Pictured Above: Blue River Tractors is led by a management team made up of Bobby Pruiett, chief financial officer; Tony Winslett, co-owner, who handles sales and marketing; and Tim MacEntire, co-owner, who handles service, parts and administration. The dealership recently broke ground for a new facility located on 30 acres.
Blue River Tractors of Durant, Okla., had its beginnings as a repair shop and the dealership continued its customer-first philosophy when it became a tractor dealership in 2010. That approach has helped it grow to nearly $6 million in revenues and a 25% market share in just 6 years. Based on its financial performance and other innovative practices, Blue River Tractors has been named the 2016 Rural Lifestyle Dealer Dealership of the Year. This is the magazine’s 10th annual recognition of North America’s leading rural equipment dealerships.
“Our goal is to treat our business as a ministry by always striving to make a difference in people’s lives. Our employees, every member of our team, are valued as important and needed. We view our customers as friends and value their friendship. We strive to sell our customers what they need, not what we need to sell. We have built a name on our customer service and are uncompromising in our efforts to improve that service,” says Tony Winslett, who co-owns the dealership with Tim MacEntire.
Starting a Dealership
TNM Automotive, the predecessor to Blue River Tractors, had been in business since 1995 as a vehicle and diesel repair shop when an opportunity arose in 2010 to take on the Mahindra tractor line. MacEntire, who owned TNM Automotive, called on his friend Winslett, who had recently retired from a corporate sales and marketing career.
“Tim wanted to know if I would manage the dealership if he could get the Mahindra line. It was just going to be an add-on to the service business. We did have an advantage because Tim had worked on all kinds of diesel engines and tractors, and we have one of the best diesel techs in the country. From a sales standpoint, I had very little experience in tractors, but I had a lot of experience in marketing and advertising sales and management,” Winslett says.
MacEntire remembers the early days of the dealership: “There was a drought our first year and we wondered if we were in the right business and it almost took us out. We were able to come back and we’ve made it as high as the #9 dealer by volume in America for Mahindra tractors,” he says. “Because we were a service company to begin with, we’ve been able to work with technicians and parts people that were already here or that we’ve added since then and that has given us the ability to grow.”
Blue River Tractors
Employees: 18 (3 sales, 9 service/parts, 6 administration)
Major Line: Mahindra
Shortlines: Bush-Whacker, Echo Power Equipment, Gravely, Maxey Trailers, Sundowner Trailers, Stay Tuff Fence, Timeless Fence, Armstrong Ag
2015 Revenue: $5,908,555 ($5,290,936 all wholegoods; $340,724 parts; $276,895 service)
3-Year Mahindra Sales Growth Figures
2015 Return on Assets: 12.4%
The original idea of an add-on business changed quickly as sales grew. Winslett says their market included less than 60 Mahindra tractors when they started the dealership. In the last 3½ years alone, they’ve added more than 400 tractors to their market. Sales revenue in 2015 increased more than 65% from 2014 and nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014. They strive for a wholegoods margin of 12.5%.
A key part of the dealership’s evolution lies with the its approach to management, something they refer to as a “three-legged stool.” Winslett handles sales and marketing while MacEntire, who had been a chief information officer for a medical center before opening TNM Automotive, handles service, parts and administration. Bobby Pruiett joined the team in 2015 to serve as the chief financial officer. Pruiett had previously been CFO for a hospital. All three have brought years of management experience from previous careers.
“We have a lot of business savvy, so we don’t do things haphazardly. As we grow, we try to think everything through to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” says Winslett. He says in the early days, they relied on their Mahindra representative for business advice. Today, they learn from other dealers, using the networking opportunities available through serving on Mahindra’s dealer council and other groups.
Blue River Tractors is led by a management team made up of Bobby Pruiett, chief financial officer; Tony Winslett, co-owner, who handles sales and marketing; and Tim MacEntire, co-owner, who handles service, parts and administration. The dealership recently broke ground for a new facility located on 30 acres.
Winslett ties their growth to investments in inventory and advertising. “In all honesty, we didn’t know what we were doing when we started, and one of the things that I learned very quickly is if you don’t have tractors in stock, customers don’t think you’re in business,” he says. They sold 11 tractors their first year and 37 tractors the next. Today, their goal is to sell 240 tractors and 40 XTV utility vehicles.
In addition to tractor inventory, Winslett says they began adding unique products to their lineup. They wanted to promote package sales so they added Maxey trailers in 2012 and Sundowner Trailers in 2014. They researched zero-turn lines, hoping Mahindra would enter the market, and started carrying Gravely this year. Timeless Fence and Stay Tuff Fence products were added in 2014. They’re not concerned that the products lack brand awareness in their area, instead believing it’s an advantage.
“We have built a name on our customer service…” – Tony Winslett, Blue River Tractors
“I like to find unique products that somebody else doesn’t carry. We could sell every kind of implement you can think of, but everybody else already is. If we can find something unique, I try to capitalize on those things,” Winslett says.
They build awareness and sales through ongoing advertising, especially with television ads. Winslett had been in advertising sales for 18 years with Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages, so he had seen advertising work for many businesses. “We didn’t really have a budget set aside for advertising and I knew we needed to advertise. I convinced Tim we needed to take a risk and advertise. The business started picking up almost immediately. Once that happened, things just started to multiply very quickly,” he says.
Use the lack of brand awareness in your area for a certain line to your advantage. Market it as a way to separate your dealership from the competition.
Analyze your current organizational structure to see if there are ways to restructure responsibilities to increase efficiencies and improve customer service.
Are you investing enough in advertising? Test new campaigns to boost sales.
“To me, advertising is an extra salesperson. We spend more on advertising per size of dealership than most dealerships in the country,” Winslett says. He says it helps that television advertising in his market is relatively inexpensive. He has no set budget for advertising, other than to make sure he doesn’t negatively affect cashflow, and he uses all of his annual co-op advertising dollars.
To track placements and his budget, he uses an Excel worksheet, showing 365 days and every ad placement (TV, radio, billboard, newspaper, etc.). “I know exactly what I’m spending that day, that week, that month and that quarter. So when the TV people come in, I give them a quarterly plan. To watch advertising work is amazing. I think dealers really need to learn that,” he says.
He says it’s a challenge to keep his ad campaigns fresh, especially as some of the 11 other tractor dealers in the area are now stepping up their advertising efforts. “We’ve awakened a couple of ‘sleeping giants,’ so it’s getting more competitive. It puts more of a burden on me to figure out the best way to reach our customers,” Winslett says.
A New Management Style
Excelling in Service
Cleo Franklin, Mahindra North America’s vice president of marketing and strategic planning and chief marketing officer, shares his thoughts on Blue River Tractors’ success: “Tony Winslett and Blue River Tractors are strong believers in the customer-first commitment and keys to their strong growth and success have been top-notch service and service excellence.
“Tony has implemented several marketing and promotional initiatives that highlight their philosophy of delivering a superior customer experience that sets a new standard and turns customers into dealership advocates.
“Tony has also played an instrumental role as a member of the Mahindra Dealer Advisory Council to help introduce industry-leading programs and practices while serving as the representative between dealers in his respective area and Mahindra senior management to bring about positive changes in processes and procedures resulting in high dealer satisfaction.”
MacEntire says their management style also contributes to the dealership’s success. The three-person management team focuses on areas of responsibility, not departments.
“There are no departments here. Instead, we have areas of responsibility and we have people that are in charge of those areas, but their job is to also work with the other areas of responsibility and cross train with them,” MacEntire says. “We don’t have an issue with service and parts like they do in a normal dealership environment, where the service people constantly upset the parts people because they don’t get what they want. We don’t have that here because the parts person is also out doing service; he understands what needs to happen to make it work. The salesperson is back here working with the service area to get the tractors and equipment ready.”
MacEntire says the employee team is encouraged to follow processes, not procedures, to get their jobs done. “The difference being that in a procedure you get to the level of ‘press this button’ or ‘make this selection.’ In a process, it’s more about what needs to happen and those steps are in line so that anyone doing that process knows the steps. They’re not locked in to an exact way of doing something,” he says.
Adding Sales & Management Tools
Winslett estimates that throughout his career, he’s made over 20,000 sales calls and once needed to close four sales a day. Fact finding, education and putting customers’ needs first are critical to selling. He also promotes what’s behind the brands they sell.
The business started as a vehicle and diesel repair shop and the Mahindra tractor line was added in 2010. Ag equipment sales have increased substantially and the dealership continues to promote its service expertise for all kinds of vehicles.
“You’ve got to sell the benefits and values. I do not sell a price. We cover the Mahindra story, how they started, and who they are. My philosophy is if somebody’s going to spend $20,000-$50,000 with us, they need to know the company,” he says.
Tracking customer contacts, sales contacts and follow-ups have also led to their sales success. In 2014, the dealership added the ACT customer relationship management system. “We want to know as much about that customer as possible because if a salesman gets sick, leaves or whatever, that customer is Blue River’s, not his,” Winslett says. “ACT has been invaluable. If you’ve given a proposal to a customer, sometimes they forget, so you can go back and remind them. Or, if you’ve made a sale, you can ask how everything worked out. You have to know your history,” Winslett says.
They added a new dealership management system in January 2015. The dealership had been using software designed for fleet management and needed something that could handle ag equipment sales. They turned to fellow dealers for recommendations and decided on Basic. In the system, they use the functionality for inventory; accounts receivable and payable; general ledger and customer data. They’ve also recently added the functionality of scanning UPC codes to track inventory.
MacEntire says they’ve relied on the Basic team for support as they have the unique situation now with the merging of data between the two programs. “It’s been a good, solid system and has done well for us. There is no way we could run the dealership without it,” MacEntire says.
What the judges say …
“This dealership employs 18 people and generates nearly $6 million in total revenue. Their ROA was nearly triple that of its closest competitors. One of the most impressive stats was a 400% 3-year growth average. They have a sound succession plan and strong community involvement.”
Pruiett pulls an extensive monthly report that the management team reviews, looking for adjustments to make. “Bobby is continually working on the books to give us more information and recommendations on how we can become more productive and profitable,” MacEntire says.
Rooted in Standards
Beyond day-to-day practices and processes, Blue River has set these standards: Christian values, integrity, customer first and accountability.
“We go to extreme ends to take care of our customers. It has cost us a fortune. We could make a lot more money if we were a little less customer oriented, but we’ll lose money to make sure that our customers have what they need. We’ve proven that, and our customer base knows that now. The way we do that is through teamwork,” MacEntire says. In fact, until just recently, MacEntire made all the equipment deliveries, so he could make sure customers were satisfied with their equipment.
Blue River Tractors relies on consistent advertising to build brand awareness for their lineup, which includes Gravely zero-turn mowers, Mahindra tractors and Maxey and Sundowner trailers. The dealership looks for unique equipment lines that will help them stand apart from their competition.
They work hard to maintain the standards through developing the right team. “To find the right service person and the right salesperson, it’s probably the hardest thing we do. And when we hire them, we usually bring them in on a temporary basis. We tell them, ‘We want to see if you’re going to fit in with the family at the dealership and if we’re going to fit in with you,’” Winslett says.
Like many dealerships, finding service techs is a challenge. “Mostly we get people by the fact that they know what we’re doing and they like the idea of what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s a lot easier to work in a team environment than it is in a boss/employee environment,” MacEntire says. They recently sponsored a student who attended Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology and worked for them, but MacEntire says that can be expensive. They also follow a long-term approach, bringing in high school students and training them in the hopes they will work at the dealership after graduation.
Blue River opened a second location near Ardmore, Okla., last year and the next stage for the Durant store is a new location. They purchased 30 acres on state highway 75, a main thoroughfare between Texas and the Durant area, and recently broke ground on a new 80 x 120-foot facility.
Machinery Pete Sponsors Dealership of the Year Video Series
Go to RuralLifestyleDealer.com to view the Dealership of the Year Video series, sponsored by Machinery Pete. The series features Blue River Tractors’ management team sharing the practices and strategies that earned them this national recognition. MachineryPete.com is a premier online destination for farmers and dealers, providing a comprehensive used farm equipment search experience with tens of thousands of equipment listings, searchable for free.
Several factors led to the move. Their current building lacks a showroom and a retail area and outside display space is limited. Also, the city has added a highway loop outside the city, which means drive-by traffic will be decreasing.
The new store and outside display areas will be based on about 5 acres. They’re planning a 60 x 80-foot showroom, which will also give them space to begin displaying Echo outdoor power equipment, plus four service bays.
They’ll keep the current store, employing technicians there as well as the new location. MacEntire says they’ll use the current shop as an “incubator” for training new technicians. They’ll continue servicing vehicles in the current store and use it for their Budget Truck rental location. At the height of the season, they may have as many as 30 Budget Trucks on site. MacEntire says practices like renting trucks and servicing vehicles helps balance cycles.
Winslett and MacEntire both look for continued growth, while maintaining the atmosphere that has brought them success. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of our dealership. Every one of our employees cares. And to find somebody that cares — not only about their job, but the business and each other, that’s a phenomena that people don’t get to see very often. And I like to set the example that other businesses can do this,” Winslett says.
Dealership of the Year Alumni Group 2007-2016
2016 Dealership of the Year Blue River Tractors, Durant, Okla.
2015 Dealerships of the Year PrairieCoast Equipment, Alberta and British Columbia — Kelly Tractor & Equipment, Longview, Texas
2014 Dealership of the Year Armstrong Implements, Swift Current, Sask.
2013 Dealership of the Year A&M Green Power Group (now AgriVision), Pacific Junction, Iowa
2012 Dealership of the Year Mid-State Equipment, Janesville, Wis.
2011 Dealership of the Year S&H Farm Supply, Rogersville, Mo.
2010 Dealership of the Year Kingline Equipment, Cantonment, Fla.
2009 Dealership of the Year Jordan Sales & Service, Post Falls, Idaho
2008 Dealership of the Year Little Tractor & Equipment, Metropolis, Ill.
2007 Dealership of the Year Dave’s Tractor, Red Bluff, Calif.
Make plans to participate in Rural Lifestyle Dealer’s 11th annual Dealership of the Year program in 2017. To nominate a dealer, go to www.RuralLifestyleDealer.com.
Best in Class Awards: Finch Services and Big Red’s Equipment
Rural Lifestyle Dealer‘s panel of judges recognized Finch Services, Westminster, Md., and Big Red’s Equipment, Granbury, Texas, as Best in Class dealerships.
We extend our appreciation to Dr. W. David Downey, David L. Kahler and Charles R. Glass, who served on our judging panel.
Dr. W. David Downey
Dr. Downey is executive director, Center for Agricultural Business (CAB), Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. He is responsible for the development of education programs at the CAB, which is regarded as the leading center for agribusiness education in the U.S. A distinguished agricultural marketing professor and proficient author, he also consults throughout North America on a variety of agribusiness issues.
David L. Kahler
Kahler is a retired CEO of Ohio-Michigan Equipment Dealers Assn., Dublin, Ohio. Kahler spent his entire 39-year career assisting equipment dealer principals with their business affairs. He served for 22 years as CEO. He was an active industry participant who earned the respect of both dealers and manufacturers. Kahler retired from full-time employment in 2008, but still works part-time as the associate director for AMG LLC. He is now in his 46th year of serving dealers.
Charles R. Glass
Glass is president of Glass Management Group, chairman emeritus, Farm Equipment Manufacturers Assn.’s (FEMA) Dealer Relations Committee, Arlington, Texas. With more than 4 decades in the industry, Glass produces an annual tractor and combine forecast and provides technical assistance to various investment groups. He is a former director of FEMA and author of several white papers on the future of farm equipment distribution.