Systems for Service and Succession

Sorola’s Outdoor power equipment

San Antonio, TX
sorolas.com
Founded: 1973
Owners: Margarett and Loren Brown, Jeff Brown, Jaclyn Hanover
Employees: 13 full time,
4 part time
Sales mix: 48% equipment,
38% parts, 10% service, 4% misc.
Customer mix: 55% consumer,
45% commercial
Shop labor rate: $56 per hour
Major lines: Briggs & Stratton, Echo, Echo Bear Cat, Exmark, Honda, RedMax, Shindaiwa, Snapper, Stihl

At Sorola’s Outdoor Power Equipment in San Antonio, TX, hosting an open house means inviting distributors to set up booths in the lot, feeding landscapers with food hot off the grill, and enjoying the sales that accompany the festivities. It’s your typical dealer open house. Sorola’s, however, is in a not-so-typical location—a location that may come in handy when deciding what to do next with the family business.

Having been in business for 35 years, Sorola’s is positioned to enter its third generation of leadership. Next in line would be Jeff Brown, grandson of the company founder John Sorola. Jeff has shown an interest in the business since a very young age. More recently he has begun to take on more responsibilities and add his touch to the business’s daily procedures.

“I grew up assembling mowers in the back during my summers,” shares Jeff. “I started out helping in any small way that I could, but I really feel like this year there has been an increased level of responsibility in particular.”

In his time spent working in the family business, Jeff has implemented policies and procedures to improve and modernize the business’s operations. His influence has been beneficial but his continued involvement is not guaranteed.

Jeff is currently at a crossroads where he hopes to soon decide his future with the business. In the meantime, he plans to continue to implement business upgrades as his parents continue to offer him more responsibility, giving him an accurate idea of what running the business entails. “I like to implement things that will outlast me, for when I am no longer here,” explains Jeff. If he decides to follow his career path in another direction, the dealership’s location may make it an easy sell.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Sorola’s sits on a lot nestled deep in the core of downtown San Antonio on a city block just a stone’s throw from the trendy River Walk. Sorola’s has been at this location since 1981, not far from their original location. John Sorola, who would have celebrated his 92nd birthday the date of this year’s open house on February 21, founded the business in 1973 on a property just down the street.

“We had previously leased a building nearby that was torn down to create parking,” Margarett Brown, John Sorola’s daughter and present co-owner, explains. “We chose our current location because it is close to the previous one and customers would be able to find us easily.” The business was moved into a former warehouse building and the lot next door was purchased to create customer parking.

The downtown location is an uncommon choice for an outdoor power equipment dealer, but it has proved successful for Sorola’s. “It’s an interesting location,” agrees Jeff. “If I was going to start a business like this, I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to do it downtown, but it has become quite a strategic location when it comes to getting big contracts.” The location has worked to their advantage and helped them land some big contracts with the city of San Antonio and some area military bases.

Independent landscapers also regularly visit the downtown location. “We are very close to three major highways,” explains Margarett. “It is convenient for landscapers when they are driving through downtown to get to a jobsite.” Though it is located near the highways, it is difficult for drivers to see when passing overhead. Word of mouth is what brings them in. “Most of our advertising—aside from our annual Yellow Page ad—is word of mouth from satisfied customers,” Jeff tells.

SYSTEMS LEAD TO SATISFACTION

The growing number of satisfied customers at Sorola’s can be attributed greatly to the many guiding principles introduced by Jeff to increase customer satisfaction. He has focused on improving procedures in order to reduce customer wait times. One of the first things Jeff added to the service counter was the “take a number system” after noticing how often customers were piling up in front of the counter.

“We used to have really long lines build up at our parts counter and it was difficult to resolve who had been there first,” explains Jeff. “There wasn’t always an agreement on who was, and people were pretty much stuck in line even though there was a lot of merchandise around the store to look at.”

With the “take a number” system, customers are now served in the order they arrive; customers are free to look at other merchandise until served. This has increased customer satisfaction as well as incremental sales.

“By freeing up customers from having to stand in line, hopefully they make some purchases that they weren’t necessarily planning on when they came in,” adds Jeff.

With the help of his experience in computer programming, Jeff also created a paperless system for tracking phone messages. Within the system, calls from customers or distributors are assigned to a dealership employee. Each message contains information regarding the person’s name, company, phone number, brand, model, part number and room for general information. After the call issue is addressed, the message is archived. “The system really saves time,” explains Jeff. “With limited staff we need to be able to handle issues quickly, adding to customer satisfaction.”

Jeff has implemented several efficient systems to add to customer satisfaction as well as improve the bottom line. “Your success as a company is just as dependent on how efficient you are as it is on how many sales you make,” explains Jeff. “It’s not about revenue, it’s about profit. If all your profit is being eaten up by overhead, it doesn’t matter how much revenue you have.”

Jeff continues to look for ways to do more with less. After finding out that they were out of a popular product with none on order, Jeff realized there was something wrong with their tracking system. “I would like to see a better inventory management system put into place,” he says.

Jeff would also like to create a better system for equipment assembly. “Something we are adding just this year is a preassembled equipment area,” Jeff tells. The area, which will not be accessible by customers, will house preassembled equipment that can be brought onto the sales floor to replace a unit as soon as it is sold. “It will eliminate the two-day lag time often needed for us to find the equipment in the warehouse, pull it down, and get someone to assemble it,” explains Jeff.

Equipment assembly will be done by someone from the hard-working staff at Sorola’s. Loren, co-owner and husband to Margarett Brown, is quick to recognize the hard work of the employees. They have continuously made contributions to the business’ success.

One former employee even won the heart of the Browns’ daughter Jaclyn, another co-owner of the business. Jaclyn met her husband Kyle Hanover during his time working at the dealership. He is currently working for the San Antonio Fire Department, but occasionally stops in to lend a helping hand. Jaclyn plans to continue enjoying her work as an elementary school teacher as Jeff contemplates his role with the family business.

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

Jeff has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to improve the business. He has a vested interest in its success not only because he may one day be sole owner, but because of the respect he has for his parent’s work. “My parents working together have really made the store what it is today,” says Jeff. “I don’t think it would be anywhere near as successful as it has been without either one of them.”

Jeff gives his parents credit where it is deserved, both as business owners/operators and as parents. “I have tremendous love and respect for my parents and can’t thank them enough for the opportunities they have given me both here at the store and outside the business.”

Jeff’s parents have offered him yet another opportunity, by providing him the chance to take on the family business full-time. As he attempts to decide what his future at Sorola’s will be, his parents will evaluate their other options.

The dealership’s location, in downtown San Antonio, makes it prime real estate for developers. Jeff, however, feels that selling to another dealer rather than a developer would make for an easier transition.

“Selling to another dealer would be a good option for them if I ended up not taking over,” explains Jeff. “Then they wouldn’t have to liquidate their inventory or empty out their warehouse. They would basically be able to hand their keys to someone else and let them run with it.”

Jeff thinks this would be a good option for his parents, but worries they would struggle to find a buyer, stating that a person seeking an outdoor power equipment dealership may not think to look in their downtown area.

Whatever the future of the family business may be, the Browns will continue to look out for its best interests, caring for customer and employee needs alike. As a young boy, Jeff was greatly upset to see the displays—in the business he was told one day would be his own—torn down to move to the next location. As Sorola’s transitions yet again into its next phase, he hopes to be there to see it along.

What’s in a Name?

This year, in an effort to better brand the business, the Browns have changed the name of the dealership from John H. Sorola Inc. to Sorola’s Outdoor Power Equipment. Changing the name has been a gradual process—an idea the family has been kicking around for a few years.

“It was really just a good marketing decision,” explains Jeff. “We are in a part of town that gets a lot of traffic, but when people drive by on the weekend when we are closed, there is no way to really tell what it is we do.” Many customers at Sorola’s express surprise on their first visit, stating they had no idea the business was there.

The Browns wanted to attract more customers but keep the well-known Sorola name. “Over the past 35 years, the Sorola name has meant a lot in this city,” Jeff tells. “We definitely wanted to keep part of that because it has been Sorola’s for so long.”

Changing the name of the business involves some large expenses like the purchasing of a new sign for the building. The Browns agree that the initial cost is something that will pay off in the long-run thanks to the more effective branding that will ensue.

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