases, Lake learned she can visit a lot of them in a short time period. The clusters are often several miles apart, but within each cluster, the stops are just minutes apart. These are her “tote and promote” stops. Armed with her tool bag and product catalog, she locks her truck, walks into the shop and finds out what tools they need. She typically does not leave these stops without making a sale or collecting on a previous sale.
Another good thing about these small shops is there is little competition for their business from the area’s other mobile distributor.
While Lake has done a good job gaining new customers, her largest customer is a long-time aircraft manufacturing facility with two engine shops and a hangar. On the day she visits the hangar, she spends the entire day there.
Customers like routine visits
Having a lot of customers requires disciplined time organization and extensive record keeping. Lake has a different set of stops every day, but she has learned it is important to have a schedule and stick to it.
“They (customers) are very routine,” she says. “It’s important to arrive at the same time every day, the same day.”
Mac Tools’ accounting software has made keeping track of receivables manageable, but it’s the least favorite part of the job.
“I hate paperwork and checking stuff in,” she says. “And that part doesn’t make money. You’ve got to be out moving to make money.”
Changing and mixing product displays
Lake has improvised on the interior merchandising plan that her district manager provided when helping her set up the truck. In the original layout, the display shelves were divided into sections based on product type; i.e., air tools, tool kits, hand tools, etc. While her truck is small compared to other distributors, customers tended to gravitate to one or two areas inside the truck after their first few visits.
By grouping different products together and changing the merchandise arrangement every two weeks, she has found customers are more likely to peruse the entire inventory.
“Every couple of weeks, I mix it up,” she says. “It’s amazing what moving stuff around does.”
She keeps the interior clean and the shelves and the ceiling fully stocked.
Key selling tool: promotions
One of the first marketing lessons Lake learned was the importance of promotions. An early Mac Tools promotion was to provide clothing for military families.
At this writing, she was having great response to a raffle to benefit breast cancer research. In two weeks, she sold more than half of her 500 raffle tickets. “I did better than I expected,” she says. Some customers have purchased multiple tickets to support the benefit.
Customers always want to know what’s on special. Hence, Lake keeps Mac Tools’ monthly flyers in a holder right by the truck’s entrance.
In the meantime, she came up with a promotional idea of her own. She plans to have a “tool party” for the wives and girlfriends of her mostly male customers. She told her customers to tell their wives and girlfriends to come and see tools to get their partners for Christmas, and the response has been great. She will serve refreshments and display tools. “I think it’s going to go over really well,” she says. “If nothing else, it’ll be a fun party.”
In the future, she plans to do a raffle every other month with tools as prizes.
The key selling points she has learned are those that are common to all mobile distributors: product quality, name brand recognition, variety and convenience. “They (customers) pay the extra dollars because it’s convenient and there’s a lifetime warranty,” she notes.
She typically provides $300 in credit per customer, setting up weekly payment plans. For those customers with good payment history, she extends the limit. She has gone as high as $1,200 on a large purchase for a credit-worthy customer.
Lake recently began using a Square smartphone app that allows her to process credit payments with her mobile phone.
Receivables have not been an issue.
She thinks being a woman has been an advantage in minimizing receivables since men, who are the majority of customers, are inclined to demonstrate financial responsibility to a woman.
She also recognizes that her own communication skills, honed by her previous retail sales jobs, have helped. “I have a knack at being good with names and faces,” she says. “When you’ve done as many jobs as I’ve done, you know how to treat people.”
Her next focus will be on expanding her customer base to farms. In the meantime, she looks forward to attending the Mac Tools Fair in Dallas in the spring.
She feels fortunate that most of her customers are easy to work with.
Lake is glad she got into the mobile tool business. “It’s not the same thing every day,” she says. “I like being able to do my own thing.”