Hard work and long hours don’t bother Mat and JoAnn McCleary of Whidbey Island, Wash. They both worked full-time jobs when they started Frog Construction, a landscape maintenance and construction company, and several other business ventures. Their businesses allow them to do what they like best: work outside, be independent and meet new people.
“When you have the chance to talk to people, develop a plan, execute it and have them like what you do … you can’t get that satisfaction working for someone else,” says Mat.
Their projects include clearing trees, building driveways, maintaining pastures, mowing commercial properties, laying water lines and other jobs using a fleet of 8 New Holland tractors, power tools from Stihl, Husqvarna and Craftsman as well as equipment from Bush Hog, Land Pride, Woods, Rankin and Boxer.
Mat’s construction career began underwater. He served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, working as a Seabee diver and supervising underwater construction projects. Mat is a native of Indiana and was first deployed to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in 1993 and retired from the military in 1997. He now works on the base for a contractor.
JoAnn, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, is also a Navy veteran and was stationed at the base in the late 1970s. She served for 4 years as an aviation electronics technician and later worked as an electrician at a refinery for more than 30 years, retiring in 2011. She now has her own business, Owl Electrical, and wires houses, shops and barns.
Meet Mat & JoAnn McCleary
Occupation: Owners of Frog Construction, SOS (Sound Outdoor Services), Owl Electrical and A Little Help
Equipment: 8 New Holland tractors ranging from 18-45 horsepower, equipped with loaders, buckets and backhoes; a variety of attachments, including rakes, blades, rotary cutters, finish mowers and rototillers, from Bush Hog, Land Pride and Woods; chain saws, line trimmers, hedge trimmers and leaf blowers from Husqvarna and Stihl and chain saws from Craftsman; Rankin post-hole digger; Baker saw mill; Boxer trencher
Priorities: Reliable equipment to limit downtime and a variety of attachments to take on many kinds of jobs.
The couple married in 1996 and bought their rural property in 1998. “It was totally forested with two sheds for storing wood,” Mat says. “We bought a used Craftsman lawn mower and a used Craftsman garden tractor and a Stihl weed eater. We cleaned up our property mostly by hand, using carts to move material. We weren’t pressed for time then. For bigger jobs, we rented a small dozer. The biggest reason we started our business was that it was hard to get people to come out and do the work we needed, so we said, ‘Heck with it. We’ll do it ourselves,’ ” Mat says.
They soon realized there was a business opportunity in the kind of work they were doing on their own property. Frog Construction — a reference to Mat’s Navy career — was launched in 2002. “We started our construction business by doing hand clearing and purchased a box trailer to haul away debris. The progression for our business was that we would do work for someone and they would say, ‘Can you do this?’ We now have 4 businesses that came from ‘Can you do this?’ When they ask, we always try to say yes,” Mat says.
In addition to Frog Construction and Owl Electrical, the McClearys have a landscaping business called SOS (Sound Outdoor Services). JoAnn also owns a business called A Little Help, where she helps the elderly with tasks, so they can continue to live independently.
Building a Fleet
In order to win larger jobs, such as building driveways and maintaining pastures, the McClearys began investing in tractors and other equipment. “I researched the horsepower to weight ratio and the hydraulics capabilities between John Deere, New Holland, Case and Kubota. I then priced everything and that’s how we started with New Holland. At the time, New Holland was the best price based on the ratio.”
“It refreshes us to work one-on-one with people…”
They bought their first tractor — and every tractor since — from Brim Tractor. The dealership has 6 locations in western Washington and western Oregon and carries New Holland, Yanmar, Stihl, Woods, Bad Boy and other lines. The McClearys’ first purchase was a New Holland TC 30 along with a box blade, the basic tools they needed for driveway work. Soon after, they bought a TC 18 with a box blade for JoAnn. “When we first got married, I was terrified just being on a riding lawn mower. I used to squeeze the steering wheel tight to my chest. It took a lot of practice and Mat gave me lots of guidance and is a very good instructor. We started working together and it was part of our quality time,” JoAnn says.
They stayed with New Holland over the years, buying different models, both used and new, to match the jobs. Their purchases were driven by several factors: Because of their limited time in the evenings and weekends, they didn’t want to waste time moving tractors and switching attachments or lose jobs because a tractor was in for repair. Also, for one farm maintenance account, they dedicate two tractors and leave them on site. “Being retired military, I know about redundant systems. When you work the way we do, you don’t have a lot of time for tractors to be down,” Mat says.
Brim Tractor has 6 locations in western Washington and western Oregon. Rural lifestylers account for about 30-40% of the dealership’s revenue and the market is growing.
Their current fleet includes 8 New Holland tractors and a variety of attachments, including rakes, blades, rotary cutters, finish mowers and rototillers, from Bush Hog, Land Pride and Woods. Their 18 and 24 horsepower tractors have loaders and buckets. Two 30 horsepower models also have loaders and buckets and another 30 horsepower tractor has a loader, bucket and backhoe. The 27 and 35 horsepower models are set up with 60-inch rotary cutters. Their eighth tractor, a 45 horsepower model, has a loader and bucket and is used for clearing large trees.
They also own a Rankin post-hole digger and their outdoor power equipment includes chain saws, line trimmers, hedge trimmers and leaf blowers from Husqvarna and Stihl and chain saws from Craftsman.
Mat jokes that part of his motivation for staying in business is to pay for his tractors. On a more serious note, he says tax advantages, good finance terms and warranties are all advantages to buying new. However, he does buy used equipment based on the job. “When we are building driveways and clearing land, the impact on the tractor is more intense, so I typically go with new. For mowing, we bought used tractors because you’re just going in circles and turning left. I just have to know that the PTO system is in good shape,” Mat says.
Seeking Dealer Support
The McClearys know what they want when it comes to equipment, but still rely on Brim’s sales team to help with the final purchase. They’ve worked with Brent VanderPol for many of their purchases. VanderPol is now the dealership’s corporate sales manager. “Brent lets us make our own decision, but helps us through the purchase,” says JoAnn.
Brent VanderPol is corporate sales manager for Brim Tractor. He says his role is to be a consultant to rural lifestylers and other customers.
Mat adds, “Brent is very knowledgeable, not only about the equipment but knows about attachments as well. We found from the ‘get go’ that he understood when we bought something, we were going to have it for a long time. He doesn’t really sell the equipment, but listens to what we need,” he says.
Mat appreciates the expertise it takes for a salesperson to adjust to different customers. “I’ve sent a lot of homeowners to Brim. When Brent talks to someone, whether it’s their first tractor or they’re buying their eighth or ninth, he understands their experience and speaks to that level.”
Mat says another reason he keeps buying from Brim is that they’re able to find the equipment he needs when he needs it. “One time I had my heart set on a tractor with a certain frame and a certain horsepower and it was out of production. Brent found a dealer in California who still had it in a crate and he arranged for it to be brought up. He’ll go the extra mile, especially in the used market,” Mat says. Brim has also come through for him on short notice. “I sometimes get calls at 2 p.m. on Fridays and they want me on their property on Saturday morning. If Brent doesn’t have what I need in the yard, he can get it for me. All dealerships are running lean when it comes to inventory, but Brim keeps a good array of equipment in its 6 stores.”
Selling Through Consultation
Mat and JoAnn McCleary bought their first tractor in 2002 and every tractor since from Brim Tractor. The dealership has 6 locations in western Washington and western Oregon. The McClearys now have eight tractors, ranging from 18-45 horsepower along with attachments from Bush Hog, Land Pride, Woods and Rankin and outdoor power equipment from Craftsman, Husqvarna and Stihl. They use the equipment for their businesses Frog Construction, SOS (Sound Outdoor Services) and Owl Electrical.
They’ve worked with Brent VanderPol, who is now Brim’s corporate sales manager, for most of their purchases. VanderPol says that the dealership started to see the growth in the rural lifestyle market about the time he started working with the McClearys. “It was close to the time that we were recognizing the need to grow our business through selling smaller tractors and we started to bulk up our inventory to cater to that clientele.”
VanderPol says that the rural lifestyle customer base accounts for about 30-40% of the dealership’s revenue and the market is growing. “In western Washington, there is more and more demand for buying local, so we’re seeing more small farms raising fruits and vegetables on the side.”
VanderPol says he acts as a consultant for customers like the McClearys who know equipment and do their research. “We talk through their parameters and I give the pluses and minuses and make sure they are on the right track,” he says. “We believe in ‘consultive’ type selling. Anybody can say there’s a tractor and there’s the price. I ask about acres, topography, whether the ground is hilly or wet and who will be operating the tractor.”
He says rural lifestylers often come in looking for used tractors. “Their mindset is to find a used tractor. The supply has still not reached demand for used tractors. Over the last 20 years, the resale value of small tractors has increased so much and with the lower rate financing and warranty, they might be willing to pay a little more for new.”
The dealership started in 1967 and its locations now include Salem and Eugene, Ore., Chehalis, Mt. Vernon, Lynden and Pacific, Wash. “The main thing our owners did as we grew was purchase highly visible locations. A customer may not buy a tractor for many years, but when they do, they think of us. They’ll say, ‘Tell me more about these Brim tractors’ or ‘I bought a Brim tractor,’ ” VanderPol says.
The McClearys handle the general maintenance on their equipment and bring the tractors into the dealership every 300 hours for Brim’s technicians to run a thorough check.
Diversifying to Expand
The McClearys continue to look for ways to expand their businesses — adding the equipment to make it possible. They thought custom haying on a pasture they maintained might be an option, but the property was recently sold. They are now milling customer lumber. “We already sell wood as a byproduct of our business and thought, ‘How can we expand this business?’ ” Mat says. “When we bought the property next door, it had an old barn on it. We bought a saw mill to start milling our own lumber and rebuild the barn, to make the boards as close as possible to the original. Now we do custom milling work, such as beams for construction and blocks for wood carvers. We don’t want to do slab lumber. People can go to Lowe’s for that.”
The McClearys have built their businesses by working hard, while still enjoying the long hours outside. “It gives us a balance to come home and work on our own businesses. It refreshes us to work one-on-one with people,” Mat says.