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Beyond big dealerships: The 75

Jul 21, 2023Jul 21, 2023

Don Slama, owner of Hillsboro Equipment, operates on a set of guiding principles for success.

Ryan Roossinck

Let's talk dealerships. Specifically, let's talk about one of our Tractor Zoom dealership customers, Hillsboro Equipment. They're a small Wisconsin dealership celebrating their 75th birthday this year. That's a big deal for any business, but in today's heavily competitive world of big dealership groups, Don Slama's three-store outfit continues to thrive after 75 years.

I've known Don for years through tractor pulling, and I've always wanted to figure out what it is that his stores do differently. So last week, I drove up to Hillsboro to sit down with him and his team.

Hillsboro is a fairly small town of about 1,400 people in the Driftless Area of west-central Wisconsin. It's a beautiful part of the state with lots of hills and valleys that lends itself well for dairy operations. There's quite a bit of rowcrop farming in the area as well, but it's a bit more challenging because of the terrain. The hills and valleys are dotted with little 20-acre fields shaped like jellybeans.

And there, on the top of a hill on the east end of town, sits Hillsboro Equipment.

It wasn't always known as Hillsboro Equipment (HEI for short). In 1948, two guys in town partnered to create Hillsboro Farm Service. The dealership was typical for the time — a fairly small building nestled on a one-acre lot.

At the time, Fritz Slama (Don's dad) was working for a plumber. When they built the dealership you see below, Fritz did all the plumbing. To quote Don, “Dad basically did all the plumbing and never left after it was finished!” He quit his job with the plumber and started as a mechanic. Not too long after, he was promoted to a salesman.

Ryan Roossinck

Don started working at the dealership in 1970. When the 30-series tractors came out a year or two later, he really hit his stride. Many of the local farmers didn't want to spend the extra money on a SoundGard cab, which was fine with him. Don was perfectly happy to meet the customer where they were and take care of their needs.

Ryan Roossinck

1973 was a big year for the dealership. Fritz Slama had become a part owner of the business, allowing them to buy the ground on top of the hill and build a new, much larger location. They've been there ever since, and as equipment has grown larger and larger, they’ve added new buildings to accommodate that.

In 1976, feeling like he'd found a true calling in the farm equipment business, Don bought into the dealership as well.

Ryan Roossinck

Ryan Roossinck

In 1986 when the owners group was ready to call it a day, he bought them all out. Despite buying the dealership when the farm economy was at its lowest, Don was able to keep the dealership afloat. They were lean years at the start, but as the economy started to pick back up a little, so did the dealership. It wasn't all about moving new units, though.

Ryan Roossinck

In the late 1980s, Deere implemented the Super Service Dealer program, designed to recognize stores that worked to continually improve their Service Department. It was all about improving the image, financial performance, and technical proficiency of the employees. The program wasn't financially incentivized, but if your dealership was awarded a Super Service Dealer award, it was a big deal.

Hillsboro Equipment was the first one in the state of Wisconsin to earn that designation, something that they're still proud of today.

Ryan Roossinck

As time went on, the single store dealership grew to multiple locations. In the fall of 1991, the company opened Mauston Equipment in Mauston, Wisconsin, and eight years later, a third store in Reedsburg.

Ryan Roossinck

It wasn't all sunshine and roses, though. There were stores that didn't work out. For a time, Hillsboro Equipment had a store in Bloomington, Wisconsin, but because it was a couple of hours away, it was hard to manage. There was also an experimental All Makes parts store in Wilton that didn't work out like anybody had hoped, either. Still, each store taught Don and his team lessons, and helped them refine the principles that they continue to live by.

So, what are those guiding principles? Glad you asked.

Ryan Roossinck

Here they are, in no particular order (other than the first one — that's at the top on purpose).

Let's break these down a little — they’re what makes HEI so special.

Early in his career, Don realized that if you try to sell somebody something they don't need, don't want, or can't afford, you usually won't make the sale. Furthermore, it makes it a lot harder to build a strong relationship with that customer in the future. So how do you make it work? You meet the customer where they're at, so to speak. If they're looking for a tractor to maintain an acreage with, you help them find a tractor that's suitable for the purpose — even if it's a used tractor of a different color, because it's the right thing for the customer.

Furthermore, HEI is proud of their customers, and they put them in the spotlight at every opportunity. Sally Kraemer is Don's daughter, and she'll lead the dealership when her dad calls it quits. Among a litany of other responsibilities at the dealership, she's in charge of marketing and social media, and showcasing their customers is one of her top priorities. “Every customer is unique, and we're proud of what they've accomplished,” she said. “One of the best parts of my job is that I get to go out and visit these farms to see how they're putting the equipment to work for them, and how they're innovating what they do every day.”

(Hillsboro Equipment's social media channels are absolutely top-notch, and you should definitely be following them. Sally does a fantastic job creating engaging and entertaining content.)

At the end of the day, though, it all comes back to the original statement: Take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of you.

Ryan Roossinck

A lot of the farmers in west-central Wisconsin rely on older equipment to get the job done. Not all of them, but there's a surprising amount of older machinery in the area. I lost count of the number of New Gens and SoundGards I passed on the way up there. It was a big number.

HEI knows this, and they're completely okay with it. More than that, they treat it with respect. They stock more parts inventory for old tractors than any other dealership in the state (maybe even in the region), and they keep that stuff around. I was talking to a former Hillsboro Equipment employee this weekend and he told me, “The rule is that if a part is ordered three times within a given time interval, it goes on the list and it stays on the list. Don and Jason, HEI's parts manager, know that even though it might only be one customer per year who needs that part, when they need it, they need it for a reason.”

Ryan Roossinck

If I stopped here, I feel like I'd be giving the impression that Hillsboro Equipment is stuck in the 1970s and 1980s, and only supporting SoundGard-era equipment. They're not.

A little further outside of the Hillsboro area, there are a number of farmers who are using Deere's technology very effectively on larger farms, as well as with specialty crops like potatoes and cranberries. Kevin Knoll and Bob Smith — both employees of 30-plus years — in the Service Department are absolutely mission-critical for them when it comes to getting guidance, mapping, and monitoring dialed in. For instance, just the other day, Kevin and Bob were instrumental in getting a potato harvester to talk with Deere's equipment — something that as far as HEI knows, nobody else has been able to do.

Ryan Roossinck

I learned something pretty wild the other day while I was sitting in Sally's office. I asked how they were dealing with the technician shortage. She looked at me straight-faced and said, "Ryan, we don't have one. We've had a full staff for years."

"It's all in how you invest in people," she said. "If they love where they work, it makes it pretty hard to leave."

Hillsboro Equipment asks a lot of their team, but they also treat their people well. It's the little stuff, too. Ice cream on hot days, dinners out, the occasional team trip to the Farm Show to watch the boss pull — it all adds up. Sally told me that they've got guys in the service department who've been there for 20 years or more.

She also introduced me to James Taylor, HEI's general manager and VP. He'll celebrate his 35th anniversary with the company this year. He started back in high school washing trucks and equipment and basically being a go-fer. Now he's one of the most integral employees to the entire dealership.

He's not the only one, either. Don told me that 80% of his employees have been with the company for 20 years or more. There are several married couples who work for HEI, and a couple of fathers and sons who work there as well.

My point in all this is that when you invest in your employees like HEI has, your employees will take care of you.

When I say GAS, I don't mean gasoline. This hits at one of Don's most infamous speeches: the “Give A Sh*t” speech.

Every year, Don and a couple of the guys in the shop load up an engine or two and bring them down to the diesel tech shop at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College for a little show and tell. Invariably, though, what starts out as a “what's going on in diesel tech” presentation turns into a bit of serious life advice from Don. Sally's heard it enough that she could probably recite the speech word for word (I should've asked her to), but essentially it goes like this.

“GAS stands for ‘Give A Sh*t’ and it's the most important thing you'll hear me say. In life, if you're going to do something, do it to the very best of your ability. Having that drive and dedication will get you further than any other advantage you could possibly have in life.”

The community that you live and work in is the community that you serve, and Don believes that wholeheartedly. Furthermore, there will always be a need, and if you're able to help meet that need, you should.

The dealership does plenty in the community for sure, sponsoring all the normal stuff that lots of dealerships do. However, about 17 years ago, Don noticed that there were still needs that typical fundraisers weren't really addressing. Vietnam vets with health problems and no way to afford the care they needed, the little old lady who lost her house in a fire, stuff like that. He once told me, “You know, there's a lot of good people in this world, and a lot of sick people in this world, and some of ‘em need help. We got to do what we can to help them.”

So, he and his kids and a small group of volunteers decided to take community involvement to the next level, and have some fun while they did it.

They hosted a tractor pull.

Ryan Roossinck

Now, I don't know how it is where you live, but I can tell you something about the farming communities in Wisconsin (especially the southwest part of the state).

They love tractor pulling.

It's a social thing, a cultural thing, and a celebration of their agricultural heritage. On a state-by-state basis, I'll bet you a beer or an ice cream cone that there's no place on earth where you'll find bigger average crowd sizes than in the state of Wisconsin.

Don knew that as a long-time Super Farm puller. He also knew that if he could tap into the resources at his disposal — business relationships, city services, clubs, and church groups — he could do good for people who needed it. So that's what he did. It took a little time to get it all figured out, and they dealt with some obstacles along the way. At the end of the day, the Hillsboro Charity Tractor Pull group has turned the annual tractor pull into a destination event on the Pro Pulling League schedule.

Ryan Roossinck

The tractor pull itself ticks off all the boxes for a great show. There's a reason that it's been voted as PPL's best show of the year seven or eight times.

It starts on time, and it runs like clockwork. For any of you who've suffered through a show where the track crew is painfully slow, you won't find that here. Don's son James is the trackmaster, and on occasion, he's been known to drive so fast that he pulls the inside rear wheel when turning. That whole crew runs their fleet of 30-series Deeres (they’re all 2WDs, because they turn sharper) with a serious quickness. (I've tried on multiple occasions to capture James’ three-wheel escapade and never managed to catch it.)

The seating is all grandstand-style and it's elevated, so there's not a bad seat in the house. The competition is absolutely top-notch, too, because aside from season points, everybody is chasing the coveted Hillsboro belt buckle. The top finisher for the weekend wins a big sterling silver NFR-style belt buckle, and everybody wants one. Honestly, it's one of my favorite shows to shoot every year.

I don't know how much the Hillsboro Charity Tractor Pull group has raised as a 501(c)3, but I can tell you that over the years, they've brought millions of dollars of revenue into the community. The hotel is always full that weekend. The gas stations and convenience stores always bump up their staffing to keep up with customers. Hillsboro Brewing Company puts double the staff on the floor because they know the place will be absolutely packed on Friday and Saturday.

But that tractor pull gives back in other ways, too. Lots of the food is sold by local community groups. The local fire department sells all the beer. The FFA kids sell 50/50 raffle tickets. Another group cleans the facility between sessions so the stands are clean and ready to go. There are trolleys to shuttle customers from one place to another. It's a big deal, and I know that each of these groups takes home a huge pile of cash. One weekend of volunteer work from the fire department brings in $30,000 to their operating budget. Imagine how many pancake breakfasts your local fire department would have to host to bring in that kind of money!

Don and the group of volunteers who put this show together don't make a dime on it. Every dollar goes back out into the community and to people who really need it.

Ryan Roossinck

In a world where big dealerships are getting bigger by the minute, there's a dealership in Wisconsin that isn't — and they're pretty okay with that. Don Slama and the team at Hillsboro Equipment have figured out what works for their area of responsibility, and it works really well. By continually adapting their business to an ever-changing ag landscape, listening to the voice of the customer, taking care of their employees, and giving back to their community, they've been very successful — and they've got the customer list to prove it.

I'm not here to bag on the big dealerships. Truly, I'm not. I know that they're here to stay. However, there's something refreshing about walking into a small dealership and having a personal greet you every time. Commitment to the customer is a very strong suit for Hillsboro Equipment — one that a lot of dealers, regardless of color, could learn from.

Check out Hillsboro Equipment's inventory on Tractor Zoom.

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