In 1985 Ron Barlet was going to night school to earn his masters degree in business administration while working at a leasing finance company. When his father-in-law, an underground contractor, unexpectedly passed away, the family decided to dissolve the company. Barlet, because of his business background, was asked to liquidate the company’s heavy equipment assets.
But the equipment was not in the best of shape.
“So I traded in my coat and tie for blue jeans and work boots and went to work,” Barlet said. Alongside the company mechanic, Barlet learned to reseal cylinders, paint machinery, and rebuild ailing components. He learned how to drive a Class 8 truck and got a CDL. What he didn’t know about heavy equipment was just about everything, but he started learning fast.
As Barlet and his mechanic patched up the machines for sale, contractors started coming by and asking about rentals. Back then rental was a novel idea, but it made sense to Barlet, who soon figured out that with his leasing background that there might be a business opportunity here. So rather than liquidate the company, Barlet kept the doors open and transitioned it from a defunct construction company to an equipment rental company. “We really started backwards, with rental first, before becoming a traditional distributor,” says Barlet
As the company grew, Barlet and his management team wanted to become a new equipment dealer, but their inquiries were turned aside—insufficient capital, being the common explanation. But they continued to grow the rental business with niche products including all types of compaction products and eventually single brand lines such as Link-Belt and Kawasaki.
By 2008 the business model—transforming the company into a full-fledged equipment distributor and expanding product niches and territory–was working extremely well.
In 2014, Liebherr liked what they saw in this model and were sufficiently impressed to make them a dealer. After that, all the pieces fell into place and Bejac now represents a multitude of premium brands and has 11 locations stretching from Phoenix, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada and Redding, California in the far north of the state.
Areas of excellence
Surrounded from day-one by major OEM dealers, Barlet felt customer service should be the company’s competitive advantage. The company does not have and never has had a receptionist. Barlet’s thinking here is simple: that there will be no intermediaries between a salesperson, the parts counter, or the service department and customers. Every customer has the mobile phone number of every one of their Bejac contacts all of whom answer their own phones day or night.
Some might consider this blurring the line between work and personal time. But if you work at Bejac this is the way it has to be. And this being the Southwest, there is at least one Spanish speaker in every department.
“We try to build a relationship with the customer, so they are comfortable calling after hours,” says Hugo Mejia, service manager. “We want them to know we care for them.”
This one-call philosophy extends to the top of the org chart. Every customer who buys a machine from Bejac gets a personalized thank you letter from the CEO—again with his direct dial phone number on it and an invitation to call him anytime about anything. Barlet stresses in his letters that customers must meet several people from Bejac and that the company’s support in training and other services must continue after the initial sale. It shows the customers that Bejac cares about them and it reminds everybody who works at Bejac just how serious they need to be about customer relationships.
Data driven revelations
Robert Cycon, the company’s vice president and general manager, has instituted a number of programs to measure and monitor customer service. He uses an AI/voice recognition program to measure how well parts counter and service departments handle incoming calls. The program identifies and records things like whether the customer’s request was fulfilled in the first call, whether the part was available, whether the Bejac employee on the other line took an opportunity to upsell or asked if there was anything else he could do for the customer. The results are periodically reviewed, and employees rewarded for good results.
The goal of good service is to develop good relationships, says Barlet: “If we sell you just one machine, we failed. We’re either going to have a long term relationship or we’re probably not a good fit.”
Training customers and technicians
Training is another key investment for Bejac. As an independent dealership, they lack the technician training resources of the big OEM dealers and make up for it by investing considerable time and money into their own training.
The company recently broke ground for a facility in Visalia to formalize an in-house apprenticeship program there. It’s going to be an overhaul center, but they are going to extend the careers of some of their senior technicians who can no longer physically keep up with the strains of the job by using their knowledge to train new mechanics. “That’s our brain trust,” says Barlet. “Some of these guys who have been with us a long time understand the customer service aspect of this very well. Having those guys as trainers can help the younger guys develop the attitude alongside the technical side of it. They’re a huge resource.”
In addition to the Visalia facility, Bejac recently spent more than a half-million dollars on a new building that has a breakroom, lockers and showers for employees and the whole second floor dedicated to training. “That’s an investment we have to make because we do not receive the same levels of training like the Brand-X schools as our suppliers do not have the same resources as the major brands. It’s a financial commitment, but it’s important to our future success,” says Barlet.
Technician training also pays off in terms of employee satisfaction and loyalty. “We haven’t lost a single technician after they crest the two-year mark except those who move out of state for family reasons,” says Barlet. “Our goal is to get them very comfortable and versed in how we do things.”
In addition to training their own people, Bejac also spends time training customers and their operators. When you buy a machine from Bejac, a trainer will come to your site. If your operators are experienced this may just be a familiarization session. If not, your Bejac trainer will spend all day or however long it takes to get your operator(s) up to speed. Months or even years after the sale if you get a new operator for that old machine, Bejac will train that person.
“We think there is still a lot of room for initiatives in the services we can provide the customer beyond the obvious,” says Barlet.
Keeping up with a changing customer base
The level of service and personal attention to customers has kept many of Bejac’s customers in its fold even when those customers change leadership or ownership.
“We find we do a lot better with our customers when they know a lot of people at Bejac,” says Curt Geisbush, senior salesman. “The more people the customers know and are comfortable
with the better we do with them long term. If the only person they know in the organization is the salesperson, then you feel powerless if something goes wrong.”
The reverse is true as well. The deeper Bejac’s people reach into their customer’s organization the better their chances of making the next sale. “There have been times at companies where the ownership changed and the shop remained adamant about buying from us,” says Barlet.
The company culture has two aspects: a family-like atmosphere and a burning desire to put the company on par with if not more successful the best big companies in the world. In some respects it’s a lot like Southwest Airlines.
“I send a handwritten note to every employee on their anniversary and birthday,” says Barlet. It’s fun for me to remember when they first started with us, and it gives me a time to reflect. And my wife sends cookies – Homemade – On their birthday. We make sure the employees know how important they are to the success and growth of the organization.”
Bejac has an annual party where they bring in all the employees from all of the locations to the headquarters in Placentia. “We pay to fly them down and put them up in a hotel, even the wash rack guy.” That includes spouses, because it makes the spouses feel like part of the team, says Ken Grime, marketing coordinator. Grime also heads up the company newsletter, the Bejac Buzz, which focuses on customer service topics and highlights employees who demonstrate exception service.
Areas of growth
Barlet says the company is looking at a couple other target markets and to strengthen their capabilities and their customer base. “But we’re not growing to grow,” he says. “We want to make sure we are maintaining customer relationships, engaging our employees, and staying profitable. If we grow revenue while we’re doing it, that’s great. The reality is since 2013 we’ve grown the revenue 8 to 15 percent every year. That creates its own challenge but allows us to keep pushing initiatives. It’s certainly not a take over the world mentality. But we want to continue to be the best at what we’re doing,” he says.
A lot of this boils down to measurement and management and then long discussions about what the results mean. Our CFO, Kim Smith-Grime measures everything every which way you can think of,” Barlet says. “We also receive a 20 page report every month that compares us to others in the industry, to like-kind peers, in various areas that focus on retention and customer service. We also subscribe to AED’s cost-of-doing-business survey to see how we measure up there.
“Whether on the road together, in meetings, or simply notes to each other, we are all working toward constant improvement, brainstorming the next big thing while measureing and evaluating what and how we are doing,” Barlet says. “We want the elusive perfection and we will never stop trying to reach it.”