Maintaining a Reputation for Quality

If you walk into Art’s Lawn Mower Shop in Florissant, MO, chances are you will see the same faces again and again. Many of the staff members have become permanent fixtures, with 30 years or more under their belt. Much of the staff is also made up of family members working full and part-time. Perhaps it is the never-changing staff that has turned customers into regular visitors as well.

Familiar with the staff and trusting in their knowledge, a loyal customer base has stuck with Art’s through its 61 years in business. As the weather and economy prove to be unpredictable and unreliable, the staff at Art’s survives on their own dependability as they maintain their reputation for quality.

Employees and service

As some of the employees that have been with Art’s for ages age, they hang their hats and prepare for retirement. One of their technicians recently retired after 37 years in the shop. Another will retire in May 2013 with 33 years under his belt.

“Those guys are hard to replace,” says owner Marlin Arthur Stellhorn. “We have had them working with some younger people to get them up to speed.”

The veteran techs work with newcomers on the ins and outs of equipment maintenance and repairs. Stellhorn’s son-in-law Michael Rikard has been with the business 20 years and is in charge of the shop, specializing in diagnostics, hydraulics and electrical work. Stellhorn trusts mechanics to perform in their own special areas and support the others where they run short.

“You need mechanics on different levels,” explains Stellhorn. “You need a guy who does the repetitive maintenance work as well as diagnostic people who can put their finger on a problem and either correct it themselves or direct the other mechanics on the procedures. If a mechanic has high-level abilities, and you feed him the general maintenance stuff, that has no challenge.”

Providing technicians with a challenging and fulfilling work environment is part of what has kept the staff on so long. They are invested in their work and the success of the business.

Work orders are tracked on a schedule board in the shop with each assigned to a technician and given a projected completion date. The projected completion date is decided based on the available technician hours and the time required for the repair as it relates to difficulty.

“We do a projected completion date rather than vaguely saying we are three weeks out,” says Stellhorn. “Customers appreciate the accuracy giving this calculation offers.”

In addition to challenging the staff, Stellhorn works to maintain a harmony in the shop and ensure mechanics feel they are all treated equally. Past incentive programs are being reassessed to ensure fairness and quality assurance.

“We previously offered incentives and are re-evaluating the system because some technicians didn’t think the program was fair,” explains Stellhorn. “We do think incentives are important to challenge them to go the extra mile, but don’t want to encourage shortcuts.”

The service facilitator fills out the technicians’ time on the board so they can see how each other is performing. The team regularly talks about what is not getting done and any problems they are having.

As the technicians work together on improving skill and processes, Stellhorn watches as they age and move on. “Quite a few of our employees are long-term,” says Stellhorn. “A few are retiring now and I think: ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to go first!’”

Not-so-simple succession

Don’t let Stellhorn fool you. Recently celebrating his 69th birthday, Stellhorn says he always thought that the age of 70 would be a great time to retire. A year away from that deadline, he says he is nowhere near ready to say goodbye to the business he grew up in.

“My dad Art started the business in the 1940s and officially in 1951 moved it into a garage,” says Stellhorn. “I later assumed command in 1963. For 48 years I’ve been doing this. Anything I learned I learned from him. I used to hang out in his back pocket listening to him talk to people about the quality of the mowers.”

Art left the business to be a fireman, and since his departure there have been many changes made. They have grown from a lawn and garden dealer selling mainly push mowers to offering larger utility tractors, chainsaws and other commercial-grade equipment.

“My wife is my sounding board and those are changes we made together,” says Stellhorn. “She knows the business and when I’m doing something right or wrong.”

Wife Pat works all spring helping out where needed and has built a good relationship with the customers. Daughter Nora Muffler helps in the spring with special events and selling, but is busy as a teacher and mother of two.

Playing the most active role of the family members is daughter Merna Rikard. She says she has been taking over since she was five years old. Her more active role started after she completed college. Once Stellhorn is ready to transition out of the business, he will trust the dealership to daughter Merna and long-time employee Greg Mauch who has been with the business 39 years.

The transition, however, won’t necessarily be as simple as when Stellhorn took over from his father. It won’t be as simple as handing over the keys like it was years ago. Since they now have John Deere, the new owners will have to meet the manufacturer’s stringent requirements in order to gain approval for continued operation. In general, being a single-store John Deere dealer can at times be challenging.

“Maintaining the John Deere brand is getting harder and harder,” shares Stellhorn. “They encourage the multi-location dealerships and that does give an advantage when you can split orders. Before that, you could have three or four stores but each store had to stand on its own. I can see why they do it, it’s good business.”

Stellhorn is not interested in expanding into multiple locations like many of his fellow John Deere dealers. It may be more likely in the future as Merna takes over. She is interested in the opportunities expansion could present them with.

While Stellhorn has to work hard as a single-store John Deere dealer to compete, he is happy to do so. He takes advantage of their Home Depot and Lowes partnerships, and uses it as another opportunity to connect with potential customers. They do equipment setup and warranty work on the products bought with the big box retailers.

“I know a lot of dealers resent John Deere being in the big box stores, but if they are going to sell through those stores, they are at least very fair about letting you market to their customer base, pushing our service and more premium machines,” says Stellhorn. “Even though it brings a tear to your eye that they have John Deere in their stores, it’s what is happening now and you have to make the best of the situation.”

Maintaining a farm and a reputation

Just like John Deere, the Art’s brand has grown quite a following. Like many quality dealerships, Art’s is known for a knowledgeable and consultative approach to sales and service.

“We have a real loyal base because our guys are good and have a lot of good information to share with the customers,” says Stellhorn. “Sometimes I think we are used a lot for our knowledge, because you can’t get that everywhere, and customers respect and appreciate it.”

It’s not just about being a good businessman; you need to know the customers, their needs, and the equipment you’re selling. With his own farm 90 miles from the dealership, Stellhorn couldn’t have a better handle on the needs of his customers and the equipment he offers.

He also really gets the workhorse mentality of his commercial customers. “The farm is a weekend thing and in the spring just Sundays,” he explains. “When the hay comes we just find the time to take care of it. You think you don’t have time to do it all and then suddenly you get your eighth day of work in.”

Through his experience on the farm with his cow-calf operation, and the cutting and baling of hay, he has gained some credibility with tractor customers and farm hobbyists.

“When they find out what I do they want to talk with me about it,” says Stellhorn. “I take it pretty seriously knowing what I’m doing when taking care of cattle and cutting and curing hay.”

As they celebrate their 61st year as a dealer, it is clear that Stellhorn takes maintaining his dealership just as seriously. The company was also profiled in Yard & Garden magazine as they celebrated their 40th anniversary in 1993. The cover hangs framed in Stellhorn’s office.

“I walk past the cover from the last story every day,” says daughter Merna. “It’s nice to read about employees that are still here who once worked in a department but are now heads of their own.”

While the faces you see in the dealership haven’t changed much in the last 21 years, the way they take care of customers has. Stellhorn knows they have to change the way they do business to meet the demands of today’s customer. He keeps his reputation in tact by treating customers just as he would expect to be treated.

“Years ago, we just did what the machine needed with little communication with the customer,” says Stellhorn. “Now, we call almost every one of them with an estimate. We give them a call because they expect it, and I would too.”