J. Ward McConnell Jr., former chairman of Art’s Way Mfg., recently celebrated the opening of his new Branson tractor dealership, Crescent-McConnell Tractors & Equipment, in Marietta, Ohio. McConnell says he’s been a dealer since 1956. He just happened to take a 56-year break to pursue a series of farm equipment manufacturing investments, including selling a tractor line to AGCO in 1995 and another company to Art’s Way Manufacturing in 1996.
He assumed the role of chairman of Art’s Way in 2002 and during his 13-year tenure as chair, he quadrupled the size of the company and earned recognition from Forbes magazine as being one of the best small companies in America. He retired from the chairman position in 2015 and continues to serve as a director on the board and vice chairman. His son, Marc McConnell, now serves as chairman.
Why, at 86 years old, is McConnell starting on a new venture? Lots of reasons and as McConnell shared the background regarding his new dealership, I was impressed by the life and business lessons he shared.
First, look for opportunities. McConnell says that after so many years in the business, he is regularly approached by those with a business to sell and, often, those businesses are in a distressed state. That’s how he came to own a plumbing and electrical supply company in Marietta. “If there’s a remaining business, I can generally turn it around and be profitable,” McConnell says.
After looking for opportunities, look for more opportunities. For instance, when McConnell surveyed the site of the plumbing and electrical business, he saw a new possibility. “There are three buildings on the property and I looked at one of the buildings that sat mostly empty and said, ‘That looks pretty good for a tractor dealership,’” he says.
The building is about 60 feet by 80 feet, has a large showroom window and faces a busy highway. He knew the timing was right to enter the rural equipment market. “The rural lifestyle market is very appealing. It’s the best market now,” he says.
Then, turn to people and products you trust. That’s how McConnell chose the Branson line. He learned about the line a few years ago from E.W. "Swede" Muehlhausen, who, at the time, was assisting Branson’s Korean management team in North America and who had also served as president of Art’s Way. “I had heard quite a bit about Branson and their reputation is outstanding. Branson requires much less commitment to get started as a dealer than other lines. Everything seemed to fit together so well,” McConnell says.
Crescent-McConnell is also carrying Big Tex trailers, a line that was recommended by Rob Graham, who handles sales for the dealership. Graham brings experience from working at a John Deere dealership as well as Tractor Supply Co.. Graham runs the day-to-day operations as McConnell is based in North Carolina. The two talk daily and the administration is handled from the North Carolina office.
Dive in, but don’t overcommit. The initial order was for 7 tractors and several rotary cutters. “It’s going to take a couple of years to get on our feet. It’s a new tractor brand, a new territory, a new everything for us. We’re going to run a low profile for starters and grow from there,” McConnell says.
They stocked parts based on Branson’s recommendations and plan to add a service department.
Be smart. McConnell has seen a lot of dealers come and go throughout his career and he offers this advice, “A lot of dealers have gone under because they start handling a lot of money and start spending the money personally. More people seem to go broke because of personal spending,” he says.
Finally, a love of the business doesn’t hurt. “I enjoy being in business and I enjoy coming to work every day. I’ve been doing it so long now that I don’t know how not to do it.”
Incorporating any one of these lessons could bring about good changes at your dealership.