Pictured Above: Jason and Amber Clawson are co-owners of East Tennessee ATV & Powersports and are sole owners of the Massey Ferguson tractor side of the family business. Photo Courtesy of: East Tennessee ATV & Powersports
Jason Clawson always wanted to be in the tractor business. He just needed to wait for the right opportunity. His patience has paid off.
Clawson and his wife, Amber, became a Massey Ferguson dealer in February 2017. First-year sales more than doubled their expectations and they could have done even more volume had they known how fast things would take off. “As it turned out, we ordered too conservatively and didn’t have the inventory we needed, especially on the larger models,” Jason says.
Their market is strong for compact tractors and the Clawsons are forecasting another 15-20% growth this year. There is a lot of support for the Massey Ferguson brand in the area — and for the Clawson family dealership.
The tractor business is part of East Tennessee ATV & Powersports in Elizabethton, Tenn. Jason and his parents, Eddie and Pat, started the dealership in 2003 when Jason was finishing college.
“I was never a fan of working for somebody else, nor was my dad. We had been talking about some different things we could do. We were a big part of the local volunteer fire and rescue department and we had a need for an off-road vehicle. We found that nobody made one like we wanted. We finally got together with a manufacturer called Pug (now defunct) to have something built. Then we realized what a great concept it was and decided to start building them ourselves,” Jason says.
Jason’s parents already owned a business, so he was going to partner with a friend who got cold feet at the last minute. “Dad stepped in to help me get started, with intentions of gradually stepping away,” Jason says. The business grew quickly and it became obvious that it was a good venture for the entire family.
In the early years, the Clawsons also dabbled in tractors. “It was hard, though, because we had no business history and couldn’t get any major brands. We carried something called the Scorpion that TYM made. It was a nice tractor, but didn’t have much of a market. So we got away from tractors and focused on powersports, adding products and brands as we went,” Jason says.
East Tennessee ATV & Powersports continues to sell ATVs, UTVs, side-by-sides, watercraft and three-wheeled motorcycles from Can-Am, Polaris, Sea-Doo and Slingshot. The dealership no longer builds off-road fire and rescue vehicles in a proactive way. They still get the occasional request, as they did a year ago from a local EMS department. “The time it takes to really market this business is just too great given everything else we’re doing now,” Jason says.
Powersports Gets Pinched
The powersports business has been good to the Clawsons for the past 15 years. It grew to the point that they needed to move into a larger facility in 2012. Demand remains strong and the dealership continues to move a lot of inventory. Margins, however, have collapsed to mind bogglingly low levels.
Jason Clawson says it’s important to shift merchandise around on a regular basis, especially out front, so potential customers don’t think you’re not moving inventory and that your dealership has gone stale. Photo Courtesy of: East Tennessee ATV & Powersports
“When the economy dropped in 2008, the powersports business started to change. It has been taken over by dealerships that sell under cost and are big into rebates and holdback money. Also, a lot of customers are willing to drive 400 miles to save $400. Some of the farmers and landowners, the more professional-type customers, are more loyal, but there just isn’t the profit there used to be. If I can get 5% out of an ATV, it’s amazing. Back when we started in 2003, at least we could make 10-12%,” Jason says.
Even though the parts and service business remains strong and highly profitable, the strains from wholegoods add up to more inventory, more turns, more work and more pressure — just to make a meager profit. “When we started, if we could move 100 machines, we were doing good. Now we have to move 200-300,” he says.
The Clawsons are by no means averse to working hard. They’d just like a little more to show for it. That’s what got Jason thinking about another crack at the tractor business.
Family Farm Yields a Tractor Business
The Clawsons also run a small family farm. Jason says agriculture is their No. 1 passion. “The powersports business took over because it gave us our best opportunity at the time, but we always wanted to be in the tractor business,” Jason says.
A couple of years ago, while researching a new tractor purchase, Jason was drawn to the Massey Ferguson brand. He had looked at a couple of other well-known tractor lines, but didn’t like their weight — nor the feedback he heard from some users.
- Leverage social media to build excitement around new product launches, events, etc.
- Keep wholegoods displays looking fresh so customers don’t think that the entire dealership has gone stale.
- Spending a little more time with customers can go a long way to building business, especially when you’re a newer dealer.
- Facebook and Craigslist can help drum up job applicants.
- To make sure you’re attracting the best candidates, commit to developing a reputation for being a great area employer that treats people like family.
“We really wanted a Massey. We did our research and went to check one out. We loved it. The problem was the dealership was 2½ hours from our house. We talked about it as a family and determined that we had the facilities to become a tractor dealer again. We called Massey to see if the line was available. The next thing you know, we’re a Massey dealer,” Jason says.
This time around, though, they would do a lot more than “dabble” in tractors. East Tennessee ATV & Powersports now sells everything from 22.5-100 horsepower. Once word got out that they carried Massey Ferguson, business grew quickly. The dealership did $1.5 million in tractor sales in its first year.
Many area farmers and landowners had bought side-by-sides from the dealership over the years. “When they came in for service, they were surprised to see we had become a Massey dealer. Then they would go tell their neighbors. Tractors were a natural extension of what we were doing. We put some package deals together to further capitalize on the cross-selling opportunities,” Jason says.
Social media was a big help in launching the new line. The dealership has an engaged Facebook following of nearly 1,200 people. The Clawsons teased the new tractor line for weeks, showing photos of a blanket-hidden tractor while counting down the days to the unveil. Newspaper ads and billboards then helped generate awareness once the tractors were in stock. “We also did some local antique farm shows,” Jason says.
Parts sales have also taken off. “Years ago, there was a strong Massey Ferguson dealer in the area. Everybody around here grew up with Massey, so they were tickled to death to see a new dealer. Within a month of taking on the line, we had people pouring in here for parts,” Jason says.
Getting the parts department up and running was the most challenging aspect. “It’s hard to know what to stock and how much. With powersports, you are stocking parts for machines that are as old as 10 years. With tractors, you have customers coming in who own tractors from the 1970s. That has been a big learning curve. Other dealers have been really helpful in giving us advice,” Jason says.
The nearest Massey Ferguson dealer is about 1½ hours away. “When you live out in the middle of the woods, that actually feels pretty close,” Jason says. There is plenty of business to go around, though. The bigger challenge is competing against dealers of other brands that are in closer proximity.
Reliable parts and service support is an obvious differentiator. Jason points to a few other tactics.
“At our dealership, the person selling you the tractor, usually me, is the one who delivers it. We want to spend a little more time with the customer to make sure they have everything they need. One of our customers had his tractor freeze up during a cold spell. It happened on a day we were normally closed. Amber, a technician, and I hopped in my truck and drove 30 miles to meet him. He was really appreciative and told everybody around him. As a new dealer, things like that make us stand out from some dealers who have been around for 20 or 30 years,” Jason says.
“People want to shop with successful buisnesses…” — Jason Clawson
In addition to Massey Ferguson, East Tennessee ATV & Powersports also sells the Woods line, along with a handful of locally made shortlines. “Our distributor, R&R Equipment in Greenville, Tenn., has been really helpful in getting us started with some of those economy lines of equipment,” Jason says.
Doing What They Love
Amber runs the parts and service departments. She started working part-time for the dealership roughly 7 years ago while pursuing a broadcasting degree. A couple of years later, she earned her degree, married Jason, joined the Clawson family, and immersed herself in the family business.
“Amber is a huge part of the dealership. She’s very personable and a great communicator, which really helps with customers. She’s also good with numbers and is very driven,” Jason says.
Amber and Jason spend long hours at the dealership. They also typically spend a few hours early in the morning and/or the evening working on their small farm. They rake and bale hay, tend to their horses and cattle and take care of other chores. With all of this dedication to work, is there any time for play?
“We’re doing what we love. We love running a business and the sales end of that. We go home at night and love working on the farm. We’re always really busy, but it doesn’t feel like we’re working. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it doesn’t. Even when we can take a day off, we get on our horses and ride somewhere. My dad is the same way. If he has some free time, he wants to go four-wheeling. It’s what we do. This is our life,” Jason says.
Hiring Family Members, Not Just Employees
Jason and Amber are sole owners of the tractor side of the dealership while he and his parents are equal partners on the powersports side. Although the two businesses are separate on paper, they operate as one. They share overhead costs. The technicians are employees of the powersports side, so the tractor side hires them as contract labor. “But when a customer walks in here, they see one business,” Jason points out.
All four Clawsons remain deeply embedded in the daily operations of the dealership. They are joined by Jason’s cousin, Angie Walsh, who has taken over a lot of the responsibilities related to sales and financing. A part-time high school student helps Amber check in parts and call customers.
Angie’s father, Earl Walsh, is one of the dealership’s lead technicians. He’s joined by Chris Hughes. They work on both powersports and tractors. Getting them up to speed on the Massey Ferguson tractors was a relatively easy process.
“Earl grew up on a farm and has worked on tractors his whole life. In fact, he owns several Massey tractors himself. Chris was already a diesel mechanic. I’ve actually hired them both for years to work on my tractors back at the farm. They did go through Massey’s online service training, and Chris will be doing another round this year to get his next-level certification,” Jason says.
Dillon Taylor is the dealership’s third technician. A newer employee in his early 20s, he assembles equipment and has become proficient with carburetors. “He has a work ethic you don’t often see in people his age anymore,” he says.
The dealership is now looking for a fourth and maybe fifth technician. “We have plenty of work. The challenge is finding employees. It seems like everybody who wants a job has a job right now. We get a lot of calls from people just asking if we’re hiring. Once we say we are, they hang up. They just want to keep getting their unemployment benefits going,” Jason says.
Selling powersports has helped the Clawsons establish a strong following of farmers and rural landowners, ideal customer segments for its tractor line. Photo Courtesy of: East Tennessee ATV & Powersports
To attract new applicants, the dealership has been experimenting with online tools like Facebook and Craigslist. “We’ve been getting a lot of results. They aren’t always all good, but at least we get some applicants to weed through to find the good ones,” he says.
Some of those good ones are already employed, but looking for a better opportunity. “Word of mouth is the best way to attract new employees, and online is the new word of mouth,” says Jason.
Whether online or offline, word of mouth hinges on one thing: your reputation. For East Tennessee ATV & Powersports, being a stable, family-owned business is a huge calling card.
“When you come to work for us, you become part of the family. Most employees come to our house on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are also perks to working here. When we go out four-wheeling, we take you with us,” he says.
Learning from Powersports
The tractor business is adopting some best practices from the powersports side. For instance, Jason has learned the importance of shifting display equipment around. If customers see the same units sitting in the same places day after day, it can leave the impression that you’re not selling much. “People want to shop with successful businesses that sell a lot of product,” Jason says.
The use of social media is another shared best practice. Facebook Marketplace has become an effective way to sell both used and new equipment and so has Craigslist.
Jason says the online element of running a retail business is among his most difficult tasks.
“You have to make a commitment to keeping your website up to date. You also have to get on social media. That’s where more people are starting the shopping process, even in the case of tractors. We get a lot of customers who say they saw something on our website or Facebook page. You have to stay on top of these things and keeping learning and improving,” Jason says.
At East Tennessee ATV & Powersports, staying on top of online marketing is a shared effort. Jason does all of the website updates, Amber takes charge of the online marketplaces and Walsh handles all of the Facebook business page updates.
“As much as I hate all of this, because it can be so time-consuming, I see a lot of value. I see the value because I can see the results. If you run an ad in a local paper, you might not see the impact because the customer doesn’t always tell you they saw it. With Craigslist or Facebook, we know they’re working,” Jason says.
You know what else is working? The Clawson family enterprise. Their hard work and passion for what they do has helped build several successful businesses. The latest is a Massey Ferguson tractor dealership. Seeing as how agriculture is their No. 1 passion, there’s no telling how far they can take it.