Mining for profits in a niche town

Aug. 30, 2008
Cornwell Tools distributor Jim Ray covers a big part of Wyoming — more specifically, he splits his time between Casper and about two hours north in Gillette.

Cornwell Tools dealer Jim Ray covers a big part of Wyoming — more specifically, he splits his time between a day in Casper, where he lives, and three longer, busier days about two hours north in Gillette.

Jim has been selling Cornwell products since February 2006, following nearly 30 years “off and on” as a tech and shop foreman. He’s also had stints as a Realtor, an engineering student at Arizona State (“I golfed more than I studied”) and more.

His route has two main differences from the majority of mobile tool distributors. First, he splits time in two distant cities, and second, he spends about 90 percent of his time with construction and heavy equipment shops. Most of the shops in Gillette are on the edge of town, which has Jim driving more from one end of town to the other all day long, rather than hitting a string of shops near each other.

Between one day in Casper and three days in Gillette, Jim has about 250 active customers, the majority are his heavy-duty customers in Gillette.

“I’m just used to those guys … it’s a comfortable environment for me,” Jim said. “I can go in and talk to any of the guys, sit down and give them a hard time; I’ll walk in sometimes and I see what they’re doing, and I’ve done it and give it to them, ‘Oh man, how’d you get the gravy job?’ ”

On Tuesday mornings, Jim leaves Casper at about 4:30 a.m. to get to his first Gillette stop by about 6:30 a.m. He works a full day, stays in a hotel that night and the next, and drives home Thursday nights to get home about 10 p.m.

“You get into a rhythm of doing it; I miss being around the kids and being home every night. In terms of what I’m doing … I could have worse jobs where I’m out of town more,” Jim said.

“In Gillette, 90 percent of my stops are construction and heavy equipment. And they’re mainly the guys that do field service for the mines. … There’s probably close to 15 to 20 coal mines in the area — real large mines — and I haven’t even, at this point, ever touched them. But I service all the guys that do.”

Jim credits his success in Gillette to his familiarity with the heavy equipment shops and the area’s demographics.

“The [heavy equipment] mechanics are a lot younger up in that area; the pay is incredible for them — they’re coming out of high schools, tech schools, and … have no tools and they’re getting thrown into these service trucks and getting paid anywhere from $25 to $30 an hour, and these kids buy tools,” Jim said.

“Consequently, I cater to those guys a lot.”

In an abbreviated 2006, Jim’s tool sales were about $428,000; his 2007 sales were $648,000. These sales are mainly a result of his work in Gillette.

“In Casper, it’s a whole different animal; the demographics are actually slightly reversed,” Jim said. “Your average tech is anywhere from 35-60 in Casper, and they’re all already pretty well tooled-up.

“Most of the stuff in Casper is more like truck dealerships, over-the-road trucks. … I do very little of the auto shops.”

Casper also features one Cornwell dealer already, who recruited Jim into the business.


“For Gillette, I fire up Tuesday morning [in Casper] at 4:30 … and I just run until, Tuesday evening at 9 at night. I’ve got second shift customers servicing the mines,” Jim said. “I go back to the motel; clean the truck. Usually in that timeframe up there I’ve received a shipment … and then at night I clean and stock the truck until about 10:30 or so.

“Then I get back up at 4:30 again … to be at the field guys’ shops, because they leave early in the mornings. A lot of them will wait for you until about 8, so if you start about 6:30 and hit a couple of shops, you get 15 to 20 field guys taken care of.

“I do the same thing the next day. … I don’t take lunches; I just hit all the stops. I know what shops take lunch from 12-1, and some take 11:30-12:30, and so I fit that into my schedule.”

Jim’s always willing to sell tools. He’s had guys jump on the truck looking for tools when he’s stopped for gas, or even while cleaning and stocking the truck in the motel parking lot at night in Gillette.

Mondays in Casper are a bit different (Jim recently moved his best Friday stops in Casper to Mondays to eliminate one day on the route and up his family time). Mondays are a big day between his route and stocking the truck for his three days in Gillette.

“I usually don’t get off the truck on Mondays until 10:30, 11 at night,” Jim said.

Daily goals include selling about $1,000 a day in Casper; in Gillette, “I do a two-day thing; if I can hit $6,000 by my first two days, then my third day is gravy.” He averages about $3,200-$3,500 per day in Gillette.

Not that topping $600,000 in sales was easy.

“Initially I was just selling the tools, and everything kind of got way out of whack. We were selling tools — I could sell the hell out of tools — but collecting the money was hard.

“If the day ends up that I collected more than I sold at the end of the day, that’s fine. I had a good day.”


Jim doesn’t see any specifics to improving sales, beyond getting tools into the techs’ hands and making sure his customer service is beyond reproach.

“The main thing for hardlines and [power tools] is just getting the tool in the guy’s hand and letting him look at it,” Jim said. He saw, initially, that techs in Gillette weren’t very familiar with Cornwell’s products.

“I’d just get [tools] in their hand to look at, and then they’d see that it’s really not different than anybody else’s,” Jim said.

“The main thing is to listen to the guys. That is a major issue,” Jim said. “When I was a mechanic, the tool guy would come in, you’d ask him about something and he’d say he’d check into it and he never did. … That’s kind of a pet peeve of mine.

“If a guy asks me about something, whether it does take me a week to find out, or I cannot get it, I at least go back in and tell him. … But, I always try to follow up with guys and let them know.

“It’s mainly customer service. That’s the main thing. It’s what’s got me in the door in so many shops; just taking care of the guys,” Jim said. “You’ve got to take care of them. Even if you take a little hit here and there on some stuff, make sure you’re taking care of them.”

There was a hardship to overcome initially in Gillette for Jim, and that was the quick departure of another brand’s mobile. He said many techs were smarting from the fact they had broken tools from that brand, and no recourse since he’d left his truck to go work in a mine.

“I had to show them that I’ll be there every week, do the things I said I would do,” Jim said. “I got over that [hesitation] pretty quickly — quicker than I thought.

“Now I’ve established a good rapport with the guys. It just took off.”

He said the other tool trucks in Gillette mainly concentrate on the area’s mines.

“But I’ve found kind of a niche to a certain extent; as [the other tool trucks] concentrate more on the mines … I kind of became the go-to guy in town,” Jim said. “I’m doing all the business I want to do right now. More business is great, but I’m just … filling the niche in.”

One key for Jim, even when there is steady competition in town, is to watch his mouth.

“I don’t badmouth anybody. I’ve owned Mac tools, I’ve had Snap-on tools, I love them, they’re good tools … Cornwell is good tools … if [a customer] buys a Snap-on box, I’ll tell them it’s a good box,” Jim said. “But badmouthing the other brands doesn’t do any good.

“All you’re doing is telling your customer, ‘You’re a dumb-ass. You went and bought a stupid tool from another guy.’

“Techs are smart enough to know what they want. There are things that they like and they don’t like. I was that way,” Jim said.

“I don’t know if there are any secrets to what we’re doing,” Jim said. “I know a lot of guys are talking about the economy slowing down — the best salesmen are the ones who are selling while everyone else is having a hard time.

“It’s the best way to be in the right place at the right time.”

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