One distributor is successful due to innovative marketing

This is Kenney Gray’s 30th year in the business, and it’s not such a bad year. Despite a crippling recession and general cost-cutting nationwide, his mower sales distributorship is doing well.

Eileen Fox, Kenney Gray and Kathleen Gray are owners of a mower distributorship that has weathered hard times through innovation and advertising.

Gray is part-owner of Sooner Distributors, Inc. in Oklahoma City, Okla., along with his wife, Kathleen, and sister-in-law, Eileen Fox. Sooner is a distributor of Hustler outdoor power equipment in an area that covers much of Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle and part of Colorado. The dealers that Sooner services have lost sales in general, but most have not lost much, and some have actually increased sales.

There are several factors at work in keeping up sales in times such as these, and Gray points out that hard work, good advertising and a manufacturer with good equipment and innovative practices are a plus. Grass still needs to be mowed, and there are ways to bring customers into stores. His total sales have dropped from around $16.2 million in 2007 to $14.6 million last year, and this year the number is $13.4 million.

Gray says the company started in 1949 at its current location. It was started by his father-in-law, and was originally an oil field supply company. When Gray started working there in July of 1979, the bulk of the business was still focused on the oil industry, but starting to sell Poulan chain saws and other supplies. By 1990, the company was entirely focused on landscape equipment, and in 1999, they became the distributor for Hustler in the area.

“Currently, we have 96 dealers in our territory,” Gray says, compared to only four in 1999. “Hustler had a tremendous growth presence in the market because of their good decisions in the home market area.”

Gray cites the fact that Hustler was a manufacturer that turned much of its attention to the homeowners’ market, and in particular was a pioneer in designing zero-turn machines for both home lawns and commercial operations. The trend now is toward smaller riding mowers, such as the company’s Sport line of modestly priced units with 42-inch and 48-inch decks, which account for a quarter of Sooner’s sales.

In addition, Gray says Hustler doesn’t require distributors to purchase mowers, but rather keeps ownership until the distributor ships them to the dealers. This allows Sooner Distributors to keep about 300 pieces of equipment in stock and readily available to dealers, without having to invest a lot of money. They sell them on a commission basis. The distributor does however purchase parts and supplies prior to sale.

Hustler’s ability to recognize the different lawn mowing markets and encourage creative advertising has kept sales humming, Gray says, and Sooner has run with that philosophy of putting the mowers front and center in the public eye. For example, Sooner organizes dealers in the buying of cooperative ad time on TV in cities large and small, ranging from Little Rock, Ark., to Ada, Okla. That advertising has paid off and has led to the placement of ads on cable channels.

Gray is a big proponent of exhibiting mowers at conferences for municipalities, parks and recreation and school board gatherings, which has been highly successful. He collaborates with dealers to advertise heavily in those groups’ journals and other trade magazines, as well as using the Yellow Pages. He worked out a deal with the manufacturer and dealers to give away mowers at shows to consumers who have driven one at a dealership and entered a drawing to win. He also recommends advertising throughout the year, not just in the busy spring buying season.

“That means we’re advertising Hustler mowers 365 days a year,” he says. As a result of this kind of continued market penetration, his sales this fiscal year are only a small percentage drop from last year’s. Gray says, “That’s just phenomenal in this down economy.”

The manufacturer also has some progressive practices that make it easy on dealers and customers. For example, Hustler supports a demo mower program to the tune of two mowers per dealership at a reduced price to the dealer. As is the practice when buying a car, a potential customer wants to drive a model before putting down several thousand dollars for a new mower.

Kenney Gray has been selling equipment from this Oklahoma City location for 30 years.

“Each demo has sold them a dozen or two dozen mowers,” Gray says of the dealers, who are then encouraged to retire the demo machine, repaint it and sell it as used. The demos are always popular riding, zero-turn models. In a separate program, Hustler has also authorized the use of free loaner mowers for customers who bring in certain ailing machines for repair (they must be mowers with hour meters to show they are under warranty), and subsidizes the purchase of the loaner by the dealer. That kind of attention to service, along with a commitment to fixing a mower within a couple of days, leads to customer satisfaction and repeat business.

More commercial models for lawn maintenance operations and other heavy users have been selling well based on innovations such as rear-discharge models for mowing around crowded or built-up areas. Semi-commercial users can change the machine’s warranty to a “light-commercial” designation, which stretches the coverage from two years or 400 hours of use up to four years or 400 hours. That has boosted sales among those who might mow several acres, but only once a week or less often.

What’s the result of all these factors? Sooner has been the leading Hustler distributor in the U.S. for two years running, despite a marked population disadvantage. Just as importantly, the company has kept its nine employees, four of them in sales, without any layoffs or reduction in time during this current economic crisis. He says that sales at his top dealerships are down 10 to 20 percent, but a few dealers have increased sales 100 percent because of the success of new advertising and promotions in their areas. Ultimately, however, it is customer service that makes a buyer’s day.

“Take care of customers. Make sure they’re satisfied and treated fairly,” Gray emphasizes. That mantra has kept Kenney Gray in business for 30 years.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.