Pictured Above: Fuel supply can be an obstacle to sales of propane mowers. Lynn Hollinger of R.S. Hollinger & Sons, Mountville, Pa., works with suppliers like Jennifer Goldbach of Rhoads Energy to gather information to share with potential customers.
Photo Courtesy of Propane Education & Research Council
R.S. Hollinger & Sons of Mountville, Pa., has a history similar to many multi-generation dealerships in that production agriculture was at the root of its beginnings. The dealership is successful today because of changes it made in serving the rural equipment market, including becoming propane mower experts. Its future is now part of Ebling’s Service Plus of Myerstown, Pa., which recently completed its acquisition of the dealership.
R.S. Hollinger & Sons
Founded: 1973; acquired by Ebling’s Service Plus in 2017
Location: Mountville, Pa.
Business System: c-Systems Software, Infinity dealer management system
Lines: Bear Cat, Billy Goat, Briggs & Stratton, Cub Cadet, Echo, Exmark, Honda Power Equipment, Kawasaki Engines, Kohler Engines, Scag, Walker and Yanmar
The acquisition has a touch of fate as Lynn Hollinger, son of Russell, the founder of Hollinger & Sons, met Tony Hollinger — no relation — 6 years ago at a dealer meeting. Lynn’s brothers Lamar and Leonard are also part of the business. Tony Hollinger is one of the owners of Ebling’s.
“He was asking about my plans for the future and said, ‘If you ever sell, I might be interested.’ Three years ago, we started talking again as my brothers and I started thinking about retiring. It’s a good fit. They are good people and I like the way they do business. There are not many people out there looking to buy a dealership and we had no family members to take over. We’re really tickled they’ve come alongside us,” Lynn Hollinger says.
The dealership carries Bear Cat, Billy Goat, Briggs & Stratton, Cub Cadet, Echo, Exmark, Honda Power Equipment, Kawasaki Engines, Kohler Engines, Scag, Walker and Yanmar. Ebling’s carries those lines as well as STIHL and Husqvarna.
Planning to Exit
Employees were top of mind when the owners started negotiations. “We’ve been working on the acquisition for over 2 years. One of the biggest obstacles was our employees. We have 20 employees and I was concerned that they might lose some of their benefits — some have been with me 20 years and longer. The team at Ebling’s was so willing to accommodate us and my employees didn’t have to give up any benefits,” he says.
“Treat everybody as someone who might buy 10 mowers…”
—Lynn Hollinger of R.S. Hollinger & Sons
“I also had questions about how they were going to structure it. Their business is different than ours in terms of customer base. About 20% of their business is commercial customers and about 80% is residential. We’re about the opposite and a lot of that is because of where we are both located. Their business is in a rural area and we’re in a highly residential area with a lot of commercial buildings. I wondered if they were going to change us to residential or take my business model and run with it,” Hollinger says.
The dealerships came to an agreement that leveraged the strengths of both businesses, keeping their respective business models and even R.S. Hollinger & Sons as part of the name. The arrangement also ensures continuity of leadership in order to help with the transition process.
“One of the stipulations was that we wouldn’t walk away. When you’re around something this long, you are part of the business. Leonard and I agreed to stay on for at least 5 years and I hope to be here 10 years,” Hollinger says.
Focusing on Commercial Business
This willingness to look forward and make the necessary changes is how Hollinger’s, a former International Harvester dealer, transitioned into serving commercial cutters. “When IH went bankrupt about 20 years ago, we continued to sell parts for a couple of years and then we decided to focus on lawn equipment. Within a couple of years, we saw the growth in the commercial business and started catering to them,” Hollinger says.
- Find ways to support commercial landscapers as they bid for accounts.
- Understand and meet the demand for “green” equipment in your area, such as propane mowers.
- Market your dealership to influential buyers through invitation-only events.
- Regardless of your age, plan for your succession.
They picked up the Cub Cadet line first, then Scag, and soon after added Exmark and Walker. “We wanted to offer options. Each one has their specialty and they have features some people like, just like how people prefer Ford or Chevy,” he says.
Limiting downtime has been a key factor in keeping the commercial business. “I have 10 units that I loan out on a regular basis when our commercial customers have a machine that goes down. If their unit is under warranty and I can’t get their machine fixed in a day, I let them use the loaner free of charge. It their unit is out of warranty, it’s a $60 fee until I can get them up and running.
“Word has gotten around that we treat people right and that’s why they patronize our business. The loaners are a cost of doing business and it has definitely paid off,” Hollinger says.
Their location provides another advantage for “up-time.” They are just 6 miles from their local distributor, Lawn Equipment Parts Co., so they can easily get parts every day.
Adding Propane Expertise
About 6 years ago, Hollinger’s added another option for its commercial customers, propane mowers from Exmark, Walker and Scag. “We basically got into it because one of our customers was bidding on a commercial property. The property was all ‘green’ inside and wanted to carry that outside to their 10 acres of property. He said that if he could get a ‘green’ propane machine, he would win the contract,” Hollinger says. They sold an Exmark machine to that first customer.
“Another large contractor came in and bought 7 Exmark propane models and then traded them back in and bought 10 more units. It snowballed after that. They’ve seen some of the benefits and they can see we’re excited about it,” he says.
Hollinger says it was fairly easy to adapt his team to selling and servicing propane mowers. For instance, the service techs attended a Kohler engine school to be able to diagnose issues with EFI engines running on propane. They also learned basic safety procedures, such as wearing gloves when taking cylinders on and off. There isn’t the kind of fuel tank contamination issues with propane vs. gasoline because the tanks are completely sealed.
He says understanding customer preferences and past issues helps direct them to the right equipment model and manufacturer. “If they’re not happy with their current bagging system, we can lead them a certain way or some customers who come from an ag background love to grease their equipment, while others don’t want to do any service,” Hollinger says.
R.S. Hollinger & Sons began selling propane mowers 6 years ago and the service team adapted quickly. They found propane engines have less contamination in the fuel system than gasoline-powered engines. Pictured from left to right are Jennifer Goldbach of propane supplier Rhoads Energy, Mike Sellers, service technician, and Leonard Hollinger, service manager.
Photo Courtesy of: PERC
Overcoming misconceptions helps take away objections to propane, especially for those who are already sold on the fuel savings. “A lot of people still have the misconception that you’re riding on a bomb. I tell them that it’s no different than when sitting on 10 gallons of gasoline. I tell them how simple it is to replace the tanks and there is no spilling of gas on the engines and you don’t have to worry about contamination in the fuel tank. Ninety percent of our customers can run all day on a single cylinder. They don’t have to worry about carrying gas cans and their employees are not wasting time going to get more fuel,” he says.
Customers voice another obstacle regarding propane — the relative difficulty of finding fueling sources when compared with gasoline. The dealership addresses that issue through cross promotion efforts with area propane supplier Rhoads Energy of Lancaster, Pa. Rhoads and other suppliers offer arrangements for some commercial customers where they deliver propane cylinders to customers every week. Hollinger says one of his customers keeps 25 full cylinders on hand each week.
“They are promoting us and we are promoting them. Rhoads Energy recently put in a fill station at one of the local schools and put 100 buses on propane. They are now working with the school district to look at propane for their mowing crews,” he says.
Hollinger says that it’s referrals like this that have helped their dealership be successful. “I’m not a believer in advertising, and we do very little advertising. I’m a firm believer in ‘word-of-mouth’ advertising. I preach to employees that they need to treat everybody who walks in the door as someone who is going to buy 5 or 10 mowers. If you treat customers right, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on advertising,” he says.
He is also patient regarding referrals turning to sales. They recently hosted a lunch and informational session for about 15 commercial customers. They partnered on the event with Lawn Equipment Parts Co. and Rhoads Energy. Rhoads invited Jeremy Wishart, deputy director for business development at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) to speak at the meeting. “We may not yet have gotten a lot of sales, but we did get a lot of people thinking about propane. If we see gasoline spike again, we’ll have a lot more conversations about propane,” he says.
Hollinger says commercial contractors prefer uniformity in their fleet, so generally they don’t just add one propane mower, but choose to switch out their entire fleet. That requires a significant commitment, and the dealership offers ways to make that easier.
Commercial landscapers make up the majority of sales at R.S. Hollinger & Sons. They help these customers win contracts requiring “green” approaches through propane mowers. Here, Lynn Hollinger of the dealership discusses mower specifications with Chris Niles of Keystone Lawn Co.
Photo Courtesy of: PERC
For instance, they promote PERC’s incentives, which allow a commercial customer to apply for $1,000 toward a qualifying new propane mower purchase or $500 per qualifying mower conversion while supplies last. Hollinger says a customer used the incentive toward the purchase of 10 mowers, and received a fleet purchase discount as well.
They also offer leasing options to their largest commercial accounts through Western Equipment Finance. The company prefers to work with contracts of $50,000 or more and Hollinger worked with the company on an equipment purchase that totaled $110,000. “The lease is for 3 years and I’ll get them back as trade-ins and put them back into my inventory to sell as used,” Hollinger says.
Increasing Tractor Sales
The dealership also sells the Yanmar tractor line, mainly to large property owners. “It’s a small segment for us at this point, but it’s one that we still feel is important and we see future growth in this line,” he says.
They’re hoping to increase sales to commercial cutters as well municipalities, universities, school districts and other large accounts and plan to dedicate an outside salesperson to building those sales.
Their most popular models are in the 21-24 horsepower range and many customers request either loaders, snowblowers, rototillers or belly-mount mowers. Selling strategies highlight differentiating features, such as the tractor’s sturdy construction and better hydraulics system. “We try to keep price out of the equation. The industry is saturated and if we can focus on the features, the customer is less apt to beat you up on the price,” he says.
Their most successful selling strategy is demos, but not just on the lot. They let potential customers use tractors on their own properties, even for a weekend. “Not a lot of dealers are willing to do that,” Hollinger says.