In 1952, Studebaker was 100 years old and nearing the end of its productive years as a transportation leader. The same year, Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father on the United Kingdom throne. And in North Haven, Conn., Gilbert Howe gambled that he could make a living as a John Deere dealer.
Sixty years later, Studebaker is long gone, but Queen Elizabeth continues her enduring reign and G&H Equipment is entering its seventh decade as a vital equipment dealer in south central Connecticut. With a new product line in the dealership’s showroom and others in the pipeline, the G&H story is still being written.
A Cousin’s Recommendation
The dealership came about fortuitously. When Howe’s second cousin decided to get out of the business, he was asked by John Deere executives if he knew anyone who might be interested in succeeding him. “I have a cousin who thinks the sun rises and sets on John Deere, ” was the reply. So when a Deere representative came knocking on the Howes’ door, Gil and his wife, Helen, had a decision to make.
Howe was 43 years old at the time with years of seniority at a steel mill in adjacent New Haven. He had been doing custom work around North Haven with his John Deere, plowing and harrowing gardens, mowing fields, a middle-aged entrepreneur supplementing his mill income. Now the couple considered a wholesale career change.
North Haven and other communities on the outskirts of New Haven were more rural in 1952, with small farms dotting the countryside.
The agricultural scene was fully productive, not hobbyist, and the reliable “Johnny Popper” two-cylinder Deere tractors and other farm equipment were instrumental to the local economy. However, post-war population growth had begun and the character of the region was evolving into that of suburbia, with nearby Yale University, local Quinnipiac University and other campuses exerting growing economic influence.
The dealership that Howe would replace was one town away from North Haven. The closest Deere competitors were 25 to 30 miles away. A need clearly existed for a dealership in central New Haven County and the Howes convinced themselves that throwing in their lot with Deere would fill that need. They took out a third mortgage on their home and became a small business couple, combining their first-name initials to create G&H Equipment. It would be a family business in more than name.
Twenty-hour work days followed, with Helen Howe getting kids off to school before coming to the dealership to sort parts, sell machinery, and keep books while her husband sold and serviced Deere equipment. He often still was delivering green and yellow machines to customers at 11 o’clock at night.
“I don’t remember exactly what he made in the beginning,” Howe’s son Dave recalled, “somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 a year. I do remember the first two years in business my father only took out $1,100 each year. That’s $2,200 in two years. We lived out of a garden and raised chickens and sheep,
G&H’s original location was a tract of land at the intersection of Quinnipiac Avenue and State Route 17 in the Montowese section of North Haven. Rent was low because the property was in back of a Studebaker-Packard dealership owned by another of Howe’s cousins. A business partner who helped finance the venture also was a Studebaker dealer. It’s no wonder that in photos of that period of G&H’s New Haven County Fair equipment displays, John Deere model 50s and 60s shared the green with the soft lines of Studebaker pickups.
Why was Gil Howe willing to risk it all and start a new career at age 43?
“I’m sure that father did that so my brother and I would have something to work with someday,” said Dave Howe, who was 10 years old when his parents started their business. “He loved the idea, being something of an entrepreneur, but he also did it because of his family. I really think that my father had in the back of his mind that his two sons would get into the business and carry it on — and we did!”
An Evolving Dealership
Dave and his brother, Jim, eventually succeeded their parents as owners of a dealership in which they had been immersed most of their lives, Jim beginning full time in 1956 and Dave four years later. In 1978, they became co-owners of the business and steered it for two decades through lean and flush times, including boom years in the late 1980s. Ag tractors eventually gave way to compact commercial machinery and construction equipment. When John Deere began to consolidate its construction outlets, G&H gave up its lineup of yellow Deere machinery in 1996, remaining a Kubota dealer and a John Deere dealer in compact and lawn-and-garden equipment.
In 2000, the brothers sold the family business.
Dave Howe recently returned to G&H as a part-time salesman, his enthusiasm for Deere products undiminished. It is complemented by his personal endorsement of the latest equipment line at G&H: Yanmar, the 100-year-old Japanese engine manufacturer with a growing line of compact construction equipment. Howe and his brother actually handled Yanmar products for a few years in the early 1980s and Howe is a fan of his Yanmar tractor, which he said starts for him even in Connecticut winters.
Those are the kinds of testimonials Roger Funk wants to hear. Adding Yanmar to the G&H product line is part of a growth strategy guided by Funk, who purchased G&H from the Howe brothers. His vision is to build out the company on the existing customer base as the recession finally wanes, attracting additional customers through such brands as Yanmar.
“You always have to grow,” Funk said. “You cannot get to a point of saying, ‘I’m going to stay at this level.’ If you are going to survive, you must constantly be proactive in trying to guide your company toward the future. This is why we went out and brought in another manufacturer to complement John Deere. ”
Funk said he was fortunate to land Yanmar, the top choice of three brands that he targeted for distribution rights. Yanmar is credited with developing the small diesel engine that is widely used on many brands of equipment in 2012. It is a long-time supplier of the engines to Deere, so bringing it to G&H is a good fit.
“The Yanmar product line gives us tractors that compete with Deere products,” Funk acknowledged. “Since we now have two brands of compact tractors, it allows our customers to compare and make the decision. Both brands are excellent and we are acting as a purchasing agent for our customers.”
As important, the Japanese brand gives G&H entry into the construction equipment field, with mini-excavators, skid steers, and compact wheel loaders leading the way. Funk sees the light construction machinery being more in demand in post-recessionary Connecticut than larger equipment, particularly among G&H’s targeted decision-makers in landscaping, institutional and municipal offices.
G&H equipment offerings will swell some more in the next year because Funk isn’t through adding lines. He is negotiating with two other manufacturers for the right to sell their products in North Haven. The announcement of the identity of those brands will be made in the next few months.
Furthermore, G&H plans to forcefully enter the rental equipment business. Yanmar will help with that initiative because its construction equipment is the type often rented for a day or a month by small contractors. Mowers, compact utility vehicles, snow blowers, and other staples of the John Deere urban line do not as readily lend themselves to rental.
G&H’s Hudson trailer line also is expected to benefit from the Yanmar presence, with commercial buyers of compact construction machines needing a way to transport the machinery from location to location.
A final key product in the G&H stable is Stihl hand equipment. When Hurricane Irene blew through Connecticut in August 2011, it left behind so many downed trees and broken limbs that G&H sold some 200 Stihl chain saws to commercial companies and property owners. That surge of chain saw sales was repeated a few weeks later when an unexpected early snowfall thinned branches across the region.
“You can’t control Mother Nature,” Funk said philosophically.
Building Loyal Customers
G&H sales leader Gerard Adinolfi appreciates shoppers who wander into the recently expanded G&H showroom. The appreciation is not feigned. He is a self-proclaimed “people guy” who easily connects with visitors or old customers.
Once a farm boy, Adinolfi also appreciates the engineering of the machinery he has been selling at G&H for the past 17 years. He is as equally enthusiastic about Deere products as he is about the new Yanmar line — and conveys genuine excitement about working again with part-time salesman Dave Howe, who hired him in 1995. “We’re a team again!”
The logical consequence for G&H of all this evident conviction and sincerity is a customer base whose loyalty has been passed down through generations. Adinolfi talks about a G&H customer living in a nearby town who bought a tractor from the dealership in 1967. Just a few weeks ago, a family member of that buyer returned to the dealership and bought a compact Deere tractor.
“We have some people who have been buying tractors from us since 1952,” Howe pointed out. “In the early days, we had to really cater to the customer, because you needed him to come back. Now we have customers saying things like, ‘My grandfather bought a tractor from your father and he treated my grandfather well.’”
Funk acknowledged that, “G&H has a very nice base of loyal customers that has been with us for a number of years.” He attributes the customer loyalty to employees who over many years have proved their value and allegiance to the organization.
“G&H being able to survive and now look ahead to growing as a business is because of loyal employees,” the owner said. He cited Adinolfi’s “nice rapport” with customers, which Funk believes comes from the lead salesman being an “honest, hard-working, caring individual” who customers correctly conclude is there to help them.
“The G&H team really is a small one of eight people, but six of them have been with us for a great number of years,” Funk said. “They are very loyal and it creates a family atmosphere that customers feel when they walk into G&H more so than when they walk into a larger dealership or retailer.”
The original G&H location behind the Studebaker dealership was given up in 1960 for a new and larger building alongside Old Maple St. Eighteen years later, with ownership of G&H about to pass from parents to sons, the dealership moved to its current location at 314 Old Maple, where a 13,000-sq.-ft. structure dominates a 3-acre site. Tall doors leading to nine service bays reflect the days when full-size construction equipment was serviced there.
“It really is almost too big for us and we love it!” Adinolfi said of the expansive building, which is apt to become more crowded as Funk’s new product lines are unveiled.
Funk believes the company is well positioned as it emerges from grinding recession that reduced gross annual sales. “There is still a need for the institutional and commercial equipment, but we have found that our customers are very conscious of cost. Consequently, the decision to buy is usually decided over a long period of time than when the economy is good and people have positive attitudes.”
But if government overseers of the economy will give enterprising small businesses like G&H a freer rein, Funk said, he believes the future will be bright. “Certainly we have a company that is well-known because it is 60 years young,” he said. “We have a facility that is large enough that we do not have to expand the physical facility. We will have to add employees and I am confident we can do that.
“Lastly, we have the experience,” he said, noting that 2013 marks the 50th year of his involvement in the equipment business. In Orange, Conn., the Funk family started F&W Equipment in 1939 and still operates the Case/Kubota/Doosan dealership. From his involvement in that family business, Funk was long aware of G&H before buying the company 12 years ago.
“I went to work for my father after graduation from college in 1963 and G&H was in business then,” he recalled. “They were always very good competition for us.”
With a twin line of compact tractors —“our bread and butter,” said Funk — a new line of Yanmar construction equipment, the long green line of Deere compact utility vehicles and lawn and garden equipment, Hudson trailers, and Stihl hand equipment, G&H Equipment looks to be competitive for some years to come.