When we were on the truck with Mac Tools distributor Joe Hardin in early autumn, the leaves were just beginning to turn. Toy footballs dotted the truck's shelves. Hardin tosses these to technicians with kids as a little something extra. Likewise, at Christmastime Hardin likes to do a giveaway, maybe a TV, for his customers. And the full week before Christmas he’ll bring in a cooler full of drinks and party trays full of cookies. Hardin’s customers appreciate the small gestures, in addition to the everyday value this tool man brings to the table.
“I try to give my guys a little something extra,” says the long-time distributor. “It’s not much, but it’s a little way I can give back to my customers.”
In fact, Hardin has a great relationship with the shop owners and technicians along his route, many of whom he’s known a long time. His business is based as much on mutual respect as it is on sound business strategies.
Hardin has been in the business for 20 years. Over the course of those two decades the Kentucky distributor has learned, developed and refined his business approach. He’s managed to establish a loyal and diverse customer base in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the surrounding rural community. Hardin works hard, but what’s more – he works smart so he can achieve both his professional and personal goals.
Hardin kicks off each week by hitting area small towns on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Thursdays and Fridays he travels to Bowling Green. We caught up with Hardin on a Wednesday, when he was making stops in his hometown of Glasgow, Kentucky.
The decision to become a Mac Tools distributor 20 years ago was an easy one for Hardin, who says his love was always in sales. “The tool truck guys … had all kinds of toys and I thought, ‘I can do this.' I just asked the right questions of the right people, and the next thing you know I’m running a truck,” he says.
Hardin gives credit to his original Mac Tools district manager, Ron Bland out of Nashville, with helping to put him in business. “He … helped to make my business as strong as it is. [He is] one of the best in the business. We still have a close relationship, and I think the world of him,” says Hardin.
Over time, Hardin’s work ethic and sales only improved. Hardin finished in the Diamond level the last two years; he was 52nd in 2016 and 57th in 2017. Mobile dealers who reach over $430 thousand in purchases qualify for the “Diamond” title.
Watch and sell
One of the first stops on this Wednesday morning is a heavy duty shop called D&B Trucks. D&B builds brand new trucks with remanufactured engines from older non-emission trucks. Each truck has a builder and helper; technicians typically start out at the shop as a helper before moving up to a builder. Hardin grabs his Mac Tools duffle bag full of product and exits the cab.
It’s a “good stop,” according to Hardin. “The only kicker is, the clientele doesn’t come out [to the tool truck],” he says. “Honestly it’s not that bad, because it would take me four hours to run this shop if they came out to the truck.”
He explains, of the 40 or 50 employees here that buy from him, most are fairly new to the business and are just starting to build up their tool supply.
The phrase "show and tell" describes a common approach to mobile tool sales. Hardin does indeed "show and tell," but he takes it one step further. For him, sales is all about observing, and offering a solution that directly addresses an immediate need. It’s more like "watch and sell," and it works for him.
“I don’t really consider myself a salesman. I am, but I show products to people that I think will make their jobs easier,” he says. “If it will make you faster and more productive at your job, you’ll make more money. And I just watch. I really watch my customers when I’m in the shop. If I see them doing something and I’ve got [a product] that could make that [job] easier, I’ll bring it in and say ‘Last week I saw you doing that job; this tool right here does that job for you.’ And then the lightbulb goes off in their head, like, ‘He was paying attention to what I was doing last week. He’s trying to look out for me and my guys.’”
The primary goal is to take care of the customer; offer something that saves time and look out for their bottom line, too.
Another surefire tactic that Hardin employs: get the tool in their hands. If a customer is on the fence, this could well be what pushes them over the top.
“I would go head to head with any tool distributor out there,” says Hardin. “I’m not a high-pressure salesperson, but I know some of my customers I’ve got to kind of push. If a guy asks about something I’ll say, ‘I've got it back here; I’ll go get it,’ and I hand it to him. It’s a running joke on my truck. [My customers say,] ‘Don’t touch it; he’ll put it on your account.’”
Hardin is aware of the competitive nature of internet tool sales in an extremely connected world, but he says for the most part this hasn’t affected his business negatively. His intelligent approach to sales – and getting product into the right hands – gives him the edge over competition both down the road and over a wireless network.
Big on boxes, and cordless
The truck we are riding in today, a 22’ International 4300, has been part of the business for 10 years. Hardin also operates a 2008 18’ Freightliner MT45, and more recently a 2016 16’ Chevy P30.
The three-man team also uses a 28’ enclosed trailer for toolbox sales, of which there are many. Hardin’s team sold about 79 boxes last year. A large chunk of these were sold to the up-and-coming techs at D&B Trucks.
“I guess the thing that excites me most about toolboxes is … I can make [$1,000] real easy on one toolbox sale, and that’s basically giving it away,” Hardin says.
“I shut [the regular business] down a week at a time when I [sell toolboxes], and I just run the trailer off the truck,” Hardin says. The inventory is a combination of new product and trade-ins.
After toolboxes, Hardin says cordless tools are very popular with all of his customers, even those at heavy duty truck shops. He sells a great deal of tools in this category.
“The cordless tools are taking over,” Hardin says. “Even sanding, cutting and grinding tools … that’s coming, too. The batteries are getting so much better, and the life expectancy of the batteries are improved drastically.”
Running multiple routes
Hardin started his second truck and second driver in April 2016. He is in the process of starting his third truck and driver. Training is going well, and Hardin sees a benefit to riding two-to-a-truck, as one person can take money and the other (Hardin, typically) can focus on selling.
Hardin admits there was a learning curve involved with setting up additional routes, and each truck proved a different experience. Still, the decision was the right one for him.
“I went to a multi-route class; that was the second one I’d been to," he recalls. "The second time I came out and thought, ‘The only way I’m going to make more money is if I hire someone or work more hours.' I’d been through that [working more hours], and I’m not doing that again.”
Setup for truck number two was a smooth process. Hardin got in touch with Dan Robertson, who had been a distributor for 13 years and excelled at large-volume sales.
“Going from one to two trucks, I never missed a beat,” Hardin says. “I hired Dan, bought his truck and ordered inventory at the tool fair in Vegas.” He says starting the third truck has been a bit tougher than the first go-round. But he is optimistic about the payoff. Brad Atwell is Hardin’s second driver and new hire. Atwell’s off to a promising start with a $7,000 average for the first six weeks.
“It’s been a little stressful but I know we can do it,” Hardin says. “I know I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work, so I’m not really worried.”
Ultimately, Hardin would like to keep growing his operation to four or five trucks and concentrate more on managing the business, as well as selling more big-ticket items like toolboxes and diagnostic tools.
He’s laying the foundation now to retire at 55. “I’ve said it for a long time, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that come true,” Hardin says. “I’ve watched so many people work until they retire and die, and I don’t want that to be me.”
A double-dose of reality and reliability
With his customers, Hardin is honest and upfront, telling one technician, “I need to check out your clamp, because some other customers are having issues with it.” He is quick to help them find specific products on the truck. When a newer customer asks about financing, Hardin replies matter-of-factly:
“I try to turn my money in five weeks. It keeps my bills paid. But I can stretch it out a little bit on some guys.”
The customer nods and puts $100 down.
“My collections are as strong as anybody’s in this game,” Hardin says. “I’m very forward with my customers. Eye contact is huge for me. When someone looks you in the eye when they talk to you, it’s more meaningful.
"My guys need to pay me. I don’t do this for the fun of it. I mean, I do have fun actually, but I do this to make a living. I teach the new guys: it’s not okay to not pay me. The scenario I use with my customer is, if you come in and you worked 40 hours last week, and your boss pays you for 30 hours, are you good with that?”
Hardin has a loyal customer base. They know their Mac Tools guy will show up within a 30-minute window, unless he has a big sale or something happens. In which case, he lets them know he’s not going to be there.
“That’s what your customers depend on – is the relationship they get,” Hardin says. “It’s kind of like trusting someone with your house or your car; if you do it long enough you know they’re going to take care of you and take care of your stuff, and that just makes everything easier.
“My customers make me who I am,” he says. “If it weren’t for my customers, I wouldn’t have anything. How many people get to go out every day and see their buddies, and they give you fifty dollars, one hundred dollars? It’s unheard of. What other job does that?”
Hardin does more than just sell tools. He offers up value and respect to his customers. They know that there are those who sell tools, and then there are those who sell quality tools with the service to match.