Four markets in four decades

After more than 40 years on the truck, Max Shipler has managed to accomplish most of his goals as a distributor. He has achieved financial success, enjoyed a high degree of personal satisfaction and has established a wealth of friendships. He has also discovered that the mobile tool business offers a benefit that he never thought about until recently. Being an independent distributor allows him to work part-time, a lifestyle he enjoys. He likes being on the truck and not feeling the pressure to earn as much as he did when he was younger.

He currently spends two days a week in Pahrump, a town of 36,000 people about an hour west of Las Vegas, and another day every other week in Amargosa Valley, a community of less than 2,000 people an hour north of Pahrump.

“It’s just right,” he says of his current position, driving his truck full of tools two or three days a week.


Humble beginnings

Shipler’s story proves that mobile distribution allows an ambitious person starting out with limited means the chance to achieve a high level of success. One thing he likes most about the business is that it allows him to do things his own way. “If I do things the right way or the wrong way, I do them my way. That is important to me,” he says.

Shipler never expected to be a businessman. He began his work life as a technician for a Plymouth dealer near Des Moines, IA. The owner eventually sold the dealership but continued the repair shop. The owner later took another job and handed over the keys to the shop to Shipler.

Shipler was able to keep the business running, and he found that he liked being self-employed. "I made all the decisions and made all the money," he says. "It is more interesting. I will always work several times harder for myself than anyone else.”

But within a year, the shop’s landlord rented the building to someone else, forcing Shipler to find another location.

His tool distributor had recently become a flag field manager. The field manager invited Shipler to become a mobile tool distributor and to train Shipler in running the business. So in 1973, the 25-year-old Shipler became a mobile distributor.

The field manager helped him organize his first vehicle, a 12' long, one-step van. At that time, vans were not designed for selling tools. Shipler needed to install shelves, pegboards, lights, decals and an alarm.

One reason tool trucks were so much smaller at the time, he notes, is that there were far fewer tools available than there are today. Metric tools were rare.

Being a former tech and shop owner, Shipler was able to relate to techs and shop owners easily. He found that many customers shared his interest in cars, making it easy to establish customer relationships.

The most important skill he learned early on was listening to customers. “You better be a great listener,” he says. “The most correct definition of a salesperson is teacher and helper.” A salesperson is supposed to explain the difference between his product and similar products, Shipler says.

He attended biweekly distributor sales meetings. “You gain the product knowledge much quicker that way,” he says.

But the first year wasn’t easy. Many of the shops in rural Iowa had never had a truck visit weekly. Most hadn’t seen Shipler’s flag for years. “They didn’t know whether to trust me,” he says. Many techs felt he would stop visiting after a few weeks.

But Shipler persisted. “I fixed and replaced everything on the spot as quickly as possible.”

He also learned that a tool distributor has to live with the reality of non-payments. From day one, about 10 percent of customers have been problem payers, and this has been true in each of the four geographic markets he has served over the years. The best way to deal with this problem, he says, is not to dwell on it. “You live by the law of averages,” he says.


1970s: A different era

The tool business was different in the mid-1970s. All accounting was done manually. Purchase receipts were written by hand.

Imported cars were becoming more popular and required metric tools. “The seventies were the most exciting time. I was young and I was in the middle of it.”

Sears was a competitor. He reminded those who bought from Sears that they were supporting their competition and that the Sears truck never comes to replace broken tools.

“I was so convenient when I showed up every week and replaced whatever they had on the spot.

“The best warranty was the high-quality tools because they didn’t break nearly as often.”


Weekly service arrives

Shipler remembers when the flags moved from biweekly to weekly service schedules in the early 1970s. This made a big difference because it was easier for the techs to remember what day the truck was going to arrive. “They (the techs) would be ready with payments and would better remember what they needed. They didn’t have to wait two weeks to get what they needed.”

For distributors, weekly visits resulted in shorter routes, which were more economical.

“Sales and collections went up big time and expenses went down,” Shipler recalls. “You’re seeing more customers in less mileage.” At the time, tool companies were looking hard for distributors.


No idle chat

Shipler walks into every shop he visits. He is personable; but he does not spend a lot of time with idle conversation. “It doesn’t pay to be a professional visitor. You need to sell and collect, and service what you sell," he says. “They’ve got to make their living and you’ve got to think of the shop (owner). He needs to keep those guys working to keep the shop going.” He remembers hearing about a large shop that stopped allowing tool trucks to come by because a distributor spent an hour talking about fishing. That shop didn’t allow tool trucks until a new owner took over some years later.

Shipler developed some rules of his own. He does not give away candy on the truck. “Do you want the customer to be paying his dentist and not his tool bill? Why would you have beef jerky in the display space when you should have tools everywhere. If you can’t sell tools without selling beef jerky or food items in general, you’re in the wrong business. I don’t have any room for food on this truck. I barely have room for the tools that I need.”

Shipler also does not do any raffles. He tried it once, and those customers who didn’t win felt cheated.


A creative merchandiser

Shipler came up with his own way of expanding display space in the truck. He designed a 28” by 77” wood frame in the middle of the truck that holds six movable pegboards, 2’ wide by 6-1/2" tall. He fashioned half-inch square wood into tracks that guide the frames. Tracks extending from the wall at the top and bottom of the frame allow the pegboards to slide in and out.

The pegboards remain stationary in the frame while the truck is in motion. 7/16 square-inch tubes on the outer edges and inner edges of the sliding pegboard stiffen the pegboard so it doesn’t bend in the middle.

The pegboards display blister packed tools. A customer standing in the center of the truck can pull out a pegboard and see the products it holds. Most customers pull out each pegboard to see the tools.

Shipler first tried displaying blister packs on the pegboards using pegboard hooks. “They (the hooks) did not work at all,” Shipler says. The hooks wear out the packaging and the pegboard, and they make noise while the truck is being driven.

Instead, he glues carpet to the pegboard, which allows him to hang Velcro-padded packages onto the pegboard. Since the packages don’t come with Velcro, Shipler attaches the Velcro to the packages himself. “It works great.”

“I just knew I needed the display space because there are so many specialty tools,” he says for his movable display boards.

When using Velcro to hold packages, Shipler says it is important to make sure the Velcro will stick to the carpet. He says there are different types of carpet and Velcro will not stick to all carpets.

Cutting Velcro and attaching it to blister packs is part of Shipler’s weekly routine when he receives deliveries at home. This has become a habit, just like shipping products for warranty, looking up part numbers for tools that need fixing, tracking down skips and cleaning the truck. “The secret to success is to form the habit of doing the things the other people in the business don’t like to do,” he says. “That works for any business.”

He also makes it a habit of changing his truck. “When people see different products, they buy more products. They buy things they didn’t know were available.”


First relocation: New Mexico

In his first six years, Shipler continuously poured his profits back into the business. He switched to larger and larger trucks.

After six years, Shipler felt he had accomplished most of his goals. He felt he needed a new challenge. When he was offered a position as a flag field manager, he accepted.

Shipler enjoyed working as a field manager, but after three years, he decided to become a distributor again. He took on a route with the same flag he had in the greater Des Moines area.

Things were going well until two-and-a-half-years later, he suffered back trouble, which sidelined him for about six months.

When he recovered, in search of better weather and the challenge of starting over in a new market, he moved to Las Cruces, NM. “It’s a lot of fun and excitement to start a new route,” he says. “Every time you start a new route, it’s a new challenge, which is good.”

He was successful in Las Cruces. But after five-and-a half-years, he felt he could do better in a more prosperous community. So he decided to relocate again, this time choosing a market that was reportedly growing at a rapid pace in 1990: Las Vegas. “For years, I had known that some top dealers were in the Las Vegas area.”

He did well in Las Vegas. He spent 10 years serving downtown. He then moved to North Las Vegas, which has more heavy truck and heavy equipment industry. “I wanted a new challenge.”

He spent nine years working five days a week in North Las Vegas when he decided he wanted to stop working 60 hours a week. He gave his franchise to the flag and kept the inventory, planning to sell it himself.

Anxious for a slower pace of life, he moved to Pahrump, NV, which is about an hour from Las Vegas.

Shortly after moving to Pahrump, he discovered the area was underserviced by tool trucks. “This town needed a dependable tool truck in a bad way, and I could do it.” So he bought a 20' Freightliner diesel truck with 340,000 miles and a new engine, over the Internet, and he was back in business as an independent mobile distributor.


Going independent pays

Going back to his flag was out of the question for Shipler since the flag did not allow part-time distributors. So he decided to go independent. He reasoned that by being independent, he could work at his own pace.

He began driving to shops two days every week and three days every other week. “I didn’t expect to get back in the business. I did, and I’m glad I did.”

He noticed that many of the manufacturers that made tools for the flags made the same tools under their own brand names. Over time, he began purchasing most of his tools from ISN. One reason was the good relationship he developed with his ISN sales rep, Willie Wilson. Shipler notes that a good sales rep becomes an important resource to a distributor.

“He’s quite helpful on a number of things,” Shipler says of Wilson. Wilson knows the products well, which makes it easy for Shipler to place orders. “He knows the part numbers very well.”

Wilson also keeps Shipler informed about new tools and special deals. “If there’s a hot new tool coming out, he’ll let me know,” Shipler says.

In addition, Wilson communicates well with Shipler. “I know that he’s there, and if I don’t call him, he’ll call me.”

Another benefit to being independent is there are no territorial restrictions on where you can go to sell tools.

Shipler recognizes that the flags have the advantage of offering a well-known brand name. They also have good financing programs for technicians, which is helpful for selling higher ticket items. “That’s the drawback to being independent so far,” Shipler says. For most tool sales, he asks for five-week terms. On average, he gets eight-week terms.

But he maintains that this disadvantage, the financing, is not enough to offset the advantages of being independent. He notes that only a small percentage of technicians can qualify for the flag financing programs. One thing he has learned over the years is that many technicians are poor money managers and have bad credit.

Most customers in Pahrump are small repair shops. His largest customer is a race track that has a driving school.

Being in a rural area, Shipler travels longer distances between stops. The upside is there isn’t a lot of time spent in traffic and getting into tight spaces with the truck.


ISN show pays off

Shipler attended his first ISN tool dealer expo last year and found it well worth his while, thanks to the education and products on display.

One of the more innovative tool categories today, in his view, is specialty tools. This segment has grown as carmakers are changing vehicle designs more frequently and requiring more specialty tools for repairs. “We have more variations of cars from the global market than ever before. The carmakers have always made specialty tools required in an effort to make customers go to their dealerships for the service. Even the Model T Ford required a few specialty tools that didn’t fit for anything else,” Shipler says. “Now we have more makes and models from so many countries, it’s incredible.”

Shipler plans to keep working as long as he remains in good health. “They need me pretty badly here,” he says.