60 Years and Few Fears

The father-son duo at MAE Power Equipment in Mission, TX, bows down to no one. Over the last 60 years, the business has adapted to many changes and continued to find strength and stability in their hard work and dedication.

Ben (left) and Oscar Cavazos of MAE Power Equipment Mission, TX.
Ben (left) and Oscar Cavazos of MAE Power Equipment Mission, TX.

We first introduced you to Ben and Oscar Cavazos in 2004 as they celebrated the 50th anniversary of MAE Power Equipment in Mission, TX. A decade and a recession later, they celebrate their 60th anniversary with no signs of slowing down. With a business built on hard work and dedication, the father-son duo has shown a strong and constant determination to overcome challenges and evolve along with the market.

Rooted in RPMs

Ben’s history with engines goes all the way back to when he was just 15 years old. A resourceful and talented young man—who wanted to speed up the four-mile bicycle trek to school—he added some power to his wheels with his mom’s permission and a little help from Briggs & Stratton.

“We had a Maytag washing machine that was powered by a Briggs & Stratton engine," says Ben. “When we moved from our house without electricity to one in the city with power, I talked my mom into letting me put that motor from the washing machine on my bicycle.”

He rode that bicycle-turned-motorcycle back and forth from school for four years. Along the way he learned how to repair small engines.

“It didn’t have much power,” Ben explains. “But it would get me down the road at about 20 mph. When it broke down, I knew if I didn’t want to walk I had to learn how to fix small engines.”

And the rest was history. Ben would go on to join the Army and receive formal training through the auto electric school. Discharged after fulfilling his duty of 20 months, he landed at the only auto electric place in the Rio Grande Valley. Ben was eventually called back to serve at the start of the Korean War. Upon his return he briefly worked for that same employer before he and a partner opened Mission Auto Electric. The GI Bill afforded him the opportunity to grow his knowledge of business management.

“I was able to go to business school for three years while I was operating the business,” says Ben. “I would work during the day, go to school at night for three hours, and then return to work on what repairs were left.”

Now called MAE Power Equipment, the business focuses solely on commercial and high-end homeowner outdoor power equipment after a stint in automotive and go-karts. Son Oscar has taken what he learned from his dad in the dealership—paired with a bachelor’s degree in business—and helped groom the business for continued prosperity in the face of many challenges and change.

From the big box to the border

One of the challenges the dealership has faced is the constant sprouting up of big box stores in their market. Rather than fight for the same customers as the retail giants, Ben and Oscar decided to focus on what they do best—service the commercial contractor market.

“We let the Home Depots and Walmarts take care of the homeowners,” explains Ben. “They have their thing and we have ours. We have well-trained personnel that can direct people to the right equipment for the job they have to do.”

MAE Power Equipment will still sell to the high-end homeowners and service anything with an engine that comes through their doors. That service is what typically converts a big box customer into an MAE-loyal customer.

“Some will start out with a Walmart-type machine and then come here for service and find out that we have equipment that maybe costs three times as much, but it is more reliable,” says Ben. “We are getting a lot of those people who are tired of messing with homeowner stuff and are buying commercial.”

Located near the Texas-Mexico border, the dealership also sees a lot of business from the border patrol and Mexicans. The border patrol has its generators for sky watch equipment—a watch platform that reaches 15-20 feet in the air for border observation—serviced at MAE Power Equipment. They also purchase chainsaws and trimmers from the dealership.

“The areas they are in have a lot of brush,” explains Oscar. “They need to clear and maintain the area for visibility, especially along the wall.”

In the past, many Mexican customers would travel across the border to visit MAE for their equipment and service needs. That traffic has slowed some, but not enough to hurt the business.

“We have seen a decrease in the Mexico traffic because it is harder for them to get things they purchase over (the border) and to their destination,” says Oscar. “They have to pay a lot to have safe passage. Many of them want to come buy a machine but hold back because they are afraid their load might get intercepted at some point and they will lose it.”

Ben and Oscar first noticed this trend in the early 2000s when security was ramping up. While the visits from occasional customers have died down, the regulars still make the trip.

“We still have customers who come in religiously once a week or 2-3 times a week to get parts,” Oscar shares. “Most are here on the frontera, the first 25 miles of border. The customers from deeper in Mexico will come maybe once a month.”

Concentrating on the contractor customer base

With the challenges brought by the big box stores and tighter borders, Ben and Oscar decided the commercial customer market would be their area of focus. Big-ticket purchases and regular service from professional cutters brings stability to the business's income.

“We are in a retirement area where a lot of people who work up north in the winter months come down here to spend a few months during the summer cutting grass,” explains Ben. “So there are a lot of people available to cut grass and a lot of homeowners who have even decided to hire somebody to take care of it for them.”   

The business focuses on outfitting those cutters with the equipment to help them get the job done in an efficient and profitable manner. As the cost of labor increased, contractors needed the equipment to help them recover those costs. MAE was the first in their area to make the ever-efficient zero-turn mowers available to the market.

“In the 70s and 80s it was all about lawn tractors. With the cheap labor force down here at the time, it would be a lot cheaper for them to have a 21-inch mower and a bunch of guys out cutting yards,” says Oscar. “Now people are realizing the efficiency of zero-turn and wide-area walk-behind mowers. Back when they could hire a guy for $4-5 an hour, nobody would even consider it. Now with the labor force stricter and more regulation, labor costs have increased. They are looking for something more efficient, and obviously the zero-turns are the way to go.”

On top of the trends

Being the first to bring zero-turn mowers to their market set the tone for MAE to be on top of market trends. As E15 (fuel with 15% ethanol) hits the market, they have worked hard to provide contractors with the products and knowledge to keep their equipment running and businesses profitable.

“Ethanol has been a major problem that has changed the way people do things,” says Ben. “One of our big markets now is selling the fuel additive Mechanic in a Bottle to fix the bad gas.”

In their arid area of southern Texas, bad gas is pretty common. Especially in the hotter months, equipment doesn’t see much action as the growth of grass slows. They also run the risk of getting bad gas from gas stations in rural areas that don’t see much traffic.

“Unless we get a lot of rain, the grass doesn’t usually grow that fast. The last few years especially, we have had extreme drought,” says Oscar. “Many people won’t cut their grass but once a month. When they don’t use their equipment enough, they run into trouble with the effects of ethanol in their fuel.”

MAE Power Equipment uses the fuel additive in any piece of equipment that leaves the shop. Bottles and barrels are sold to contractors and area school districts. The fuel additive isn’t a high-margin sale per se, but for MAE it is about more than profit. For them, it’s about providing a much-needed service to the customer.

“It is something we have been trying to market more because it is a benefit to the customer,” explains Oscar. “I like talking with customers about it because it helps set us apart. The main thing is that it means reduced downtime for our customers, and they are happier.”

For Ben and Oscar, staying on top of market trends and seeking out the challenges their commercial customers face is paramount. They aim to find the solution before their customers even know there is a problem.

“We are wondering what the next big equipment innovation is going to be,” says Oscar. “We stay on top of things like propane, fuels, energy, EFI. We want to stay ahead of the industry, knowing what the next best thing is going to be so we are not blindsided.”

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