On the road with a local Snap-on Tools dealer
A few weeks ago I noticed a Snap-on Tools truck parked near downtown Chico. It looked sharp: bright new paint, polished chrome wheels, spotlessly clean. That’s so typical of Snap-on, I thought, remembering my first experiences of the company.
When I was 16, back in the Paleozoic Era, I spent a summer living with my aunt and uncle in Kenosha, Wis. He owned the local Coca-Cola bottling company, and he’d offered me a job driving a truck around Kenosha and nearby Racine and filling Coke machines.
It turned out to be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. There I was, barely legal when it came to driving, sitting high up in an eight-ton cab-over Ford truck, responsible for filling every Coke machine within 20 miles.
Kenosha is a factory town, and factories have soda machines. So I went into a lot of factories. One day each week was devoted exclusively to American Motors, makers of the legendary Rambler. It had more than 20 machines, and filling them would take me from the floor, where the sparks were flying, to the lush executive suites.
But the most impressive factory, bar none, was Snap-on Tools. The first company to make and market socket wrenches, it had started in Milwaukee in 1920 and moved to Kenosha in the 1930s. The plant I visited once a week was huge, covering several acres, and it looked like a manufacturing facility should look: well lighted, with clearly delineated work areas and up-to-date machinery, a place where safety and quality were paramount.
By then Snap-on was a $300 million-a-year company famous for the quality of its products. Kenoshans were hugely proud of it. Their town may have been known as the birthplace of Nash and American Motors automobiles, but to them Snap-on was the paragon of quality.
(I wish I’d been smart enough to invest my summer earnings in the company, instead of returning to Fresno and buying a 1953 MG roadster that I quickly ruined. Snap-on now has numerous factories and does some $2 billion in business annually.)
From the beginning Snap-on marketed its tools to professional mechanics. Besides inventing socket wrenches (and the slogan “Five Do the Work of Fifty"), the company also pioneered direct-to-customer marketing, in the form of local dealers who drove tool-filled vans around to wherever mechanics worked. During the Depression, when cash flow often was a problem for even successful mechanics, it was the first company to offer what was then known as “T.P.,” for “time payment"—credit, in other words.
This combination of quality product and attentive, knowledgeable service continues to this day, as I discovered recently when I spent part of a morning with local Snap-on dealer Greg Denton.
We met up at Peterson Tractor Co., the big farm equipment outfit on the highway south of town. More than a dozen mechanics work in its two service garages, one for farm equipment, the other for trucks, so it’s a regular stop for Denton. As I pull up, I notice he’s got a Christmas wreath attached to his Freightliner’s grill.
Denton is a sturdy man of 52 with gray eyes, short brown hair and a moustache. He’s not tall, which is probably just as well for a guy who owns a store that has only about 30 square feet of walkaround room and a 7-foot ceiling.
The inside of a Snap-on van is an object lesson in the economic use of space. Every available inch is utilized to hold tools. Walls and ceiling are covered in pegboard, and the tools—myriad wrenches, hammers, flashlights, bits and chisels, calipers—are held in place with rubber thongs. Somehow Denton has made room for a small plastic Christmas tree. The ornaments are little Snap-on vans. A Santa doll sits on his dashboard.
Tool cabinets line the lower halves of the side walls. They’re filled with sockets, mostly. At the rear is a big red compressor. The back of the van opens and has a hydraulic lift for loading heavy merchandise.
The truck is new, only a month old, he tells me, and cost $90,000. His previous van, he adds, lasted six years.
Denton is one of two Snap-on dealers in Chico. Each has a distinct territory. His is the south half of town and all of Paradise, where he spends two days a week, visiting automotive and heavy-equipment repair shops.
At each of his stops Denton simply waits for mechanics to come out and buy what they need. He’s got a laptop computer and printer aboard, so he can keep instant track of all sales, issue receipts and check inventory.
A mechanic named Leroy steps up into the van. He’s got a small hand tool that’s broken. Using a vise, Denton removes the handle and replaces the broken bit. It’s something he often does because handles, he explains, are virtually indestructible.
Leroy also buys a socket and caliper. “Put it on credit,” he says. “My wife will pay it.”
When he’s gone, Denton explains that most mechanics own their own tools, so each is an independent business customer. Snap-on tools are comparatively expensive, but they’re also “the finest tools you can buy,” Denton says, and professional mechanics are willing to pay the price.
Denton’s been with Snap-on for 22 years. He grew up in Oklahoma and moved around a lot ("I’ve been more places than an old bus,” he says). After college, he kicked around in several jobs. He lived in Dallas for a while, and his neighbor’s son drove a Snap-on van, so he decided to ride along to see if he liked the business. He did.
Twice over the years he’s gone to work for the company in a management role, but the jobs took him away from his family, and both times he went back to the van. “I like self-employment better than being employed by someone,” he explains with a smile.
He figures he’s got another 10 years of work left in him, “at least.” He obviously likes the job and his customers. At one point three mechanics from Peterson’s truck service department crowd into the van, and he and they banter back and forth with comfortable familiarity.
Besides, he adds, he’s made a good living selling Snap-on tools. "I’ve done all right with it," he says, smiling coyly, as if guarding a secret everybody would want to know.