Gary Bridwell grew up in Perry, Oklahoma, surrounded by all things Ditch Witch.
The small town an hour north of Oklahoma City is the birthplace of the company’s founder, Ed Malzahn, and his revolutionary invention, the mechanical trenching machine.
Gary knew Malzahn and his family well and spent summers working on equipment at the Ditch Witch factory. His father, John Bridwell, was head of the company’s western sales territory.
But in 1976, it appeared Gary was about to leave his home state and Ditch Witch behind. He was graduating with a master’s degree in marketing from Oklahoma State University and being courted by pharmaceutical companies.
It was then his father made a decision that changed Gary’s life. Worried his son would leave Oklahoma, John Bridwell approached Russell Sadler. Sadler had started Ditch Witch’s first dealership in 1959 in Oklahoma City.
“Russ, you ever thought about selling your dealership?” Gary recalls his father asking.
Sadler at first said no, but two weeks later, John Bridwell got a call at 10 o’clock at night.
“John, this is Russ,” he said. “Were you serious about buying my dealership?”
“He met with him in a little café, and two or three weeks later, we had a deal put together,” Gary recalls. “And it was all because of my dad’s reputation, and no one else got a shot at it.”
So began Gary’s journey to owning Ditch Witch’s first dealership, more than tripling its size and becoming a finalist in Equipment World’s 2019 Big Iron Dealer of the Year award.
Expanding east and west
Gary and his father were partners for 20 years until John Bridwell retired due to health issues. Gary bought out his father and became the owner. At that time, Ditch Witch of Oklahoma had locations in Tulsa and Oklahoma City and was consistently ranked among Ditch Witch’s top dealers.
Gary began looking for opportunities to expand and turned east to Arkansas, which was seeing explosive infrastructure growth, thanks to Walmart. In 1998, he acquired the Little Rock Ditch Witch dealership, and in 2000, he established a branch in Springdale and doubled the company’s number of branches.
In 2012, Gary thought he had another chance to expand. He had his eye on an underperforming dealership based in Denver and presented an offer to the owner. He was rejected.
Three years later, the Ditch Witch factory approached Gary. It had acquired that same Denver dealership’s assets, which included branches in Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho. Was Gary interested in taking them over?
Gary and his son Dru, who had joined his father in business in 2003, jumped at the chance and spent the next eight months putting together a deal that closed January 1, 2016.
“When we took on the Rockies,” Gary says, “we basically doubled in size with one stroke of the pen.”
Spreading the culture
“It was a whole lot harder than I thought it would be,” Gary says of the overnight expansion.
Dru relocated to Denver from the Tulsa branch he had been running and took over leadership of the acquired Ditch Witch of the Rockies.
“He spent countless hours and evenings on the road, shaking hands, meeting customers, letting them know of the change of the guard,” Gary says of Dru.
Dru and Gary sought to bring Ditch Witch of Oklahoma and Arkansas’ brand of morning-noon-and-night customer service to the new dealerships. The work has paid off.
The Boise group has experienced the most growth in the company, which was renamed Orange Power Group to encompass all seven dealer locations. The Salt Lake City branch is the second-fastest growing in the group.
The Denver branch has required more attention, but Dru’s efforts to build a new sales team and rebuild customer trust are showing results, Gary says.
“It is really challenging getting people of like mind and train them in the processes that we want to do, because we think that has been our success,” he adds. “How we treat the customers, how we handle a customer bringing in a machine.”
To maintain successful customer relations, Gary encourages his leadership team to be on the lookout for recruits every day. When they’re out shopping, in a restaurant or a gas station, they pay attention to the service they receive.
Bryson Howard has that recruitment attitude to thank for his position as inventory control specialist. He was working as a pro at a local public golf course when Gary dropped in. Gary was impressed with Howard’s customer service skills. He started on the parts counter and when the inventory position recently opened, he was promoted.
Gary uses a football analogy to describe his approach to recruiting and retaining employees.
“If you’ve got a good running back you give him the ball and he will get yardage for you,” he says. “You don’t want to put a running back at tackle.”
Chad Jones, customer service representative, who has been with the dealership for 15 years, also found his position changing within the company. He had been a technician for eight years when he was approached about moving to parts.
“I actually had never thought about it,” he recalls. But after waking in the mornings at age 27 with an aching back from mechanical work, he felt the timing was right. “It was probably one of the better moves I ever made,” he says.
Having a technician background has helped him assist customers with finding the right parts. A customer can simply describe a part, and he knows what and where it is.
He and the other parts department members often handle after-hours calls and are on a text-messaging group to make sure someone can take care of the customer.
“We do whatever we have to do to get them up and running,” Jones says.
An example of doing whatever it takes for the customer occurred recently when one of the company’s best customers called at 10 o’clock at night. He was conducting a bore that had to be finished that night, and a hose had blown. The service manager got the call, got out of bed, went to the shop to build the hose and then took it to the jobsite. He got back in bed around 12:30 a.m. and opened the store the next morning at 6:45.
“He didn’t tell anybody about it. We had to find out through the customer,” Gary says. “That type of mentality runs rampant through our guys.”
“You’ve got to start with somebody who wants to serve like that,” he adds, “then you can enhance that and support them and encourage them to give that kind of customer service.”
Howard Betts, a customer of Ditch Witch of Oklahoma for about 15 years, says Gary has helped him out on many occasions, saving him money and assisting when other dealers had failed him.
“Gary seems to understand, more than anything else,” says Betts. “Gary’s moved mountains so that we could be up and running.”
Gary believes in servant leadership as outlined in John Maxwell’s books, with a leader’s main purpose being to serve, helping out whenever possible and spreading a message by example on how to treat others.
“It’s not being afraid and not being hesitant to jump in when you need to jump in,” says Chief Financial Officer Bruce Yee. “It’s infectious – here’s a guy that cares.”
Dealership manager Grant Goley says a large percentage of the employees have been with the company for 10 or more years, which he attributes to Gary’s leadership.
“He reminds us that we’re feeding and providing for families,” he says.
The company especially showed its loyalty to employees during the Great Recession, weathering the storm without layoffs.
As sales slowed and work faded, the company reached out to its customers and offered to help on projects through revenue-sharing agreements. They would provide equipment, and in some cases labor, to keep the projects going and help both contractor and the dealership get through the downturn.
The recession also taught Gary an important lesson – avoid becoming overleveraged.
“Cash flow is very important to us,” Yee says. “We try to maintain a low level of leverage. We tend to want to pay for things with cash when we can.”
Yee has helped the company with moving from cumbersome spreadsheets to data analytics, developing metrics to better gauge the company’s progress. Through that, Gary can quickly winnow data down to overall and store-level sales and compare them with a rolling average. He can also view sales per employee, parts inventory turns and other metrics, and Yee continues to implement new analytics to help keep the company financially healthy.
“If you want to grow something,” Gary says, “you’ve got to measure it.”
Investing in the company
Along with a deep history dating to the beginnings of Ditch Witch, the modern Orange Power Group continues a tradition of investing in the business, not just through acquisitions.
In 2017, it moved its Oklahoma City location to a new 50,000-square-foot facility and opened a new 20,000-square-foot building for its Salt Lake City dealership. Plans are in the works to build a new facility in Denver in 2020.
At the flagship dealership in Oklahoma City, the showroom is brightly lit with Ditch Witch art and touches of orange, even in the restrooms. The building was designed with efficiency in mind, with magnetic labels for parts bins, wall art that can be easily changed and neatly organized departments.
The service bays are equipped with 5-ton overhead cranes, and designated hoses for machine fluids with metering guns help prevent waste. Technicians tote laptops and tablets and work at stationary computers. The departments are all connected with software to give a real-time view of labor and parts costs, inventory and other measurements.
Service manager Chris Jones says more than half of the technicians have been with the company for 10 or more years.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who started with us working in college part-time and wanted to stay on,” he says. “More than half of my techs have been with us 10 to 28 years.”
But as with other service departments around the country, recruiting techs is a challenge. Jones has found some success with assigning experienced techs to mentor younger apprentices.
The dealership also has a rental department, which has been a growing part of the business in recent years.
“More and more contractors are renting out the equipment for jobs and renting longer before they’re purchasing,” says rental manager Charlie Childers.
The company, however, views rental as more of a sales tool, a way to get a customer interested in buying a new machine. It also uses it to serve customers who may need extra equipment on a job but can’t find the large trenchers, directional drills and vacuum excavators at rental shops. The company doesn’t have a designated rental fleet, instead pulling machinery off the sales lot for customers.
One of its most popular pieces of rental equipment is Ditch Witch’s compact utility loaders, and rental was a big part of that growth.
“That’s how we got our compact utilities off the ground,” Jones says. “A lot of people were scared of them, so we started renting them. It’s built up a lot of our sales.”
Many of Childers’ customers are starting out in business, such as in landscaping, and aren’t ready to purchase. Having operator experience, he can let them know when it’s time to buy, as in, if they’re renting a CUL for six months, they’re wasting money by not buying.
He also guides them to the right equipment for the job, which isn’t always easy.
“You get a lot of tough customers,” he says. “They have their mind set, they want this piece of equipment set up this way. They tell you the job, and you’ve got to pretty much talk them out of what they want and give them what they need.”
Childers will go out in the field to train operators on rental equipment, as well as get it repaired and out of any jams on the jobsite. “Very rarely will we charge,” he adds. “We want them coming back.”
He’s also ready whenever a customer wants to purchase a rental machine. “I’ve got everything set up to where as soon as somebody rents it and they want to buy it, they keep it. They don’t have to bring it back to get it serviced; it’s ready to stay out.”
Childers says one of the things he likes best about working for the company is the freedom he’s given.
“They’re happy to let me go and get it done,” he says.
What about Toro?
Being located near the birthplace of Ditch Witch, many of Gary’s employees, like himself, have close ties to the home factory. Many of them have shaken hands with Ed Malzahn, so news in February that the company was being purchased from Charles Machine Works by Toro was a shock that took a while to get over.
Recognizing that sentiment, Gary quickly invited Toro top leadership to come explain the acquisition to his employees and what it would mean for them and the company.
Gary believes Toro will provide an infusion of research and development funding for Ditch Witch products. He notes that Toro is discontinuing Toro-brand trenchers and directional drills that once competed with Ditch Witch products. He’s also enthused about broadening the dealership’s product offerings, especially Toro’s popular stand-on compact utility loaders.
“Once those of us that have been around a long time got over the emotional side of it, we really see a lot of positives,” Goley says. “We really are impressed with what we see from Toro management. We think they will invest a significant amount of capital over the next few years that will be of great benefit to Ditch Witch dealers.”
That likely means more growth for the Orange Power Group, as it continues the traditions begun some 70 years ago by Ed Malzahn.
“We’re running hard,” Yee says. “We’re running fast every day.”