COVER DESIGN BY GREG GARCEAU. PHOTOS COURTESY OF LEGGNETT/ISTOCK.COM.
There are two main categories of thieves. Opportunity thieves who will walk away with anything of value that's left unattended or unsecured. By contrast, professional criminals know what they're after and they generally know how to get it, often in spite of security measures.
What's believed to be a small team of real pros made a late-night visit at season's height to Bruce Allentuck's company, Allentuck Landscaping Company, Clarksburg, Md., several years ago. They broke into his facility and made away with two crews' worth of landscape equipment - trailers, mowers, trimmers, everything. Allentuck says the consequences of the theft could have been much worse had it not been for a local equipment dealer almost immediately stepping up and bailing him out.
"Without batting an eye, the dealer got us new equipment within 24 hours," says Allentuck, who founded his Washington, area company in 1986. "That's a lot to ask of any dealer. That reminded me that it's not always about price when comes to finding a dealer. They took care of us."
Price is still king
Nobody disputes that price is king when it comes to buying or leasing big-ticket landscape equipment. Nobody.
"As business owners we have a responsibility to make the best financial decisions for our organizations," acknowledges Steve Rak II, vice president of Southwest Landscape Management, Columbia Station, Ohio.
"We are loyal to our vendors, but the competition is as fierce for them as it is for us. Sometimes, no matter how much you like working with someone, you have to consider shopping around," he adds.
Rak points out (as if it needed pointing out, right?) that in the maintenance business there's a lot of downward pressure on prices these days. He feels that manufacturers, because of their pricing policies, are more to blame for contractor price shopping than dealers.
"In the maintenance business our prices have gone down, but our equipment prices are increasing. This alone has caused me to switch the brand of mowers I use at my company," he adds.
Indeed, it would be akin to finding a unicorn grazing in your backyard to find a single buyer of commercial landscaping equipment that didn't say that price matters. But, it's far from the only consideration when getting the so-called best deal with equipment vendors.
So, apart from price, what constitutes a great deal on new commercial mowers, a new compact loader or a new tractor?
Certainly, reduced prices factor heavily into volume or fleet purchase discounts for the big boys, and not so often for the small guys, including long-term, loyal clients. But, there's a lot more to getting the most value from your production equipment by considering and basing decisions on factors, such as the favorable financing options, ready parts availability, repair response times, service quality, and the willingness of dealers to provide backup or loaner units in emergency situations.
Experienced, successful contractors say, almost to the person, they prefer to establish long-term relationships with vendors rather than to have to constantly shop around. They want relationships built on knowledge, trust, service, loyalty and (dare we mention it again?) price.
Relationships do matter
"These relationships can help when you need something in a hurry," says Richard Wilbert, a 40-year landscape industry veteran. "Treat your vendors and equipment suppliers like partners in your business. Their business depends on you and when you need a rental or a new piece of equipment you depend on them."
All relationships must be cultivated, and the relationship with a supplier is no different, adds Wilbert.
"If you have a good relationship with a supplier or dealer, they will help you even when they may not directly be able to sell you something. They know their industry and who might have what you are looking for. This is a relationship, not just the next sale," stresses Wilbert, the owner of a successful design/build business in Boulder, Colo., prior to starting SiteSource Business Coaching in 2011.
The relationship must work both ways, he stresses. The vendor responds to its particular equipment and service needs. And you, as the contractor, reciprocate with your loyalty and by letting your industry friends know that this supplier is working hard for you, he concludes.
But, both parties have to be realistic about the limits of the relationship, contractors and vendors both agree.
Tom Stannard, sales manager at Wellington Implement Co., Wellington, Ohio, says that outdoor power equipment sales have been growing in recent years, but the great majority of his company's revenues still come from the agriculture market. How many zero-turn mowers does an ag and turf equipment dealer have to sell to match the sale of one $300,000 cultivator, after all? Wellington Equipment, founded in 1929, is a major dealer for Case IH and Yanmar in the ag market, and of Cub Cadet, Scag and Meyer Snow & Ice in the north-central Ohio landscape contractor market.
Wellington Implement management (l. to r.): Tom Stannard, sales manager; Patti Young, co-owner; and Bill Stannard, president. The company is a dealer for Cub Cadet and Scag.
PHOTO BY RON HALL.
Even though the sale of agriculture equipment dwarves, in terms of dollars, sales of mowers, he says his company must devote more staff to servicing landscape contractors than to farmers. Contractors' needs are usually more immediate.
"If they have a breakdown, we try to fix the equipment right on their trailer. If we can't, we give them a loaner. We understand that in their business time is money," says Stannard, adding half jokingly, "usually they need the service or the parts yesterday."
Tracy Buck, co-owner, Z&M Ag & Turf, Clymers, N.Y., agrees that landscape contractors and grounds pros require more ongoing support than ag customers. His company, too, provides loaners to landscape customers, but is more inclined to do so if customers maintain their equipment, admits Buck.
"The commercial grounds and landscape customers purchase more equipment more often during the year, so consistent contact is important," he adds. "From commercial mowers to walk-behind mowers, hand-held equipment and snow removal equipment, their equipment sales, parts and service needs tend to be more frequent than the ag customers."
Buck adds that commercial customers are also very mobile and cover large areas, so mobile service is important and service response time and parts availability are vital to an ongoing relationship.
"Good relationships, problem solving whether it be from creative financing, equipment service with highly trained technicians, in-stock parts supply at their site or other areas, we need to be a member of their team helping them to succeed any way we can," says Buck.
Z&M Ag and Turf, an authorized John Deere dealer, has seven locations, six in western New York and one in northwest Pennsylvania. The company carries and services products from Ariens and STIHL in addition to Deere.
As a former landscape company owner, Barry Frey, owner of Sunset Outdoor Supply, Morgantown, W.Va., knows how much contractors rely upon loaners and parts availability to keep their equipment in service.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VENTRAC.
Buck says dealers must be able to make equipment affordable to grounds pros and contractors by offering zero or very low interest rates.
"They are very price conscious," says Buck, and especially this past season as many contractors in his market failed to generate as much revenue as they had anticipated during the virtually snowless winter of 2011-12. Contractors and even schools, villages and townships have cut back on new equipment purchases, making strong relationships even more important, he adds.
Barry Frey is a dynamic, go-getting West Virginian. He owned and operated a tree care and landscape company for 10 years before building up Sunset Outdoor Supply, located near Morgantown. He's one of the biggest sellers of Ventrac tractors and attachments in the East. He also offers Blizzards snowplows and Snow Wolf snowplows for skid steers. Sunset Outdoor Supply is a unique dealer as it's located on the shores of Cheat Lake, a popular recreational lake, and also offers boating supplies and boat rentals. Frey admits he has little time for boating himself, but he loves it nonetheless.
Frey says that the versatile Ventrac tractor is an ideal product for his particular market, which includes the state's largest university, two hospitals, malls and dozens of knowledgeable contractors, all of which require equipment that can perform a bewildering array of grounds-related tasks.
"As a contractor myself I discovered that I could use a Ventrac, and, with the proper attachments, replace four or five men on jobs, and still get the production I needed," says Frey. "This season the power rake has been especially popular with contractors."
Frey reminds anyone that will listen (and especially potential customers) that "men working five or six hours in 90-degree heat get tired and production falls off. Machines don't get tired."
Frey says he selected the equipment he sells to differentiate his business from Big Box stores, and also because his units perform so many different jobs and they're dependable. But, they're not bulletproof, and end users sometimes treat them roughly.
"Contractors are always working on close timelines and often they don't take the time to maintain them like they should," he says. That's when dealer service becomes all-important in maintaining a win-win relationship. "If there's something a customer can't handle, we're right on it. Depending on the situation, often we'll lend them one of our demo units," says Frey.
Being able to depend upon a dealer to have loaner equipment available can't be over-estimated, adds Rak.
"All of the vendors that I deal with offer loaners, so if a mower goes down and we take it in for repair we get another mower to use until our unit is fixed," he says.
"We have one vendor that we buy our Walker mowers from that sends a truck out to our shop to pick up our mowers for repair and then returns them we're they're fixed. He also has a loaner in a storage unit near our shop that we can use while the repair is being done. He will also send out parts, as well," adds Rak.
In working with dealers, have you considered financing, repair and/or maintenance services, parts availability and loaner equipment in getting that great deal?
Yes, to repeat, nobody is disputing that contractors look at price before anything else when it comes time to purchase or replace their costly production equipment.
Smart contractors, however, consider other factors as well, factors that are not so immediate to envision in terms of dollars-and-cents - favorable financing options, warranty history and follow-through, reliable and dependable service, parts availability, rapid turnaround of repaired units and the use of loaners in emergency situations.
Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 28 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.