During the drive back to the Gibson City Birkey’s Farm Store from a nearby restaurant where he’s had lunch, General Manager Mike Carley gestures toward a field where a farmer is spreading nitrogen behind a Case IH tractor.

“That’s one of my oldest customers,” he says. He explains that he had actually worked for the farmer, picking rocks from fields when he was a teenager. “He’s bought a lot of tractors from me.”

A moment later, Carley’s cell phone rings. It’s the farmer, who had recognized the car as it passed. The two chat for a few moments, exchanging good-natured banter.

It’s a perfect example of the emphasis he places on ongoing relationships.

 He started his career with Birkey’s in sales, and it’s clearly something he enjoys. He also sees sales as the lifeblood of the business and emphasizes that the sale involves more than just a tractor, combine or planter.

“You’re always selling something, whether it’s the product or your service department. You’ve got to make that customer believe that you are the best there is — and we do.”

Carley gets involved in every wholegoods sale to make sure the deal makes sense for the company.

“There’s more to this than just the price,” he says. “You have to look at what you’re selling it for, what you’re trading for. The bottom-line number might not make sense. Some of the best deals for us have been ones that we walked away from.”

Because he oversees two other stores, Carley makes sure to set time aside to meet with his Gibson City sales staff.

“Every Monday morning we’ll sit down here and spend 2 hours or more going over deals,” he explains. “If I’m not there, my salesmen will call me and we’ll go over the deal and I’ll give them my thoughts.”

He also spends time in the field with the sales staff.

“I try to ride with my salespeople at least twice a year,” he says. “I’ll hop in the car with them and say, ‘Let’s go see your top 15 customers.’ ”

The calls aren’t likely to be long, but Carley sees them as vital in building the relationships that the business depends on.

“Relationships are what this business is really about,” he says. “Most businesses are that way, but it’s particularly true in this one because 85% are repeat customers.”

Carley says relationships would be the single biggest thing he would emphasize to anyone interested in a job like his — and in fact is the biggest thing he emphasizes in his role as training future Birkey’s store managers.

“Focus on building those relationships with customers,” he says. “That’s the best thing you can do, to develop that bond with a customer to make him feel like he wants to do business with you.”