This is What I Know ...

Friends, family and customers often ask Steven Best if he enjoys owning a power equipment dealership. Best's typical response: "I think so. Of course, I have nothing to compare it to. This is the only job I've ever had." Truth be told, Best loves his job, as does wife Jenny who handles the bookwork. Their enthusiasm trickles down throughout the entire staff, and it shows in everything they do.

Best became the sole owner of Andy's Lawn Machinery in Savannah, GA, in 1995. He'd begun working at the dealership 10 years prior at the age of 15, collecting money at the dealership's go-kart race track out back and learning how to turn wrenches. After a series of ownership changes in the late '80s, Best became a partner in 1991.

"Once I became sole owner in 1995, we started our process of focusing," Best says. "We now carry half the brands we used to. We used to service everything, even mass merchant equipment. As we saw the market shifting to commercial, we wanted to do the same. By limiting what we'd service and sell, we knew we'd be able to take better care of our customers. We told this to our commercial guys right away to start winning their loyalty."

Best says customers often tell him that they really appreciate the fact that Andy's Lawn Machinery is there to help them. Best appreciates being given the chance. His loyal commercial customers are a big reason his dealership eclipsed the $3 million mark last year.

Setting The Stage

To continue growing his business and living up to his customers' expectations, Best is looking to invest in facility improvements to improve productivity. Some of those improvements have already taken place.

The main building at Andy's Lawn Machinery is 3,000 square feet. The showroom, which occupies roughly two-thirds of the square footage, was remodeled five years ago.

In 2003, when the area was rezoned as light industrial, some more serious renovations became an option. Best didn't waste any time. The parking lot was immediately paved. The new lot, together with the vast amount of space out behind the dealership, made it easier for busy landscapers pulling in with fully loaded trailers.

The vast amount of open land also allowed for the construction of a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in 2004. "We've been selling more and more commercial equipment year after year," Best says. "We needed a way to store it all, so an adjacent warehouse made sense."

The warehouse doubles as a quick-service area. Two entry-level technicians handle equipment setup, along with quick service jobs such as oil and blade changes.

The warehouse has been a big plus for the service department. Back in the main building, 1,000 square feet is split between parts and service. Both departments have been feeling the pinch. The parts department has been reorganized to make better use of the limited space it has. "We really dug into sales histories to get rid of dead and slow-moving stock," Best points out.

Andy's Lawn Machinery also bought nine Stanley Vidmar storage cabinets. Before, the majority of the dealership's parts inventory sat on large, rolling carts that always seemed to be in somebody's way. The Vidmar cabinets, conversely, are tight against the wall out of everyone's way. Parts are cataloged by brand. Some smaller storage bins were hung on the facing wall to house very small parts and hardware. Belts are hung higher up on the walls. Extensions were recently purchased for the Vidmar cabinets, allowing larger parts to be stored in "racks" all the way up to the ceiling. "To remain efficient, every square inch of storage space has to be used," Best says.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

The service department is another story. There's only so much you can do with 500 square feet. Riding equipment is typically worked on outside, where a portable lift is stationed. A second portable lift is in the warehouse.

Now that the majority of the dealership's business is commercial, though, Best has made up his mind that a better shop is needed so his technicians can continue turning repairs quickly. Last season, the longest delay for residential repairs was around two weeks, down from four or five weeks a few years ago. Landscapers are usually in and out in one day, unless a special part has to be ordered, in which case a loaner is provided. It's getting harder, however, for shop staff to perform at this level as business continues to grow.

"I'm looking to build a new shop in the next year or two," Best says. "We still have plenty of room out back, though we do want to put the shop as close to the main building as possible so we have quick access to parts. I've talked with other dealers and toured their shops to get some ideas."

Best envisions his new shop having four bays with roll-up doors (one for each technician). Each bay will also have a stationary, automotive-style lift. Best says the portable lifts the dealership currently uses are effective, and the portability aspect comes in handy. But if the new shop is to have actual bays, it makes more sense to have fixed lifts, which he says are also a lot easier to set up and operate. If he's to go this route, the portable lifts will both be placed in the warehouse.

Best would like to have a nice employee break room where customers can also lounge while their machines are being worked on. "We really want our new shop to look professional," Best says.

Among the upgrades that have already taken place at Andy's Lawn Machinery, the dealership now has a high-speed Internet connection. "It's been a big help with parts ordering and warranty filing," Best says. "The problem is that now, if our Internet goes down, we're out. We've become dependent on it."

Best has also become more dependent on general manager Karen Johnson. "She's a good all-around manager who really has a knack for selling," Best says. "I would attribute a lot of our sales growth to her."

Before coming to work at Andy's, Johnson worked as a service manager at an auto shop. Her sister, Terri Sparks, also works at the dealership. Sparks has a background in retail, which includes a stint at Bass Pro Shops.

"It really helps to have these two women out front at the counter," Best relates. "They're very personable and develop a good rapport with customers. They take the time to talk to customers and find out what they really need. I hear comments all the time about how helpful and friendly they are. For a lot of municipalities and landscapers, it's more like a friendship. You can always hear laughter in the showroom, even when customers are standing there with a broken belt on a 100º day."

Best hopes to hear less of that laughter this season—but only because he plans on spending less time at the dealership. Last year he purchased an enclosed trailer, which he had all decked out with customized graphics. Now that he has a reliable general manager in charge of the store, not to mention an outstanding staff that keeps things running smoothly, Best wants to spend more time on the road.

"We're looking to cater even more to our commercial customers," he tells. "I want to use that trailer to make weekly parts deliveries to our larger landscape customers. Most have at least two or three trucks, so they have large storage facilities where we can drop parts. We may even meet them on a job site, if at all possible.

"My main goal is to really get out there and sell equipment more aggressively," Best continues. "I'm looking to do more road sales this year. The trailer will also be a moving billboard for us. It definitely catches some eyes. You start crisscrossing through town and people start thinking, 'Man, these guys are all over.'"

With all the current and future investments Best has made in his dealership, he wants to make sure a steady flow of customers continues coming through the doors. He and his staff have done a superb job in building customer loyalty. Now they want to take it to the next level. Steven Best has been doing this since he was 15. It's all he knows—but now he knows how he's going to do it even better.