Pictured Above: Forrester Farm Equipment’s 10,000 square foot dealership in Somerset County, Pa., was designed so that it could easily be replicated on a larger scale when the time came to update the dealer’s Chambersburg, Pa., store.
If you asked Cory Forrester what the biggest lesson he learned through the process of building a new dealership is, he’d tell you it’s to do your homework.
Five years ago Forrester Farm Equipment opened its second location in Somerset County, Pa. “It was more of a storefront for parts and sales and just a little bit of service,” Forrester says. When the store first opened, the aim was to do $2 million in sales. “We had bought 6 acres that had a house on it and 3,200 square foot building. At first, for a $1 or $2 million business, it was plenty big. We thought we were going to have more room than we would know what to do with,” he says.
After just 4 years, the store manager Will Paxton needed more room. The store was doing $7 million in sales, had a larger focus on service than anticipated and simply had outgrown the space. “He was busting at the seams. He had $2.5 million worth of inventory sitting there with nowhere to put it,” Forrester says.
Forrester searched, unsuccessfully, for a facility to purchase for a year before ultimately deciding to build new. They found a business park about a mile down from the existing store and purchased two lots, equaling about 10 acres. The business park was attractive because it offered some tax-free exemptions and all the building materials were tax free, explains Forrester. “When we were sitting there signing the contract and saying, ‘We’ll take this piece of land,’ it was like a salesman was being sold a piece. It all sounds great and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, yes! We’re going to get all this stuff. It’s going to be cool,’” he says.
“We had never built a dealership before, so we had no idea what happened next in the process,” says Forrester. “We bought the land, now what? Buying a piece of ground was the easiest part of this whole thing.”
• Set a clear budget and know what your funds are, but understand that you could likely come in 10% over or 10% under that number.
• Take time to learn about the building process before jumping in. Understanding how the process works could potentially cut down the time the project will take. “I’m the kind of person that jumps into stuff and then figures it out as I go,” says Cory Forrester. “Looking back, I think I probably should have done a little bit more research and understood the process a little bit better myself.”
• Research what the permitting process will be like and what the timeline for getting permits approved is. Acquiring permits could take up to 6 months or more.
• Consider hiring a general contractor who knows the building industry and can help make decisions and oversee the different trades working on the project.
Forrester hired a general contractor, Dustin Rickabaugh, to oversee the project, and with the “easy part” done they started looking for a builder. Ultimately, the dealership got quotes from 3 companies — one national and two local. Having the right people working with them on the project was important to Forrester since he’s based at Forrester Equipment’s other location, nearly 100 miles away in Chambersburg. The national builder was much higher than the other two and was eliminated. The other two — both of whom were customers of Forrester — came in with bids within about 10% of each other. “We went out to lunch with both of them. The one who had a lower number, I just didn’t get a good feeling for him as far as the 100-mile commute.” Forrester says. “He was questioning that commute, whether his guys would be up for it.
“Whereas the guy who was more money, his guys were 100%, they were good to go, it wasn’t a problem. They were going to stay out there and they were going to work 10-12 hour days or whatever they needed to do to get the job done.”
While Forrester had bought the property in May of 2015, they weren’t able to start building until November of that year. “It took 6 months to get all of the permitting done,” he says. “We had no clue it would take that long. I thought it was a 5-minute job. In my mind, you walked in and handed the person money and said, ‘We’re building a building.’ And then they told you to have a nice day. I realize that’s totally unrealistic, but this was all new to us. If you’ve never built anything you needed to get a permit for, how would you know?
“In our world, our family has a farming background, when you build a farm building you don’t need any permits in the state of Pennsylvania. So you can build a barn on your farm ground and get zero permits.”
For a commercial building like a dealership, permits are of course required. Further complicating the permitting process, Somerset County is part of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments (COG), which is based in Pittsburgh. “The way the COG works is four or five counties work together and all permits are processed through Pittsburgh,” Forrester says. “So I might as well have been building a building in downtown Pittsburgh. That’s how difficult it was.”
Once they had gotten through all the permitting and having a lawyer review, it was October and they broke ground on Nov. 2, less than ideal timing to start a construction project. “Somerset, Pa., is a place that has two seasons. It has the Fourth of July and it has winter. Those are your only two choices. The winters are brutal and the entire project ended up being in the winter. We started this in November of 2015, and we finished up April 1, 2016,” Forester says.
Designing the Building
When it came time to design the new facility, Forrester discovered there are no real guidelines currently that he could find to help guide the process. In the age of Google, they started their research by doing a web search for New Holland dealership building floorplans. With no luck on that search, they broadened the search to just farm equipment dealership building floorplans. “There were no Google hits. There was nothing out there,” Forrester says. “You can Google pink puppies and I guarantee a picture of a pink puppy comes up. But when you search floorplans for a farm equipment dealership, you get zero hits.”
The 3,000 square foot showroom is as large as the whole building the dealership used to occupy. Owner Cory Forrester says he wanted a well-lit showroom that had room to display a tractor.
Forrester was able find some pictures and floorplans for car dealerships, but because farm equipment is so much larger than cars, they didn’t end up being much help. “I can’t dream about it and say, ‘I’m going to build this.’ I’m someone who has to see something. Once I see it and like it, I’m able to make changes from there,” he says.
Fortunately, Forrester was able to find an example while driving around one Sunday with his son. “There’s an old Freightliner dealership about 30 miles south of here that isn’t being used any more. So, we drove down there just to look at the place,” he says. “Looking at the old dealership, I thought ‘Wow, this is set up really nice. It has a good look to it.’ I called the Freightliner dealer and asked if he would be willing to meet me at the old facility, which he agreed to do. When I walked through the dealership I thought, ‘This is my farm equipment dealership right here. If I could lift this thing up and move it to Somerset, I would.’”
Forrester also worked with a couple other farm equipment dealers who shared their floorplans with him. That helped him and his architect alter the Freightliner design to better fit their needs. For example, Forrester added a tool room as a result of reviewing the other dealers’ floorplans.
Surprises Along the Way
As with any major project, there will be surprises along the way. One of the first issues Forrester hadn’t planned for in his budget were the fees the bank was going to charge for each draw payment. A draw schedule is the payment plan for a construction project that determines when the bank will disburse funds to the contractor. The idea is to make progress payments to the contractor as work is completed. “The builder sets up how he wants his draw, so it could be four, 10, 20 or whatever he sets. But, every time you draw from your bank, the bank charges you, in our case, $250,” he says. “When you think about that, if you have 10 draws that’s an extra $2,500 to your budget you didn’t really think about.”
Forrester was able to negotiate with the builder to do it in four draws and save the money on the bank fees. “I know it sounds like peanuts when you’re doing a $1 million project. But at the end, your goal is not to go over budget. You want to be under budget. We knew we weren’t going to be under budget, but we wanted to use that money to buy other things for the building that we needed,” he says.
The other surprises that popped up along the way had more to do with codes. For example, in the original building plan there was one bathroom. When all was said and done, the dealership had to have three bathrooms — a men’s and women’s rest room and one specifically for the shop. “We had to have three bathrooms because the shop guys had to have their own bathroom, and then we had to have a male and a female bathroom that were both handicap accessible,” Forrester says. “For our dealership size, we’re talking about 10 employees and during the day you may see 30 or 40 people. Out of those 30 or 40 people maybe one or two people might use your bathroom.”
“Buying a piece of ground was the easiest part of this whole thing…”
Another change came as a result of needing to have two fire exits on the second floor. The stairway at the back of the building ended up cutting into the shop, taking away about 100 square feet of space. More changes came at the parts counter. The plan was for the parts count to be 4 feet high and run straight across. “When I came out to the site, there was a 4 foot high counter and then we have one that drops down to about 26 inches because it had to be handicap accessible,” he says. “And that added money that wasn’t in our original budget.”
Of all the small surprises that pop up in a project like this, Forrester says there was one “surprise” that he considers a failure on the part of everyone involved. “We went to a meeting with the gas company and the guy we met with says, ‘Listen, I don’t know who did this but whoever it was has no idea what they’re doing,’” he says. “They plumbed the gas line into the side of the building and they put it in a 6-inch PVC pipe. The foundation is already over the top of this pipe, the sidewalk is already done, the pavement is already done. This pipe is the whole way down. The gas guy says, ‘You can’t do that because if you have a gas leak in that pipe anywhere, the whole way out to where we hook up, if it leaks in that pipe, it all comes into your building. Basically, it will gas your whole building and blow it up. We can’t approve this.’”
The gas company told Forrester, they had to tear it all up and fix it. “I was flipping out because here’s a situation where it wasn’t my fault; I didn’t do this,” he says.
The excavator also claimed not to be at fault, saying he shouldn’t have done anything but was helping the builder out. The builder then claimed he never told the excavator to do it, he just did. “Everyone just kept pointing fingers. At the end of the day, I said, ‘I’m paying for it. Because it doesn’t look like any of you guys want to pay for it.’”
The cost to redo the gas line ended up being $3,000 and each party agreed to pay $1,000. “Everyone was happy with the way things were going and everyone was getting along. We did that and it worked out. That was the only mistake that we made as a group. And like I said, my general contractor said, ‘Guys, what are you doing here? One person cannot overstep the other person’s bounds.’ What happened is the excavator put the pipe inside the building, then the builder thought that’s the way it was supposed to be so he just kept working and building and no one really knew that it shouldn’t be that way.”
The final surprise came once the new dealership was complete, although it could have been avoided. “We got a call from the people at the business park and we were told we can’t build a stick-built building here. They wanted a brick or steel building,” Forrester says. “We had to go back to the committee to get approval, which we did and it wasn’t a big deal. Again, when you go into a business park, they gave me about 20 pages worth of rules. Do you think for one second I read all of them? If I had, we would have avoided this. There was just some questions that we probably should have asked or I should have looked into a little bit harder, but I did not.”
They’ve been in the new building for a year now and Forrester says there’s not much he’d change. “There’s obviously always a couple things now that you’re in the building, walking around, going, ‘Oh, I wish we had a window here. I wish there was a door here.’ And some of the stuff, we wanted but weren’t allowed because of the fire requirements, you couldn’t have a window there, you couldn’t have a door there. A lot of those things were in our plan but couldn’t be done because of codes and such.”
‘Must Have’ Features
Through his own experiences as a dealer and seeing other dealers’ facilities, there were a few features Forrester knew had to be included. Having a showroom was important and was something the old building really didn’t have and is missing in the main store in Chambersburg. “I wanted to have a showroom that you could put a piece of equipment in. I wanted to have a showroom that was lit,” Forrester says.
The showroom has blue lights so at nighttime when the lights come on everything inside has a blue glow to it. “When you drive by at night it looks great,” he says. The showroom at the Somerset store is 3,000 square feet and includes space for parts display, but there’s also room to fit a tractor. “I think it’s important when a customer walks in the door, that they can see something in your showroom. The showroom here is as large as the other building we were in.”
When the project was coming in $100,000 under budget, the dealership was able to upgrade the storage for the parts department to blue Stanley Vidmar Snap-On cabinets.
In the parts room, Forrester incorporated an idea he got from a dealer in Georgia. “For all of his blades, which are hard to store and are hard to organize, he used 6-inch PVC pipe and stacked them up from floor to about 6 feet tall. That’s something we added.”
There’s also a special room in the back right off the parts room for deliveries, which means the UPS driver doesn’t have to walk in the front door and through the showroom. The room is also used for night deliveries. The delivery companies have a code for the door and are able to leave the parts in a secure location. “At our other dealership, they put them out on the front porch because there’s no way for them to get into my dealership. People drop them off at three o’clock in the morning, no one gets in here until seven the next morning.”
The Somerset store is built to scale, meaning it’s a 10,000 square foot building that could easily be replicated at 30,000 square feet. “In the future, when we’re looking to build a new dealership in Chambersburg, I’m going to be able to build that exact same dealership,” Forrester says.
Despite some challenges and setbacks, the project was coming in $100,000 under budget and that meant they were able to add some upgrades that originally hadn’t been planned. “This general contractor basically saved me $100,000. Rather than me putting that in my pocket, we put another $100,000 worth of extras into the dealership that we thought would pay dividends in the future,” Forrester says.
The Somerset store has spray insulation, which was an $18,000 upgrade but means there are no holes anywhere and the air isn’t seeping in or out. It also features a more efficient natural gas furnace. Improvements were also made to the area surrounding the building. While the original plan initially called for gravel in the parking lot, it was paved thanks to the extra money in the budget. In the area behind the shop, concrete aprons were added out past the building where originally it would have just been stone up to the building, Forrester says.
“In our parts room, we went with the Snap-On version of the Stanley Vidmar cabinets. I knew I wanted to have those cabinets in my parts room. I wanted to have condensed parts storage; that was one of my key things of building this dealership. I didn’t want to see my parts all scattered everywhere. I wanted my parts room to be professional looking and very organized and neat,” Forrester says. “From day one, I wanted these cabinets. I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to be able to afford it in the budget. Part of that $100,000 budget bought me Snap-On cabinets from New Holland, which were New Holland blue. They really look nice.”
Having the general contractor, Forrester says, was key to the success of the project and staying on budget. “I didn’t have time to be looking over this stuff and seeing if it was correct. He could meet with the excavator and talk to them. When the excavator had a question, he could answer their question whether by phone or going out to meet with the guy. I ended up paying the general contractor $20,000. And like I said, we were $100,000 under budget, even with his $20,000 in there. He came to me and showed me the numbers and said, ‘We are this much under budget at this point.’”
The general contractor added something Forrester couldn’t to the project — knowledge of the industry. For example, he was able to challenge the excavator and builder on some parts of their bids that Forrester wouldn’t have known weren’t necessary. “He could keep an eye on that. I don’t know that the builders would have shanked me at the end, but having that general contractor gave me the extra confidence that he was looking out for my best interest,” he says.
Forrester says projects like this are important to show both your customers and your employees you’re investing in the community and the business and are in it for the long haul. “That was a big thing with the Somerset store. People were glad to see us when we first showed up. They showed us by buying stuff. Then over the years, they bought more and more to let us know — OK, we invested in you. Now you need to invest in us. You need to invest in this community,” he says.
While the dealership hasn’t seen an immediate bump in sales as a result of the new facility, Forrester doesn’t doubt that the location will continue to grow.
“We’re going to just take the lump of being a bad year and move forward with it. I know for a fact, this dealership is going to be a $10 million dealership this year.”