It’s one of the sad stories of the equipment world that has been repeated multiple times over past decades; long-time, family-owned dealerships abandoned by suppliers pushing for larger market shares and multiple stores. Many times, the story ends with an auction and a vacant building for sale, but in this situation, the dealership picked up another tractor line, actively sold it to the existing customer base and grew to 3 stores.
In a 2-year span in the 1990s, Panhandle Implement Co. Inc. in Perryton, Texas, was the top Case IH dealer in the Dallas region for 4WD articulated tractors. But by 2007, Case was demanding multi-store dealerships and, while Panhandle would later head that way, they weren’t moving fast enough. After nearly 60 years as a Case dealer, their contract was terminated. President and General Manager Terry Townsend admits parting ways was painful. “It was a little bit of a ‘downer’ at that point in time,” he says, “but 6 months later I would tell you, it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
What happened 6 months later was they became a Versatile dealer; finding a product they could sell to existing customers and product support superior to anything they’d recently experienced.
Townsend says he was surprised there wasn’t more initial resistance to the change, from customers or employees, “Everyone recognized the situation we were in with Case leaving. Our salesmen were loyal to the dealership and realized that while they no longer had the Case line, they had to move on and sell what we had. We were all fairly young and capable of change, so we moved on. Panhandle Implement represents 12 different equipment companies and are accustomed to hopping from one manufacturer to another. So I don’t think most of us salesmen ever thought twice about it, in fact, the change gave us a reason to call customers about putting them in a new tractor. It was a good opportunity to re-up with them.”
The dealership found a receptive audience for the new product line among existing Case IH customers. “The Versatile line of tractors,” Townsend says, “matched up well to our dryland farmers. Versatile already had a reputation in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle and it was a good one. It was actually a very pleasant and inviting sign to customers that we were going to represent them.” Townsend was pleased by the initial response. “The first year we sold 13 Versatiles and traded for a lot of Case tractors,” he says. “We gradually, over the next 5 or 6 years, traded the majority of our customers, who had been using Case tractors, out of them and into Versatile.
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“At the end of the day, we were able to transfer dozens of customers who liked the simplicity of Versatile and the cost relationship to horsepower. It was an easy transition to be quite honest.” Townsend says he promotes value when selling Versatile. “When you’re talking about a 400 horsepower tractor, I could probably beat Case and Deere by $100,000,” he says. “We emphasize their outboard plantetaries on the 4WDs and the simple design of the tractor. Customers like the Versatile tractor cab; it’s one of the biggest in the industry today, and several commented that they appreciated being able to stretch their arms out from window to window. There’s also a little bit of nostalgia in owning it, maybe grandad had a Versatile when the customer was a kid.”
Of course, having a great product can’t maintain sales if it can’t be supported and Townsend says Panhandle’s commitment to Versatile helped in that process. “We have a policy that any product we represent will be successful based on our ability as a dealership to service it. We’re going to win the relationships by proving our ability in the field to help our customers who need to keep going. For example, this year we had rain and snow late, like we’ve never had before, and farmers are in a hurry now; they have cotton to put in the ground or corn to get done and we’ve had the ability to lease out some tractors, on the spur of the moment, to give them the ability to run with more than one tractor in the field at a time. They know they can get that kind of service here.”
Panhandle Implement quickly found the new supplier had their back when offering that support. “We were really impressed with Versatile’s staff,” Townsend says, “in their abilities to assist us in the field, which we were not getting from Case at that moment in time. In the last 10 years with our previous supplier, I can’t tell you that we had a relationship with anybody at Case. We have relations with Versatile all the way up to the president of the company and that’s impressive. That helps give us a voice. There are many situations we can get into with bigger tractors where I need somebody who’s going to be there when I call. We’re really Versatile’s customer and they need to help us when we ask, just like my customers would with me, but they take it to a ‘partnering’ relationship, so we’re not here on an island a long way from the Winnipeg home office. That relationship has grown significantly and it really is a reason we’ve been so successful with Versatile.”
The transition from Case IH to Versatile was easy for the Panhandle employees. Townsend says, “It was horribly obvious in the beginning that our support, both from parts and service departments had improved with the change. Being able to call and get a company person on the phone was really good. Versatile had good parts books and we could access them online, comparable to the Case system, and they’ve since improved. Our parts guys, especially, made an easy transition to Versatile, to be quite honest it was probably a little simpler.”
It was the same with the service department. “I think the tractors were simple enough to work on that we had very minimal pushback from service techs about changing brands. At that time, most of the Case tractors we had out in the field were powered by Cummins engines, which the Versatile line also used. Our service guys didn’t miss a beat by switching over.”
Townsend is a fiercely independent dealer, which can intimidate suppliers, but the change from Case IH products to Versatile proved customer loyalty existed more to the dealership and less to the products they sold. “We made a decision a long time ago that we were promoting the fact that we represent Panhandle Implement first and our suppliers second. If today, one of them went away, Panhandle Implement is going to be here tomorrow. We’re here to make long term relationships with customers by putting them in equipment that we know they’ll be happy with. Versatile, Kubota, Krone and our other suppliers are all comfortable with that relationship and it doesn’t appear to be an issue.
“We represent some great manufacturers and Versatile is one of them, and they’re not pressuring us to be brand pure to their line. I truly believe that after Case terminated us, they expected us to fold up and go home. To this day I say, ‘Oh boy I bet they were surprised when we popped up with another line and then not only kicked their butt, but also grew to 3 stores!’ To be quite honest, I’m kind of proud of that. Versatile has the wisdom to understand that we need Kubota tractors to sell to oilfield customers and Krone equipment to sell to hay producers and having those additional lines helps us be a stronger dealer for all of our suppliers.”
Townsend says the short window between Case IH and Versatile helped the transition. “Had we had a longer gap, for example, if it had been 5 years before we picked up a large tractor line, I believe the entire process would have been more difficult, because customers go elsewhere. Our ability to transition customers right into the new line, without having them shop somewhere else and possibly make another relationship, really helped us. One of our stores had been out of the large tractor market for 10 years prior to us purchasing that dealership. We brought Versatile in there and we’ve had a harder time at that location getting back into the market. I truly believe it’s because of the decade-long lapse, when people went elsewhere and developed other dealer loyalties. Our two other locations had immediate success with the line.”
Jerry Farney, Townsend’s father-in-law, helped build Panhandle Implement and was the previous owner, which is now owned and run by Townsend and his brother-in-law, Brian Farney, who is vice president. The majority of their business is serving customers who raise dryland wheat, but they’re seeing growth in cotton plantings and a significant expansion in dairy cow numbers in their area recently. They sell more 4WD articulated high horsepower units than they do fixed-frame front wheels assist units. They have three stores now, including locations in Hereford and Dumas, Texas, and Townsend predicts continued growth. “We’ve covered up three corners of the Texas panhandle and have a desire to cover up the fourth corner. Everywhere we expand, we take Versatile with us.” Other lines are Krone, Kubota, Sunflower, Woods, Great Plains, Rhino and Land Pride, but Panhandle sells only one large tractor. “Versatile is my line and we intend to keep it that way.”