Eric Reuterskiold — Operations Manager, Johnson Tractor

Years with the Company: 21

Age: 41

Owners: Leo and Eric Johnson

Major Line: Case IH

Shortlines: Kinze, Kubota, Stihl, Woods, Krause, Geringhoff, Exmark, Grasshopper, Great Plains, Simplicity

Locations: 3

Employees: 70

2013 Revenues: $111 Million

“I grew up working on a farm and decided I wanted to do something in that field. I went to Blackhawk Technical College, a local college that had an agribusiness program, but I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do after graduation. While I was going to school I worked at a fertilizer supply place selling parts. I liked the job, especially interacting with people, and that was just a part-time gig. Once I graduated, I got a job at the John Deere dealer in town working in the parts department and really enjoyed it. However, all of my friends worked at Johnson Tractor. When they had an opening 8 months later, they recruited me and I was hired. That was in 1993. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my old job, but when I was 22 it was all about where my friends were.

“I started off behind the parts counter for my first 7 years at Johnson Tractor. When the parts manager made the move to sales, I became the parts manager and still hold that position today in addition to being the operations manager. My position as operations manager evolved over time. I just started taking on more. I would look at the service department and say to the owner, Leo Johnson, ‘Why isn’t this being done?’ or ‘We can do this better.’ For example, I mentioned that our service manager spends a lot of his time talking on the phone and I thought he might make a better salesperson. Two weeks later, he was working in sales. Eventually in 2004, he told me I should start overseeing the service department as well. There was a service manager in place, but I did the department’s budget every year and oversaw things from the 30,000-foot level. I can read people pretty well, and Leo sees that in me too so he trusts what I say about personnel decisions.

“In 2006, when we bought the store in Rochelle, Ill., it was a big step and we basically doubled in size. At that point, I started overseeing the Rochelle location’s parts and service managers and departments. Initially, I was spending about half my time down there and today I still make the 60-mile trip once a week. During that same time I also took on overseeing our precision farming department.”

Talks of Succession

“Around 2002, after I had been the parts manager for a while, Leo and I started having casual talks about the possibility of me taking on some ownership. While it was talked about, we never actually pursued it because we didn’t have to. He had a partner in his brother Eric, and I didn’t have a bunch of money to spend buying part of the dealership.

“Then things exploded. The economy took off, we started getting much larger here, increasing employees and real estate and then we took on another dealership in 2011. Pretty soon the thing got so big that there was no way I could go to the bank and say, ‘I think I’m going to buy into this thing.’ I didn’t want to only be a minority shareholder, and Leo and Eric didn’t think it was fair for me to be a minority shareholder either. One day Leo came to me and said, ‘I know we talked about some kind of ownership, but do you think you need it? What if we just pay you well enough that you feel secure and you’re comfortable?’ I told him I’m fine with that.

“The current plan is still for me to stay in a non-ownership role, and I’m fine with that. If I went to Leo and said, ‘I’m going to leave tomorrow because I don’t have any ownership,’ I’m sure he would find a way to give me some shares so I didn’t leave, but it’s not worth it. There’s too much risk for me and it’s too expensive.

“Leo and Eric plan to continue in the business for another 5-7 years, give or take 3. They both have kids that have shown some interest in the business but neither would be ready for a leadership role for another 10 years if they decide to pursue a career here. The current plan is for me to take over more of Leo’s daily tasks as CEO and help move the business to the next generation. The unknown is if their kids will pursue dealership careers or if they will make a life outside of the dealership. If they don’t, it will be my job to continue to keep Johnson Tractor a high-value, successful business that continues on.

“My position as operations manager was created and evolved as we grew as a company. I’m still the parts manager in Janesville, so the next step is to find a parts manager so I don’t have to do the day-to-day tasks for this store and can concentrate on the big picture.”

Learning Along the Way

“Leo’s a great teacher. He’ll sit me down and we’ll talk about different things. I obviously had some college courses, but the hands-on financial training, learning about a balance sheet and those kinds of things, he’s taught me all of that stuff. Leo has said, ‘You make decisions and you live with them whether they’re right or wrong.’ If I make a mistake, they’ll tell me, but I’m not going to get fired over it or anything like that. To have responsibility, you have to take chances, and they’re not afraid to let people take chances and make mistakes.

“I was brought over here by my friends when I was 22. It’s a big challenge to have to discipline your friends and have your friends work for you..."

“He’s good about grabbing me and saying, ‘This is something you should know,’ and then going through it with me. He’ll also hand off projects that normally he would oversee, like remodeling our Janesville building. He normally would be very hands-on, ‘This is the way I want it, this is the color I want, and this is where I want it.’ Now, it’s just ‘This needs to be done, go do it.’

“Leo’s wife, Sue, who is our treasurer and HR director, is a really good teacher too. She’s super smart, so between the two of them they’ve taught me most of the day-to-day tasks and paperwork side of the business. Working closely with Sue, I have taken on some HR responsibilities. She still does 90% of the work, but I back her up.

“I work with her on health and property insurance and I also handle all the staff reviews for the parts, service and precision departments. I also have taken on all the safety requirements for the dealership. I handle safety training for the employees, OSHA and DOT requirements. While I haven’t gone though any formal training to handle these responsibilities, I am constantly going to all sorts of seminars and workshops that are put on by either our insurance company or the DOT. With all the healthcare changes lately, I’ve been going to some kind of meeting or seminar once a month.

“I’m also just finishing up the Jerkins Dealer Candidate course. The personnel side of my job probably has been the hardest part to learn and probably the most I gained from that program. I can decipher stuff on paper and get a process figured out, but when one of the ladies comes crying in my office, I just lock and cringe. Before, I would have completely ignored any personnel issue until it came to a head that it had to be dealt with. Now, I can usually see it coming and I try to nip it in the bud and take care of it. That’s probably the biggest thing that training and experience has helped with — cutting things off before they get out of control.”

Communicating the Plan

“You can’t just assume there’s a plan in place or that your boss or owner is thinking about it. You have to go ask. The OEMs require that there’s a succession plan, but did somebody just write on a piece of paper to fill that check box or is there a plan and are you a part of it? If you’re curious, you should ask them and find out.

“At the same time, owners shouldn’t just assume their employees are going to stick around. Don’t assume that they think they’re part of your succession plan. They may not know that they’re a part of it. If you want them around, you should communicate that to them. Find out if they need ownership to stay or if they are happy not being an owner. Either way, tell them your plan. All people want to know what their future holds and from the top down it should flow, too, so that everybody knows what’s going on, what their plans are.”

Looking Ahead

“I’d like to make the stores more cohesive. I want to get everybody focused on customer service. People buy from us for our reputation now, but I want it to be over-the-top customer service that they look to. I want our customers to compare all of their purchasing experiences to dealing with us. There’s been plenty of books written about that kind of thing, but I believe that we’re judged on customer service compared to your phone company to buying a washer and dryer to buying a car. We’re all compared to those experiences and I want to be the one everyone else is trying to be like.