Christopher Miller — Equipment Operations Manager, Hendershot Equipment Co.

Age: 29

Years with Company/Industry: 2

Founded: 1990 by Ron Hendershot

Owner: Ron Hendershot

Major Lines: Case IH, Vermeer, Polaris

Shortlines: Rhino, Hustler, Stihl, Gehl, Diamond C, Construction Attachments, Aerway, Kuhn Krause, Haybuster, Parma Co.

Locations: 2

Employees: 28

2013 revenues: $16.3 million

When Ron Hendershot asked me about coming to work for his dealership, truthfully I’m not really sure why I said yes to this new challenge. Before coming here 2 years ago, I had no ag background. My uncle farms cotton near Plainview, Texas, but other than that the only thing I knew about a tractor was it had a brake and a gas pedal. My only connection to ag was the fact that I was married to Ron’s daughter, Jessica.

“I have a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with emphasis in Healthcare Administration from Wayland Baptist Univ. For 6 years before I came here, I was the operations manager for a neurosurgery group and project manager for electronic medical records firms in Lubbock. I’ve worked in healthcare since I graduated high school when I worked it part-time until I started working with neurosurgeons and graduated and they put me on full time.

“I married Jessica 4 years ago. She had worked at the dealership before we got married. After that she was producer and host of her own show, Ag Day Lubbock, on Fox 34. Ron preferred that his kids work in other jobs before coming to the dealership to make sure it’s something they really want to do.

“When Ron approached us in early 2012, Jessica took on the marketing and HR for the dealership. It was a natural transition for her, because she had done it before. But the thought of getting into agriculture never really crossed my mind. I felt like I had not done everything I could do in healthcare, but I did not like where that industry was heading. I felt like I should try something different, and that I could always fall back on what I’ve grown up doing. I’m sure my wife was shocked when I said yes. I just never want to regret not doing something.

“Initially, my role was not really well defined because we didn’t know how my skillset would fit in. I came straight into the role I have now. My official title is equipment operations manager. When I first got here, I did pretty much everything to do with orders. All the sales came through me. I was the middleman between the accounting department and sales; making sure all the paperwork was done correctly, executing the contracts, getting everything ready for settlement. I also handled all inventory control.”

Getting Started in Ag

“This first year was a matter of acclimating myself and trying to understand everything. When I was in healthcare, I knew everything about my job from A to Z. If something went wrong, I knew what happened and how to fix it. It frustrates me not knowing everything about what I’m doing. I like to know everything. I’m one of those people who knows random facts about everything. I want to be good at what I’m doing. I don’t play golf to come in second. I like to win at everything I do.

“Ron has been my main mentor, but I’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of people here. They really embraced me and helped me put the pieces together. I think people understood what I could bring to the business, but they didn’t know how I was going to do it. I think some of them were thinking, ‘Here’s the son-in-law and he’s done nothing to earn this job.’ I know that respect isn’t given, it’s earned. But I don’t think it’s always earned by showing people what you can do, but by showing them what kind of value you can add to their job.

“I wanted to get them to buy in to what I could bring to them and how I could help them succeed. At the end of the day, a dealership has to say either ‘We put money in the bank or we did not put money in the bank.’ And we also need to look out for the guys who sell for us. I want to make them money because if they’re making money, the dealership is making money.”

Learning by Doing

“During my first year, I didn’t get involved with any formal training. It was just a ‘feet to the fire’ type of deal. I’m currently enrolled in the Jerkins’ Dealer Candidate course. Right now I’m on the fourth of the six-part program.

“It really has sped up my actual learning process about the deeper side of the business. The most benefit I’ve gotten out of it is talking to the other dealers and learning from the various consultants about how service affects sales, how sales affects service, how accounting affects parts. I’m really starting to understand how all of the pieces of the puzzle go together.

“Once I get through with this program, we’ll see where I’m at, then we’ll make the decision on what other formal training I need. I know I need to get more hands-on experience. I like to break stuff and then fix it. I think some of the best training is doing it yourself. It’s kind of like college to me where the biggest thing they teach you is how to go find the information. Once you find it that’s when your education and everything comes into play, which will tell you how to apply it.

“I am very aware that I’ve got a long way to go in learning this business. Thankfully, barring something catastrophic, Ron’s not quitting tomorrow. If something were to happen, I probably have enough business acumen to make it work. But to feel extremely confident about dealing with manufacturers or customers in general, I am nowhere close yet. That’s going to be an ever-evolving thing.”

Putting Experience to Work

“Most of my training here has come from working with Ron and the others. One thing Ron has done that really works for me is, while showing me how to do things, he has me actually do them. And he’s been very open to discussing things and showing me what I did wrong and what I did right. This has also helped him and others because, as I figure it out, I’ll build Excel spreadsheets and formulas, where others use calculators and pencils.

“My biggest surprise was that agriculture and this business is big business. The dollars that exchange hands every day at our dealership is comparable to what I saw when I worked in healthcare…”

“My biggest challenge here is explaining how I did it, how I got it right, and why it could make the processes more efficient if they did it the way I did it. Sometimes I’m just not a very good teacher and I’ve got to get better at this.

“I started out here working with inventory turns, and, like I said, I’m bringing more technology to the business. With my background in healthcare, where I did a lot of computer implementation, I’ve taken on a pretty big role in trying to bridge the gap and showing the people here who are not used to technology how to use it and how it benefits everyone at the dealership.

“We already had a CRM system when I got here, but I’ve been able to take it to the next level to where our salespeople have remote access. Now they can see exactly what’s on the lot at both stores. They don’t have to go into our business system to search it out. I’ve tried to make it where they can pull up one sheet and it’s all there.

“So far my efforts have been aimed at wholegoods. I’m still learning about parts and service metrics and they’re on my agenda. I need to understand that area better. But our system for wholegoods is working really well.”

Managing People Issues

“In my previous work, I had to evaluate work performance, and one of the things I feel I’m very good at is reading people. I know how people can look really good in an interview, but there’s a difference in being a doer and someone who says they can do it.

“I mean a tractor’s a tractor, no matter its color. It’s the dealership behind it, the service, the people who are supporting it is what makes the difference. We need people who believe the equipment they’re selling is the best out there and sell and service it that way.

“When I came here, I could see some people weren’t cutting it. We were having a good year based on numbers, but some personalities weren’t a good fit. I haven’t figured out how to measure dollars lost because of personality issues, but I could see it was happening.

“We had multiple conversations about things like this. I know we make mistakes in hiring, but I think you need to recognize it and make the necessary changes quickly and not ‘baby’ the situation along. This was probably the biggest hurdle I’ve faced since coming to work here.”

Emphasizing Soft Skills

“We’ve talked about succession planning, but right now we’re still trying to figure if everything fits. The big deal right now is I’ve never done it. Is this something that 5 years down the road I’m still passionate about? I would be lying if I told you that being a dealer-principal wasn’t my ultimate goal.

“I’ve grown to love this business. I absolutely love it. The one thing that I have really enjoyed that is different from what I was doing before is things here change every single day. There are so many factors that go into this business.

“Now, if there’s too much rain, customers aren’t buying. If it’s too dry, they’re not buying. There’s always something affecting it. You never know what that common denominator is going to be. One year it’ll be the rain, the next year it’s corn prices, the next it could be milk prices. When our customers need it, they need it now. There’s always something changing.

“I’ve only been around this business a short time, but I think I’m seeing some basic changes taking place. It seems everything used to be focused on the bottom line and mostly I still think it is, but I think we’re seeing more emphasis on the people side of the business, or the soft skills. Understanding people is becoming as important as technical skills in terms of your bottom line.

“Going forward it’s a matter of gaining people’s trust and this applies to customers and employees. If they don’t know that you’re there for them, then you really haven’t done a very good job. To make money, you need to help your customers make money. We’re becoming consultants as much as equipment dealers.”