Pictured Above: Doug Williams, center, owns Williams Tractor. Randy Huck (left) is service manager and Todd Tokar (right) is assistant service manager. The team tries new approaches to staffing challenges. Photo Courtesy of: Jessa Wiles
Williams Tractor, with locations in Arkansas and Louisiana, keeps its shop personnel busy and productive year-round. The dealership team shares its best practices related to service personnel in this second installment of the “Season-to-Season” series. These practices have enabled the dealership to avoid off-season drains on cashflow.
Founded: 1973 Locations: Fayetteville, Berryville, Rogers and McGehee, Ark., and Rayville, La. Lines: New Holland, Case IH, Kioti, Bush Hog, Woods, Rhino, Big Dog, Bad Boy, Bobcat, Polaris, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Suzuki, KTM, Kymco, Haybuster, Vermeer, Hustler, Terex and Landoll Business System: DIS Challenge & Solution: Maintaining positive off-season cashflow in the service department by offering diverse products and aggressively pursuing high machine populations.
Many dealerships tend to staff their service teams to handle the rush of business that comes with spring. However, Williams Tractor gears its shop personnel numbers more toward year-round averages. Williams finds supplemental part-time employees by building relationships with vocational technical training programs. The strategy has been successful, due to a management philosophy that matches new mechanics with the right tasks and encourages mentoring by seasoned technicians.
Finally, when multiple customers have breakdowns and the shop is behind, they encourage service techs to supplement their income with overtime and their employees are eager to do so.
The dealership has 7 locations and equipment lines include New Holland, Kioti and Case IH tractors; Bush Hog, Woods and Rhino implements; Hustler, Big Dog and Bad Boy mowers and Polaris, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki powersports products.
Finding Seasonal Employees
Randy Huck, Williams Tractor’s service manager at the flagship Fayetteville, Ark., store for 23 years, just experienced another winter where his shop was busy for the entire season. With the rush of spring business approaching, he’s now screening additional employees to fill the void and gearing up the mobile service vehicles.
•If you struggle to keep technicians active in the winter, consider reducing the number of year-round people, while improving the quality of seasonal hires.
•A key to finding good young mechanics may be the local technical school, even if their program is not focused on the equipment industry. Seasonal personnel may enjoy their experiences at your dealership and decide to become long-term employees.
• Encourage your more experienced mechanics to mentor seasonal hires. Let them know you value how they share their knowledge and pride.
• Try to find what projects student employees enjoy and tailor their work toward those tasks. They’ll tend to do better work and might end up staying with the dealership after graduation.
Huck’s main source of seasonal employees is Northwest Technical Institute (NTI), based in Springdale, Ark. (See the sidebar, “Why Dealers Need to Develop Relationships with Vo-Tech Programs”.)
He has served on the school’s advisory board for over 20 years, despite the fact that he says their program targets students who aren’t aiming at careers in equipment service.
“NTI has a diesel shop that is focused on truck repair, but they do accept training projects from agriculture. For instance, if a farmer has a breakdown, they’ll repair it in exchange for a donation to the student organization so students may get some equipment experience. We’ve seen students come in here focusing on a career in trucking and after being exposed to farm or industrial equipment decide that they’re interested in those fields. The instructors at NTI then try to direct them to work at a business that specializes in those products to see if that’s the way they want to go,” says Huck.
Todd Tokar, assistant service manager, looks elsewhere for good seasonal help. “I’m active in the Fayetteville High School Apprenticeship Program, so I have some good contacts there,” Tokar says. “Our dealership is known at the University of Arkansas as well. We regularly donate parts or project material to their agricultural mechanization program.
“We want to get the word out that we’re a good place to work and can give students a lot of ‘hands on’ experience they may not get in a classroom. Honestly, we’ve never really had to find students who want seasonal work. About mid-May, we’ll start seeing a bunch of kids applying, because they’re being sent down here by their professors or high school ag teachers.”
Todd Tokar, Williams Tractor assistant service manager, (left) and Northwest Technical Institute (NTI) graduate Jace Reeves discuss a repair.
Photo Courtesy of Jessa Wiles
Cultivating Interest in the Business
Be prepared to spend extra time managing when first starting to work with young and inexperienced techs, Huck says, “Most of the time, we start them out on PDI (pre-delivery inspection) of equipment, set-up or installing loaders, which helps them figure out how hydraulic systems work. Then, we may move them to installing belly mowers, so they get a sense of how a PTO functions. They’re checking drivelines to see if they need to be cut off and checking oil levels, those type of activities.”
Huck says a critical part of the process is finding out what the new hire’s passion is and fitting them with machines they enjoy working on.
“It could be small tractors, hay equipment or skid loaders and excavators, so you have to find their ‘niche’ and sort them out from there. If they like what they’re doing, they are more likely to do a better job. The challenge is to try to find what they like, then focus them on those jobs and let them run with it,” he says.
By focusing new hires on an area they enjoy, Huck is selling them on a career at the dealership. He has been successful in retaining some of the students, but admits the percentage is lower than he would like. However, giving graduates a better understanding of how dealerships function provides value for the industry.
“As many as half of the mechanics working today will retire within 10 years...” — DieselTechJobs.com
Huck says, “We have one guy who is getting his master’s degree at the University of Arkansas and has worked here three summers. His goal is to work for one of the major equipment manufacturers and he’s trying to broaden his horizons. We’ve had several kids who have worked for us on the way to careers with major companies in service, sales and parts.”
Developing a Mentoring Culture
Having shop mentors is a critical component. “The senior technicians are encouraged to jump in and help them, watch out for their safety and so on. It’s really appreciated on my part, because the phone is ringing from the time I get here until the time I leave. We have a group of techs who have been doing this for more than 20 years and they want to see these younger kids carry it on, because it’s a select few who want to do what we do,” Huck says.
Tokar adds, “It helps us managers breathe a little easier, when we know the new guy or apprentice is being overseen. And it helps these experienced mechanics, because they can concentrate on more technical stuff, while the new guy does ‘grunt work.’ So, we allow a lot of mentoring between a senior mechanic and these new guys.”
From the Archives
This series marks the fifth season that Rural Lifestyle Dealer has followed along with dealers to learn about seasonal challenges and opportunities. Click here to view the archived features and video interviews for these progressive dealers:
The relationship benefits the senior techs as well. “A lot of the equipment now requires a computer to work on it and there’s often new software to download for engine or transmission controllers. Sometimes, these young guys come in from NTI well-versed in laptop electronic service tools, or EST, and have a better sense of how they work,” Huck says.
Scheduling Full-Time Staff
The final piece of the puzzle is finding ways to maximize utilization of the full-time crew. “We have a culture here that is focused on getting the job done. In the busy season, we have guys coming in at 5:30 a.m. and working into the night. We try to wind down the shop by 6 p.m., but we have people out on the road that work later. They get time-and-a-half pay, so there’s some incentive there, but if they can start early and go late it helps get the job done,” Huck says.
Williams Tractor has built a relationship with Northwest Technical Institute, including having a representative on its advisory board. The institute’s main focus is the trucking industry. However, technology used in that industry overlaps with the ag industry, so graduates are also prepared for careers at dealerships.
Photo Courtesy of Jessa Wiles
Scheduling becomes a challenge when the busy season hits, but there’s a reward for doing it right. “If you have guys that can get six jobs done in one day, you can catch up quickly. The guys are also willing to do mobile service work on their way home in the evening. We also work well together as a team. It’s not uncommon for the sales guys to be out in the shop with a grease gun, helping to get something ready to be delivered. If a customer needs the tractor tomorrow, we’ll make sure that happens. That’s been a big part of our sales volume growth over the last few years. It’s a team effort,” Huck says.
Managing the service side of an extremely seasonal business will always be a challenge. Williams Tractor’s model of matching staffing to normal workload; actively searching for young part-time help and mentoring them; and allowing full-time staff to share in seasonal profits through overtime, helps them through peaks in business. It also provides the important side benefit of occasionally attracting young people who choose a career at the dealership, providing the next generation of technician.