A new force to reckon with in New Orleans

Aug. 1, 2014
In two years, Cornwell dealer and veteran automotive technician Nick Hebert has carved his niche in the mobile tool business.

They say the “Big Easy” is anything but easy if you’re an outsider trying to break into the tool business in New Orleans. According to tool industry observers, many have tried and failed.

Nick Hebert wouldn’t know. He’s not an outsider. Nor is he one of the long, well-established flags that are well known to the local repair shops.

In two years, Hebert has managed to carve his niche of the mobile tool business. This veteran automotive tech has exceeded his expectations as a Cornwell Quality Tools dealer in New Orleans. The 32-year-old Hebert has been able to use his technical experience to help other techs get the tools they need in the increasingly competitive auto repair business.

Late in 2012, Hebert assessed his career options. He loved cars and enjoyed working as a technician. But with a young family to support, he wanted to make more money. He had an associate degree in automotive and diesel technology and 12 years’ experience as a tech.

To earn more money, he reasoned he needed to have his own business. His options were to open a repair shop, become a charter fishing captain or become a mobile tool dealer. He decided that becoming a tool dealer made the most sense. Having been a technician, he was familiar with tools and he knew how techs liked to be treated. “What did I expect (from a dealer as a technician)? That’s what I based it on,” he says.

In addition, the upfront investment to become a dealer was not beyond his means, and he would have more control over his work schedule.

Having grown up in New Orleans and having been involved with cars since high school, Hebert knew many people in the local automotive aftermarket. “I’ve always had a passion for vehicles,” he notes. “If I couldn’t work on cars, I wanted something related to it.”

While working as a technician, he built race cars in the evenings and on weekends. “’Street’ racing is real big down here,” he notes.

Nevertheless, going into business for himself was not an easy decision. He did not have many relatives who owned businesses.

When he examined flag opportunities, Hebert realized that flags provide business training in addition to tools and financing. As he learned more about mobile tool sales, he became convinced it offered him a good career opportunity.

He finds the right partner

In studying the different flag opportunities, he decided that Cornwell Tools offered his best option. As a technician, Hebert had always found Cornwell Tools products to be good value. He felt the company’s tools were among the best quality and often at a good price. He also liked the fact that the company is privately owned. In his view, a company that doesn’t have shareholders is likely to be more responsible to its dealers.

Fortunately for Hebert, in 2012, Cornwell had territories open in New Orleans.

He spent a week attending training at Cornwell’s Wadsworth, OH facility, which he found very helpful. He was especially impressed with the business management software, which he found easy to learn.

Using Cornwell’s finance program, he invested close to $20,000 in his starting inventory. He found a used 2007 18' GMC 5500 truck, which had a new motor. The truck had been owned by another Cornwell dealer. He leased the truck with a $3,000 down payment.

Hebert’s district manager then rode with him for two weeks and introduced him to customers. He was given a choice of routes on both the east and west banks of the Mississippi River, and he chose the west bank due to the wide variety of industry.

His district manager also helped him set up his truck. He installed a reflective, metallic press board in the ceiling that allows customers to see the tools hanging from the ceiling more easily. The reflections enhance the sense of an abundance of tools on display.

Hebert, with his extensive experience, knew what tools to stock on his truck.

Cognizant to the rising demand for metric tools, he ordered both SAE and metric tools.

For body shops that often need to repair surfaces damaged by hail, he ordered air hammers and spotweld cutters.

He vertically stacked creepers in a chamber below the hammer board.

He has a toolbox and three tool carts that store and display tools.

Price tags and barcodes help

Hebert decided from the beginning to put price tags and bar codes on his tools. Thanks to the versatility of Cornwell’s software system, he can print prices and bar codes on sheets of adhesive tags which he then attaches to the tools. The price tags save him time answering questions about prices.

By attaching a bar code to every tool, he can use a bar code scanner to inventory his tools. The bar code scanner improves accuracy of his records and makes tracking inventory faster. The bar code also allows him to call up the product’s warranty information on his laptop computer.

Initiation by fire

Having never owned a business, Hebert was nervous at first. “My first day by myself I was nervous,” he recalls. But after two weeks, he felt confident that he made the right move. “You never know until you try,” he says.

Based on his loan repayment plan, he determined he needed to do $700 in sales per day to pay off his starting inventory in four years. He set a daily goal of $1,000, and he managed to surpass it by $500 to $600 in his first week. He accomplished this visiting 18 to 36 stops per day, working five days a week.

Hebert learned quickly that it is very difficult to determine how good a stop will be before visiting for at least three months. He has found success in stops that other tool trucks don’t visit. “I don’t judge a book by its cover,” he says. He sometimes visits a shop for as long as six months before giving up on it.

Many customers were glad to see a Cornwell Tools truck, Hebert says. But nonetheless, winning business wasn’t easy. The other flags in New Orleans were well established, and Hebert found many customers were loyal to the existing flags. It took several weeks for some customers to buy from him. Some customers to this day remain loyal to other flags. “You’ve got to prove yourself to these guys and I base my whole business around that,” he says.

Hebert sees winning business from customers loyal to competitors as his single greatest challenge, and one he enjoys.

A natural salesman

Having been a tech himself, he found it easy to talk to customers. Being an avid race fan, a hunter and a fisherman, he can share a lot of his personal interests with customers. “You develop a relationship with the customers,” he notes. “I always try to make conversation with them. I know who hunts and fishes. I know who has babies. The customers seem to appreciate stuff like that.”

He mainly talks about the tools when he visits shops. He sees his role as an educator. “I never push a customer for a sale,” he says.

“It all came pretty natural,” he notes.

Earning trust and respect

Hebert has found that by following some basic guidelines, he is able to maintain customer trust and respect.

He learned that customers appreciate seeing the truck on a consistent basis.

He makes it a point to replace broken tools for established customers. “If it’s going to make the customer happy, I’ll take care of it.”

He passes out monthly flyers to all customers in addition to an annual tool catalog. He notes that the monthly specials are well received. Hebert “totes and promotes” new tools only.

“Extreme talkers” on the truck can be an issue, he notes. Hebert tells them, “I’m going to the next stop; are you coming with me?” This gets the message across in a non-confrontational way.

He encourages customers to call him if they need something. He tries to deliver these orders as soon as possible. When some crane operators asked him for Sunex wrenches, Hebert did some research on the wrenches and was able to get them for his customers. These were high-ticket wrenches with a lifetime warranty. “They (the customers) jumped all over it.”

He keeps his prices consistent with those displayed on the Cornwell website. “In this day and age, everybody lives on the Internet.” Hebert appreciates the fact that Cornwell does not sell direct to customers.

At every stop, he prints a list of what each customer ordered and their current balance. The list also includes every customer’s phone number. He makes it a point to call all customers he doesn’t get to see at the shop to see if they need anything or want to make a payment.

About 80 percent of his customers pay with a credit or debit card. The rest mostly pay cash; Hebert only accepts personal checks from customers he knows well. He has a sign in the truck stating there is a $35 fee for any check that doesn’t clear.

He posts his weekly payment terms on a sign in the truck. He allows 10-week terms. For sales over $400, he requires a 20 percent down payment. Those who are approved by Cornwell credit can pay by credit.

Hebert allows customers to skip a payment, providing they make up for it the next week.

He made it a point not to badmouth the competition. “I have respect for all of them. They’re doing something right since they’ve been around.”

Disciplined management

From the beginning, Hebert realized the importance of staying current on his payments. “The key is to manage your money,” he says. He spends between $3,000 to $10,000 per week on tools and pays his full balance weekly. He carries between $70,000 and $75,000 worth of retail inventory.

Hebert pays his taxes monthly. His software allows him to access his monthly sales. “That way it’s not a big hit,” he says. His software system calculates all of the different tax rates.

He thinks performing maintenance on his truck on a monthly basis is important. “I take no chances,” he says. The truck is parked in an RV lot.

He also backs up all of his data on a USB stick in case his computer should crash.

A diverse customer mix

The aftermarket has been growing since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. In addition, the energy industry has been growing, creating more opportunities for tool dealers. Hebert services some shops that repair motors for offshore oil rigs.

He has also found window tint shops to be good customers, along with waste haulers, scrap dealers and marine repair shops.

Hebert has applied for a national security card from the Department of Homeland Security which will allow him to enter government facilities.

Tool needs change

Hebert has noticed there are more specialty tools. Other “hot” categories of late include LED flashlights. “Everybody likes LED lights these days”; ratchet wrenches, cordless power tools and scan tools.

He notes that reflashing tools are beginning to sell well, and he expects this will continue as shops realize these tools empower them to keep a lot of work that would otherwise be sent to an automotive dealer. “In this day and age, you (as a shop) have to (do reflashing). If not, you’re never going to make it.”

The new R-1234yf refrigerant is also creating demand for RRR machines and refrigerant identifiers, he notes.

Tool carts have been popular as an economical alternative to toolboxes, he says.

He doesn’t sell a lot of capital equipment since much of it is available over the Internet. “It’s all about the price,” he notes.

One of the biggest challenges facing distributors, Hebert notes, is competition from the Internet. He tells customers that these tools will not be serviced.

Hebert makes it a point to attend the annual Cornwell Tools Tool Rally. He learns about special offers, such as special-edition toolboxes that customers love. “Any type of training I can get, I take,” he says.

An exciting future

He thinks the future is good for tool dealers since technology is making it possible for tool manufacturers to offer better tools. He sees “connected cars” on the horizon, which will bring new tools to the aftermarket. As a student of technology, he believes automotive technology is second only to consumer electronics in its pace of change.

In two more years, he will have paid off his startup loan. At that point, he hopes to expand to a 24' truck.

This year, he hopes to make it onto Cornwell Tools’ top 100 dealer list. He says he came close to making the list in 2013.

Hebert is optimistic about his future. The local economy has been gradually improving, although he is concerned about the cost of health insurance and flood insurance.

In retrospect, Hebert thinks his automotive background was a big help in his success as a tool dealer.

“It all boils down to treating the customer the way to you want to be treated,” he says.

Nick Hebert’s Top 5 Tools

  1. CAT 4150 1/2" Impact Drill
  2. Redback slip-on boots
  3. Power Probe III
  4. Streamlight Strion flashlight
  5. Cornwell double flex head ratchet wrench

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