With summer sales of lawn and garden equipment in full swing, Ed Prochaska, co-owner of Prairie Power Center, always has a full list of things to do at his dealership in Sun Prairie, Wis.
“You think, being a lawn mower shop, it’d be easy to get our own lawn mowed,” Prochaska says.
Prairie Power Center is part of the Power Centers of Madison, which includes locations in Middleton and Sun Prairie, Wis. Prochaska and Duane Nolden co-own the dealership. The two have been friends and colleagues for over 25 years.
Expanding the Business
Prochaska and Nolden opened their first location, Middleton Power Center, in 2001, after working together at a different rural lifestyle dealership in Madison for 15 years prior. (For more on how they started the business, see the Spring 2016 issue of Rural Lifestyle Dealer).
Power Centers of Madison
Location: Middleton and Sun Prairie, Wis.
Lines: John Deere, Simplicity, Sure-Trac, Ariens, Gravely, Scag Power Equipment, Toro, Honda, Husqvarna, Ferris, Ventrac and Stihl
Business System: NizeX
Challenge & Solution: Prairie Power Center is facing an employee shortage that leads to difficulties in meeting deadlines and cutting servicing turnarounds. To maintain order despite the shortage, the dealership has hired a service manager to handle scheduling of the employees and keep the dealership running smoothly.
In 2008, Nolden and Prochaska decided to expand their business with the opening of Prairie Power Center. The dealership took over a facility previously occupied by Hanley’s, a hardware and power equipment store located on Sun Prairie’s Main Street. Hanley’s closed in May of 2008 after 79 years of business. Prochaska and Nolden then moved into the company’s current showroom in September 2008.
The transition to the Sun Prairie location was not as easy as Nolden and Prochaska had thought it would be. With the former business closing in May and Nolden and Prochaska not moving in until September, Prochaska describes the few months in between as “the void” in that first summer.
Duane Nolden (left) and Ed Prochaska (right) have co-owned the Power Centers of Madison since 2001.
“You would have thought it would have been better, but it was like starting over,” Nolden says. Hanley’s was a multi-building facility with a hardware store, lawn and garden center and, for a time, an ag dealership.
The only part of the building they used was the existing showroom. In the beginning, all the equipment repairs were shuttled from the Sun Prairie store to the Middleton location. In late winter, Nolden and Prochaska hired a technician for the Sun Prairie store.
“The set-up was just like in the olden days where the mechanic was in part of the showroom with an air compressor and air tools, fixing stuff,” Prochaska says.
In March of 2009, the dealership moved into Prairie Power Center’s current location just off Highway 151 in Sun Prairie. “It was tough because everything had to change. You changed your address twice. Phone numbers changed, so it was a lot of paperwork,” Nolden says.
The dealership carries the John Deere line only at its Middleton, Wis., location and carries Simplicity at its Sun Prairie location.
Building a Base
The new location provided the dealership with easier accessibility and visibility to highway traffic, yet it still took the Sun Prairie dealership 3-4 years to build a solid customer base.
“We probably did better than most opening from scratch because we already had a need or demand after the other place had closed. You had the customer base there; the people were there; and we had the same equipment they offered. But, it still took 3-4 years to hit our stride,” Prochaska says.
Prairie Power Center’s customer base differs from that of the Middleton store, which focuses on commercial customers and the Sun Prairie location markets more to homeowners, although they do serve some commercial customers.
Both stores carry Ariens, Gravely, Scag Power Equipment, Toro, Honda, Ferris, Ventrac and Stihl while Middleton also carries John Deere and Sun Prairie also carries Simplicity and Husqvarna.
Co-owner Ed Prochaska mainly works at the Sun Prairie location, doing everything from answering phones, managing employees and working with customers.
Competing with Service
Prairie Power Center is located in a rapidly expanding commercial area, but has little outside competition from Big Box stores and only two or three rural lifestyle dealerships exist in the area.
“When you start to break it down by half a million people within the city of Madison and the area, there aren’t too many choices and you get full really quickly if there’s a snowstorm,” Prochaska says.
Big Box stores in the area may offer similar equipment lines, but Prochaska doesn’t consider them competition. “They don’t offer what we do as far as service and repair. They may get some of the easy sales, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re not competition. They sell equipment, but that is all they do. Then, it’s over for the most part,” he says.
Many of the box store customers that turn to Power Centers of Madison for service end up purchasing new equipment from the dealership later on.
Prairie Power Center is facing the difficulties of an employee shortage as they work to expand the service business. “Over at the Middleton store, you’ve got two people for every job. Over here, we have about seven guys total, half as many as the other location at best,” he says.
Despite limited floor space, the Sun Prairie dealership maintains an orderly and appealing store layout and product display.
This means Prochaska manages the store and has to handle many other daily responsibilities. He generally starts his day by picking up parts at the Middleton store. Throughout the day, he’s answering phones, writing up service orders, unloading trucks, prepping equipment for customers and conducting sales. Prochaska is still finishing up orders after the store closes, along with checking in parts and setting up equipment. “Even though we are closed Sundays, some of us even come in Sunday mornings and do stuff just to get caught up for next week’s ‘festivities,’” he says.
Prochaska recently advertised for several weeks for a parts counter employee, without receiving any applications. He also searched this past spring for a pickup and delivery employee. He offered someone the job, but they never showed up for work. “It’s not like I’m paying him in buttons,” he jokes.
- Prioritize your service department to keep the customer satisfied. Good service support creates repeat customers.
- The busyness of spring and summer can be exhausting. Know when your employee needs a vacation from the job to avoid burn out.
- Consider freshening up your annual customer events. For instance, turning your open house into a tent sale may attract more customers and allow you to display equipment undercover.
Prochaska is uncertain of why there’s such a lack of willing and qualified employees. “I don’t know if it’s not glamorous enough for some people,” he says. They’ve researched hiring employment agencies and staffing companies that will advertise for them and ensure a certain number of resumes. Nolden thinks these kind of companies may not offer the kind of qualified employees they need. “It’s mainly accountants, and I don’t need an accountant. I need someone who can turn a wrench and answer the phone,” he says.
Nolden is thinking about setting up a scholarship program at the local high schools to get young adults started in the industry. He notes that companies such as Ariens have successful scholarship programs, which help draw in new, younger employees.
Madison College, located near the two dealerships, has a tech program, though Prochaska and Nolden rarely get employees out of the school. “If you want to hire them, you plan on training them for a year,” Nolden says.
Prochaska says, “I think a lot of the program is focused on the marine and motorcycle industries. I think that’s a good share of where those people go because it’s maybe more glamorous or exciting.”
Prochaska is confident he can retain new employees, if he can just combat his hiring struggles. His confidence stems from his trust in the industry itself.
“There’s an opportunity for anyone if they want to do this. There’s a dire need for mechanics. If guys stick with it and if they’re reasonable, they can make a career out of this,” he says.
Prochaska has worked in the dealership business for almost 40 years. He says many dealerships used to look like old gas stations. “Now, everyone’s cleaned up their act pretty well. They keep their shops and stores looking nice,” he says.
Prochaska sees the equipment industry changing with the next generation of homeowners. He expects the change to lead to an even greater demand for good technicians.
“It’s a lot different than when I was a kid. A homeowner fixed everything. You didn’t call a repairman. Now, I don’t think people could fix a number 2 pencil. It’s a straightforward fix, and they can’t do it,” he says.
The increasing demand for quality service technicians has led to increasingly busy days for Prochaska and his staff at Prairie Power Center. The biggest challenge of the summer months can just be the day-to-day schedule at the dealership. “We are five or six customers deep all day long at the counter, whether it’s parts or someone looking at new equipment,” Prochaska says.
Expanding to Trailer Sales
Ed Prochaska, co-owner of Prairie Power Center, grew tired of mowing his extra acre of land. He had purchased the land to combat the quickly expanding commercial development area just off Highway 151 in Sun Prairie, Wis.
Nolden adds, “That’s our biggest challenge, just keeping ahead. You’d really like to be less than a week out on service. We’re pretty close to that schedule at the Middleton location, but it’s not happening here in Sun Prairie.”
The Sun Prairie store is currently backed-up two and a half weeks on service. The repair may actually be completed earlier, but he would rather have his customers expect a longer time frame rather than rush his employees.
Every year, Prochaska tells his employees to expect long days with little time off in March, April and May. Most employees have worked 6 days a week since the end of February. Summer vacations mean they can be short-staffed. “The guys work hard, and in summertime, they are entitled to a vacation. You need to recharge a bit,” he says.
Improving the Stores
Prochaska and Nolden have recently streamlined service department processes by following recommendations from Bob Clements. Clements is a nationally recognized consultant for outdoor power equipment, agriculture and power sports dealerships. (Read his “Achieving Peak Performance” column on page 62.) For instance, Prochaska hired a service manager to handle employee schedules, billings and warranties.
Prairie Power Center recently implemented new organizational methods to increase efficiencies in their parts and service areas and look more professional.
“Prior to that, I wouldn’t say it was the ‘Wild West,’ but each mechanic did their own billing and their own calling. Now, I can just refer them back and say just talk to Ray (the service manager). He does all the scheduling, rather than all of us running around trying to figure out when it’s going to be done, who’s working on it and who’s doing what,” he says.
Along with hiring a service manager, Nolden and Prochaska also reorganized how they handle inventory, changing from storing parts in what they called “pigeonhole” storage units to cabinets. The change allowed for a cleaner, more organized parts department and increased efficiencies.
“I’ll try anything once because I can always go back to the way it was,” Prochaska says of the store’s improvements. “In most cases, all the improvements work just fine, and we wonder why we didn’t do it earlier.”
Where Sun Prairie Excels
Besides the technological and production improvements of the shop, Prochaska says their relationship with customers also contributes to the dealership’s success.
They build customer awareness through traditional radio, print and television advertising and have recently tried cable TV ads. However, word-of-mouth referrals have been the best tool to grow their customer base.
“If you take care of people, do what you’re supposed to, fix it right the first time, that’s key. Selling equipment …anyone can do that. But fixing equipment, that’s where it becomes important. Take care of them; get it fixed right,” Prochaska says.
One very successful way the two Power Center locations maintain positive customer relationships is through each location’s annual open house and barbecue that they hold each spring.
Prochaska has looked at planning events for the summer months, though he admits it requires too much advertising. “When you’re already in high gear in the spring, how much more can you turn the wick up?” he says.
Prochaska hopes to have a tent sale over the summer months to bring in more customers, especially those coming off the highway. A tent sale also allows more equipment to be displayed under cover.
Working with Different Segments
Though Prairie Power Center deals a lot more with homeowners than the Middleton store, Prochaska and his employees still receive a large amount of commercial customers. Working with the two types of customers requires different approaches, according to Prochaska.
“If a customer is a commercial guy, he essentially wants to know if he can be taken care of with that piece of equipment. The commercial customer is making his living with that piece, and you better be keeping him going. For the most part, a homeowner can wait a bit for a piece of equipment. It’s more than just selling the equipment and seeing what happens,” Prochaska says.
The dealership’s financial performance was hurt somewhat by the mild winter and lack of snow, but spring and early summer sales have helped revenues. The Middleton location is about even with the previous year’s performance and Prairie Power Center is ahead of last year.
“Snow last winter was all but nonexistent, so it’s great for us to be ahead of last year when you consider that,” Prochaska says. “It’s been raining. The grass keeps growing. Everyone is cutting weekly and then some. That’s everything you wanted. You hope for this all winter long,” Prochaska says.
Looking ahead to the next fiscal year, Prochaska says, you have to start praying for cold and snow now. “It’s going to take some action, to get some action,” he says.