Staying Afloat

The Sled Shed

Cedar Rapids
and North Liberty, IA
Founded: 2001
Owner: Mark Miltner
Employees: 6 full time, 3 part time
Annual Sales: $1 to $3 million
Sales Mix: 62% wholegoods, 23% parts, 15% service
Customer Mix: 75% consumer, 25% commercial
Shop Labor Rate: $65 per hour
Major Lines: Hustler, Lawn-Boy, Snapper, Stihl, Toro

The year 2008 proved to be challenging for most outdoor power equipment dealers. With gas prices up and consumer spending down, dealers had to do all they could to keep their businesses profitable. For some, these challenges were magnified by a natural disaster.

At The Sled Shed in Cedar Rapids, IA, the water was up to the top of the storefront windows in June while owner Mark Miltner was considering opening a second location. With the help of countless volunteers and an unwavering positive attitude, he was able to rebuild the old location and remodel the new. “It’s been an incredible challenge,” shares Miltner. “It’s taken patience.”

DOWN CAME THE RAIN

As the rain fell heavily on Iowa, Miltner watched reports of water levels continuing to rise. “I was concerned about the water in other areas and went to discuss it with some city contacts,” says Miltner. “They said there was no reason to worry yet, but after talking to other businessmen I decided it was best to sandbag.” Two days later water was quickly rising in the back alley.

Luckily for Miltner, in his mere six years as a dealer he had developed a strong customer base, as well as ties to the community and friendships with his suppliers. With the help of family, friends, customers, neighboring businesses and suppliers, Miltner was able to get much of his equipment and his customers’ equipment out of the dealership.

“A lot of equipment and other things were taken out of the dealership in time,” explains Miltner. “But much was lost, including our entire parts inventory.” As Miltner and his supporters worked hard to move things out of the dealership, people came out in droves to gawk at the flood scene. This, combined with street closures, limited what they could do.

Soon after, the river crested at the top of the dealership windows. Miltner was no longer able to access the dealership. It would be seven long days of waiting before the floodwaters receded and he could get back in.

During this time, the Miltners contemplated accelerating their plans to expand. Being confronted with extreme flood damage may not seem like the perfect time to bring on the added responsibility and risk of a second location. Miltner himself had some doubts, but wife Barb pushed for the new venture—and he’s glad she did.

THE SECOND LOCATION

Miltner attributes the survival of their Cedar Rapids store to the addition of the North Liberty location. “Being able to store equipment and do repairs there helped us stay afloat,” explains Miltner. “Just four days after the water was down and out, we were doing repairs at North Liberty.” The Miltners are proud to say that their employees never went without a paycheck.

Barb spent her summer off as a teacher lending a hand in any way she could. The Miltners and their crew used the North Liberty store as a satellite location for equipment repairs, redirecting some of their customer base there. Additionally, some equipment was delivered directly to customers’ homes. Equipment that didn’t make it out, and was previously repaired, was repaired a second time at no cost to the customer.

While purchasing the North Liberty location in the middle of the flood’s aftermath was a tough decision, Miltner had thought it out very well, with the help of Barb and dealership consultant Jim Yount. North Liberty is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state of Iowa. The population has grown 86% from 2000 to 2007.

Miltner saw the potential this dealership had and decided to take on the challenge. “I hope we can make it, but there are no guarantees,” says Miltner. “It sure is a wonderful opportunity to try.”

Additional staff has been hired to operate the two locations, all of whom rallied together to get the stores running. “My hope is that what we’ve done in Cedar Rapids we can do here,” shares Miltner. “We have the people, so we should be able to do it.”

THE REBUILD

The two locations will soon be running smoothly thanks to extensive remodels; Cedar Rapids was remodeled due to the flood and the North Liberty store badly needed upgrading.

“We had a pretty full plate,” Miltner shares. “It took several months of 100-hour workweeks. We would finish at midnight or later and come back to do it all again the next day.” Many of the businesses in the area surrounding the Cedar Rapids store closed their doors when the flood hit and have not reopened.

Once allowed back in to see the damage, Miltner decided to gut the entire Cedar Rapids store and start fresh. “We had to rebuild it all from the ground up,” said Miltner. While the two locations share similarities in displays, paint jobs, parts cabinets and other features, each underwent its own individual improvements.

At the Cedar Rapids location, a handicap-accessible bathroom was installed with the possibility of future regulations in mind. Currently the city does not require Miltner to provide handicap access to restrooms, but building it now seemed like the best decision. “Even though we weren’t required to have it, I thought it would be better to put it in when the place was empty than have to rebuild it later if the state came back with a requirement,” explains Miltner.

The rebuild essentially gave Miltner the chance to improve many areas of the business. The new Cedar Rapids design is very energy-efficient, reducing certain overhead costs. The ceilings in the dealership were dropped four feet and insulated to save on heating. The walls were also heavily insulated. In a 90-year-old building, it’s making a huge difference.

The North Liberty Store, located in a high-traffic area, didn’t offer customers much from the outside. Originally a metal building with no windows, it was difficult to tell what the business was. Miltner installed several windows facing the street and parking lot, creating a preview of what’s inside.

The previous showroom was small with very low ceilings. Miltner changed the layout of the store, freeing up room for more displays and equipment. The open layout encourages customers to explore the many equipment lines offered.

Much of the work done at the two locations was completed by Miltner and volunteers. Code work (like the electrical work) was done by qualified professionals. “If we would have hired it all out we wouldn’t have made it,” says Miltner. “We were able to do it because of the great support we got from everyone. We made it through with the help of lots of our friends, family, neighbors and manufacturers.”

The year 2008 was a test of staying power for Miltner and The Sled Shed. The rain, economic slump and gas prices all nearly washed them away. What they have been through in the past year will help them endure the challenges of this year’s selling season.

Miltner has positioned himself to start it out right with a successful rebuild and plans to host an open house at both locations in the spring. “It’s like we never closed,” says Miltner. “I think we are going to be OK.”

Operating two as one

Now that the remodel is completed, Mark Miltner’s new focus is on how to operate both dealership locations cohesively. Controlling overhead while keeping both locations properly staffed and service turnaround timely will be a challenge.

Miltner himself will spend most of his time at the Cedar Rapids location, visiting North Liberty on occasion. Keeping an eye on both is made easier because the two locations use Ideal Computer Systems and share a server that Miltner can also access from home.

Each location has its own parts inventory, stocked with frequently used parts. The less-requested parts will be shuttled between locations using the company van, reducing dead stock. The shared server and parts scanners will help employees and Miltner check the inventories at either location. The stores will also share resources in the service department and do all of the same types of repairs.

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