Jason Huber — General Manager, Central Equipment Co.
Years with Company/Industry: 14 with dealership, 4 with Pace Distributing
Founded: 1972 by Harold Huber
Owners: Paul & Joe Huber
Major Lines: John Deere, Kubota
Shortlines: Exmark, Stihl, Cub Cadet, Woods, Land Pride, Rhino, Ferris, Great Plains, Honda
2013 revenues: $21 million
“I came back to the dealership a little over 2 years ago after working for Pace Distributing for 4 years. Working there was the best thing I could have done for myself. It was good to get away from the dealership for a while and, not only work for somebody else, but to learn from somebody else.
“The owner of Pace, Chris Saxton, is a former Navy Seal who has an incredible business mind. He’s grown his business from being a small outdoor power equipment distributor to one of the largest in the country that’s doing nearly $150 million in annual sales. He’s really an amazing guy and, besides my dad and Uncle Joe, has been one of my biggest influences. Even though I’m not working for him anymore, when I’ve had major business questions, I’ve been able to call him and get his thoughts on things.
“I started working at Central Equipment, which is owned by my dad and uncle, in 1996. I was also studying business at the Univ. of Kentucky at the same time. I’m 36 years old now and quite frankly I’m still about a semester away from getting my degree.
“During those years, I was doing mostly lawn and garden sales and a little bit of agriculture. Of course, as a single location dealership like ours, just about everyone has multiple jobs. I would be a salesman one day, setting up equipment the next day, and working out in the field trying to fix something the next. But most of my time was spent selling lawn and garden equipment and acting very much a like a son of the boss. I was having a really good time while I was there, and school was not my main focus.
“There came a point when I was not a fulltime student, but I was working at the dealership and I was making more money than a lot of my friends who had their degrees. I finally just threw my hands up and said I’m just going to re-evaluate life and put my full focus into the dealership.”
Change of Scenery
“By the time I was nearing near 30, I wasn’t happy with where I was as far as my growth here. I’d been offered positions with some of the shortline distributors we were doing business with and took a position with Pace and became the Ferris representative for Kentucky, southern Illinois and southern Indiana.
“It was a great experience because I was visiting 50-60 dealerships regularly and got to see a lot of really good and some bad things at those dealerships. I saw things I never would have thought of had I stayed here in our little area at this one store. I saw different management styles, different brands of equipment, and different ways of doing business. It was a really good 4-year training program out in the real world.
“I brought a lot of the lessons I learned back to the dealership. For example, one of my dealers was negotiating with manufacturers for truckloads of equipment and getting an incredible price. Back then, that was something even Central Equipment wasn’t doing, despite being a much bigger dealership. With these truckload prices he was able to blow away the competition and still have a great profit margin. This was something I had never thought of. But it wasn’t only how he was negotiating, but also how he advertised the equipment. He was killing it with his truckload deals. That’s something I’ve taken from him and included in what we’re doing now and it’s been hugely successful for us.
“I saw dealer-principals say and do things that made me cringe. They talked to their employees like dogs. I said, ‘I’m never going to do that if I’m ever in the position of running a dealership.’ I never want to make my employees feel like they’re not appreciated.”
Back to the Dealership
“The dealership had grown to the point where it needed somebody to head up sales. So I came back to Central Equipment as sales manager a little over 2 years ago. We had a general manager working here who was a retired Navy officer. The plan was for me to be the sales manager and train under him for a few years until he retired. But he decided he was ready to retire after I was back for about 2 months.
“I was visiting 50-60 dealerships regularly
and got to see a lot of really good and some bad things at those dealerships ...”
“The first year I was thrown into the fire. It was very stressful because I really didn’t know what I was doing. My dad and uncle ran this place for 42 years and firmly believed that the only way you learn is by making mistakes. When you look at these mega-dealers in the industry, you see they have a lot of training. With our one-store dealership it was more like, ‘Here’s your job. Good luck.’ Training is definitely something we’ve started to incorporate here, but we didn’t really have any programs in place when I took over.
“The second year I felt a little more successful, and that was actually a huge turnaround year for me. Going into year 3, I’m feeling a lot more confident and comfortable.
“There was another big hurdle I had to get over when I first came back. We have very little turnover here and a lot of our people have been working at the dealership for 20 or 30 years.
“I know a lot of them really care about me because we’re very much a family business, but they also remembered me from my ‘fun college days.’ It was hard for them to take me seriously as a manager when I came back.
“It took some time for them to realize I was not the same person I’d been a few years earlier. I had to show them, not only by respecting them, but also by proving to them, that I was putting the company’s best interests first. Since they’ve seen and accepted that, everything has been really great.”
Focus on Training
“In terms of formal training, I’m part of the Jerkins’ Dealer Candidate program and actually took my last class this past May. Having only been around sales for most of my career, it forced me to learn about other aspects of the business like parts and service. I’ve already used a lot of what I learned and have put it to work in the business.
“Another program that has really helped me was through the Society for Human Resource Management. They have local chapters pretty much all around the U.S. It’s been good for me to learn all the intricacies of hiring and firing and the correct process for interviewing employees. In this day and age, if you do anything incorrectly, there’s a good chance litigation could follow. Programs like this have helped us to be more professional in how we do things. I’m surprised more dealerships aren’t involved with this group.
“Our insurance company, Federated Insurance, also offered a class that was worth its weight in gold to me. Much of it involved human resources but also covered safety and other areas of operations. It really opened my eyes as far as how much risk dealerships have and how little they address it. When I came back, we immediately went to work putting together an employee handbook and other processes.
“We did this for several reasons. No one was being held accountable for even little things like coming to work on time. We could see that these types of things impacted how customers viewed us, but they also affected the morale of others who showed up on time and did the right things. Now, everyone is working from the same set of standards.
“These types of programs resulted in hiring an HR director. We have nearly 50 employees and I felt it was time we had somebody to help out in all aspects of the business including safety training, fire prevention, avoiding sexual harassment issues and other areas that could cause problems if they weren’t addressed.
“Of course, I’ve taken advantage of online training offered by Deere and Kubota that goes way beyond product information. And every year, our Stihl distributor comes in with a speaker and some really good hands-on training on everything from how we present ourselves as a business and how our personnel look to keeping the bathrooms clean and how they speak to people. I follow up that training by reminding our people they’re not ‘just answering the phone’ or they’re not ‘just a parts person.’ When someone sees them at Central Equipment, they are Central Equipment.”
Still Up in the Air
“As far as the future goes, my father and uncle have a buy/sell agreement between the two of them, but as far as a succession for myself and my cousin, that’s still in process. It’s not clear whether we’ll be a Deere dealer in the future because right now, with a single location, we don’t fit their model even though we have a great market share.
“I know a lot of dealerships either want to sell out or hang it up, but I see us having significant growth in this region. My goal is to have at least 2 more locations in the next 3 years. One of the big benefits of my travel when I was with Pace is I know where the empty areas are where a dealership could be successful. With consolidation, there are fewer and fewer companies that do what we do with commercial customers and outdoors equipment in this area.
Good People Get Results
“Even with my short experience as general manager, if I was asked about the most important thing needed to succeed as an equipment dealer, it would be to surround yourself with the very best people you can. This has been my biggest push and we already see it producing results.
“When I came back to the dealership, it was hard getting my dad and uncle to let me make changes in the company. We had some people that were probably carried for way too many years just because they were here. They weren’t doing us any good.
“I was able to finally make some personnel changes and we’ve seen significant increases, especially in our service department. We have the best service department we’ve ever had and we’re seeing improvements in our efficiency and our billing that’s like night and day.
“We’re also seeing the same thing in accounting where we’ve made major upgrades. We used to have a lot of open accounts that were well over 120 days old. Today, we have none that are over 60 days. Just by surrounding yourself with the best people, you’re going to get much better results.
“Where we go from here remains to be seen, but I plan to grow this business.”