After 20 years in business, some people believe there's not much left to know. But after two decades of selling ag machinery, Jason Bessette says he's still learning the retailing intricacies of the farm equipment business and plans to keep on learning.
He'll be the first to tell you he didn't know how much he didn't know until CVE bought out the dealership where he was working in 2005. Before that, he thought all it took to succeed was to "sell, sell, sell."
Today, in his role as a partner in an expanding dealership network, he talks about having a "vision" of what the dealership needs to do to continue growing and making money. He talks about the hard decisions that sometimes must be made to make that vision a reality. He talks about how focusing on details is what will give CVE an edge in this increasingly competitive and complex business.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Years with Organization: About 10 years with Fine Line Equipment before CVE acquired it in 2005. He's now in his ninth year with CVE. Besides farm work as a teenager, selling ag equipment is the only job he's ever had.
Role: With Brian and Russell Carpenter and Josh Provost, Bessette is a partner in the 4-store dealership group in Vermont. He also serves as general manager of the dealership's St. Albans, Vt., store
Except for working on a farm in his teenage years, selling farm equipment is the only job Bessette has ever had. And as much as he enjoys selling he has larger responsibilities at the CVE's store in St. Albans, Vt.
Before CVE bought out Fine Line Equipment in 2005, Bessette had 10 years experience in the business. While his main responsibility was to sell, he would often oversee store operations in the boss' absence. But what he did at the store was all the same to him.
He concedes he knew little or nothing about managing new or used inventory, or receivables, or parts inventory or shop expenses. "I came to work every day and I thought I have to run this business from 8 in the morning till 5 at night. I worried about Tuesday on Tuesday. When Wednesday came, I worried about Wednesday." Everything revolved around selling.
During the last year before CVE acquired the store, Bessette says he wasn't doing much selling. He spent a bulk of time "wheeling and dealing with manufacturers and getting ready for floorplan audits. I was trading four quarters for a dollar," he says. It became obvious the dealership was not headed in the right direction.
About that time, he was approached by some local investors who offered to back him if he was interested in buying the dealership. But the past year made it obvious to him that there was more to operating a dealership than selling. Candidly, he says, "I wasn't 100% convinced that I had the knowledge to run a dealership."
When he heard from a manufacturer's rep that CVE was interested in acquiring the business, Bessette contacted Brian Carpenter, general manager of CVE. "I sat down with him and thanks to the Carpenter family, I became a partner."
Acquiring a Vision
Bessette admits that working with Carpenter to turn around the St. Albans store was transformative for him. In his eyes, the level of professionalism that Carpenter brought to the organization was amazing. "Brian is very detailed, very organized, and that was very different from where I came from."
It was an exhilarating time, Bessette says. "Brian was excited because it was his first new store acquisition. I was excited because I was staying in the field and had the opportunity to be a partner."
Between Carpenter's mentoring and regularly attending classes conducted by Dr. Jim Weber, Bessette has developed a forward-looking approach to managing the business. Today, he focuses directly on achieving benchmarks and paying attention to the everyday operating details.
More recently, Josh Provost, a new partner whose dealership in Derby became part of the CVE organization in 2008, has also lent his experience and financial expertise to Bessette's ongoing business education.
Today, he's doing the "dailies," but always looking forward. "I'm constantly thinking 3 or 4 years down the road: Where are we going to be? What's going to make this business stronger? How are we going to gain more key customers? How are we going to gain market share? What can we do to make ourselves stand above the other local dealers? Moving forward is the direction we have to be headed. The biggest difference between now and before CVE is the vision I've developed for the future," says Bessette.
That vision is focused squarely on service.
Changing the Culture
Bessette's transformation to a forward-thinking owner also brought with it the realization that not everyone around him shared ownership's vision for CVE. While his core managers - Chantal Persons in accounting, Aaron Keeler in service and Tim Curtis in parts - were on board and rowing in the same direction, some of the old hands weren't buying into the new view where service was the cornerstone for building the new organization.
"You gain or lose your customers based on your service," says Bessette. "Customer relations, whether it's acquiring new customers or maintaining existing customers, this is where 110% of our focus is aimed. The long term vision of this dealership is service. I believe this is what will make or break us."
While he came from the sales side, he says it's a different story sitting in the general manager's chair. "You look at things a lot differently. You can only promise something to the customer so many times before the customer finally says, 'Look, you're not fulfilling your promises and I'm not going to do business with you anymore.' If we don't have the parts and service to fall back on, like we promised, you're only going to convince them to come through your door so many times."
He says Service Manager Aaron Keeler has done a tremendous job in growing the store's service business, so it made it even more difficult to terminate 3 techs who couldn't or wouldn't buy into the expanded service concept that Bessette was trying to instill into the dealership's culture.
Bessette has been preaching that, moving forward, what the dealership is going to do was no different than what every dairy farmer they serve does day in and day out - and 60-65% of the store's revenues come from dairy operations in the area. "We are going to be a 7 day a week, 24 hour a day operation," he says. "That's going to be the way it is. To be in this business, this is what we've got to do."
Up to this point, Bessette and his service and parts managers have shared the responsibility of being available on weekends, but he believes this must become part of everyone's mindset.
"We made some changes in the shop because my service vision is targeted around techs that want to be company employees, who share this vision. We need techs that understand customer relations. They need to recognize that we're in a seasonal business and, unfortunately, that means we may need to work after hours and on weekends," Bessette explains.
Confronted with the changing culture, he says some chose to leave on their own, while others had the decision made for them. "I can see their frustration, but everyone needs to share the vision or it doesn't work."
He says he was also concerned about how the poor attitudes would affect others in the department, especially the newer personnel.
Another consideration that impacted the decision to part ways with some of the technicians was because Bessette believes that of all of CVE's locations, the St. Albans store has the best potential for significant growth. He says the store experienced the most growth in 2012, and through 10 months of 2013 it was already at 112% of its revenue target for the year.
Bessette says if St. Albans was still a stand-alone store, the decision to part with the techs would have been far more difficult. As it is, the dealership has been able to tap the service departments at CVE's other stores to maintain its service commitments while it works to recruit new talent.
Never Sold a Combine
With dairy operators, hobby farmers and large property owners comprising 90% or more of his revenue base, selling high horsepower tractors and combines has never been the bread and butter revenue generators for CVE. While 60-100 horsepower tractors are the sweet spot for the dealership's sales, Bessette sees this changing somewhat.
"I've never sold a combine," he says, "but I remember one being sold several years ago to a farmer who was doing high-moisture corn here in Franklin County. It was a used one and I think he's still got it."
At the same time, the consolidation of dairy operations in Vermont is following a similar path to that of the corn and soybean areas of the Midwest. As a result, the St. Albans dealership is seeing expanding demand for large equipment - self-propelled forage harvesters and some high horsepower tractors.
"I know there are dealers that sell big equipment every day, but selling one or two forage harvesters and a couple of big tractors in our little community is a big deal for us," Bessette says.
In fact, that's what the St. Albans store did in 2013. And they're following good practices of the best big dealers. "In October, we sold our second new self-propelled chopper for the year. I did the deal with a long time customer, took his trade-in and had it sold before we took possession of it," he says.
The sale of the two choppers along with three New Holland large frame 4WD tractors made 2013 "phenomenal for our dealership," says Bessette.
Have Leader, Will Follow
Moving forward, he knows if the demand for larger equipment continues to expand in his region, it will be even more important to focus closely on best practices that the dealership continues to implement throughout the organization.
To maintain the CVE vision, Bessette says he understands that he must pay close attention to the daily details while focusing on attaining the benchmarks that he and his partners have set and agreed upon. "For me, my focus is to hit those and continue looking forward."
He adds that he's come a long way since teaming up with Carpenter and doesn't hesitate to credit he and Provost for his growth. Again, he goes back to when he sat down to discuss the future of the dealership with Carpenter and what his role would be. "All I remember was I didn't want to lose the opportunity because I knew this is what I wanted for my future. But I still had it in the back of my mind that I wasn't 100% confident that I could make it all happen. But once I was with Brian, I knew I could.
"Brian is the one in the boat way up ahead. He's the big picture guy. I continue to learn from him. What I need to do is to keep my dealership on his path and do what it takes to follow him."