You could see the type of dealer Richard Leonardis was going to be—even before he had his own dealership. He would be a dealer who cared less about the sizzle and more about the steak, and he'd scrape for every single sale he could make and expense he could save.
As the owner of Jersey Power Equipment in Clifton, NJ, that's exactly what Leonardis has done for the past 33 years. "This market is tough, it's just tough," says Leonardis, whose dealership is located roughly 12 miles north of Newark. Customers can be demanding. Technicians are getting harder to find. Property taxes are among the highest in the country, which puts a strain on both his customers' wallets and his business's bottom line.
And then there's the competition, which there is more than enough of. Just look at a few of Jersey Power Equipment's primary mower lines. A search on Toro's dealer locator brings up nine other dealers within 40 miles or so, not to mention all of the Home Depot stores that also sell Toro mowers. Wright's locator shows 22 dealers within 25 miles. Walker's shows five within 11. BOB-CAT's locator suggests three dealers within three miles. Now granted, you do have to take into consideration how densely populated this area is. However, that doesn't change the fact that consumers—especially landscape contractors—have options. Leonardis plays along as best he can.
"I've always tried to find that unique product or niche, and do what a lot of other dealers don't want to do," Leonardis says. Case in point, on the day Green Industry Pros visited, one of Leonardis' customers needed to transport a new mower he was buying to his place in upstate New York the following day. Leonardis offered to deliver the mower to the gentleman out on Long Island, a 70-mile drive that would take about three hours in evening traffic.
The willingness to go that extra mile (or 70) is something Leonardis and his staff have some control over. "It's getting harder to find those unique product hooks, though," Leonardis points out. "I used to go to the Louisville show (GIE+EXPO) every year and find a home-run product I could start selling. But I came up dry the past couple times I'd went, and haven't even been to the show in a few years now. Two-thirds of my business now comes from landscape contractors, government agencies, and commercial accounts like management companies. They don't care if we have a fancy showroom. They just want good equipment at good prices, and reliable parts and service. So that's what we focus on."
Jersey Power Equipment hosts an open house every spring. Designed for landscape contractors, Leonardis bills it as a "landscape show". "We do about a quarter of our equipment sales for the year on this day," Leonardis points out. The event, like many dealer open houses, features good prices and free food. Leonardis also brings in experts who can answer questions on important topics like business insurance.
"We plan our annual landscape show about 10 days out," Leonardis says. "You just never know with the weather, so we don't like to commit to a date too far in advance. Another highlight of our landscape show is that we pick a charity and match the donations our customers make on that day. We've raised money for all sorts of charities."
The annual landscape show typically proves to be what Leonardis would call a home-run event. It gets the season off to a good start for his customers, and more importantly, gets some inventory moved out of his dealership. That's important because Jersey Power Equipment doesn't have a lot of room to store wholegoods. The majority of the facility is utilized for parts and service.
That said, Leonardis doesn't shy away from equipment. The dealership sells over a million dollars' worth every year. "We were the first Walker mower dealer in the state of New Jersey back in 1982," Leonardis tells. "We were one of the first dealers to carry Wright stand-on mowers back in the 90s. Everybody laughed at me when I first took these products on because they were so different and didn't seem to have a lot of broad appeal. But they were good, unique products made by really good companies. And look where they are today."
Leonardis' knowledge of stand-on mowers, along with his loyal following of landscape contractors, was recently tapped into by BOB-CAT (Schiller Grounds Care). Jersey Power was one of a handful of dealerships around the country that helped coordinate contractor focus groups to allow BOB-CAT to gather feedback as it refined the design of its new QuickCat stand-on mower. "Our distributor, Steven Willand Inc., thought enough of us to ask us to help with this, and that means a lot to me," Leonardis says.
Products like Walker, Wright, BOB-CAT, Toro and Scag mowers have turned out to be home runs for Jersey Power Equipment. Other products have not—at least not in the longer run.
The dealership was one of the first in New Jersey to sell Ramrod mini-loaders. Doing so created a bit of friction with Toro, as the Ramrod competes directly with Toro's Dingo mini-loader. But Toro already had a Dingo dealer in Leonardis' area, and Leonardis (a Toro mower and snowthrower dealer) wanted something to offer his landscape and government customers in the way of a mini-loader. Ramrod was a big hit for a while, but then the Canadian-based company began setting up more dealers and even selling directly to end-users, Leonardis tells, so he eventually abandoned the line.
Leonardis says he also helped get Christmas Decor going in New Jersey. Christmas Decor is a holiday decorating franchise system. Leonardis met the Texas-based Christmas Decor folks at the Louisville show. They established an agreement where Leonardis would help set up some of his landscape customers as franchisees back in New Jersey. But once the New Jersey market was developed, Christmas Decor didn't really need Leonardis anymore, and vice versa. So again, this initial home run eventually fizzled out.
Leonardis continued on his quest to find unique products he could help pioneer. He even brought on synthetic grass for a while; kind of odd, some might conclude, for a retailer whose bread-and-butter products are reliant on real grass. But there clearly was an emerging market for this product, and Leonardis wanted to help develop it. So for a time he helped sell franchises and set up other dealers.
Used, but not abused
Oddities aside, a more common line of business that Jersey Power continues to focus on is used equipment. "Some dealers don't want to bother with it, but landscape contractors have equipment they need to get rid of, so we welcome it," Leonardis says. His service staff will clean it up and typically sell it rather quickly, often online via craigslist.
"There is a good market for used equipment, and we make a decent margin on it," Leonardis points out. "A trend we're seeing is Hispanic guys who've been working in landscaping and are now starting their own companies. They want used equipment."
Because of its substantial used equipment business, along with Leonardis' penchant for the unique opportunity, Jersey Power Equipment has "become a dumping ground of sorts," Leonardis points out. That's totally OK with him.
"I'm always looking for bargains that my suppliers are having a hard time with, but I feel pretty good I can sell," Leonardis shares. Examples include equipment that has been repossessed from other dealerships, and a stash of BOB-CAT belt-drive walk-behind mowers and some RedMax string trimmers that other dealers didn't seem to want.
"I'd bought a bunch of these trimmers that were six inches shorter than a normal trimmer," Leonardis explains. "This model wasn't around very long. But I saw an opportunity to sell them at a really good price and market them as being 'more ergonomically designed' for landscape workers who aren't very tall. I sold every one of them at my spring landscape show one year. It was a win-win-win for my dealership, my customers and my distributor."
Looking for that win-win opportunity is what has always driven Leonardis. This goes back to even before he had his own dealership. Leonardis got his start in power equipment at age 21 after taking a job as a delivery driver for a Toro factory service center in Clifton. Later he became a technician and then assistant manager. When the opportunity arose to become manager, Leonardis wanted $3,000 a year more than his predecessor had been making. Toro balked at first, but finally agreed—contingent upon Leonardis helping the store break even in his first year, which would equate to a revenue swing equal to a full year's salary. He did some interesting things that first year, like fire the garbage man whom he really shouldn't have had the guts (or sense) to fire, but the store broke even.
A year or so later, Toro sold that factory service center to another distributor, which ultimately closed the store down. From there Leonardis started his own dealership, Jersey Power Equipment, in what used to be a drug store right down the street. In 1990 he moved into the building he's still in today.
Leonardis is still looking for unique opportunities, which unfortunately seem to be fewer and farther between. "I was looking at propane mowers, but my customers just didn't seem too interested in them," Leonardis says. "We sell Opti-Oil extended warranty, along with a lot of ethanol fuel treatments. I include Ethanol Shield with every new equipment sale and repair; we don't want anything to go out of here without Ethanol Shield."
Leonardis also continues doing what a lot of other dealers don't want to do. He goes into Newark's housing projects to deliver equipment to groundskeepers. He delivers to customers in Manhattan, one of the most intimidating driving venues in the country. Not glamorous, and hardly easy. "But these days, you have to do what you have to do to make it," Leonardis reminds. That's precisely what he's been doing in the power equipment business since the age of 21.
SIDEBAR: Tony Soprano Needs a Mower
Many dealers have found equipment rentals to be a profitable stream of supplemental revenue. But how about renting mowers, chainsaws and even service technicians to a wildly popular cable TV series?
"I got a call one day from producers of the TV show 'The Sopranos' on HBO," Richard Leonardis of Jersey Power Equipment says. "They needed to rent some mowers for some episodes they were shooting." Needless to say, Leonardis obliged. "The budget they work under is amazing. So I brought one of just about every mower I had to let them pick whatever color they liked best. They picked one, and then I knew they'd need it for a while because they needed consistency from one show to the next. That's also why I suggested they rent one of my technicians. I mean, they're spending all of this money to shoot their scenes every day. Why would they risk having a mower go down and having to shut down production until a replacement could be brought in? So they paid me my hourly rate to have one of my technicians sit around on set all day."
See, service really does sell.
SIDEBAR: More Saving, More Doing
Mass merchants have been around forever, and will be around forever. Sometimes, that's a good thing.
Ever the crafty opportunist, Richard Leonardis of Jersey Power Equipment, several years ago, had heard that Home Depot was deep-discounting snowthrower inventory as it transitioned to lawnmower and grill season. He went to a half dozen nearby Depots and bought every machine they still had in stock. The kicker was that he bought them on a Home Depot credit card he opened up at the same time in order to earn another 10% discount. "This was better pricing than I could ever get from any of my suppliers," Leonardis relates.
But that wasn't all. "I knew there were service bulletins on at least a couple of these snowthrower models, so I knew I'd get quite a bit of warranty work out of them," Leonardis continues. "When I bought the snowthrowers, I gave my business card to the kid at Home Depot and told him to tell people to call me if they came in looking for snowthrowers. Believe it or not, quite a few people called me!"
Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. This type of thing is harder, if not impossible, to execute these days due to Home Depot's tighter tolerances with respect to store-by-store discounting. Leonardis is making a few bucks off of the home improvement giant in another way, nowadays. When Ariens sells a snowthrower in the Clifton, NJ, area via homedepot.com, they slap a sticker on it and send it to Jersey Power Equipment to have it set up. "I do a couple hundred snowthrowers a year this way," Leonardis says.