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Pictured Above: Middleton Power Center, a location of the Power Centers of Madison, has found unique ways to maximize its showroom space, like hanging assembled string trimmers from the ceiling.
Duane Nolden and Ed Prochaska, owners of Power Centers of Madison, had been working together at another rural lifestyle dealership in the Madison, Wis., area for 15 years before they went into business on their own. At that dealership, Nolden was the general manager while Prochaska managed the shop. “We were pretty much running the business. The owner of the dealership was trying to sell it at the time, but things didn’t come together the way we wanted to buy the place,” Nolden says.
When that deal fell through, Nolden says he researched Middleton Power Center of nearby Middleton, Wis. “We knew the owner was going to retire at some point, so one day I just approached him about buying the dealership and got the negotiation started,” he says. In 2001, Nolden and Prochaska bought Middleton Power Center & Cattrall’s Auto Clinic.
Up until 2010, the dealership continued the automotive repair side of the business. Nolden explains that in the early years, it helped balance the business during slow periods on the lawn and garden side. “The winter’s a good time to be fixing cars and it filled in for the first few years until we got busier in the service department,” he says.
As the business grew on the lawn and garden side, working on the cars became somewhat of a hassle. “We’d grown so much on the lawn and garden side, and it got to the point where when you brought a car in, everybody had to stop working in order to get it in,” Nolden says. He adds that 5 good “snow years” enabled them to drop the automotive side of the business and focus all their energy on selling rural lifestyle equipment.
Today, the dealership is known as Power Centers of Madison and includes a second location in Sun Prairie, Wis. The dealership carries John Deere, Simplicity, Ariens, Gravely, Scag Power Equipment, Toro, Honda, Husqvarna, Ferris, Ventrac and Stihl.
Expanding the Business
Power Centers of Madison Middleton & Sun Prairie, Wis.
Location: Middleton and Sun Prairie, Wis.
Lines: John Deere, Simplicity, Ariens, Gravely, Scag Power Equipment, Toro, Honda, Husqvarna, Ferris, Ventrac and Stihl
Business System: NizeX
Challenge & Solution: Middleton Power Center and Prairie Power Center focus on fitting customers with the right products for their needs. They identify the best match by asking questions about their experience, properties and how they plan to use the equipment — even when a customer comes in with a specific product in mind.
The location in Sun Prairie was added in 2008 when the owner of a power equipment dealership there decided to retire. So, Nolden and Prochaska opened their second location — Prairie Power Center — in the space that had been vacated by the other dealership.
While it’s not unusual for a rural lifestyle equipment dealership to expand and open a second location, the way Nolden and Prochaska approached it is a little different. Rather than simply opening a second location, the ownership team instead opened Prairie Power Center as a separate business. Both have a 50/50 stake in each business, with Nolden managing the Middleton location and Prochaska managing the Sun Prairie location.
“We did it for liability reasons,” Nolden says. “So, if one store struggles or has to close, we’re not pulling the other store into it.”
The dealership’s business system, NizeX, allows Nolden and Prochaska to view the inventory at both stores. The two stores share inventory, but since they are separate businesses, it’s not as simple as sending a part over to the other store. “I can check easily enough in our dealer management software if the other store has a part we need here in Middleton, but if we want the part, we sell it,” Nolden explains. “One of the drawbacks of operating this way is you can’t just easily move inventory from store to store. But the nice thing about that, too, is then everything gets to the store and you know where it is. So if you pull a part here, it’s got to get sold to that store and processed. It helps with keeping track of inventory.”
Duane Nolden is the co-owner of Power Centers of Madison.
Nolden adds that it’s difficult as an owner to not be able to be at both stores at the same time. “It’s tough to not be there making sure customers are being taken care of the way you want them to be or making sure we’ve got the right team in place to act, think and work like an owner. But, they are pretty good at it and, of course, Ed is over there. But, I’d still like to be there because people want to see the owners when they come into a small shop,” he says.
Despite operating as two businesses, a lot of orders are combined and all delivered to the Middleton location. Prochaska stops in at the Middleton store every morning on his way in to Sun Prairie to pick up parts and products and check in on things. Nolden tries to get over to the Sun Prairie store once a week or once every other week to keep everyone up to speed and take care of paper work for that location. When he does get over there, Nolden spends at least half the day at the Sun Prairie store, he says.
Meeting Spring Challenges
As Power Centers of Madison was preparing for spring, one of the biggest challenges the dealership was facing was ensuring it had enough — and the right — inventory. Nolden says more and more manufacturers are asking dealers to forecast what they’re going to sell for the season earlier and earlier.
“I’d say we close 70-80%. Once we get them in the door, we close them …”
As a result, “We’ve got a lot of inventory right now,” he says. “They want the equipment in here. If you look out back, there’s a ton of equipment sitting around. It’s tough to forecast and get everything right, but we try to. They spread the shipment out enough that, hopefully, in April I’ll know where we’re heading, know what we’re selling and will be able to adjust our orders before the May shipments come in.”
Along those same lines, the dealership is facing a storage problem for leftover snow blower inventory. Southwestern Wisconsin didn’t get much snow this winter, so Nolden says they have more snow blowers left in inventory than they’d like. “We’re going to have storage issues this year. While it’s not a big deal to have the blowers around, where do you put them for the summer?” he says. “So, we’ll store them in a corner and try to stack them up out of the way for the summer.”
Leading up to spring, the dealership was also evaluating its technician needs. “Right now we’re looking to hire someone else for the parts counter and another service tech. We’d like to get those people in, get them trained and up to speed before we get too busy,” Nolden says.
• Even when a customer comes in with a specific product in mind, dig in to find out more about their property and intended use to ensure you are selling them the right product for their needs.
• If you are struggling to find good employees, consider partnering with a local high school to educate kids about the industry prior to attending college.
• If showroom space is tight, consider unique ways to display your inventory, like hanging assembled string trimmers overhead.
While they’d like to have a tech in place before the season really gets in full swing, Nolden recognizes that may be tough. “Techs are getting harder and harder to find. It’s amazing, you can’t even find people that want to work. I could teach them what they need, but they need to have a work ethic and that’s getting tougher and tougher to find,” he says.
The dealership has tried recruiting techs from Madison Area Technical College, but the program is focused more on motorcycles and marine engines. “They do some small engine training, but the majority is motorcycle and marine, so it can be tough to get those guys to come this way,” Nolden says.
At the high school level, kids don’t have as many hands-on classes like automotive and wood shop, Nolden says. “A lot of the schools don’t even have an ag department any more.” One thing Nolden has wanted to do, and still hopes to do in the future, is set up a scholarship through Middleton High School to help kids who want to get into this industry. “Then, we can hopefully start a pipeline that will help us find good techs,” he says.
Attracting Commercial Customers
This year, Power Centers of Madison is focusing on improving its service department’s efficiency by implementing some of the tactics suggested by dealership management consultant Bob Clements.
In preparation for spring, Middleton Power Center holds an open house each March for its commercial customers — commercial landscapers and municipalities. To prepare, the staff stages the showroom to showcase the newest commercial products. To kick things off for the event, the dealership hosts a barbecue lunch. They start preparing for the lunch the day before, smoking pork outside for the entire day. “Everybody’s mouths are watering all day and the guys from the car dealership next door come out to see it,” Nolden says.
The dealership rents about 10 tables and chairs to set up in the shop for the lunch. Typically, the open house attracts several hundred customers, Nolden says. Over the course of the open house, the dealership runs specials on financing and will have special discounts on equipment. The parts department also offers 10% off all parts during the open house. “That always keeps the parts department very busy during those few days,” he says.
This year, Ferris’ new stand-on mower was front and center for the open house, Nolden says. He also expected Toro’s new multi-force stand-on unit to attract a lot of attention during the event.
Nolden says they have tried to run an open house for their non-commercial customers but it hasn’t worked out. “All the manufacturers have their special promotions, like Toro will have Toro Days and Husqvarna and Stihl do them, too. They are never at the same time, so it’s hard to coordinate an open house around their different specials,” he says.
Targeting Consumer Customers
Even without special events, Nolden says they have a high success rate with their consumer customers. “I’d say we close 70-80%. Once we get them in the door, we close them,” he says.
Video Interviews with Power Centers of Madison
View videos with Power Centers of Madison by visiting www.RuralLifestyleDealer.com.
Duane Nolden, co-owner of Power Centers of Madison, discusses the challenges of forecasting the correct amount of equipment inventory for the spring, the steps the dealership has taken in theft prevention and why they decided to set up their second location as a separate business.
Nolden attributes their sales success to the staff’s knowledge and over 30 years of combined experience along with their product selection. “What’s nice about our stores is we have all the major lines of mowers. We almost have too many lines. But, when a customer comes here they can pretty much get the product they want,” he says.
While Nolden admits they may have too many lines, he says they need the variety to reach their sales goals since they don’t sell ag equipment. “With this type of location, we have to have other products. We’re not selling $250,000 products and we don’t fix that type of product either,” he says. “We’re 100-horse and under, but we rarely sell anything over 50-horse compact lawn tractors. We’re in town and not enough in the rural areas to sell those bigger tractors.”
While a lot of customers these days come in knowing — or thinking they know — exactly what they want, Nolden says they still make sure to ask each customer more about their property and how they plan to use the equipment to ensure they are buying the right equipment for their needs. “We really get into asking ‘How big is your lawn, how hilly is it, how much stuff do you have to go around?’” he says. “And then we ask ‘How much do you want to spend to do that?’ Then, we can narrow it down to a couple lines and a couple brands.
“We do have more inventory of certain products that we know will sell better in that range. So, we just push them toward those models. We know they are good products that will work for them and they’re at that price point. A lot of manufacturers have a good price point tier with a good product.”
Nolden points out that just because a customer has read about a product online doesn’t mean they totally understand what they are reading. “We try to narrow down what size mower they need and a lot of people still need more details on what all the features really are,” he says. “It’s important to find out what their property is like because sometimes it might be a little too hilly for the equipment they want. Then I tell them, ‘I’ve got a better unit for you here that’s going to perform better on hills.’”
One of Middleton Power Center’s biggest challenges is finding the right balance of inventory. The dealership has a large warehouse, added in 2008, and a fenced-in lot to store much of their equipment inventory.
On the sales side, Nolden says their goal is to increase sales by 5% this year. Both stores are working to make improvements in the service department this year as well. “We’re in the process of implementing some new strategies and processes that we’ve learned about through Bob Clements’ program. I’m hoping we can gain 20% in service this year,” Nolden says. (Read Bob Clements’ column “Achieving Peak Performance”)
“He has some videos that we’ve gone through on the process of how to stage equipment, how to move equipment around and make the techs a lot more efficient. That’s where we want to get to this year,” he says. “The parts will come in to the department in a different fashion than they used to. The equipment’s going to be staged a little differently so it’s easier to get at and be cleaned before the techs start working on it.”
The Middleton store is also adding an 8 x 38 foot mezzanine to the showroom to help display additional inventory. “I want to be able to have a couple of snow blowers around, some of the off-season equipment up on a shelf where people can at least look at it and keep it in mind,” he says.
At the Sun Prairie store, they are currently getting bids to add an overhang to the front of the building. “We’re hoping to add a 20-foot roof to the front of the building so we can showcase more equipment underneath,” Nolden says.
When it comes down to it, Nolden says they try to do everything they do really well, keeping the customer in mind. “We focus on building relationships, especially with the commercial cutters so they don’t have to go anywhere else to get what they want, they can just come here. They know they can get service and that we keep the parts they need in stock. Service wise, they can get the work done right away and get going. It all comes down to the experience and products we have. We have everything they want. We have the knowledge. If you come into one of our stores, you’re going to get the right product. You’re not just going to get something, you’re going to get the best piece for what you need. We don’t sell stuff just to sell it,” Nolden says.
Middleton Power Center Hit by Chainsaw Thief
Duane Nolden, co-owner of Middleton Power Center, has made it a habit to do a walk-around each morning, checking to make sure equipment is where it should be.
“Our dealer management system will tell us what we have in stock, but there’s a lot of stuff that sits around here that can disappear so you’ve really got to keep up on what’s here,” he says. “The Beltline highway used to be right out our door. So we’d have equipment disappearing. Before we had the warehouse, it was just kind of a fence and a gate back there and we had theft here and there.”
The dealership added a warehouse (Read “Reinvesting in the Business”) that has helped secure a lot of the equipment, but Nolden says the bigger problem is the equipment that sits out in front of the store. “We had cameras put in a couple years ago which has helped,” he says.
The recovery rate of stolen power equipment is low, Nolden says. “If they get it off the lot, it’s gone. The only thing we’ve ever found is chainsaws, which is weird,” he says.
About 5 years ago, a ring of thieves hit Middleton Power Center and Prairie Power Center, along with a number of other dealers. A man and woman would come into the dealership and while the man talked with the salesperson, the woman would hide chainsaws under her dress and walk right out the door with them, Nolden explains. “They weren’t small saws either, they were big ones. I don’t know how she did it,” he says.
“They were hitting dealers all around here and in Illinois and Michigan, too. They got two chainsaws from us, one from each store. They’d take them down to a pawn shop in Chicago. The first time he tried to pawn them he had like six saws. The pawn shop figured something was up and contacted the police. Next time they came in, they had 12 brand new saws. The pawn shop guy asked, ‘Where are you getting these from?’ They caught the pair. They had at least 20-something saws total,” Nolden says.
While the dealership got the saws back, it was 5 years later. “They don’t even have good part numbers anymore, but they’re brand new,” he says.
Nolden says he’s been looking for some sort of GPS tracking technology to put under the seat of lawn tractors, but he has yet to find anything out there that is affordable. “You could have 20 GPS trackers out there that would be tough for a thief to find and you’d be able track your equipment if and when it goes missing. But, there’s nothing out there that’s good enough,” he says. “They do it with automotive and the big stuff, the big Caterpillars and the like, they have that. But it’s only one or two pieces so they can afford to buy a $600 tracking machine. To put them on each one of these lawn tractors would be too expensive.”