Business risks that paid off

Aug. 2, 2019
Three mobile tool dealers reflect on making changes, taking chances, and coming out on the other side.

Have you ever considered a cross-country move … even when business was going well? Did you “migrate” to mobile tool sales from a completely different field? The prospect of change is often daunting, whether we are the ones to initiate the change or life’s circumstances give us a nudge. Take a tip from these mobile dealers who have encountered significant change in their life and business, each navigating their way through with a healthy dose of hard work, support, and unwavering optimism.

When in doubt, head to the beach 

Mike Gruber
Mac Tools
Virginia Beach, Virginia 

Many times, life dictates your next move and you follow along for the ride.

Mac Tools distributor Mike Gruber had run a very successful route for ten years in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He had loyal customers and made easy tool sales. Despite this, there came a time in Gruber’s life when he and his wife reevaluated their situation and decided to make some changes.

“My wife was pursuing an MBA at Penn State while also working in marketing. After graduating and looking around the area for jobs, we realized how few jobs existed around [there] in her career field. One night at dinner, she and I both expressed how we’d like to move out of the area. She never really wanted to bring it up in the past because my business did so well, and she thought I would never want to walk away from it.

“We then started looking [at regions] where she could get a job and I could purchase a route to continue on with Mac Tools,” Gruber says. “This process was somewhat stressful, because we needed to satisfy both of our career paths. We ... finally settled on Virginia Beach after talking to a local distributor that expressed interest in selling his failing route.”

The startup was a bumpy ride, Gruber recalls. He says selling the old business took about a year … and plenty of work to get accounts receivable down. “Collections were through the roof, but there were no sales. I had to re-learn how to sell things again,” he says.

When the Mac Tools distributor purchased his new route, and as he worked to turn it around, he quickly found the scenery wasn’t the only thing that changed since Pennsylvania. His customer base was transformed.

“My old route was saturated with heavy equipment, big trucks, and natural gas, so I was used to stocking large tools; not a whole lot for cars, and virtually nothing for high end vehicles,” Gruber says. “Moving [from Williamsport to Virginia Beach], my customer base shifted completely.” Gruber now sells to technicians who work on everything from farm equipment to Maseratis, and he even supports tactical vehicles.

“It’s a nice change of pace talking to a customer that is trying to diagnose a Case tractor, then later on that day talking to a customer that is working on a MRAP for the Military, and after that see a Lamborghini on someone’s lift.”

One of Gruber’s stops – Virginia Beach City Garage – has a hanger, fire department garage, heavy duty garage, and a light duty garage. He says the number of vehicles they maintain is “over the top.” With his heavy duty background, Gruber still stocks larger items (he says the U.S. Navy Seal Team shop might request six DeWalt 60V geared circular saws), so he really is prepared for anything.

Two years into the move, life is good. Gruber has no reservations about his new life on the beach.

“I had a lot of cards stacked against me when I moved here; they never had a Mac Tools distributor that stuck around long, so customers weren’t very welcoming,” Gruber says. “Now ... so many customers have warmed up to me and tell me I’d better not move again.

“Although it was difficult and took a lot of planning, it was absolutely worth it. I love living at the beach … and it’s fun to harass other distributors with pictures of the sun rising over the ocean. It was also really nice being able to reinvent myself.”

Tapping into technician expertise 

Reid Thomas
Houston, Texas 

Independent tool dealer Reid Thomas has a story that is familiar to many. This independent dealer in Houston went from turning wrenches to selling them.

“Being a technician has a lifespan to it,” says the owner of RM Tools LLC. “It’s really good at destroying your body. From the time I started … I wanted to be out by the time I was 45. When the opportunity came up to buy a buddy’s truck, my wife said, ‘Why don’t you try it?’ The tool business intrigued me for a number of years. The guy I ended up getting the client list from, I talked with him quite a bit before [jumping in] and he said he’d make me a [great] deal.”

Two years ago, Thomas took the leap. He now operates in a piece of a very large geographical pie.

“If you quarter Houston into a pie, I’ve got the southwest corner … very close to where I was working [as a technician],” Thomas says of his route.

In fact, he now services the shop he used to work at, in addition to a number of dealerships, large independent car retailers, heavy equipment shops, and small hole-in-the-wall body shops.

Thomas enjoys the smaller businesses on his route and makes quite a few sales at these stops. The new-to-the-streets tool dealer also sells a number of scan tools, saying, “That’s one of my favorite items to sell. It’s one example where [having been] a technician really comes in handy.”

When selling scan tools on his route, Thomas pulls from his knowledge of how various scan tool models function. He tries to match the right level of scan tool with each customer’s needs.

While the selling side is less wear and tear on his body than crawling under vehicles, Thomas finds tool selling comes with a unique set of challenges, particularly getting everything done in a timely manner.

“I do have an older truck with maintenance needs,” he says. “[I’m always] trying to balance orders and truck maintenance – keeping [the truck] eye-appealing on the inside, and on weekends reorganizing on a regular basis. I’m learning the ropes as far as what items to display to get the best bang for the buck.”

But Thomas approaches each task, each challenge, day by day. So far, this consistency has paid off. “There’s a ton more earning potential here, there’s no doubt about it,” Thomas says. “Right now, I’m putting the hours in and we’re rocking and rolling down here.”

Thomas recently purchased an enclosed trailer to use as a separate toolbox showroom. He would like to finish this out on the inside to house heavier items.

“If I have a breakdown, every month or so I can go out and sell toolboxes – just do something different,” Thomas says.

For a less-than-two-year-old business, RM Tools LLC is pacing ahead. Since picking up the route, Thomas has doubled his returns. Was the change (along with the challenges) worth the stress of the unknown?

“Absolutely,” Thomas says. “It’s cool to see a business you’ve taken over and see it actually having some success."

From an oil rig to Top 30 in tool sales

Roy Hernandez
Cornwell Quality Tools
Waxahachie, Texas

Roy Hernandez of Waxahachie, Texas, had worked as a safety consultant offshore for major oil companies like Chevron, Shell, and BP for more than 13 years. Hernandez made good money, but it came at a price. The work was physically dangerous, contracts were sporadic, and he was sometimes gone for two months at a time. Hernandez remembers that, later on, oil and gas work began to slow down in the Gulf as well.

At the same time, Roy’s son was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 22.

“It all kind of hits you at once,” Hernandez recalls. “It was a hard decision to make, but I felt I needed to be home more.”

He began to look for a new career where he could have more control so he could be at the hospital to support his son and be home with his family.

In March 2018, the former safety consultant was introduced to the mobile tool selling business by a neighbor, and he looked into joining the Cornwell Tools family.

“I thought the transition was risky,” says Hernandez, who liked tools and had a hobby of racing cars. “You’re always worried about how it’s going to turn out. It was rough the first several months, but you make it how you want it to be – as busy or as steady as you want it. [It turned out to be] a smooth process due to the fact I had researched competitors in the tool industry before making a decision.”

Not only has the career move allowed Hernandez the flexibility to support his family, but he has risen to the challenge of a brand new business venture – he is now a Top 30 dealer for the company.

Waxahachie, Texas, is located 15-20 miles south of Dallas. The mid-sized city has a “small town feeling,” Hernandez says. The Cornwell Tools dealer drives his truck to area mom and pop shops and dealerships, promoting Cornwell products and tools. His customers include automotive technicians, paint and collision specialists, and diesel mechanics.

The tool dealer admits these past few years have been “a steady but bumpy roller coaster” ride. Even so, he has no regrets.

“Looking back, I would do it all over again,” Hernandez says. He reports business in Texas is bountiful, but it’s not without some challenges. “This tool business is in high demand, but I take a risk every day since the technician industry has high turnover. As the saying goes, ‘With big risk comes big rewards.’”

Hernandez says he has his daily route nailed down and continues to pick up additional clients along the way. Perhaps the best turn of all: Hernandez’s son has been in remission for the past 10 months.

Hernandez went from essentially selling himself and his expertise offshore to doing the same, this time servicing technicians on the mobile tool beat.

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

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