From Selling Bread to Selling Tools

Feb. 1, 2007
Auto-Wares builds business in the upper Midwest through commitment to customers.

When it comes to long-term success and stability in the mobile tool dealer business, ask Cornwell mobile dealer Gordy Gill for tips. He’s been successful at it since the early 1980s — in a business where the average mobile dealer lasts less than five years.

“I like where I am in terms of responsibility,” Gill said. He’s been a Cornwell franchisee since 1994, and takes those responsibilities very seriously. He maintains a hectic 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. four-day route shift, plus a full weekday full of paperwork. His painstaking effort was recognized at the March 2006 Cornwell trade show with an award — the Award — his eighth accolade from Cornwell alone.


In addition to 13 years with Cornwell, Gill previously worked for Snap-on and MAC Tools totaling more than 20 years in the industry (before that he sold bread). Gill has honed his sales strategies through keen observation and natural interpersonal skills.

“I like to ask a lot of questions. It makes the customers feel comfortable and like I’m paying attention (which I am), but I also learn a lot about the way they think, what their problems are, the obstacles they face,” Gill said.

And getting to know your customers is part of getting them to know you.

“Word of mouth is huge,” Gill said. According to Gill, there’s usually one leader in every shop, someone who other techs try to emulate.

“Get [the leader] to buy from you and establish a good customer relationship with him,” Gill said. “In most cases, everyone else will learn that you and the products you carry can be trusted — and [they] will follow suit.”

Another tactic Gill uses is to scan the conditions and types of vehicles in parking lots at prospective shops. His philosophy is if technicians and shop owners aren’t making the money they’re worth enough to buy vehicles — the so-called gem of their trade — they may not be paid enough for quality tools, and, more importantly, your services.

Warning: This is only if you don’t feel ready to prospect for more customers. Even Gill has been shocked into believing.

“You can’t always judge a book by its cover,” Gill said.


Right now, Gill’s active customers number 800, although he retains a client base of about 1,400 people. The most shocking of Gill’s stats, however, is that only 400 customers owe him money — just half of his active clientele. Gill’s customers also tend to maintain low balances on their truck accounts with average weekly payments from $10 to $50. How does Gill get these results? His customers know that their money not only buys tools and equipment, but also a veteran’s guidance and know-how.

Gill says that in any territory, diversifying your customer base is a safe strategy. That way, if the auto maintenance and repair business is down for awhile, you can rely on your other sources. For example, on a small jaunt in Burlington, Wis., a fraction of Gill’s territory, he stops at places like produce farms, a liquid nitrogen plant, a business that sells mass quantities of egg product to bakeries, etc.

The concept of diversification need not only apply to customers, but also to product. Not only can Gill’s customers find a constant supply of beef jerky and other snacks, but also an open case of AMSOIL — especially during the Wisconsin winters in which snowmobiling is a popular pastime.

Know your clientele

“Ninety percent of your business is customer interaction,” said Gill. “Your customers not only want someone to sell them tools, but they also want a shoulder to cry on.”

Over several hours observing Gill with his customers, he was personable to the extreme. His clients came out to greet him, and he called them out by nickname when they stepped up to the truck.

“If you don’t have quick access to a tool or piece of equipment a customer has requested, you probably won’t get a sale,” Gill warned. So when you stock your truck, be mindful of your customers’ needs and desires. Talk to them not only about the here and now, but also about the future, so you’re better able to anticipate the necessities, whims and impulse buys.

Part of staying ahead on stocking is the notes and inventory that Gill tracks through his computers.

“I’m very computer literate. I always keep two laptops on my truck,” Gill said. He usually has one laptop safely stowed, while the other is open and operational throughout the day for customer transactions, like processing bills and receipts, checking backorders and requests, making notes and more. He also maintains his entire inventory through his laptops.

The hours with Gill revealed how many of his customers trusted his advice … and how many he made smile. His transition from selling bread to selling tools and equipment is a success story to remember — especially as inspiration to those just starting out. With hard work, dedication and strategy, you can do the same.

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