What makes a successful machinery dealership? The key factors would have to include the right location, the right product and the right people, providing the best possible customer service. Experience and product knowledge also count for a lot, and these are certainly in plentiful supply at Burdens Golf & Turf of Wokingham in Berkshire
The company provides a complete range of domestic and professional groundcare equipment - "everything from a pair of secateurs to a 200hp tractor," as area sales manager Ray Bennett puts it (and more about him later) - to a wide variety of customers, from golf courses, professional football clubs and other sports venues through to home and estate owners, local authorities and councils, hotels, holiday parks and even airports.
In addition to its main John Deere franchise, the business sells and supports equipment from fifteen other manufacturers, including Charterhouse, Dennis, Gambetti, Gianni Ferrari, GreenTek, Major, McConnel, Scag, Stihl, Trilo, Trimax, Tru-Turf, Turfmech, Wessex and Yamaha. But, all this came from very small beginnings, in a small wooden shed on the edge of a garden centre in Woking.
Golf & Turf was set up there, in September 1987, by directors Tom Scanlon and Gordon 'Chalky' White and managing director Bill Fisher, when John Deere - who had only established its new groundcare division for the UK and Ireland the year before - appointed them as the company's first dedicated groundcare dealer in the south of the country, including the whole of London.
Before that, all three had worked together as salesmen and/or demonstrators for Lely's agricultural equipment business, which included the famous Roterra cultivator, Iseki compact tractors imported from Japan, and farm sprayers. Tom Scanlon tested, demonstrated and sold the range throughout the UK during his time with Lely's sprayer division.
After Lely started to market the US-made Beaver Equipment range of trailed hydraulic five-gang mowers, the 'gang of three' were approached by Beaver, in 1985, to set up a dedicated dealer network in the UK - Tom Scanlon covering the north of England and Scotland, Gordon White the Midlands and East Anglia, and Bill Fisher the south and south-west of England.
Tom Scanlon takes up the story: "We felt that the Beaver mower, which was one of the first of its type on the market, just wasn't getting a fair crack of the whip at Lely. They didn't see its main potential in the groundcare market, so we jumped at the chance to set up a dealer network."
"We spent the next two years working fifteen hours a day, five days a week, driving 50,000 miles a year with a trailer and a mower. It was a struggle. The product was new, no-one had heard of it, and Ransomes was really the only game in town at that time. It had a range of wheel driven gang mowers pulled by 60 to 70hp agricultural tractors that were the main choice for cutting grass in parks and open spaces"
"Beaver was the first serious competitor to these machines, and a lot of the dealers we were approaching were Iseki dealers, so they knew who we were, and wanted something to sell against Ransomes, so it wasn't so much a case of finding it hard getting dealers on board, it was more a case of fighting against a very well established market leader."
"Nevertheless, we ended up signing about thirty good dealers across the UK, compared with Ransomes who had about forty-eight established dealers at that time, so I would say we were very successful."
So successful in fact that Hayter bought the rights to the Beaver range in 1986, while the new dealer network was still being established, effectively becoming the group of three's employer. This only lasted for about a year though, because John Deere had itself arrived on the groundcare scene in 1986.
"We made the initial approach this time, and suggested that we could start a new John Deere groundcare dealership from scratch in the south of England," says Tom Scanlon. "John Deere was new to the market, and had opted to try and sell the few machines it had through its existing agricultural dealers, which wasn't really working. We set out to convince them that we could do a better job, and we did!"
In its first year as a John Deere dealer, Golf & Turf sold the F935 front rotary mower, a couple of domestic mowers and the 55 Series compact tractors, which were available with mid-mounted mower decks and front loaders.
"It was a similar situation to Lely and the Beaver mower," says Tom Scanlon. "The John Deere machines, particularly the compact tractors, had a lot of potential, but this was not being fully capitalised on, particularly in the growing groundcare market."
"Kubota and Iseki were the two main compact tractor brands in those days, but small tractors like these were looked on almost as toys in agriculture. The manufacturers weren't really seeing the big picture with regard to local councils and authorities with large areas of grass to cut - which was exactly who we started selling to. The John Deere range, at that particular time, didn't lend itself to golf course maintenance - that was still to come."
It wasn't long before the first wrap-around triple gang mower, with an 84in cut, designed for use with compact tractors, became available. Ironically, this was made by Hayter, and employed Beaver cutting heads. It was developed to fit Iseki models originally, but ended up being offered by all three of the main compact tractor manufacturers. Golf & Turf were also awarded the Hayter franchise in 1990, giving the team access to large commercial mowers that were needed to complete the range on offer to grounds maintenance customers.
"The wrap-around mower was an absolutely key machine, both for us and especially for local authorities," says Tom Scanlon. "Ultimately, the John Deere compacts proved to be the best matched machines for the mower. The power unit and the overall design were just more suited to carrying implements, with an independent pto and full frame chassis which the competition didn't have. Based as they were on John Deere's agricultural heritage, the tractors were built to last too, and last they did - many of those original machines are still working today."
"The golf business grew more gradually, as there was not much in the John Deere or the Hayter lines to begin with, apart from gang mowers, for these customers. In the early 1990s, John Deere introduced the 22in walk-behind greens mower, the 2653 utility triplex mower, the 2243 greens triplex and the AMT five-wheel utility vehicle, which was succeeded by the Gator 4x4 and 6x4 models.
"From that slow and steady start, I can say that, over the last ten years, the golf business has seen a huge expansion. By the mid-1990s, about 85 percent of our business was with local authorities and contractors - now it's more like a 50:50 split with the golf course market."
Golf & Turf's longest serving area sales manager is Ray Bennett, who got into the groundcare industry in 1963 at the age of sixteen, and has worked for the dealership since 1991. His career started with Relf & Kendall, a domestic and commercial lawnmower business based in South Croydon. Later, after a break from the trade, Ray returned to R&K, which led to him taking on the sales of spare parts to councils in south London, Kent and south Essex.
"There were very few large contractors in those days, just the odd guy who did a bit of gardening, and all the professional work was done by parish councils and local authorities - the park superintendents, some of whom could be difficult to deal with, had their own budgets and ordered what was required, quite often in big numbers. Selling was undoubtedly a lot easier then, as there was a lot less competition and the margins were stronger. These days we're selling more package deals, often wrapped up with contract maintenance and John Deere Credit finance to add value."
In line with the steady expansion of the business, Golf & Turf moved from its first shed to the Country Gardens garden centre at Sunningdale in 1989, and then to Bramshill when it became part of the Burdens Group in 1991. The dealership moved to its present site at Eastheath House in Wokingham in 1992, and has a hire department based at Beenham near Reading. It currently employs twenty-nine people, including eight in the service department, five in parts and five in sales, and has a turnover of around £6 million.
"Joining Burdens gave us the extra stability of belonging to a larger group, as well as access to the bigger agricultural and utility tractors in the John Deere range, which have been very successful in the groundcare business," says Tom Scanlon. "Another key element was the introduction of the hire business, which was started by Simon Reynolds in 1993 and is now run by Mark Noble. It's been a resounding success. All the equipment that we sell, we hire, and if the demand is there, we'll buy it in to hire it out. This department has six staff covering an area from the Midlands down to the south of England, and the stock value of the equipment in the hire fleet is currently worth £2 million."
"The hire department has built up and continues to maintain a sound customer base, by providing solid and reliable advice and service, and by only using machines that are less than three years old. About 95 percent of the hire business is with commercial and golf course customers, including renovation equipment that's generally only needed once or twice a year. The advice Mark gives is second to none, and he always makes sure that customers get the right machine - many people know what they want to do, but they don't necessarily know what they need to do it."
"Our latest venture is golf buggy hire, which was started by our sales director, James Moore, two years ago. We have around sixty buggies in the fleet, which are used for short-term and event hire as well as the longer-term rentals for golf clubs, and this business is growing steadily too."
"I like to think we have a good working relationship with all our suppliers, and the more we sell, the better it gets!" adds Tom Scanlon. "The more successful we can be as a dealer, the more suppliers want to be associated with you and support you, to join in with that success. I have to say, though, of all the suppliers we deal with, and there are a lot of very good ones out there, none are better than John Deere for training, support and back-up, and their spares set-up, in particular, really is second to none."
"As a typical example, I remember a chap living nearby came in looking for an operator's manual for a 1930s tractor he had personally imported from the US. Our guys found the part number, Langar had a copy on the shelf and shipped it overnight. It was here the next day, and only cost him £15! John Deere is leading the field comfortably on dealer support in that sense, and no-one comes close to consistently performing so well in this area."
"We also don't like selling things we can't support, so we always try to have two or three apprentice service technicians undergoing training at any one time on the various manufacturers' service courses. Once again, John Deere has really been driving this aspect forward over the years with its Turf Tech and Parts Tech training programmes."
Over the years, Golf & Turf has received many awards from its suppliers, including Hayter Dealer of the Year (twice) and Dennis Outstanding Dealer, and it has remained in the top three John Deere groundcare dealers (ranked by sales) since it started business in 1987. Typically though, Tom Scanlon isn't one to let the dealership rest on its laurels.
"Several of the senior staff here have been with Golf & Turf for twenty years or more, so there's a lot of experience across the business, which is great for continuity and for the strength of the relationships with both our customers and our suppliers - and we have to continue to grow," he says. "We want to be John Deere's number one groundcare dealer, full stop."
Customers in London and the south-east of England are invited to attend the Burdens Golf & Turf Commercial & Sports Open Day on Thursday August 4th, at Danes Hill School in Oxshott, Surrey. The day's events include talks by Chelsea FC Head Groundsmen, Jason Griffin, and Peter Craig of The Hurlingham Club, plus demonstrations of equipment throughout the day.
For further details contact Ray Bennett on 07956 243342 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org