Our tool man, or perhaps I should say tool person, doesn’t stop at our shop any longer. First one week, then another went by without seeing the tool person pull in. I thought perhaps our tool person had gone on vacation without telling us, or even worse had gotten sick. After a few weeks, I knew she must have decided we were no longer a profitable shop on her tool route.
Our tool person would no longer be stopping in on a weekly basis to see if we needed any new tools, or if we needed any tool repair or warranty work. For years I had paid my bills, and it seemed I was always buying new tools and equipment. Now, all of a sudden, we were no longer going to be on the tool truck route?
I know there may be shop owners, myself included, who sometimes get tired of seeing the tool truck pull up and the tool man walking into our busy shop. A visit from the tool man usually means that my shop employees stop what they are doing and spend valuable time visiting or buying tools rather than working for me.
When I first met the “tool man” It was 1960. I was fresh out of high school and had just landed a job working in a large auto repair shop doing engine work. Getting through high school was important and so was getting a job working on engines. It would be several years later before I would decide to go back to school to get my degree in automotive technology. When I interviewed for my first job, the boss asked me if I had my own tools. I told him yes, and that I had been buying tools for several years while I was in high school. All my tools fit nicely inside a 2-drawer craftsman toolbox that I proudly brought with me when I reported for work. I soon discovered that I needed more tools. I always seemed to need some tool that was not yet in my tool inventory. I knew if I were going to succeed in this profession I would need to purchase more tools. I also knew that good tools were expensive, but with proper care, would last a long time.
During my first week on my new job I remember hearing someone say “Here comes the tool man”. The tool man handed me a catalog, and asked me if there was anything I needed. I needed lots of things, but I knew it would take me time to purchase them. He took a look at my craftsman toolbox sitting on the workbench and asked me if I would be interested in taking a look at a used roll around tool box that he had just taken in on trade. I walked out to his tool wagon to take a look at the toolbox. He didn’t have a big fancy tool truck with air-conditioning and stereo music. Instead he drove a 1953 Plymouth station wagon. It was red and had wood grain trim on the outside. I guess that is why everyone called it the tool wagon.
The tool man had a large toolbox in the back of the station wagon filled with tools. If he didn’t have what you wanted in his toolbox, he could have it for you when he came back the following week. He showed me the used toolbox, which he had somehow managed to get in the back of the Plymouth station wagon, and I bought it. I paid cash for it. That is the way I always bought my tools. If I needed something I saved up for it until I had the money, and then I bought it.
I noticed some of the other mechanics bought their tools on time. The tool man had a little book in which he kept a record of their account. They paid the tool man a certain amount each week. I noticed that some of the mechanics would suddenly run to the bathroom when they saw the tool wagon pull up, I didn’t like to owe anyone any money so I didn’t get on the book.
The tool man and I became great friends. He had a lot of experience with tools and equipment. He knew what worked and what didn’t. I trusted the advice he gave me when it came to buying tools. On one occasion I asked the tool man to order a linkage setting fixture for cast iron case powderglide transmissions. He said you don’t need it and you wont use it. I didn’t take his advice. I thought I had to have it so I reordered it from him over his objections. He was right. I still have the linkage setting fixture for cast iron powerglides hanging on the tool board above my workbench, and I still haven’t used it.
I bought most of my tools from the tool man and even later, while attending college. I visited him when I was home from school. He’d ask me all about the classes I was taking. I didn’t have much money to spend during my college years, but I still managed to buy some tools from him.
By now it was 1966, and my tool man friend had a real tool truck, I had a college degree, and a letter in my hand from Uncle Sam telling me to report for active duty.
Two years later I was home from Vietman and opening my own repair/machine shop. My tool man friend of many years, called on me in my new shop every week. I had several men working for me by now, and he took care of all of our tool needs.
I continued to purchase my tools and much of my shop equipment from him. Some weeks, when the tool man would stop in, we would sit down and talk about business. He knew a lot about business. We would talk about labor rates, and what other shops were doing and charging. I can remember him saying I wasn’t charging enough. “You need to increase your labor rate…” After all his business of selling tools depended upon my business and others like me being successful after buying them. He knew how to take care of his customers.
Many years have passed since I opened my own business. My tool man friend has passed away and his tool warehouse business and tool trucks have all been sold. My son David and I now do all the machine shop work and my wife keeps the books. We have down sized our shop labor force over the years but we feel like we are doing a better job of taking care of our customers. We have increased the services we can provide with new equipment.
Through the years my son and I have continued to add new tools to our tool inventory. Other tool sales people have taken over the tool man’s route and have tried to fill his shoes. Some have done a good job of handling my tool needs. But few, if any of them, seem to have the automotive knowledge, business background and interest in their customers that my original tool man had.
Most tool people I talk to today tell me they are having a really tough time making ends meet. Many have mortgaged everything they own just to get into the tool business. The majority of them tell me that tool sales are down and that they feel shop owners and mechanics have too many choices from which to buy their tools.
I have heard tool sales people complain about the internet cutting into their business. They do, however, have a fancy new truck with every tool imaginable and a computer ready to print out your invoice and compute your monthly payment (if you are on the book).
Stereo music plays from four speakers, while you browse in the air-conditioned comfort of their warehouse on wheels. They also have a monthly payment to the bank that would give me heart failure. No wonder today’s tool sales people always seem to be in such a hurry to get you in and out of their truck and on to their next stop. They don’t have time to stop and visit anymore to offer helpful advice to the business owner.
In fact, most tool people don’t even turn the engine off when they stop in our drive. Above all else they don’t have time to waste stopping at small shops like ours, who already have lots of tools and shop equipment, and may not be interested in purchasing anything new this week. After all, the tool person is trying to make a payment to the bank each month so they can remain in business.
On those weeks when my son and I didn’t find something we needed or couldn’t live without, the tool person would act as if we were wasting her time, and hurry to leave. One thing the tool sales people of today need to take into consideration is the fact that after you have been in business for over forty years, you have already purchased a lot of tools and equipment and you may not always need something new each week.
However, there will always be a need to service the tools that are already in the shops and to handle warranty problems. I want someone to show me new tools and equipment that will make my job easier or more profitable. Tool people need to become more educated about the industry that they are trying to serve. Perhaps the new generation tool sales people should take a longer look at my tool man friend, who started out in a 1953 Plymouth station wagon and went on to become a very successful tool sales person by taking a personal interest in his customers.