Maine Trails, October - November '07
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Cover Story: Congestion strategies
Member News: Family ties
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Member News: Family ties
Maine’s Nortrax dealerships build on the John Deere family history and reputation.

By Kathryn Buxton

It’s a sunny, warm autumn morning, and nearly every station at the repair department of the Nortrax dealership in Westbrook is full. At the back of the shop, a set of high, broad doors open onto the yard. Outside there’s an army of loaders, dozers, shredders and skidders in shades of orange and yellow lined up ready to do battle. Inside the shop, a service technician inspects a new Hitachi excavator that is about to be delivered to job site in Augusta and prepares to mount a quick coupler to the arm.

Nortrax Service Manager Chip O’Brien leads a tour of the service shop and stops to take note of the custom-fitted excavator. The machine illustrates a major trend in the business, he said. The coupler will speed the time it takes for a customer to swap buckets and other attachments. The goal, said O’Brien,is to move the machine digging to ditching and onto the next task more quickly. That, in turn, means his customer can schedule jobs more tightly and keep the excavator’s idle time to a minimum.

O’Brien and the Nortrax staff understand just how important efficiency is to their customers. With increasing material costs and ever-tightening construction budgets, Maine construction firms have to push hard to make the most of the construction season. When a customer is investing a quarter million dollars or more in a single piece of equipment, they need a workhorse that will move from job to job without a hitch. “Efficiency and flexibility,” said O’Brien, “that’s important on a job site these days.”

Second century
Helping customers get the most out of their equipment is a full-time pursuit at Nortrax. The dealer has three locations in Maine – Westbrook, Bangor and Houlton – and 48 locations in 13 states. Nortrax is a division of Deere & Company, and while the Maine dealerships also sell the Hitachi and Morbark brands, John Deere and its strong market identity shape everything the company does.

Deere & Company was founded in 1837 as a one-man blacksmith shop. Today, the moniker John Deere and signature “John Deere green” is one of the strongest brand identities in the world. The company is often used as a case study for business school students who learn about how the company has grown into a global force selling agricultural equipment, commercial and consumer equipment, construction and forestry equipment and credit. Nortrax was founded in 1999 when Deere & Company bought out and consolidated its independently owned dealers that carried Deere’s construction and forestry lines. In Maine, Nortrax bought up Metco dealerships in Westbrook, Bangor and Houlton. The three locations are among 48 Nortrax locations in 13 states. While the company closed some of the smaller dealerships in other parts of the company, it has invested in its Maine locations, expanding their repair shops and parts inventories.

Chuck Dull, Nortrax vice president for northeast region, said the consolidation of dealerships under a single company banner has given the Maine dealers a strong leg up in an industry that has been changing rapidly during the past decade. Deere has capitalized the expansion and provided the dealerships with marketing support. Still he said the company encourages the Nortrax personnel to become “corporate entrepreneurs,” establishing strong local connections to the industries they serve. “We want our dealers to focus on delivering unimaginable experiences to our customers,” said Dull. He said those experiences ultimately should reflect the “quality, consistency and reliability” for which John Deere has become known.

98 percent
In the Westbrook store, general manager Paul Beaudette and his staff offer a textbook example of that “corporate entrepreneurship.” Beaudette, a former construction manager, joined the company earlier this year and his learning curve has been steep. As he strides through the retail shop to the parts department and into the repair shop, he talks passionately about the strategy that brings all three of the dealer’s departments together.

According to Beaudette, there is a well considered method behind Nortrax’s expansion of its parts and service departments. The firm knows that as the industry markets get tighter and more competitive, contractors will need to do all they can to keep their operating costs down. So Nortrax has shortened turnaround time on everything from procuring parts to repairing machinery. The Westbrook store has an onsite repair staff of seven full-time mechanics and four more that work the four 24/7 on-call mobile service trucks that repair equipment in the field. The company also has a come-one-come-all service policy. “We’ll fix anything, no matter the vintage, no matter the manufacturer,” said Beaudette. The goal is to ”lower the [contractors’] cost of operation and build their confidence in and loyalty to Nortrax.”

Beaudette said that one of the advantages of being one of 48 dealerships is having access to an almost unlimited inventory of parts. If his staff doesn’t have a part a customer is looking for, they can get on the phone or e-mail other Nortrax dealers in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, the regional headquarters in Beacon, New York, or beyond to track it down. As a result, their fill rate for machine down parts is impressive – 93 percent.

Signature process
That strategy – to be an extension of their customers’ operations, working with them daily to keep their equipment operating efficiently and reduce downtime – certainly pays off on the sales end, according to John Paradis who covers the market from Falmouth to Rockland and west to Augusta. Like several of the staff, he started working for the Westbrook dealership back when it was an independently owned Metco store. According to Paradis the Deere ethic – and the financial strength of the parent company – has benefited contractors in the local market.

“It’s a signature process,” said Paradis. “And John Deere would not put its signature on anything that does not meet its standards.”

The training is extensive. On the sales side, Paradis devotes up to 200 hours each year to become certified to sell Deere’s diverse product line. That long course of study allows Paradis to know each new piece of equipment inside out, so that when he works with a customer he knows exactly which excavator, dozer or loader will create the right fit.

Beaudette said all of the mechanics at the Westbrook facility annually complete approximately 60 hours of training to maintain their Deere certification, as well. That training shows, and repair department staff is extremely versatile and able to fix just about any piece of equipment that comes in their door.

Market outlook
Mike Campbell, who joined the company in 1986 when it was still operating as independent dealerships under the Metco name, said that nationwide there has been a significant slowdown in the business.

“We’re in a trough right now, and I’m talking country-wide. Those are industry numbers,” said Campbell who said that he expects it to take a couple of years to recover from the currently flat market. He said that Nortrax stores in Maine and, in particular, Bangor have been somewhat insulated from that downturn due to the volume of business they see from local municipalities and the state’s forestry industry.

“Right now, it’s about biomass and the price of oil. As soon as oil prices go up, the demand for biomass goes up,” said Campbell who has seen demand for the company’s Morbark line of chippers, skidders and feller bunchers grow.

Campbell said that, in Bangor, the construction side has held its own because of several large commercial projects, as well as some road projects.

Campbell’s colleague in the Westbrook store, John Paradis, said that construction side of Westbrook’s business has begun to pick up in recent months, but that surge has been “bittersweet,” coming at the wrong end of the season. He expects there to be a fair amount of interest in new machinery as contractors assess their end-of-the-year tax picture to see if now is a good time to replace aging machinery or expand their fleet. If they make that choice, Paradis and Beaudette say, Nortrax will be ready to make it work for their customers.

“If we don’t have the piece the customer needs, we’ll go anywhere in the country to get it,” said Paradis.

On the customer service side, Beaudette said the new year will bring a greater focus on new technology that will help customers make the most of the equipment they have. The new machines are outfitted with plenty of high-tech bells and whistles like global positioning software (GPS) and John Deere’s branded remote diagnostics technology called JD-Link.

Technology like this enables customers to see where their equipment is, to get regular reminders to perform preventative maintenance, and even, for staff at Nortrax to link to machinery out in the field to diagnose mechanical problems. Just as GPS has become a must-have on most construction work sites during the past several years, Beaudette expects options like remote diagnostics to become the new industry standard in the years to come. And he said Nortrax will be ready. “We’ve got that technology now,” said Beaudette adding that his team is ready to supply the market as demand for the new technology grows. That ability to read the market , identify customer needs and respond with new products is precisely how John Deere has managed to grow and flourish for 170 years.

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