By John Kmitta
Sam Millner, general manager/owner of M&M Express Sales & Service, was only 23 years old in 2004, and, at that time, he was in the school bus transportation business. He had no prior experience in the outdoor power equipment (OPE) industry, but saw a need in his market and went to work, opening his first OPE dealership.
“We started completely from scratch with no experience in the business,” said Millner. “We had a neighboring piece of property come up for sale. After some research, we decided to start a power equipment business. When we started, it was just me, my brother-in-law, and one technician. We sold Hustler zero-turns, Jonsered chain saws, Kioti tractors and Thomas skid-steers.
“It was very uphill, as far as learning the tricks of the trade and buying right,” Millner added. “In the school bus business, you’re dealing with one school district, and it is about transporting students to and from school safely. In the power equipment business, you are dealing with thousands and thousands of individuals, many types of products, and various mediums to reach those customers.”
According to Millner, the early years of the business consisted of a lot of long, 14- to 15-hour days, arriving early and leaving late. But he also gives credit to reps and manufacturers who helped him learn the business.
After opening its first location in 2004, M&M Express Sales & Service added additional locations in 2005, 2012 and 2015. As the company now approaches 15 years in business, it includes Big Lake Power Equipment in Big Lake, Minn.; Brainerd Power Equipment in Brainerd, Minn.; Buffalo Power Equipment in Buffalo, Minn.; and Maple Lake Power Equipment in Maple Lake, Minn. (www.mmexpresssales.com).
The company has 23 employees, including seven full-time service technicians, four location managers, two full-time accounts payable and receivable employees, and 10 sales and support staff members.
M&M Express’s customer base is 80%/20% consumer/commercial, and Millner said his team approaches business with the philosophy that the customer is always right. “We try to take customer service to the next level,” he said. “We try to make things right, and we want customers to feel we went the extra mile for them. We want them to enjoy their equipment and get them what they need. We always listen to them.”
Millner’s dealerships carry several leading brands including Toro, Cub Cadet, Stihl, Husqvarna, Echo, Exmark and Mahindra. Millner indicated that the company sells a lot of residential and commercial zero-turn mowers.
“Our philosophy has been to have a large selection of top-of-the-line equipment to give the customer the choice to select what best suits their needs, and for us to have the flexibility to order it in if we do not stock it,” he said. “We have been focusing on Toro for quite some time. Since 2005, Toro has been our premier zero-turn and snowblower line. In 2015, we took on Cub Cadet when we bought an existing dealership that was a Cub dealer, and Cub has been going strong for us since.”
M&M Express Sales & Service is also the first Mahindra dealer in Minnesota, and sells Mahindra at three of its locations.
“The UTVs they provide us are a very well built machine,” said Millner. “They sell well in spring and sell well in fall, with customers primarily purchasing them for land maintenance or hunting.”
As with most OPE dealerships, Millner said that finding qualified technicians is an ongoing battle.
“It has been frustrating because qualified technicians can make substantially more than a living wage, but people are not entering the industry,” said Millner. “The whole OPE industry is going to have to work together – including manufacturers – to right this ship!”
Millner added that approximately two years ago he looked at everything, tried to do more with less, and work on internal efficiencies. “We did an internal audit, and that has helped,” he said. “We have found good sales staff and support staff, but, like the rest of the industry, finding quality service technicians is a challenge. We have been lucky that a lot of our employees have been with us a long time at our locations. We try to have a very high average age and seniority in our service department, and we try to make their jobs more enjoyable and beneficial.”
Beyond finding qualified technicians, Millner said another challenge is the changing face of the industry.
“We’re dealing with such a small percentage of the population that wants to buy quality equipment, wants it serviced, and values our expertise,” he said. “We have a generation coming up, and they do all their research and shopping online, and they give you one chance to impress them. They don’t give you second chances. They know everything about that equipment when they walk in your door. If you’re not on your ‘A’ game they will walk out the door.”
According to Millner, the concept of customers “walking in the door” has even changed during the time he has been in business. “Customers don’t even come in the store,” he said. “We get a credit application on a tractor sent to us. They fill out the requisite paperwork, we call them with approval, and they say, ‘can I get it next Friday?’ So we are having to adjust to that.”
Keys to success
According to Millner, the key to success is tokeep your staff courteous and knowledgeable.
“Keep up with the changing times, and be ready for the customers,” he said. “Customer traffic sets our pace. We have to have a trained staff ready to go. They aren’t coming because we have the best price or because we are open all the time; it’s because we know what we are doing, and we service the equipment. OPE dealers have always had that in their back pocket, and it still holds true.”
Millner said he knew when he got into the OPE business that it would be a marathon, not a sprint, but that his ultimate goal someday is to have approximately 10 stores, to be successful, and to be able to provide power equipment to the region.
His advice to other dealers: “Never take a customer for granted. Take all threats of buying seriously. People have way too much access to information about the equipment. What sets you apart?”
John Kmitta is associate publisher/editor of Outdoor Power Equipment magazine.