At home on the road

June 4, 2018
Independent distributor Jeff Cothren puts on the miles to ensure he’s always there for his long-established customer base.

Decatur, Alabama independent distributor Jeff Cothren is coming up on 19 years in the mobile tool business, and he wears it well.

Cothren began his career path as an automotive technician. He worked his way up to service manager before relocating to a neighboring shop. At this last location, Cothren was introduced to the “tool guy” who introduced him to the mobile dealer business. After that, Cothren hit the road and never looked back.

The independent life

“[Originally] I wanted to go into business for myself as a mechanic,” says the Decatur, Alabama distributor.

However, after considering the costs of running a shop, employees, etc., Cothren thought maybe that wasn’t the best path for him.

“When my tool guy told me about this opportunity at the time, and I researched the company, I was sold,” he says. “And running [this area] I already knew … a good three-quarters of the people.”

Does he miss turning a wrench? “Not at all,” Cothren says.

Cothren drove with a franchise for a few years before striking out on his own and establishing USA Tools in 2001. The fact that he already had a rock solid customer base from the get-go didn’t hurt.

“The day I started, my district manager did a ridealong with me,” Cothren recalls. “He said ‘I’ve never seen anybody that knows somebody in every shop.’ So instead of having to introduce myself, I was already there.”

“I started asking the guys what they wanted – name or price,” he says. “They said as long as I sold it they didn’t care [what the price was].”

Cothren says he’s lived in the Tennessee River Valley all his life.  He’s had many of the same customers over the years, some of whom are third-generation. So to say he’s established a good working relationship with these shop owners and technicians would be an understatement.

While making the various stops along his route, the vast majority – maybe 95 percent -- of customers come out to meet Cothren on the truck. Cothren knows his customers well and he is well respected. The banter at each stop is familiar and light. Business is handled, and pleasantries are exchanged.

Stops along the way

Cothren covers a lot of ground -- approximately 100 to 110 miles every day -- but it’s scenic and easy driving in the valley.

“When I get to where I’m going, I have a pretty condensed route,” he says. “But on … my Monday and Tuesday route I have a little bit of a drive to get there.”

Cothren is in a different city every day.

His route consists of the small mom and pop shops he’s stuck with over the years, and a couple of plants where he works with the maintenance department. He doesn’t visit too many body shops or dealerships, but Cothren reports heavy duty shops are a growing part of his business.

“This area is really growing,” he says. “I’ve always done well at truck shops. I think, in this area at least, a lot of the tool trucks just pound the automotive guys and leave the truck shops alone. It’s a lot bigger product -- you’re getting into a lot bigger sockets, a lot bigger wrenches and things like that, and everything is more expensive.”

On a typical day Cothren will chat more with technicians than shop owners, and talk with shop managers about shop equipment. His strategy is straightforward: “I just go out and talk. Selling tools is the least hard thing about this job. Guys want somebody who’s going to show up. Somebody’s who’s going to stand behind a product and [stock] a good product. If you keep that on the truck and do your job of being there, sales is not a big thing,” Cothren says.

The truck, the merchandise

Cothren is on his fourth truck, a 2017 Freightliner with a custom decal. He recently upgraded from a 2007 Chevrolet C5500 Cab Chassis.

“It just got to the point where it was going downhill fast,” Cothren says of the C5500. “I don’t think I’ll ever let [my truck] go that long. [From now on] I think I’ll go about every five years and just a keep a new truck moving along.

“I wanted more space; I definitely wanted to get away from the cab and chassis and go back to a traditional looking tool truck. I kind of like the M2 Freightliner cab and chassis, but it’s a lot bigger truck, and a lot of my area, especially on Thursday afternoon, is in the county and [I encounter] smaller parking lots. So to get a 22’ or 24’ truck in is a little tricky. And with me not selling a lot of toolboxes, I don’t need a lot of toolbox space.”

Cothren says the benefits of a reliable, well-equipped truck outweigh the pains of moving merchandise from one vehicle to the next.

“It took my fiancée and me less than a day to get it all off the truck, and then four and a half days to put it all back on,” he says.

In organizing his new truck, Cothren made it a point to group like items together. He says the drawers of his Freightliner work especially well.

“I’ve got more space than I had before, but I’m still full,” he says. “The truck changes all the time.”

About two years ago, Cothren began making a point to put promotional items on display, such as smaller items in clearly marked bins.

“It just shows what the promo is and the guys aren’t hunting all over the truck,” he says.

Cothren attends shows every year to gather information and intel on specific products his customers are eyeing, or to take advantage of sales opportunities that he can bundle together. In addition to managing his own business, Cothren is a GearWrench street team member. He says the biggest tool trend he’s noticing is the move away from air tools and going towards cordless. In addition, scan tools continue to distinguish themselves with new features and benefits, even while decreasing in price. This means scan tools are becoming more affordable for individual technicians.

“I see a lot more individual techs having their own scan tools versus just using the shop tool,” he says.

Smart financing

“Being in [the business] so long, I know my guys; I know what they can pay,” says Cothren on the subject of financing and collections. “I don’t have really high balances. If I’ve got a guy paying me $100 a week and he’s been doing it and I know him and I trust him, I don’t really care what his balance is.

“I’ve listened to all kinds of sales talks at shows about how to ... do turns and everything, and every single person out there is different. So how can you have a set of rules for everybody, when nothing is the same from stop to stop?”

The general rule of thumb on Cothren’s truck is a technician needs to be at a job three months before receiving credit. Big sales -- scan tools or toolboxes -- are considered carefully.

“I’ve got to really know you,” says Cothren of the pricier buys. “Being an independent, since I don’t have any financing, everything comes out of my pocket.”

The Alabama distributor says he does not dwell on the very small percentage of skips.

“I tried to take people to court [to collect payments]. It didn’t work, and then I [learned] about this fella in Orlando. He had about an 80 percent collection rate -- it’s what he does for a living and his specialty is tool trucks. He’s done very well by me.

“I have to watch, as everybody does, what they have to lose,” Cothren says. “Anything’s possible. But I take it with a grain of salt. When that money’s gone, it’s gone. You’ve just got to go and sell somebody else something. [I just] move forward and keep going to the next one. I’m not going to chase dead money and leave good money behind. The skips are so small and I’ve been blessed with so many good customers that it’s hard to focus on the bad ones.”

Work is its own reward

The days can be long -- Cothren averages 15 hours a day, six days a week -- but that’s 15 hours doing something he loves, and that’s no small thing.

“When I first started, my route was very condensed,” Cothren says. “I was home every day by 4:30, 5 [PM] and I didn’t start until 8 [AM]. I think that’s a lot of what new distributors go through versus once you get a customer base up and you’re running.”

Since starting out, he’s taken on a couple second-shift maintenance shops once a week. The second-shifters don’t begin work until 7 PM. So on Thursdays, Cothren begins his route at 5:30 AM and finishes the day with some paperwork well after 9 PM.

“I think in this business, too, it’s all in what you put into it,” he says. “There’s nobody telling me I’ve got to be here or there. I could be home every day by 1 PM if I wanted to. My wallet ain’t gonna like it. Friday I get off the route early, but I do end-of-week closeout.”

Cothren says he’s “never been one to look into having multiple trucks.” Still, he is always looking at ways to refine and retool his business.

“Eventually I want to get to the point where I’m not working 15-hour days,” he says. “But this has been a great career; I have loved it. I’ve made a lot of good friends and a really good living. I don’t stress about stuff too much.”

He says the best part of the job is simply helping people out.

“When you deal with a credit base [situation] you’re helping somebody build a career,” he says. “They may not have been financially able to buy everything that they need to do their job in one lick.”

Another upside?  “I really like not having a boss,” Cothren says.

In a sense, Cothren’s business and life travel the same path. His customers and friends are his support, and he returns the favor by offering his dependable services as well as contributing to friends’ and neighbors’ benefits and barbeque competitions from time to time. The mobile tool business has been good to Cothren. It is clear he is at home on the road.

About the Author

Sara Scullin | Editor | PTEN and Professional Distributor

Sara Scullin is the editor of PTEN and Professional Distributor magazines. These publications are part of the Endeavor Business Media Vehicle Repair Group, which includes Fleet Maintenance, Professional Tool & Equipment News (PTEN), Professional Distributor magazines and VehicleServicePros.com.

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