Pictured Above: Sharon Killian Radke and Susan Killian Kirby are the third generation co-owners of Killians. Whitney Kirby, Susan’s daughter, and Jennifer Gott, Sharon’s daughter, are joining in as the fourth generation. Shown from left, Susan, Whitney, Jennifer and Sharon.
One day in 1997, Elmer Killian, then owner of Killians Hardware in Hickory, N.C., died unexpectedly in an accident. His daughters, Sharon Killian Radke and her younger sister, Susan Killian Kirby, were left to not only deal with the loss of their father, but also to take control of a diverse retail operation.
“It was difficult that first year, but I remembered things my dad had always said to me. One that really stuck with me was that nobody can make you make a decision today. If I didn’t feel in my heart that it was right for our customers or employees, I didn’t have to do it,” Sharon says.
That philosophy has paid off. Now 20 years later, Killians has blossomed into one of the elite Toro dealers in the nation. They strive to create a personable customer experience, backed up by knowledgeable experts, and the service department has racked up virtually every credential possible.
Sharon and Susan are now joined in the business by their daughters, Jennifer Gott and Whitney Kirby. They bring a valuable, fresh perspective to the business during a time when retail is rapidly changing. The dealership carries Billy Goat, Briggs & Stratton, EdenPure Heaters, Husqvarna, Kawasaki, Kohler, Little Wonder, Maxim Tillers, Merry Tillers, Oregon Log Splitters, PECO, STIHL, Toro and Wilmington Grills.
Founded: 1963, current owners took over in 1997
Location: Hickory, N.C.
Employees: 17 full time, 3 part time and various interns
Business System: Blue Ridge
Website Vendor: ARI Network Services
Lines: Billy Goat, Briggs & Stratton, EdenPure Heaters, Husqvarna, Kawasaki, Kohler, Little Wonder, Maxim Tillers, Merry Tillers, Oregon Log Splitters, PECO, STIHL, Toro, Wilmington Grills
Planning the Next Evolution
The Killian family business started as a feed mill in 1953 by Sharon’s grandfather, Emory. By 1963, under the guidance of Emory’s son and Sharon’s father, Elmer, the business had successfully diversified into hardware. “We also sold toys and bicycles and began experimenting with power equipment,” says Sharon, who was just a child at the time. “There weren’t box stores around here then, so we were really a one-stop shop for a variety of products.”
The Killians showroom is clean and well-merchandised with a good balance of dealership and vendor branding.
Sharon joined the business 20 years later in 1983, the same year her father decided to add a prominent power equipment showroom.
Today, the staff is versatile and able to take on different roles. The business is organized into four areas: power equipment, hardware, parts and service, and warehouse.
Sharon spends most of her time on inventory and sales management. Susan is getting more into sales, but spends most of her time on accounts receivable and payable and overall business management.
Sharon’s daughter, Jennifer, joined the business 6 years ago. Initially, she worked up front — greeting customers, working the counter and answering phones. “Those first impressions are so important. Fortunately for us, Jennifer is a natural,” Sharon says.
Jennifer is now delving into sales. She’s also instrumental with the website and marketing efforts and has been developing expertise in the lawn care supply side of the business.
Whitney is the youngest of the four women. She spends much of her time on marketing and social media and is trying to learn as much as possible about the business.
Sharon and Susan are in the early stages of ensuring the business will be left in good hands with their daughters.
“The more educated our technicians are, the more profitable we will be …” — Sharon Killian Radke
When her father passed away, there was no formal succession plan in place. Sharon and Susan remember the challenges it presented, and want to start laying the groundwork now — even though they both plan to remain in the business for many years.
Creating the Experience
Sharon says the true strength of Killians is the fact that it is part of the community. For instance, Killians provides a lawn mower to each of 10 local non-profits.
The Killians staff also strives to create a unique, family-friendly shopping experience. Yes, the showroom is clean, organized and well merchandised, but it’s the little things that make shopping at Killians extra special — and something a person cannot experience when shopping online.
“We had bought our dad a popcorn machine many years ago and we’ve had it in our showroom ever since. I’ve literally watched people grow up eating popcorn in our store. It seems like a silly little thing, but it goes a long way,” Sharon says.
Another hallmark of the Killians store is its museum. A variety of local artifacts, which Sharon’s father and grandfather had collected, are on display in a section of the warehouse. You can see things like old Wheel Horse tractors and fire trucks, along with a Mayberry squad car toy.
“You can see a lot of local heritage at Killians and people love it,” Sharon says. The museum is only open to the public several times a year. However, daily visitors to the dealership can look at a handful of items that are showcased in the main store.
Scott Miller (left) is Killians service manager and Howard Mourglea (right) is parts manager.
Roughly half of the dealership’s customers are homeowners with acreage, which is common given the rural nature of the dealership’s area. The other half is commercial operators. Customers come from seven counties and as far away as 60 miles. “Even some of my bigger landscape companies are driving 30 or 40 miles to shop here,” Sharon points out.
Regardless of who the customers are, proactive communication is vital. “We don’t really have an off-season or at least any downtime. During the slower winter months, we’re calling and meeting with customers to help them plan for the following year. Then, when the busy season comes, we’re just selling and servicing. That preparation makes it a lot easier,” Sharon says.
A widespread demographic trend that the Killians team is seeing in their market is the emergence of tech-savvy millennial customers.
“Millennials are smart and they want good products and service. They also value honesty and have a great appreciation for local, multi-generational businesses. So, we feel good about our opportunities going forward. We’ve never viewed any competition (i.e., box stores or online retailers) as a threat. We just continue to focus on how we are unique and what we need to do to create a great shopping experience,” Sharon says.
That said, Killians has created a strong online presence. Whitney manages a growing Facebook page and Jennifer has helped usher the dealership into the era of mobile marketing.
- Find what makes you the best and invest in it. For Killians, that’s sales and service, as opposed to a more substantial equipment rental operation.
- You’re only as great as your team, and continual education is a must, especially for service technicians.
- Get involved with associations and supplier dealer councils, and find some peers and/or a great mentor to bounce ideas off of.
“We have our website through ARI,” Jennifer says. “They asked if we wanted a mobile version of our site and, of course, we said ‘yes’ because more people are using their phones to shop and research businesses and a mobile site looks a lot nicer.”
Offering Diversity, Expertise
About 80% of dealership revenue comes from the power equipment side. The other 20% comes from hardware. Despite that on-paper imbalance, the two go hand-in-hand.
“We need all of that hardware to run our service department, but most of our customers have a need for those products, too,” Sharon says.
“Our hardware department is supplied by Orgill,” Jennifer adds. “We have a full plumbing and electrical section, DeWalt and Porter Cable tools, loose garden seed sold by the scoop in little envelopes, loose screws and nails sold by the pound.”
Bruce Hartsell, a 27-year employee, runs the hardware department. Other key dealership managers include Howard Mourglea (parts) and Scott Miller (service).
Having leaders and team members who are trained and empowered to solve problems has been essential to growth. At the end of the day, after-sale service continues to be an equipment dealer’s biggest calling card.
“You can count on the unexpected pretty much every year. Last year, my lead salesperson was in a car accident and had to be off work for some time. Other employees, oftentimes from parts and service, helped pick up the slack. The strength and versatility of our team is how we continue to be successful,” Sharon says.
Bruce Hartsell is the hardware manager and resident lawn care expert.
Killians makes it a point to emphasize that it will match any service dealer’s price. However, even more emphasis is placed on the dealership’s commitment to and investment in parts and service.
“We keep a million dollars’ worth of parts inventory. Howard does an amazing job. He does $1.5 to $2 million in parts — and he turns it. He has two other employees and they allow our service department to be highly proficient,” Sharon says.
The service department is led by Scott Miller, a former employee who rejoined Killians a couple of years ago after a stint with another dealership. “With Scott’s help, we’re raising the bar with all of our technicians,” Sharon says.
Training is a huge component. Sharon continues to be a big believer in service schools, particularly those that are hands-on.
Obtaining the most prestigious certifications is also a priority. Killians is a Toro Master Service Dealer, STIHL Gold, Kohler Expert, and Briggs & Stratton Master Sales & Service dealer.
“Our technicians need to feel like they are as important as anyone in this business, because they are. A willingness to invest in their education is mandatory. The more educated they are, the more proficient they’ll be. The more proficient they are, the more profitable we can be,” Sharon says.
Service department proficiency takes on even greater importance when serving commercial customers.
“We guarantee a service turnaround of 24 business hours for commercial customers. If we can’t honor that, we give them a loaner. That’s a big reason why our only commercial mower line is Toro. They’ve always been willing to help us honor that commitment,” Sharon says.
This year, Toro is trying something new in the way of dealer education. “I’m really looking forward to Toro’s first-ever Service Boot Camp (being held in February and again in March),” Sharon says. “Scott and Jennifer are going to attend.”
The Boot Camp will cover how to recruit and retain great employees. That’s not easy for any dealer these days. However, the dealership has had several long-term employees who have stayed for 10 and 20-plus years. In fact, even those who retire sometimes can’t seem to retire completely.
Sharon Killian Radke (right) took her niece, Whitney Kirby (left), to the GIE+EXPO this past October. They are shown with Scott Wozniak, Toro’s director of RLC dealer sales.
Case in point, Jack Bebber continues to work the sales floor a day or two a week. He had worked at the dealership full-time for many years after retiring from the military. “My dad hired Jack in 1997. He always told me to keep Jack around because everyone in Alexander County knows him and thinks the world of him,” Sharon says.
Grow it Before You Mow it
An essential element of Killians’ hardware business is its range of lawn care supplies. The dealership works with two North Carolinian suppliers to assemble a unique portfolio. “You can’t find these products in the box stores, so they help set us apart,” Jennifer points out.
Hardware manager Bruce Hartsell is Killians’ resident lawn care expert. “He learns from our suppliers and often reaches out to county extension agents to expand his knowledge,” Sharon says. Bruce gives presentations on proper lawn care, discussing topics ranging from seeding, fertilizing and chemical use to aerating, irrigation and proper mowing.
Bruce now has his eye on retirement in the next couple of years. Fortunately, both Susan and Jennifer have been gaining the necessary knowledge to help fill his shoes. “I’ll still keep him on speed dial,” Jennifer says with a laugh. Sharon adds that she has already talked to Bruce about continuing to work part-time after retirement.
Being the Best
Like many hardware stores, Killians offers rental equipment — but in a minimal way. “Our rental business isn’t very strong and that’s OK. Peak rental time happens when our sales and service operation is also at its peak. We don’t want to do anything that will interfere with that. We’re fine with simply offering a handful of smaller, common items to rent like pluggers and tillers ,” Sharon says.
Sharon says she feels blessed to have had the opportunity to work in the power equipment industry. She has sat on dealer councils for Toro and the Equipment Dealers Assn., and currently for Synchrony Financial.
“It’s been so advantageous to be able to talk with other dealers. We’ve all been through a lot of the same circumstances. Having others to talk to and learn from has been a huge part of our success,” Sharon says.
A couple of years ago, Killians hosted a workshop on electronic fuel injection for Kohler and other dealers and their technicians attended.
“I have a great relationship with my peers. Yes, we’re competitors. But in a larger way, we’re all in this together. It makes me sick to see so many dealers closing their doors, especially when a supplier had a lot to do with it. If businesses like ours don’t exist, communities will suffer,” Sharon says.