Hutson Inc. is no stranger to turnaround nor the surprise and pivot, even dating back to 2008 when dealer principal Dan Hutson II died in a plane crash at age 54.

The Kentucky-based John Deere dealership had a black eye from a lease program that spun out of control, a change in ownership, an entire turnover in its leadership team, and ill feelings from its OEM as well as inline competition. It was also trying to unite two fierce rivals who suddenly were to be on the same team, not to mention staff having to trust an all-new class of leaders who had no farming or machinery roots.

While there are numerous $1 billion companies on the Dealership of the Year Alumni Group roster, Hutson is the first to have achieved the $1 billion level in the year of its selection by the judges. Hutson also saw the largest year-over-year revenue growth at 71% in 2022 of any multi-store dealer group in the 19-year history of the Dealership of the Year (DOY) program. And with a 2022 ROA of 22%, Hutson is among the highest around of any U.S.-based dealer in the program’s history. 

Hutson Inc.

Founded: 1990

Employees: 866

Ownership: John Eckstein & Bruce Hahn Leadership

Team: Josh Waggener, President & CEO; Brandy Jared, COO; Shane Osborne, CFO; Chris Dilday, CAO; Travis Kiesel, Vice President of Precision Ag

Locations: 32 2022

Revenue: $1,079,488,092 2022

Large Ag Market Share: 67% South / 69% North Return on Assets: 22.1% (both COGs) 2022 Parts & Service

Absorption Rate: 90.4%

Major Line: John Deere

Shortlines: J&M, Alamo, Unverferth, Billy Goat, AMCO, MacDon, Landoll, Balzer, Geringhoff, Kelly, Martin-Till, Brent, 360 Yield Center, Ag Express, Agri-Cover, Diamond Mowers, Garfield, Honda, LibertySafe, Manitou, Maurer, McFarlane, Pöttinger, Remlinger, Stihl & Smart Apply

Over the last 5 years, Hutson has grown organically by an order of 100%, doing $700 million in its southern region alone despite being down a location in 2022 as the Mayfield, Ky., site was being rebuilt following a tornado. 

Today, the 32-store dealership group is owned by majority owner John Eckstein and minority owner Bruce Hahn, who acquired the business in 2010. 

The new leadership team — that officially took over the reins in 2019 — consists of Josh Waggener, president and CEO, Brandy Jared, COO, Shane Osborne, CFO, Chris Dilday, chief aftermarket officer, and Travis Kiesel, vice president of precision ag. 

Jared started in October 2015 as VP of human resources to lead a substantial growth chapter, yet found her new company in a tumultuous state as the leadership team completely turned over. By 2017, the then-CEO left the business to farm, and soon after the dealership lost 2 members of the leadership team, leaving Jared and one other to rebuild from scratch. 


Source: Hutson Inc.

Click to enlarge

“A lot of these individuals who we brought on — Chris, Travis, Rodney Bohannon [previous vice president of aftermarket] and Josh — came along about the same time in 2017,” she says. “We hired all these individuals because we knew at some point, without a doubt, we’re growing. That’s the mission. That’s the goal.”

Waggener started as a tool and die maker and worked in the metalcasting business for 7 years before eying a move into sales management, which led him to throw his name in the hat for positions at various employers that might have deservedly gone into the circular file. But he got many of those posts, and continued his education along the way, completing his MBA in 2016. He joined Hutson in 2017 as the vice president of sales for nearly 2 years before being promoted to CEO.

A lot of things are different about this president/CEO and his approach and style, notwithstanding being the most sharply-dressed man of any toolmaker turned CEO that Farm Equipment has ever seen.

Waggener is willing to step in where it’s needed, too, taking on the aftermarket responsibility when Hutson lost its aftermarket leaders several months ago. 

“I had to directly oversee aftermarket for 7 months, and I was ready to quit. I was like, ‘This clearly is the hardest segment of our business to run.’” The experience gave him a new respect for the aftermarket side of the business and the challenges the staff faces. 

Planning & Paying for Growth 

The planning Hutson did ahead of its recent acquisition growth in Michigan set the stage for a more successful integration of the new locations. When Jared joined the team, she started looking at ways to standardize the business. To accomplish that, Jared worked with Auburn University. 

“They set up standardized work for everybody, job descriptions and built a 300-page sales manual,” Waggener says. “All the stuff that you need that wasn’t here, they built.” 


Hutson’s senior leadership team includes (l-r) Chief Aftermarket Officer Chris Dilday, CEO/President Josh Waggener, COO Brandy Jared and CFO Shane Osborne. Photo by: Hutson Inc.

When Hahn hired Jared (previously an HR exec at Briggs & Stratton), he told her the mission was to build a team to grow beyond the last acquisitions completed in 2014. She went to work on that integration playbook even though nothing was on the radar. 

The playbook, which would involve building processes, procedures and the team, had to be created. “It took longer than we wanted, but we were ready for the growth,” Jared says. 

Part of planning for that growth was making the conscious decision to carry higher expenses. Some of that comes in hiring a larger support staff in non-revenue generating positions, and some of it comes from building the brand, Waggener says.  “As a result, our direct personnel expense is hovering around 41%, though that continues to improve every year.” 

In a metric comparison of dealers in its Spader “20 group,”  Waggener says Hutson now ranks above the group average in the majority of categories after historically ranking toward the bottom.  

“Absorption continues to be our Achilles heel, though we’re making great strides again this year,” he says. “Our rolling 12 is sitting at 90% in the southern COG (contiguous ownership group), but there are also other outlying drivers affecting our absorption number. One of those drivers is the fixed cost associated with our brand. We budget for CAPEX accordingly every year in a way that allows us to constantly upgrade our locations to provide a better place of employment for our team and a better customer experience for our partners. We know our fixed costs are high.” 

Hutson pays above-industry salaries to recruit the best talent, Waggener says. The dealership shares its annual profits with every employee on the team to help keep them engaged with company strategies and goals. Hutson also invests in new sales and service trucks that represent its brand.

“We have a thick structure, but people go home at night and spend time with their family and friends,” he says. “Shutting down email and phone calls is expected and allows our team to recharge. Creating the separation is critical for the longevity and legacy we’re working to support at Hutson.” 

Despite all that, Hutson has moved its absorption rate up about 9% in the last 5 years, Waggener says. 

“Our peers do what they’re doing with a lot fewer employees. We’ve got 830 or so now, so we have some extra fat,” he says. “For instance, we have a quality team that stays in the field and helps assess used equipment that in other dealerships a sales rep might be solely responsible for. These roles are comprised of master technicians who are toward the backend of their careers.” 

Jared adds these are meaningful positions that open up more capacity for the sales team. “We want the sales team focused on selling, plus they don’t always have the expertise on the technical side of the equipment,” she says. “That quality team will come in and just make sure nothing is getting missed. They’re taking that burden off sales so they can be talking to another customer about a potential sale.”


The annual Hutson Summit brings together managers, support staff and the sales team from all 32 stores to review the year, announce awards and reinforce the culture. Photo: Hutson Inc.

In addition to the quality team, Hutson has a lot coordinator at each location. Those two positions across all of Hutson’s locations add up to 40 posts. These positions and other Hutson support staff positions are sometimes questioned because they are non-revenue generating roles. 

Jared says this was a challenge for the team because they were challenging staff jobs that aren’t bringing in revenue. But with that support staff, the sales staff is generating more revenue,” she says.

“Those are difficult decisions to make in this business. But it’s what’s helping us grow. It’s a long-term investment for the team and for growth.”

Saying Yes to Michigan

The decision of southern-based Hutson to move north in 2021 turned a lot of heads, though it had been long-awaited, as the company was staffing itself up for an expansion that hadn’t yet come. In 2014, the 8-location business entered Indiana with 5 stores acquired from Wright Stemle (Jasper, Poseyville, Evansville and Washington, Ind.) and Wright Implement (Newberry, Ind.) but had a 7-year stretch with no acquisitions. 

According to Waggener, the group was given the opportunity to pursue Michigan because Hutson is considered to be highly aligned with the Deere organization and  was performing at John Deere’s high level. The group had also reached maximum allowable industry size for a contiguous dealership, which was also a factor in the decision to grow into a non-contiguous geography. 

“Organically, it’s amazing how much we’ve been able to grow in the South,” Waggener says, pointing out that the 2022 levels of $750 million could have been higher had Mayfield, Ky., not been knocked out by the tornado. “I don’t know how much more we can get out of it. As we’re trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip over here.

“Deere is very strict with contiguous growth max limits, and I respect that decision, but with the investments required to support the vision of both Deere and Hutson moving forward, additional contiguous scale will have to come into play at some point.”

Opportunity Knocks

Some of the dealer groups in Michigan were performing well in the aftermarket but were less aggressive than Deere would’ve liked in market share, which made the state ripe for a change in dealer presence. “You need to be concerned about market share when your key supplier is,” says Waggener.

He describes Hutson as the type of high-volume, low-margin dealer that Deere embraces. “We move iron, and we know our aftermarket and precision team are going to take care of things so we can make our money back. When you hit market share metrics, it does pays well. You can’t bank on that or live on it, but it’s nice when it hits.”

Michigan Almost Didn’t Happen

President/CEO Josh Waggener recalls that while deep into his pursuit of the stores in the Wolverine State, the owners hadn’t exactly “bought in.” Though they were adamant they wanted to grow, the concern around spreading the leadership team thin was weighing heavily on them, and they had decided Michigan was too far away.

Waggener heard objections, but was so adamant about going to Michigan that he persevered and kept negotiating and working the deal with the anticipation he’d eventually get the needed buy-in from ownership. He laughs that some on the team were on the brink of having heart attacks because he was pushing forward hard for the deal while the owners were saying it was off the table. One of the dealerships that was for sale had basically given up and said, “The plane is circling and we’re out of fuel — are we doing this or not?”

The very next week Waggener would get to Jacksonville, Fla., to the family office of majority owner John Eckstein — armed with a consultant and ex-Deere employee to make his case. “After the initial months of discussing with little success, Eckstein made an executive decision on the spot, and 30 minutes later we were executing an letter of intent” Waggener says. “I asked about Bruce (minority owner), and he said, ‘Let me worry about that,’ and the rest is history.

“We were either going to grow or I was going to get fired,” he jokes. Backing out of the deal would have undone all the goodwill and rapport with both their own staff and Deere. “Most important, the team really needed this win,” says COO Brandy Jared. “The team was ready to grow. They were getting bored. We’d brought on these people to grow, had this additional corporate expense we were carrying and weren’t growing.”

But it proved to be a good decision for the relationship with Deere and employees. “People, they like to win,” Waggener says. “They want to grow, they want to be big. And when you get that momentum, I don’t think we’ve gone more than 3-4 months in the last year-and-a-half without buying somebody, and that’s become the norm.”

Waggener points out that there had been “very bad blood” between the two Michigan dealers (D&G Equipment and Bader & Sons) that Deere was attempting to consolidate — so much that the two rival groups would barely speak to each other. 

“Jolene Gustafson, the owner of D&G, refused to sell to Bader, so I had to broker a deal with her separately in order to get behind the Bader & Sons deal,” Waggener says. “A quick trip to Michigan for a sit-down with her allowed us to come to an agreement on the same day. Two weeks later we had both letters of intent in place, and we were off to the races.”

Hutson acquired both dealership groups in one swoop in May 2021, meaning an overnight acquisition of 18 stores. “We closed on 2 dealerships with 18 locations in 60 days ­— right in the middle of planting season,” Waggener recalls. Overnight, it was responsible for a territory that ran from the Mackinac Bridge to the Ohio border (300 miles from north to south).

Waggener was confident that his team could grow market share regardless of the geography and believed he’d found a diamond in the rough. He and Kiesel were also sure they could cut a wider swath in precision ag in a geography considerably behind the trajectory southern farmers and dealers were on. 

“The dealers we acquired in Michigan had a good basic level understanding in precision but struggled with the high-end technology adoption,” says Kiesel, in contrast to the technology adoption curve in Hutson’s southern-states regions. “They struggled to train both farmers and employees, and as a result, their customers didn’t pursue it. While our precision had been mainstreamed for 3 years or more, it was just starting to take hold in Michigan.”

Two years later, Hutson has achieved a market share of 69% for large ag in Michigan, 52.1% for mid-tractor hay and forage and 33.5% small tractor sales. From 2021 to 2022, Hutson’s Michigan operations saw market share growth in these same categories of 24%, 31.3% and 14.4% respectively. Waggener is proud to have achieved $350 million in sales in Michigan but believes it can be $100 million higher. “It’s just going to take a little bit to get us there,” he says.

“People like to win. They want to grow, they want to be big…”

Acquisitions in Michigan are likely to continue as Hutson’s reputation and results have taken root. “You don’t go from 44% to 69% market share without doing damage,” he explains. Even the smaller dealers who haven’t found the need to grow are taking notice of their futures. 

“In the spirit of our alignment with Deere, when there have been sightings of orange and blue tractors in other areas of Michigan in AOR not previously held by Hutson, we’ve continued our aggressive all-in approach and pursued and acquired 5 additional single-store acquisitions over the last 18 months,” Waggener says.

How to Manage from Afar

Jared recalls those previous 6 years ahead of the 2021 acquisitions prepared the team for growth, but perhaps “not quite this large of a growth opportunity.” 

Establishing culture is a challenge with an acquired store that is mere miles away, and the challenge is magnified when locations are a full day’s drive. 

“We acquired two competing Deere dealers,” says Jared. “We were firm that we would not tolerate not supporting one another. That is something that we preach a lot — you’re going to come in and you’re going to work together, even if you didn’t in the past. They jumped in and started doing those things, but I would give much credit to those individuals that relocated for us.”

Jared and Waggener “lived” in Michigan initially, but have scaled back to monthly visits now that the team is functioning well. “We still want that visibility, and it’s important to us that the team knows that we’re still going to show up, even if it is challenging sometimes to be at all places,” he says.