Full Speed Ahead of the Curve

What does a grain silo, Steiner 4x4 tractor, tub of pipe putty and pair of Red Wing shoes have in common? They're each a part of the diverse product offering Mast-Lepley Silo Inc. has offered its rural customer base for 50 years. Now doing business as Mast-Lepley Ag-Hardware-Turf, the Apple Creek, OH-based dealership continues to focus on repeat business by staying ahead of the changing needs of its market.

Like most dealers, Mast-Lepley has always based everything it does on service after the sale. "That's what builds a large repeat customer base," says Dave Steiner, Mast-Lepley's general manager who's been with the company for 29 years. "We've also been willing to add new lines of equipment and products to stay diversified. As weather or economic changes have arisen, we've been able to ride out the lows while remaining financially strong."

Founded in 1957 as a builder of concrete storage silos, Mast-Lepley has evolved and grown over the years. It has relocated three times, most recently in 1984 to its present location in Apple Creek, about 30 miles southwest of Akron. That's also the year it branched into the lawn and garden business with the Steiner line.
Though it no longer builds silos, Mast-Lepley continues to repair them, while also selling silo feeding, milking and manure-handling equipment, along with other farm-related tools and equipment. The ag segment accounts for 47% of Mast-Lepley's total annual sales, which are slightly below $5 million.

Everything from mowing to planting
The other 53% comes from lawn and garden, which includes an extensive hardware operation. In 1999 the dealership added an 8,000-square-foot showroom, half of which is set up as a hardware store. The other half is lined with power equipment.

"Our lawn and garden market is mostly rural customers," Steiner says. "We're surrounded by estates and farms; people who like to mow their own properties and have a need for the many Steiner attachments we rent and sell. Our commercial customers include golf courses, schools and colleges, municipalities and landscapers of all sizes. Between our equipment offering and hardware supplies, I think we offer just about everything it takes to care for turf grass—from planting to mowing."

The success of the hardware segment has been a somewhat unexpected blessing. Steiner's original plan was to begin stocking many of the common supplies his service department was consuming on a daily basis. That way an employee wouldn't have to drive 20 miles to the hardware store to buy the supplies at retail price. The time and cost savings alone were more than enough reason, Steiner believed, to take on a limited hardware inventory. Any retail purchases his customers made would be considered gravy.

Surprisingly, sales took off right away, prompting Steiner to consider a broader product offering. Now Mast-Lepley stocks Carhartt clothing, Red Wing Shoes, Reddy Heaters, rakes and shovels, trailer parts, paint, plumbing and electrical supplies, pet food and more. The hardware segment generates an overall 30% gross margin, not to mention a substantial percentage of the total lawn and garden sales.
Still, power equipment remains the driving force. "When a customer is in our store, we're not only trying to sell him a piece of equipment, we're trying to sell him his next piece of equipment," Steiner says.

Organizational structure
Steiner believes in the power of presentation, which is clearly evident in Mast-Lepley's modern-looking retail store. "Twenty years ago it was always a male customer coming in," Steiner relates. "He didn't care about a dirt floor and grinders going off. Now he brings his wife and sometimes a couple kids. They look at our showroom a lot differently, and we keep that in mind."

Mast-Lepley takes pride in its organization and structure—from the showroom to the service shop to the storage area out back. Steiner is especially mindful of potential eyesores such as accumulating used inventory. Taking trade-ins is necessary, he points out, but allowing the inventory to pile up is not.

"There is money to be made in used equipment, but it can also be a burden and liability," Steiner says. "We try hard to turn our trade-ins quickly. We work with a couple local wholesalers on specific brands. We have an annual auction in early spring to sell the trade-ins we'd just been taking in. We also use eBay (www.ebay.com) a lot. The Internet in general has really helped us market our used inventory. Our website has all our used equipment listed model by model. We get a lot of buyers that way."

Along with the proverbial boneyard of trade-ins, used pallets and crates can also create unsightly landmarks. Plus, disposing of them can be costly. Mast-Lepley has actually found a way to make pallet disposal work in its favor. A local company buys the reusable pallets from the dealership, regularly stopping by to haul them away. Then, pallets that are severely damaged and unable to be recycled are broken down and tossed in a wood burner stationed out by the warehouse.
Full-timer James Rogers handles that job, typically first thing in the morning. The rest of his mornings are spent cleaning up around the dealership and performing other property maintenance tasks. In the afternoon he ships, receives and stores parts. By and large, Rogers helps set the tone for cleanliness and organization around the dealership.

Saving labor
Everyone seems to follow suit, especially in the service shop, which is cleaner than some dealership showrooms. It's a collaborative effort that's proven to be well worth it.

"Our guys keep things clean, kind of like a barber shop in between customers," Steiner says. "As our business has gone from 100% ag to now 47%, the culture of our shop has changed. There's a big difference between working on a manure pump and working on a mower's hydraulic system. Once we became focused on lawn and garden, organization and cleanliness became the standard. Our guys don't know it any other way."

The lack of clutter and disorganization has had a profound effect on shop efficiency. Steiner says Mast-Lepley owner Claire Nussbaum has also been willing to invest in labor-saving solutions to help make the technicians more productive. For instance, Hefty lifts are now in each of the four work bays, including lawn and garden service manager Jon Herman's.

Herman is a hands-on service manager. He handles the more basic, quick repairs in his bay while keeping an eye on the other three techs. He's also able to jump on a landscaper's machine, in most cases, to get that customer in and out as quickly as possible.

One thing Herman does not do is file warranty claims. That's left to Ron Taylor, the lawn and garden parts manager. Steiner says, "I like the service manager to stay in touch with his techs and customers. Every day around 2 p.m., when the parts counter starts slowing down, Ron will head back to the shop to file warranties. Most are done online. It makes sense. He's good at paperwork and working on the computer. Then the service manager can remain focused on fixing equipment."

From start to finish
Everyone—whether in service, parts, sales or administration—remains focused on customer service. "We are fortunate to employ very courteous, knowledgeable people who make customers feel comfortable when they come into our store or call us on the phone," Steiner says. "We'll never have an automated phone system during open hours."

Three salespeople work the lawn and garden sales floor. Steiner gets the overflow when it's really busy. He'll also help customers who specifically ask for him, usually because he's dealt with them in the past. "It's part of the personal touch that keeps customers coming back to us," Steiner says.

That personal touch is also why salesmen typically deliver the machines they sell. "The salesman handles the sale from that first handshake right through to delivery," Steiner says. "We don't like to push that final step off on someone else." In the rare event that a salesman is tied up and can't make a delivery, an experienced, highly trained technician who's familiar with the given product will step in.

Nickels and dimes
Mast-Lepley does offer free delivery on most new lawn and garden equipment sales. The cost has become more of an issue as of late, for obvious reasons. It stings even more when it comes to the pick-up and delivery of service units.

"Gas prices are to a point now where it's almost out of control," Steiner says. "We've gone to rollback, aluminum-bed trucks we can load multiple units on. We used to run pick-up trucks with single-axle trailers. We'd drive 30 miles to pick one mower up for service. Not anymore. When one of our trucks goes out, it's doing three or four service stops in one trip. We also try to coordinate new sale deliveries, when possible of course, so we're not running the truck to deliver just one."

During the course of a season, if the time Mast-Lepley's trucks are on the road could be cut in half or more, the cost savings would be huge. That's the way Steiner looks at everything. "One thing I've learned from the owner is to constantly look for different ways to save a little at a time," he says. "At the end of the year, it can all add up to make a big difference on the bottom line without disrupting the day-to-day business."

With such an emphasis on structure and organization, disruptions aren't very welcome at Mast-Lepley. Of course, disruptions sometimes can't be avoided. They're part of running a business in a seasonal, often unpredictable industry. Mast-Lepley's done pretty well by remaining diversified and staying ahead of the changing needs of its market.