(L-R) are Brad Boyd, Harter vice president of operations; Sue Harter, president; and Vic Riga, vice president of sales.
Good moves … it takes many of these to be successful in business — and even more to be successful for a half-century.
When Seth Harter decided in 1967 to stake his career on Deere & Company, which had operated construction equipment dealerships for only 10 years at the time, that was the first of many good moves.
Harter was a crane salesman — with thoughts of being an entrepreneur — endeavoring to go into business for himself. John Deere had been in existence as an ag equipment manufacturer since the 19th century but was a relative newcomer in the competitive construction equipment industry in the mid-20th century. Yet Harter liked what he saw in Deere products and opted to partner with the Moline, Ill., manufacturer.
After Harter left North Jersey Equipment Company and signed up with Deere, he initially set up shop in a rented 2,000-sq.-ft. building in Matawan in eastern New Jersey near the Garden State Parkway, not far from the coast.
He hired two people … an office person and a parts/service person and he immediately went out on the road as the salesperson. He worked in the field during daylight hours and headed to the office before and after to catch up on things there. Many times, he went home for dinner and went back to the office after that.
Four years later, Harter had tirelessly built up his business and Deere executives suggested Harter Equipment move farther inland. The suggestion showed the confidence Deere already had in the young dealer: In its view, Harter Equipment had become established enough to survive uprooting. Harter, too, had come to believe his business had a bright future.
But meeting payroll and paying bills was a struggle until about 1970 when the company's parts and service businesses had matured enough to provide a better cash flow. It was then Harter realized it was going to be a success and recognized the importance of the “after sales” side of the business.
Spurred by Deere, he began to scout locations for a relocated dealership. He quickly focused on Route 33, the state's only major east-west corridor at that time. His search along that roadway ended in Millstone Township where an apple orchard caught his eye.
The location was as centrally located as one could possibly get in the state of New Jersey and just four miles from the NJ Turnpike. But back then, the area was surrounded by farms, and some thought he must be crazy. It turned out that he was far from it.
He bought a section of the orchard and built the dealership's core building. Four years later, business was good enough that Harter was compelled to double the size of the shop area. In 1980, he added two 2,500-sq.-ft. wings for storage and office space. In 2005, the dealership acquired the remaining nine acres of the orchard, keeping most of it to consolidate the property around its 20,000-sq.-ft. facility.
Deere & Company products are the base on which Harter built his business, but another good move he made occurred back in 1971 when the dealership was still situated in the rented building in Matawan.
It was there that a salesman drove intohe dealership in a big car trailering an orange, two-wheel-drive, 21-horsepower tractor. The salesman wanted Harter to take the tractor for a few days to see if he would be interested in becoming a dealer. Harter took one walk around the tractor and thought to himself, 'This is the best built tractor I've ever seen.'”
It was a Kubota tractor and Harter Equipment became one of the first Kubota dealerships in the country. And that was another good move.
Today, 50 years later, Harter Equipment is still with John Deere and Kubota and has itself become something of an icon in central New Jersey, firmly established as a progressive, full-service, multi-line construction equipment dealership.
Sue Harter, founder Seth Harter's daughter, is president of the company, but her journey to running the long-time, successful dealership travelled through hard work and paying her dues.
She and her sisters began counting parts at the dealership as kids; by age 15, she was helping her father keep the books. Still, despite all that priming, she said she “never really thought about working here full time.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland with an accounting degree, she worked for a New York City firm before becoming a certified public accountant and controller at another company. Not until 1985 did she finally look back at Harter Equipment as a viable workplace option.
Sue Harter joined the dealership as controller, managing the accounting and financial functions of the company. Four years later during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the company had cut backs in staff, she eased out of her comfort zone and was placed in charge of rentals. Here, she began to familiarize herself with the equipment and established many of the customer relationships she still values today. At that time, other managers oversaw sales, parts and service, but before long, her competence outside financial accounting became apparent and product support departments began to report to her. Sales followed, eventually.
One Location, Multiple Brands
Located in central New Jersey (in a very desirable residential area, while representing the John Deere and Kubota product lines during the 1970, 1980 and 1990 housing booms) fueled the growth in Harter for many years, according to Sue Harter.
But as times changed and housing demands declined, Harter made several more good moves that spurred their growth and success — partnerships were forged with other manufacturers that were highly specialized in particular construction products.
In 1998, Harter took on Kobelco, which then, and today, is a manufacturer of only excavators. In 2001, it was Kawasaki (now KCM) that specializes in wheel loaders. Rayco forestry products were added in 1999 and the Dynapac line of rollers and pavers added in 2008. More recently, Harter became a Hyundai dealer (2010) that manufacturers both excavators and wheel loaders and a Bell dealer (2015) that manufacturers articulated dump trucks.
Most of the manufacturers represented also are available in Harter's rental fleet.
“We are very centrally located and easy to get to,” Harter said. “We are right on a major four-lane highway and it's just convenient for contractors to get here. Whether it's to pick up a rental or a part, or to look at a few different excavators, New Jersey contractors are never far from us.”
People, Products and Service … You'll Dig!
According to Harter, “as our slogan goes, People, Products and Service… you'll dig,” our employees [people] are our most important asset. I am forever grateful to them, the work they do every day and the drive and passion they have to support our customers. It's an honor to work with them and the company's success is due to them.”
Harter Equipment currently employs 32 people, of which half them have been with the company for 10 years or more.
According to Brad Boyd, vice president of operations, most of the employees that work at Harter stay with the company in, his opinion, to the family nature of the business.
“Sue treats everyone that works here like family. I certainly try to transform each employee into a family member, not just a technician, not just a worker, but somebody that really feels that they belong to the organization. That's probably one of our greatest strengths,” he said.
Harter's vice president of sales, Vic Riga, has been with the company since 2004. Originally a road sales person and then sales manager, he has been vice president of sales since 2011. Additional staff members include 13-year veteran sales and inventory coordinator Lisa Petrie, inside sales person Nick Evangelista and four road salesmen with 50-plus years of construction equipment sales experience.
Riga credits Harter's continued success over the past 50 years to the company's ability to cater to startup companies as well as they do the multi-million-dollar contractor.
“We have a diverse selection of equipment from light commercial lawn equipment and compact tractors to heavy excavators and dump trucks, as well as a gazillion attachments,” he said. “A customer can truly grow with us, from that commercial lawn service provider, to landscape contractor, to full blown site contractor. Another thing that makes us unique is that as a multi-line dealer we are beholden to the customer, not one particular brand.”
According to Riga, customers – both rentals and sales – come back again and again because Harter is easy to do business with.
“We are very responsive on the product support (parts and service) side of our business. Our product support reputation brings us sales customers … customers who have already had a good experience here.
“Our rental fleet is up to date, with low-hour, well maintained machines and we have a whole host of attachment lines that complement it,” he added. “Our rental business has been a steady producer of good used inventory for our sales department. It also enables customers to rent equipment for a period of time and then have the option to purchase if they are interested. Our business model has always concentrated on having a good rental business.”
Brad Boyd, Harter vice president of operations, a 22-year employee, oversees the company's product support functions, rentals and the physical plant.
According to Boyd, there are five employees in the parts department: three parts specialists who work the parts counter, one full-time shipping/receiving person and the parts manager. The shop currently has approximately nine workers on site, with three more out on the road and two full-time CDL drivers.
The service manager is Pete Placek, who Boyd refers to as one of Harter's “most valuable assets.”
“He's that hard to find combination of a great technician and a great business manager,” Boyd said.
Other valuable assets are, 21-year Harter veteran, Barry Shames, shop foreman, who reports directly to Placek and is the liaison between the technicians and the office.
Parts manager George Filiatreault has been with the company 22 years, starting as a parts specialist and working his way through the ranks to his current position.
Harter currently has three full-time service vehicles, three delivery vehicles and a pickup truck. That translates to six or seven vehicles that are always on the road.
Harter also carries a substantial parts inventory.
“One of the nice things about managing a mature business is you can afford the investment needed to stock your parts shelves with the necessary inventory,” said Boyd. “It allows us to set stocking levels based on demand, versus dollar investment. But in this day and age, if it's an item that we don't have on our shelves, in most cases we can have it the next day.”
Changes, Inside and Out
Harter currently is just finishing up a parts department renovation, which includes new floors, lighting, ceilings and paint, as well as changing the parts counter and rearranging the showroom to better showcase the many accessories the company carries.
“When you walked into our building, the first thing you saw was our parts counter, so we wanted to modernize it and give it a more industrial look,” Harter said.
Rather than the usual long counter with staff sitting behind it, Harter's parts specialists now have individual workstations with stainless steel tops and display cabinet bottoms.
“With parts catalogues and diagrams online now, customers frequently come around behind the parts person to look at the computer screen, so the individual workstation design encourages this, making it easier to be more interactive with the customer,” she said. “The customer can quickly and easily come around and help identify the parts he needs.”
“Customers have more privacy, it's a more one-on-one experience with our parts specialists and more efficient … and it really looks sharp,” added Boyd. “We are really pleased with the end look.”
Harter also improved the traffic flow through rearranging the lobby layout.
“We have a large lobby and before the traffic flow did not lend itself to browsing through the merchandise we have on display,” Harter said. “So by relocating the new workstations to the end of the lobby, and positioning our displays in a more open pattern, customers are enticed to do more browsing and realize, 'Oh, you carry this — I can use this.' The goal is to make customers more aware of the many accessories and other merchandise we carry that they might not have otherwise realized we sold.”
Harter's yard also is undergoing some changes.
“Approximately half of our six acres is designated specifically for the storage of our heavy equipment, used equipment and our rental fleet, most of which is usually out on job sites, thanks to our robust rental business,” Boyd said. “We like to keep this area as organized as possible so customers can be taken right to the equipment they are interested in looking at. We're installing road mats to make the traverse from our facility to this storage area cleaner and easier to maintain. In conjunction with this, we are replacing about 3,000 square feet of 8- to 12-inch thick concrete pads that lead up to the new road mats … it's a very heavily traveled route.”
Through the use of telematics, Harter's service personnel are able to learn when machines are having problems — oftentimes before the customer has even detected it.
John Deere, Kobelco, KCM, Hyundai and Bell all have telematics systems that can monitor and communicate diagnostic and machine performance information every day. Both Dynapac and Kubota are rolling out their platforms soon.
“These systems can measure everything from location, hours, oil and water temperature, idle time, fuel consumption and even send performance alerts and maintenance reminders,” Boyd said. “It's quite impressive. We use telematics to monitor our own rental fleet, helping us with maintenance and avoiding downtime for our customers. It's part of the evolving business.
“So with these advances in technology we really seek technicians that have a unique set of skills,” Boyd added. “The average machine has to be hooked up to a laptop and there's a lot of diagnostic work that's done to figure out what exactly is going on in the machine. Technicians of today and the future will not only need to be proficient with tools, but they also have to be proficient with programs, technology and computers.”
The Customer Is Always Right
Customers and employees alike have good things to say about Harter Equipment and its staff.
Wagner Contracting's Brian Grinaway has been buying from Harter since the mid 1990s. He's happy with all the service department employees — “Brad, Pete, Vic, Joe, George, Sean — everyone there,” he said. “They are all good. I never have any issues. I have a good rapport with all of them. I call them, I need a machine, I could forget to call them and I could need a machine for Monday and one way or another they will get it for me. If I need a rental for Monday, they will get it for me.”
Harter also has fixed Grinaway's machines before a blizzard. Not once, but twice.
“Last year , right before the blizzard, I had a machine that didn't work,” he said. “We didn't run it for a while. I called Brad [Boyd] and he sent a truck right over, picked it up and they had it fixed that day for me. The same thing happened again this year to the same machine, but it was parked in New Brunswick. [My employees] ran it the first snow and then no one told me they were having problems with it. I went down there and it wouldn't start and it was getting ready to snow again. [Brad] sent the truck down, picked back up and they fixed it.”
Ian Johnston, project manager of John Kochis Landscaping, knew and worked with the Harters – both Seth and Sue — back in the 1980s when he was employed by another firm. His present employer has five machines, including trackhoes and skid steers, purchased from Harter Equipment.
“[At] John Kochis Landscaping, we run [our equipment] very hard and when it starts to get a little bit tired, we trade it in and buy new and [Harter Equipment] been very fair on the trade and very fair on the pricing. It's always great service,” Johnston said.
“They are fair, straightforward,” he added. “You can communicate with them. It's not a one-way street, it's a two-way street. You can come to a mutually acceptable agreement pretty easily with them.”
For non-warranty repairs, John Kochis Landscaping prefers to do its own repairs. The company purchases the parts from Harter Equipment.
“They have been great. We just give them the serial number and the model on the machine and they get us the parts quickly and we bolt them on and everything is fine,” Johnston said.
Another long-term customer, Sam Tuma, has worked with Harter Equipment since 1995. Now co-owner of KST Contracting, Tuma has purchased both new and used equipment from Harter.
“Sue definitely helped me when I transitioned from my old business to the new business,” he said. “We just always had a great working relationship. Anytime I go in there, I feel they do give me their best pricing. I get along with the guys in the parts department, the guys in the service department and the rental.”
And when equipment breaks down, Harter's parts and service departments have been there with the solution.
“A John Deere 410 I bought from them had problems when I took it off the rental fleet. They ended up replacing the hydraulic pump on it at absolutely no charge after I had it for a couple of months. The machine had some hours on it, so it wasn't a brand-new machine, [but] they didn't charge me anything,” he said.
Mycon LLC, an excavating, paving, concrete and utility company in business since January 2001, has purchased its entire fleet from Harter.
“They have a really reasonable line,” Owner Dan Moran said. “It's not overly expensive and it's always good quality machines.
“They are very professional, very easy to work with, very good with their service department and parts department. We had a problem with our Kubota that was out of warranty and they worked very hard with Kubota to warranty the issue.
“We rent there also,” he added. “The people are just very professional. [Sue Harter] has a great eye for workers. Everybody she brings in is just very professional, very high-quality.”—CEG