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Equipment House Thrives With Expansive, Solution-Based Lineup

Thu January 12, 2023 - Northeast Edition #2

Derek Bauer, president of Able Tool and Equipment.
Derek Bauer, president of Able Tool and Equipment.
Derek Bauer, president of Able Tool and Equipment. Gar-Bro concrete buckets is just one of many specialized concrete products available at Able Tool and Equipment. Able Tool and Equipment has a significant inventory of Wacker light towers. Buggies of all types and sizes are labor savers that are in high demand. Concrete trowels manufactured by Allen Engineering, one of several products specifically for the concrete industry offered by Allen Engineering. Able Tool and Equipment has one of the largest inventories of mini-hammers in the area. Able Tool and Equipment’s massive warehouse allows much of its inventory to be 
protected from the elements and stored under roof. Kenco manufactures highly specialized attachments typically used by heavy highway and bridge contractors. Air compressors and generators are a critical part of any rental fleet. Wacker compact rollers are available for rent or purchase. Able Tool and Equipment offers one of the largest inventories of Wacker earthmoving equipment in the Northeast. Wheeled-dumpers are useful for contractors working in tight quarters. Concrete mixers are available for sale or rent. A large inventory of supplies that are in high demand from local contractors are kept on hand. As they come to age and meet reasonable standards, Able Tool and Equipment is investing in the electric machine market, such as this Green Machine compact excavator. Able Tool and Equipment’s new shop area. In April of 2020 a massive fire destroyed Able Tool and Equipment’s South Windsor, Conn., facility. Through the design and construction process, overhead cranes were incorporated in the shop to assist in the work on larger pieces of equipment; larger doors were incorporated to make access easier; a mezzanine was incorporated for parts storage. The fire got so hot that the steel beams of the building literally turned red and melted. The building became a total loss. Able Tool and Equipment’s new showroom. The rebuild process took two years to complete.

Able Tool & Equipment was founded by Derek Bauer in 2005 at its original location in a one-bay garage in East Windsor, Conn. Within a few years, they moved to 410 Burnham Street, South Windsor, Conn., and shortly after a second location at 120 Interstate Drive, West Springfield, Mass.

If asked to describe Able Tool & Equipment, Bauer would say that it is the distributor of light and compact equipment for the construction industry with an extremely diverse list of suppliers with the focus being on the heavy highway, concrete, excavating and utilities industries. The company offers all standard items, such as light towers, compressors, excavators, compactors, concrete buggies and more.

But Able Tool & Equipment also takes pride in identifying highly specialized items to help its customers satisfy challenges on the job site — items that not just any equipment house would have on hand.

Some of the companies that it represents are household names within the equipment industry, such as Wacker Neuson, Sullair, Gorman Rupp, EZ Drill, Chicago Pneumatic and Husqvarna. Because of its efforts to fill niche markets, there also are names that might not be as familiar, such as Weber, Hoffman Diamond, Michigan Pneumatic, Corecut, Kenco, Garbro, Miller Spreader and many more.

The equipment that Able offers is available for sale, but like every other equipment house in the industry today, rental is what the business is all about, and the company has rental programs to fit the needs of any customer.

Bauer has an extensive knowledge in the equipment rental business, partially because he had an extensive training period working for two of the major national equipment rental chains before starting his own company. Once he made up his mind to get Able Tool & Equipment started, he worked long hours seven days a week with the support of some really good employees and a wife who shared his vision to build a strong, successful dealership, only to have the main facility in South Windsor, Conn., completely destroyed by fire. (See "Recovering From Disaster", at the end of the story.)

The rebuild process took two years to complete. At times it was an unpleasant two years, as they were working in an incomplete building with no heat in the winter and no air-conditioning in the summer.

"My wife did everything she could to help relieve a lot of the stress that was going on during this difficult period. She has always been very supportive from the start. She doesn't come into the office every day, but she is always there if we need her. It might be running to the bank; it might be organizing a company Christmas party, or taking care of gifts for customers … she's there when I need her, so I can stay focused on running the business."

When asked how he would describe his business today, Bauer replied, "I tell people we are a boutique business. We really are focused. The analogy I use all the time is a gun comparison. You can go buy your guns at Walmart or Dicks Sporting Goods or you can choose to go to a gun store and deal with people who are experts in firearms to discuss your needs.

"We fancy ourselves as the experts in what we do. We are super focused on the product lines that we offer and on the type of contractors we serve. I have employees and customers that will ask why we don't move into larger earthmoving machines or other areas of the construction industry outside of what we do, and my answer is ‘we are really focused on what we've got, and we can't be everything to everybody. We have had the opportunity to cherry pick what we do and what we don't do. That makes sense for us, and it's become our strength in the marketplace.'

"We certainly have some items that you can get anywhere, that honestly no one is really an expert in. Mini-excavators, skid steers would be examples. But then there are categories like compaction or more specifically, light compaction. Nobody in New England does light compaction like we do. You will not see more light compaction equipment in a yard anywhere than what we carry in inventory.

"When you talk about air tools, particularly mid-size and small air tools, and the compressors that go with them, the guys that are using a lot of air hammers, that's an area that we really focus on and have invested in a massive inventory. With these specialty tools we not only sell and rent them, we also service them, which not just anyone can do.

"It's no longer possible to do this all the time, but we try very hard to buy American anytime we can and with that comes dealing with suppliers that you really believe in, that you can develop a relationship with, that have specialists on their staff who can come help you when you need them. I particularly enjoy my relationship with some of the smaller American companies that we work with. Companies like Miller Curber, Garbro, Allen Engineering, Michigan Pneumatic, EZ Drill and some others. These companies are very flexible and when you get into a unique project, they will work with you to solve the specialized needs and challenges of the customer.

"We work with a company called Gar-Bro who makes concrete buckets. We are his distributor for New England. The owner of the company comes up and calls on us in person. We understand concrete buckets like nobody else in New England. What we do here is different than a heavy equipment or earthmoving shop. We solve very specific problems such as what size generator to match up with a particular product or what plate compactor is going to work best in this particular application. Very few people work with bridge deck screeds like we do. We are experts in that area."

Bauer takes great pride in the service and support after the sale or rental that Able Tool and Equipment is able to give to its customers.

"It starts with the sales team … with a group of just really good people, some have more experience than others, but these are the guys that ‘hook' our customers.' Both the inside and outside sales staff is largely a very experienced group. This has been one of the keys to our success — really strong employees. And add to that the strength of our service department. The experience runs deep on this side of the business, as well, including our Lead Technician Peter Davis, who has been nationally recognized by Wacker Neuson as one of their best in North America.

"We have very good service techs who have been with us a long time and are extremely knowledgeable. That's hard to find, particularly when you are working with some of the smaller equipment. There are plenty of guys out there who can work on big machines, but small machine technicians are another whole story. That's why people don't just rent from us, they will buy from us because we've got the guys to keep it running.

"When a customer goes down, we know how to fix it, a service tech or a replacement machine is on the way. We understand the urgency within this business. Another attraction to doing business with us is our size. We're a small house. If you come in here and do business with us, we're going to know you. I'm going to know you. My service manager is going to know you. Our doors will always be open to you. Customers have my cell phone number, and my employees have my cell phone number. If I need to get involved, I get involved.

"The products that we sell each are a piece of the puzzle that completes the picture of the offerings we are trying to fill to the industry. Wacker is certainly one of our key lines and everyone immediately equates the name Wacker with high-end compaction equipment. Their earthmoving equipment is quickly making a name for itself. But I get excited about their niche items from that lineup. They have compact wheel excavators that aren't really available from anyone else, which makes it a great niche rental item for us. We keep a high variety of attachments available for the wheeled excavator and it has become a popular with utility contractors.

"Currently we are seeing a growing demand for battery-powered equipment and more and more manufacturers entering that market. The technology is there, battery powered equipment has plenty of horsepower. The challenge becomes how long will it run on a charge and how long does it take to recharge.

"In the battery-operated category, we have Kato electric excavators up to 4-ton, full-size skid steers as well as stand on skid steers. We have battery-operated compactors and vibrators. It's early in the development of this technology and run time seems to be the biggest challenge but we want to be involved from the ground floor so that we grow with the technology. The run time is certainly a challenge, but it also varies a great deal with the application of the equipment. A big part of it is managing the customer's expectations, but if emission regulations continue to get more and more stringent it's a challenge all of us are going to have to deal with.

"Weber is an important line to us. They work extremely well with us as a manufacturer, and they give us compaction equipment that we can be very competitive with. It's another case of a company who works closely with us and we've built a great relationship with them, and we inventory a great deal of their products. One of our primary suppliers for concrete equipment is Allen Engineering. Again, they are American-made and they make some of our primary products for concrete contractors. Products like concrete vibrators, trowels, screeds, buggies, and in each one of these categories, Allen is an industry leader. Because they are a relatively small company and American-made, we are able to have a really strong relationship with them, which goes a long way for us when we really need to get something done.

"Chicago Pneumatic is a great brand for us and a very old and respected name in the industry. Michigan Pneumatic is another one of our suppliers that is all American-made and another company that we can have a relationship directly with the owner. They demonstrated early on in our relationship that they would be willing to do whatever it takes to get our business and that made a lasting impression.

"Michigan Pneumatic is making some very high-quality air tools in an industry segment where most of their competitors have moved their manufacturing overseas. They even do tool rebuilds. They also create some innovative products that nobody else does. For instance, they manufacture some concrete busters with T handles that have been so popular for us we have sold them all over New England for bridge deck demolition. They've built some very lightweight busters that are ideal for doing overhead breaking.

"Another company we're proud to represent is Epiroc hammers. They manufacture the old Atlas Copco hammers, and we do a significant amount of small hammer business. I don't know of anyone who does as much small hammer business as we do. We know the hammer business very well. But it's a very tight niche of the hydraulic hammer market for us."

A significant part of Able's customer base is heavy highway contractors or, in other words, road and bridge builders.

"We feel that a significant portion of our product line is specifically targeting that audience and we go after that market very hard. Particularly our high-quality American-made products are niche items that are specifically used in that industry. The utility market also is a great market for us. We've got the compaction equipment they need, the saws and pumps that they are looking for, our compact excavating equipment is in high demand in that industry.

"Another important market to us is the concrete flat work specialists, or for that matter, anyone in the concrete business. We have all the items that anyone else serving concrete contractors would have and, like I mentioned earlier, we have specialized concrete items that no one else carries. We also get involved in excavation, demolition and municipalities."

For more information about Able Tool & Equipment, visit CEG

Recovering From Disaster

"It was April the year of the COVID breakout, in fact just one month after COVID hit the U.S. in 2020," said Able Tool & Equipment Founder, Derek Bauer. "As if things weren't bad enough. We were busy working on an expansion on a property next door, building a significant warehouse to get more of our equipment under roof. We were really in the early phases of construction; the building was basically a metal shell.

"It was a Wednesday morning at 8:15. You could smell smoke. Our first thought was that maybe one of the motors on a fan inside the building had burned up. We were trying to identify it, but we weren't overly concerned. So, we started to open up all the doors to the building to try to ventilate and identify what was going on and it had just the opposite of the desired effect. There was a fire inside and we managed to feed it lots of oxygen and fan the flames.

"The next thing I knew, one of my employees was running to my office telling me to get out of the office right away because the building was on fire. I ran out to the shop and saw three of my guys up on the mezzanine trying to fight a fire that was now climbing up the sides of the walls. It was obvious the fire was now out of control, and it was time to call 911. We evacuated the building and waited and watched.

"When the fire department got there, we still thought it was not going to be a huge deal, they will knock the fire down, we'll do some repairs, we'll be OK. But the fire had made its way up into the ceiling and when the doors opened, the insulation caught fire and started to drop down into the main building spreading the fire everywhere. Unfortunately, we had some flammable products in the shop, including a product called Tanner gas, which is an alcohol-based product and is used as a de-icer in air systems and air tool applications.

"The firemen came to me and said something is going on in a part of that building; we add water and the fire gets bigger. Those chemicals were literally turning into bombs. The fire got so hot that the steel beams of the building literally turned red and melted. The building became a total loss.

"As I stood back and looked at it, it reminded me of pictures that I have seen of the Dresden fire bombings. Even as the fire was still burning strong, one of my employees [Andy], who thank goodness was thinking ahead, suggested that he take his laptop and head out to the Springfield, Mass., store, to let Springfield know what's going on, coordinate with our software provider and the phone company so that calls and leads are being routed to Springfield. That was a fast process and thanks to his quick thinking we were able to take care of customers in a relatively short period of time.

"The next day we started to piece things together. We put planks over sawhorses and that became our counter. We did have heat in the partially completed warehouse, but it was a shell of a building and had no phones. We started sending e-mails out to customers letting them know that we were still open for business.

"My thoughts turned to the insurance company and what was the cause of the fire and will everything be covered. We never did find what the cause of the fire was. The fire inspector starts asking you scary questions like ‘do you have any disgruntled employees,' and all of this was going on in the first week of April, a key period of business for us. We knew we had to stay open and keep moving forward.

"It turned out the insurance company worked wonderfully with us. Our claims adjuster was very fair, he took good care of us. There's just so much to try to piece together as far as what was inside the building. You know about your whole goods inventory, but parts can be tricky, and your employees have their tools. Do they know the inventory of their tools? Some of our mechanics have nearly $100,000 invested in their own tools. It turned out the insurance company had a very limited coverage for employees' tools so to be fair I reimbursed our employees for those losses. Verifying what was lost was certainly a challenge because many items simply melted from the heat. But, again, the adjuster was fair. If we gave him an accurate description of the items that could be identified, he assumed that our description of the rest of the items was also accurate.

"We immediately started working with a contractor making plans for and building our new facility. It was tough losing the building we had, but it was not a purpose-built facility for what we do, and this new facility was certainly going to be an opportunity for us to design something from the ground up to meet our needs."

Bauer then contacted a contractor who had previously done some interior work on the old facility. He immediately got an office trailer into the site to help relieve some of the pressure. Through the design and construction process, overhead cranes were incorporated in the shop to assist in the work on larger pieces of equipment; larger doors were incorporated to make access easier; a mezzanine was incorporated for parts storage.

"The contractor was wonderful to work with and we had some very heartwarming experiences in the process. Our neighbors and our customers started to blow up my phone offering help. Items like desks and chairs started to show up along with office supplies. Some people sent us in lunch or coffee … Really too many items to list, but it really made me realize that a focus that we've had for years on taking care of our customers wasn't missed by the people we serve."

And the people who take care of the customers, Able's employees, were an integral part of the business successfully recovering from the fire.

"Without all of our team members coming together, working together and all striving to overcome this disaster, we could not have done it," said Bauer. "I continue to be extremely appreciative and grateful for their efforts. Achieving loyalty from your team members during good times is easy, but during very difficult time is when you really find out how much people care about you. We're truly fortunate to have such dedicated people working at Able." CEG

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