The oldest business in Sussex, Wis., got there through stellar customer service and by playing an active role in the community.
Dave Schroeder stays close to the community he’s served since 1971 through the sponsorship of local sports teams as evidenced by the trophies behind his desk.
Like most small communities on the edge of a big city, the village of Sussex, Wis., has witnessed some significant changes over the years. As Milwaukee and its suburbs expanded to the west, farmers found they could make more money from their acreage by selling it to developers. Acre by acre, the farmland that covered Waukesha County became subdivisions.
As the village’s oldest business, Schroeder Implement has witnessed many of those changes and over the years has shifted its product offering in order to meet them. Originally a farm machinery dealer, in the early 1970s the company turned its focus to lawn and garden equipment.
“People were building homes like crazy,” says owner Dave Schroeder, “and that played right into our hands. As farm equipment was leaving the area, we were taking on outdoor power equipment. All of the new residents needed that equipment to take care of their lawns and move snow.”
Dave Schroeder’s father, Al, started the company in 1957, selling J.I. Case tractors and implements out of a rented barn on Main Street in Sussex. According to Dave, the owner of the barn ran the Mammoth Springs Canning Co., which once stood on the other side of the street. He was also a family friend and eventually sold the barn to Al for a price well below market value. The barn’s been added on to twice over the years, but it’s still part of the dealership.
Born in 1917, Al Schroeder was active in the small community and was a talented mechanic. Schroeder Implement built a good reputation among area farmers even as Al watched them leave the county throughout the 1960s.
In the early 1970s, the dealership caught the attention of Simplicity Mfg., then an independent lawn and garden equipment maker based in Port Washington, Wis.
“There was a Simplicity dealer in Sussex at the same time we were selling farm equipment,” says Schroeder. “The guy had a gold mine with a nice facility and good products. He couldn’t have picked a better time to be selling the stuff, either. But he wasn’t good at running the business and was forced to close.”
Location: Sussex, Wis.
Total Sales: $1 million
Lines: Briggs & Stratton Outdoor Power Equipment (Simplicity, Ferris, Snapper), Echo
Customers walk through the showroom to get to the parts department. Faced with an expensive repair to an old machine, they may be surprised to see just how inexpensive a new mower really is.
Then Simplicity approached Al Schroeder about taking on the line. “We didn’t have a big showroom at the time, but they said we had a great location and they knew the product would sell in our area,” he says.
Taking on the Simplicity line made sense to his father, Dave recalls, but Al decided he was “too old” for such a significant change. He called his son, who was a sophomore in college, and discussed the opportunity.
“I packed my bags and came to work here,” says Dave, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.” That was 1971. For a few years, as Schroeder Implement transitioned from farm tractors to garden tractors, the dealership served both farmers and consumers. Dave had grown up turning wrenches for his father, and by building on that experience and taking advantage of the community’s changing demographics, the consumer-oriented product line fell into place.
For Schroeder Implement, there was another advantage in switching to smaller equipment — modern farm implements were rapidly outgrowing the barn. “The pieces were so big, they didn’t fit in our building. We would have been forced to move if we stayed with farm machinery. Plus, there were huge Case and John Deere dealers to the west and north of us, so the competition in a shrinking market was intense.”
Dave says they looked into changing the name of the dealership. However, there was another “Schroeder Inc.” doing business in the state of Wisconsin, so they decided to leave it. There was a lot of equity in that name anyway.
In the 40 years since Schroeder Implement moved to lawn and garden equipment, Dave says the dealership’s product line has “worked out extremely well. When the economy is good and the weather cooperates, things are fine.”
Schroeder’s building on Main Street in Sussex, Wis., represents the area’s history. A photo from 1907 shows a farmhouse, windmill and barn along a quiet dirt road. Today, it’s the only barn still standing within the village. The showroom and service area to the right was added in 1963 and was built using hand-cut limestone from one of the region’s many quarries. When the new showroom on the left was added in 1980, Schroeder had to find artisans who still knew how to cut stone in order to keep a similar look. Dave Schroeder says the building is now land locked. His business can’t get any bigger.
The ‘70s were a good time to be an independent retailer, too. “When we started in the lawn and garden business, consumers had to go to an independent dealer like myself to buy any lawn equipment,” says Schroeder. “Now it seems like every store has a power equipment line for sale. I’m sure the box stores do well with mowers and snow blowers, but that competition has hurt the independent retailer.”
Service as an ‘Ace in the Hole’
The big boxes may be able to get the attention of the price-sensitive customer, but where Schroeder Implement excels, Dave says, is service. “When the people who buy from a box store have a problem down the line, they discover they can’t get parts, and there’s no service or even technical assistance.”
Schroeder Implement has $60,000 worth of parts in-house. “And because we’re strictly lawn and garden, if something breaks, we have the expertise to fix it. That goes a long way toward customer satisfaction. Once I sell someone a piece of equipment, we’ll have their business for life.
“People come in all the time because of our good reputation,” he says. “They hear about us from relatives or friends, and it trickles down the line. I know when I get people in here looking, I can sell them. Once we show them how we do business, comparing prices with a box store is no longer an issue. The service we offer is huge. That’s our ace in the hole.”
Another industry trend has helped businesses such as Schroeder’s. “There was a time when most people cut their grass just because it grew. I saw a lot of horrible looking yards back then,” he says. “These days, landscaping has become big business and do-it-yourself consumers buy the best products they can to keep their yards looking good.”
The quality of the equipment on his showroom floor also figures into the conversation. “When you look at the major brands available from independent dealers, those are the companies that are going to be here down the line. And the buyers are consumers who are going to make their yards look the very best they can. When you only compare equipment and prices between my dealership and a box store, I truly believe my product will last three or four times longer. And our buyers know they have the luxury of having this dealership to back them up.”
Schroeder Implement has been selling Simplicity (and now the Briggs & Stratton Outdoor Power Equipment line) for four decades. Dave still considers many of the original employees friends, and is very happy with the relationship and product line as they’ve evolved since Briggs & Stratton purchased the company in 2004. He sees no reason to mix up his store’s product offering. “There are different levels of power equipment out there, and some brands that are priced cheap that will cut grass. Can I get a cheaper brand in here to sell? Sure — but I’m not interested. We are the Lexus dealer of lawn equipment. That’s where we want to be. Lots of stores are already selling the cheaper equipment, and I’m going to sell against them. I’ll show consumers why this machinery is the best value.”
Schroeder Implement uses ARI for its parts management system, and has for 15 years. Dave Schroeder says the parts inventory and the service he and his staff provide are two of the things that sets his business apart from the box stores.
The majority of Schroeder’s customers are rural consumers while schools and municipalities are about as close as he comes to serving commercial cutters on a regular basis.
“Our territory is still rural enough that many of our homeowners have several acres. They’ll look at the larger commercial grade equipment because they want to save time. When they walk in the door they know they’re going to spend a lot of money, but when I show them the equipment will last them for decades, the price doesn’t seem so high.”
To Fix or Not to Fix?
Home Depot has 15 stores within a 50-mile radius of Schroeder’s ZIP code. Because of that market penetration alone, there’s a good chance someone will have a mechanical problem with a piece of equipment they bought at the home improvement store. Hearing of Schroeder’s reputation for service, they’ll call the dealership in Sussex.
“We’re in the business to make money, and we turn wrenches for a living. I have a wonderful service department. Can we fix it? Yes.”
But Schroeder Implement prioritizes its service work by taking care of its customers first. “We have to,” he says. “People who buy from a box store must understand that our customers come first.”
Some of the equipment sold by box stores can be difficult for Schroeder’s service department to repair. “If they’re running one of my pieces and have a breakdown, they’ll be running again in less than two days. For some of the equipment sold by chain stores, it can be up to four weeks to get a part delivered.”
During that time, the grass keeps growing and if it’s snowing, customers start to panic. That’s when they realize saving a few dollars at a mass merchandiser doesn’t pay off in the long run.
Other intangibles come in to play in Sussex, as well. When a customer buys a zero-turn mower, for example, it’s set up, serviced and delivered for no extra charge. “And if there is an issue, my phone number is on it. We’ll come out to fix it or pick it up,” he says.
Consulting with Consumers
Schroeder says his customers also appreciate the staff’s product knowledge. “We’ve been setting this equipment up and tearing it down for 40 years, so we know the product. People will call us with maintenance questions. I know times are tough, if they can fix the equipment at home that’s great, and our service department is here if they need it.”
Schroeder and his team are available to ensure the customer buys the equipment that works in their application. Many of the customers who stop by Schroeder Implement have done their research, and 90% of them are already using some type of equipment.
Not All in the Family
Dave Schroeder, owner of Schroeder Implement in Sussex, Wis., says his four sons have pursued different careers. His youngest is in college and plans to be a police officer.
“I’m 60, and have been here 40 years. I enjoy this job. I wouldn’t do anything else, never known anything else,” says Schroeder. “I love it and love my customers. But when your name’s on the door, it means a ton of hours. Nights … weekends … whatever it takes. When the grass is growing I’ll be here until late at night. This job isn’t for everybody. My sons saw easier lives out there, and that’s what they’re pursuing.”
Fortunately, the plan is for Dave’s right-hand man, store manager Craig Pagelsdorf, to take the reigns when Schroeder retires. Craig started working at the dealership 20 years ago when he was in high school.
“Craig does a lot of what I did back then, handling the service end of the business and working with customers,” says Dave. “He can fix anything and do everything I do.”
There was a time, however, when a construction equipment dealership on the other side of town lured Craig away for a couple of years. “They saw his talent for fixing equipment and sent him away to service schools so he could learn to work on the big stuff.”
At the construction equipment dealership, Craig was put on third shift, doing heavy lifting in the back of the shop. There was very little customer interaction.
Even though he was making less money at Schroeder Implement at that time, Craig returned. “He missed the relationship we built with the customers,” says Scroeder. “He likes talking with consumers, learning their equipment challenges and working with them to find a solution.”
Dave qualifies customers by first asking about the size of their property, the terrain and who the primary operator will be.
“A customer came in recently who has a yard with a lot of slopes, and he was concerned about which tractor would work best. He lives five minutes away, so I drove out to see what he had going on. That cost him nothing, and now he’s confident the tractor he bought will work.
“This kind of service helps us build a nice long-term relationship. You can bet the clerk at the box store is not asking a lot of questions to help consumers make the right selection. We want to make the sale, of course, but we don’t want to over or under sell him either.”
Schroeder says asking who the operator will be comes into play most often with zero-turn mowers. “More and more women are using our products these days, and I’ve found they tend to be more comfortable with a steering wheel on a tractor than working the levers. We’ve picked up a lot of zero-turns because the husband wanted a fast machine but his wife was afraid to use it. We’ll sell him a tractor with an equivalent mower deck.”
An Active Community Member
Getting the consumer to make that first step into Schroeder’s Main Street showroom can be a challenge. While co-op dollars exist from Briggs & Stratton, parent company to the Ferris, Simplicity and Snapper brands sold by the dealership, it’s nowhere near what the large national chains have to spend on national exposure.
Besides the focus on building and maintaining a reputation for service that’s second to none, Schroeder ensures the dealership is known among long-time residents and newcomers to the area by staying active in the community.
Trophies from local athletic teams line the hand-cut limestone wall behind Dave Schroeder’s desk. Throughout the showroom, photos hang of youth baseball teams and race cars with “Schroeder Implement” decorating the quarter panels.
“We do everything we can for the community, and we advertise in every church bulletin and school program or year book,” Dave says. “The churches and schools buy a lot of equipment from us, and that exposure goes a long way. Every year we pick up their equipment to get it ready for the season. We give them that service; it’s worth hundreds of dollars but the payback is much greater. When people drive past the schools, they see our products being used. When they need equipment they’re coming here.
The parishioners and the parents of students know what we do, too. Sponsoring a baseball team might cost $150, but I’ve had parents buy equipment from us because of what we did for their son’s baseball club.”
Briggs & Stratton’s bid-assistance helps foster that relationship, too, often allowing churches and schools to take a hefty discount off the price of a new machine.
When the old barn that forms a cornerstone of sorts for Schroeder Implement was part of a farm, it stood outside of the village. As Sussex grew around the dealership, the barn ended up sitting at the center of the community, surrounded by houses and businesses. Recently, however, new shopping centers are springing up more than a mile to the west along Highway 164.
A large window in Schroeder’s showroom overlooks the former site of the Mammoth Springs Canning Co. Years ago, the president of the firm sold Al Schroeder the building and land the dealership is using to this day.
Founded in 1920, the company bought hundreds of tons of crops, primarily peas, from local farmers. The cannery closed in 1996 and the building was razed in 2003 to make way for a housing development. Those plans were ultimately shelved due to the builder’s financial problems.
Early this year, county and village officials announced that plans for a multi-use residential, retail and commercial complex were under way. Schroeder says he’s looking forward to the next evolution of Sussex’s business environment, and the increased traffic that the multi-use complex is expected to bring back down Main Street, taking potential customers past Schroeder Implement.