Thriving in a Tough Economy

Feb. 7, 2012

The day we rode with Matco distributor George Terebey, the first stop was a few miles outside his territory. "I inherited that stop, but that's OK, you inherit stops here and there as you go along. My last stop today isn't in my territory either, but I asked the distributor there for that one because he wasn't stopping there and one of my regular customers moved there. The distributor didn't mind, and I've made numerous toolbox sales. It's turned out to be a very profitable stop."

Most of George's territory is in Camden County, NJ, 230 square miles of suburban and rural communities that lie under the busy air traffic corridor southeast of Philadelphia. The local economy is diverse, with no single industry or large employer, but many workers commute to the cities of Camden, Philadelphia or Princeton.

Finding Customers

Recent economic conditions have hit some of this area hard, and it shows in the age of the cars and the work being done on them. "When business is bad, (my customers) don't have money to spend, and you don't want to put a lot of money out on the street with them. Sometimes you wonder how they stay in business, wonder how or why they even try to keep the shop open."

But the number of working techs in the area doesn't seem to be diminishing. When a large Chrysler dealership closed, the shop became part of a chain of "no-haggle" used car dealerships, and now it's on George's route because a lot of his old customers ended up working there. It actually worked out well too, because as he points out, dealership techs don't need to buy as many tools.

George has also picked up new customers by following existing customers to a new stop. After following a customer to a big truck garage, George ended up with just about everyone's business. "They had other distributors there but never a Matco guy, and now I'm number-one there." When asked how he knew that, George said, "Because they tell me. I just call 'em like I see 'em and don't try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I just give 'em the service they ask for."

A Rural Route

George noted some advantages to driving a tool truck in the more rural part of his route. "Out here a guy might want something for his house or maybe he doesn't get (Matco) service at his shop. I met a trucker who just moved into the area, and I sold him a couple of things just because he saw my truck when I stopped for coffee."

George drives about 200 miles a week to see roughly 400 people (200 are on the books), and he's arranged the route to facilitate unscheduled stops. During our visit, we passed by many shops that he stops at on other days. "I crisscross during the week, so if somebody calls during the week, I can be there."

Most of his customers work in independent automotive shops, but he also stops at a few heavy duty truck shops and a bus fleet shop. His two biggest stops are a municipal truck garage and an ambulance company. There was another flag stopping at both, but Georges thinks "he must have done something wrong because they're all mine now. If there's a bad tool man, everybody knows about it … Word travels very quickly, but only about the bad guys."

Making customers happy

One way to remain one of the good guys is to stock nothing but top-quality products. George said customers have told him "If it's marked 'China,' I don't want to do business with you." He stocks the truck almost exclusively with Matco tools "because warranty is easier. Everything just goes back to Matco and I have no headaches, no problems." Of course, there's a solid profit motive too. "In this business, price is one thing but your margin is the most important. Obviously you can sell the Matco tools for more money, but it's also more margin."

George makes some of his buying decisions based on what his customers see in magazines or websites. "Years ago I told another distributor the Internet is going to hurt us, and it has to an extent, but it's also helped. They'll see products and ask about them, and sometimes they'll look at a high price and know the only way they'll get it is by buying it (on terms) from me."

George is willing to go the extra mile to make his customers happy after their purchase too. A few who purchased wheel balance machines from him discovered they needed a special cone to balance super-duty pick-up truck wheels. George contacted the manufacturer but "they couldn't offer me anything, so I had to take the bull by the horns." With engineering help from one of his customers who builds off-road vehicles from scratch, George designed a special spacer that gets the job done. He's in the process of having some made and he'll give them away to the customers who need them.

Since several distributors have told Professional Distributor some customers are unhappy after buying high-end diagnostic equipment because they don't understand it, we asked George how he feels about selling it. "I'm comfortable selling the Matco Determinator. I tell them it's got a demo program, just push that button and take the time to learn what it does. It seems like everyone wants the code readers too because they're so simple."

When asked what brought him into the business, George jokes that it might have been his midlife crisis. He started at the bottom in a heavy equipment sales company, worked his way up to service manager "and realized that the service manager is really a punching bag." After 16 years in heavy equipment, he became a Matco distributor, and after 12 years, George is still happy with his decision. One of the things he likes most is the freedom. "When my son was growing up, if I needed to go watch a cross-country event at his school, I didn't have to ask anyone. Customers understand, just like when I stop by for a payment and they're off watching their kid's game, I have to understand too."

His advice to people starting out today: "Start with a new vehicle so you don't have any problems. I had a used truck and the trans(mission) went out my first week."


Top 5 Tools

  • Screwdrivers
  • Ratchets and breaker bars
  • Toolboxes and carts
  • Matco Determinator scan tool
  • 1/2” impact wrench
About the Author

Jacques Gordon

Jacques Gordon is the former editor-in-chief of PTEN and Professional Distributor magazines. His background includes 10 years as an automotive technician and 10 years in Tier 1 suppliers’ engineering labs testing gaskets, fuel injection systems and emission control systems.

He continues to stay abreast of the latest technical developments through editorial research and technician training seminars. He holds an ASE Master Technician with L1 Certification and a Master Hybrid Technician certification from ACDC.

Jacques has been writing for aftermarket magazines since 1998, and he has earned a reputation as one of the best technical writers in the business. He is a winner of two American Society of Business Press Editor awards and several company editorial awards.

He is currently the video script writer for the CARS Training Network in Ontario, Canada.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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