Pictured Above: Brad (left) and Jason Wickham took over the fourth-generation family dealership in 2014.
Wickham Tractor Co. (WTC) was built on tractors, planters, hay balers and a sizable feed supply business. Those agricultural roots remain, although the fourth-generation dealership is also looking to other market segments to fuel its growth along the Front Range of Colorado.
The expansion into new markets started in 2007 when the longtime Case IH dealership added the Kubota line. Over the past 5 years, WTC has branched into powersports, further broadening its appeal with contractors and consumers.
WTC is under the ownership of brothers Brad and Jason Wickham. They see a bright future in continuing to serve a balance of agricultural customers and customers they refer to as “ruralpolitans.” Driven by a dream of being out on their own land, ruralpolitans have purchased acreages outside of urban centers.
WTC’s acquisition of B&G Equipment in January 2018 further stimulated its diversification. B&G’s three locations (Greeley, Longmont and Fort Collins, Colo.) are in more densely-populated markets, giving WTC a greater opportunity to serve ruralpolitans and construction contractors.
Wickham Tractor Co.
Locations: Fort Morgan, Sterling, Fort Collins, Greeley and Longmont, Colo.
Owners: Brad and Jason Wickham
Employees by location:
• 24 in Fort Morgan
• 8 in Sterling
• 5 in Fort Collins
• 31 in Greeley
• 9 in Longmont
Business System: DIS
Website Provider: Dealer Spike
Lines: Can-Am, Case IH, Demco, Great Plains, Krone, Kubota, Land Pride, MacDon, Navistar, Polaris, Supreme International
That said, the Wickham brothers are not forgetting their roots. “Brad and I grew up focusing on the agricultural customer. We are still very focused on those customers despite our expansion into other areas,” Jason points out. The original WTC stores in Fort Morgan and Sterling, Colo., continue to sell Case IH and the new Greeley store has recently added the line.
The feed business, WTC Feeds, is a separate company established in the mid-1980s. WTC Feeds operates under the WTC umbrella as a Purina dealership that sells bulk feed primarily to the dairy industry. Launching a feed business 30-plus years ago made a lot of sense. WTC was already selling tractors, implements and other equipment to farmers. The agricultural customers’ need for feed represented a natural extension of the dealership’s offering.
Powersports presented itself as another natural extension in 2014, the year Jason and Brad took over the dealership. Powersports satisfy the market’s “work hard, play hard” mentality. “With our ag customers, we were already selling and servicing a tractor and planter. Now, we could also sell them a UTV to travel around their farms with,” Jason says. Powersports also appeals to the ruralpolitan market.
Expanding into Powersports
WTC first broke into the powersports business when it took on Polaris in 2014. The line was only available at its Sterling location for the first year. In 2015, a Polaris dealer in Fort Morgan sold out to WTC and Jason and Brad retained the owner as a salesperson.
A couple of years later, WTC added the Can-Am powersports line to its Fort Morgan location. After the B&G acquisition, Jason and Brad negotiated for the opportunity to add Can-Am to the Greeley store.
“We’ve become better and more creative overall by serving the new segments…” – Jason Wickham of Wickham Tractor
Jason says it is advantageous to carry what he considers the two best names in powersports. “It’s important as a dealer to provide selection and choice,” he says, adding that the two brands, although competitors, complement each other well.
Powersports and the Kubota line also complement each other well. “It’s the same type of customer with available income to spend. We’ll often sell a small Kubota tractor. If we service the customer right, they’ll eventually be back to buy a Polaris ATV. At the same time, we have picked up a lot of new customers who may have bought a tractor from another dealership but come to us to purchase powersports equipment. There is a lot of opportunity all the way around,” Jason says.
There is also a lot of competition all the way around, which can sometimes lead to retail pricing wars. Jason and Brad agree that the key to building a profitable powersports division is partnering with the right manufacturers.
- Consider adding product categories that are a natural fit for the customer segments you’re already serving.
- When diversifying into new product categories, there is no substitute for great technicians. Be prepared to do what it takes to secure the best.
- Acquiring another business can lead to some tension and trepidation. Tread lightly, communicate clearly, and don’t make too big of a change too soon.
- When family members are business partners, clear divisions of responsibility and decision making can help maintain a more harmonious atmosphere.
It also helps when you’re selling to the right types of customers. Those who use a powersports unit for their work, such as agricultural producers, are looking for value and aren’t as price-conscious. At the same time, the Wickhams also see opportunity to sell more products, particularly side-by-side vehicles, to the recreational-type user.
The WTC staff got a crash course in selling to non-ag customers when it added Kubota in 2007. The staff has become quite proficient since then, which is a big reason why Jason and Brad are confident they can grow market share with both the construction segment and ruralpolitans.
“The buying experience is much shorter. These customers care about the ‘touch and feel’ of doing business with us. They are educated people who have done their research. They are also more about convenience than our typical ag customer. Catering to this type of customer has really forced us to become a better and more creative dealer overall,” Jason says.
Servicing these types of customers has also proved to be somewhat of a challenge. “Service intervals are different. Ruralpolitans want to drop their equipment off in the morning and pick it up in the afternoon. That sometimes created a challenge for our service department and took some getting used to,” Brad says.
WTC had to tweak some of its processes and organization in the service department. Fortunately, they were able to secure the thing that mattered most in order to navigate the change.
“We quickly learned that in order to be successful on the powersports side, experienced techs would be key. We luckily found one in Sterling right away, and soon after in Fort Morgan. We learned a lot about powersports by having experienced technicians right from the start. But to get them, we had to go out and buy them,” Brad says, in reference to paying a competitive wage.
WTC currently offers powersports equipment at three locations: Polaris and Can-Am in Fort Morgan, Polaris only in Sterling and Can-Am only in Greeley. The other two locations, Fort Collins and Longmont, are also prime markets for ruralpolitans and powersports sales. However, Polaris and Can-Am dealers already exist there, so their focus is Kubota and key shortlines, including Great Plains and Land Pride.
The Fort Collins, Colo., store is in a prime market for ruralpolitans. Wickham Tractor carries Kubota and related shortlines because they serve the needs of the Front Range customer. PHOTO COURTESY OF Wickham Tractor
Brad says the expansion into the light construction and ruralpolitan markets has helped WTC flatten out its sales curve. “Ag customers buy a lot in the off-season, where ruralpolitans buy closer to the season and somewhat throughout the season,” Brad says. That helps keep staff busy and cash flowing all year long.
“The big surprise so far this year has been our growth on the construction side. With ruralpolitans, there isn’t the demand for parts and service that we’re used to seeing with our ag customers. But construction professionals really work the daylights out of their equipment. Our parts and service business has been much more noticeable this year,” Jason says.
Acquiring Market Share
The acquisition of B&G Equipment took place in January 2018. Jason and Brad had actually kicked around the idea for a couple years prior to this. However, a deal could never be put together due to the number of competing lines the two dealerships carried.
A couple of years later, WTC was expanding the Case IH part of its business. In fact, Jason and Brad were entertaining the idea of building another store that would be Case-exclusive. Spurring that notion was the fact that B&G Equipment was no longer carrying Case. The Wickham brothers saw an opportunity to gobble up some additional market share. Then it dawned on them: they also had an opportunity to revisit the concept of acquiring the B&G Equipment dealership.
“Along with Case IH, Buddy Truesdell (previous B&G owner) had divested of several other brands that would make it more harmonious for us if we went ahead and bought his dealership. Too many big, competing brands in the same showroom can make it difficult for a dealer to keep everyone happy. That wasn’t standing in our way any longer. We worked out the terms with Buddy and the purchase went smoothly,” Brad says.
Given the magnitude of this transaction, the post-acquisition transition also went relatively smoothly. A big reason for that was Buddy. The Wickhams retained his services for nearly a year.
Wickham Tractor’s flagship store in Fort Morgan, Colo., has carried Case IH for many years. PHOTO COURTESY OF Wickham Tractor
“Some people say you shouldn’t keep a previous owner around, and some say it’s a good idea. In this case, it was a good idea. Buddy really understood the markets we were getting into and was gracious in sharing his knowledge with us,” Jason says.
As much as Buddy helped, there have been some bumps along the road.
“We learned some lessons. Jason and I weren’t looking to make many changes; we just wanted to look for opportunities to make improvements. Our intent was to reassure the existing B&G staff. We learned that even the smallest changes can be viewed as really large,” Brad says.
For the first several months, things went smoothly with no employee turnover. But as time went on, stress levels began to climb. It also became obvious that more changes would be needed to bring the two dealerships together.
The biggest challenge was determining which business system to go with. B&G’s three stores were using RIMSS, while WTC’s two stores were using DIS. After several months of assessing the two systems, the Wickham brothers decided to go with DIS.
Changing business systems can be a huge undertaking for a single location, let alone three. “There are not enough bad words in the dictionary to describe how difficult a business system change and conversion can end up being,” Jason says. “Employees can get all kinds of freaked out. Plus, so many other process changes are a result of this single decision.”
Jason and Brad did their best to rally the team. The bottom line, however, was that the decision was made for the best of the business. Employees either needed to jump onboard or overboard.
“A lot of it was about providing good training and overall helping employees get comfortable. It was also about employees sticking with us. We are extremely grateful for that. Now, some of the early skeptics are the biggest cheerleaders for switching to DIS,” Jason says.
Some staff turnover has taken place over the past year and a half. Fortunately, the technician roster has held together well. “We’ve retained the employees we wanted to, and attrition is taking care of the rest,” Jason says.
Another post-acquisition change was an extensive remodel of the Greeley showroom that just wrapped up in March. Previously, the showroom was small and in definite need of an upgrade. The parts storage area was reorganized so some of that space could be allocated for showroom. The showroom is now double its original size. The high ceilings and 15-foot glass garage doors on both ends help create a bright, spacious feeling.
B&G Equipment stopped carrying Case IH prior to the acquisition, but the Wickhams wanted to reintroduce the brand in the Greeley market. That meant showcasing both Case and Kubota in the same showroom.
The Greeley showroom got a new layout and signage. To equally emphasize the brands, the showroom is cleanly divided. The west side is painted red and holds Case IH. The east side is painted orange and holds Kubota. A separate entrance from each side features the Case IH or Kubota sign. Once inside, however, customers and employees can easily move from one side to the other.
As necessary as this remodel was, it also created some upheaval. “It was another multi-month process that made things somewhat chaotic. But we had to do it. We are very grateful to the team for sticking with us. I’m sure there were times they were saying to themselves, ‘What are these new guys doing?’ But we are proud of what we’ve accomplished and are excited about where things are headed. That said, we will definitely handle our next acquisition better than this first one,” Jason says.
Another advantage in acquiring B&G Equipment was the opportunity to focus on core manufacturers. Their customer base and territory grew, so they had to get smart about the lines they carried. “By focusing on Case IH and Kubota, we can provide the best sales and service in our markets,” Brad says.
Making a Sibling Partnership Work
Like most multi-generational dealerships, Jason and Brad grew up at WTC, cleaning bathrooms by age 5. They graduated to cleaning the parking lot, service department and showroom. “One of the coolest things of my life was learning to drive a pickup truck by age 10. I drove around the parking lot to pick up trash and tumbleweeds. I would have paid my dad to work for him at that age,” Jason relates.
Eventually, both Jason and Brad went to college, each attending the nearby Colorado State University. Jason studied agricultural finance with the intent to return to the family business. Brad, on the other hand, studied business finance with the intent to find a job on Wall Street. “Then, I met my eventual wife in college. She lived in the Fort Morgan area, so I had a change of career plans,” Brad says.
Now armed with finance degrees, the brothers were in a position to take on more responsibility before ultimately taking over the dealership.
“The big question was how two competitive brothers could coexist as equal partners in a longtime family business,” says Brad, now 43. They decided that Brad would oversee parts and service while Jason, 45, would oversee wholegoods and the feed business.
“Our dad, Howard, was focused on setting us up with separate responsibilities,” Jason points out.
In addition to daily operations, Jason and Brad each take responsibility for the financial performance of their respective sides of the business. Additionally, Jason oversees marketing while Brad oversees human resources. The two work together and consult with each other, but the lines of decision-making are clearly drawn.
Howard is now out of the business in terms of daily operations. He does come in for a weekly “health check” meeting, though, to talk with his sons about their working relationship. The three also talk through some of the bigger decisions that need to be made, such as business system conversions and store remodels.
Speaking of remodels, now that the Greeley store has been completed, the Wickham brothers have their sights set on a refresh of the Sterling location. “We plan to have this done by the end of the year. This will help the rural buyer that frequents that store, whether they are buying ag equipment or powersports,” Brad says.
It’s that mix of ag equipment and powersports — along with a customer mix of farmers, construction contractors and ruralpolitans — that have Jason and Brad excited about the future of the family business.