Highland Tractor Adapts to Florida’s Changing Market

Mon May 05, 2008 - Southeast Edition
CEG



Diversification has been the key to Highland Tractor Company’s success.

Throughout the past 34 years, the company has broadened its focus on the types of equipment it sells, opening up to new customers in central Florida.

Its offerings from John Deere now include agricultural, light industrial, commercial and consumer, construction and forestry — everything but golf and turf.

“I felt that the type of industry we are in was changing and that it was important to gain a critical mass,” said Joe Varner, vice president and COO.

Things started out very differently.

In 1974, Joe’s father, Sid Varner, opened a single location in Ocala. It focused exclusively on construction and forestry equipment. A second location opened in Chiefland in the mid-1990s. By that point, 30 to 40 percent of Highland’s business came from the forestry sector.

But Joe saw the tides turning and felt the business needed to make adjustments accordingly.

He started in 1995 as an outside salesman and took on the role of sales manager in 2000, when he started making some management decisions.

“I nosed my way in there because I had a real interest and a real passion for it,” Joe said.

The forestry end of the business started dying off at the turn of the century — by 2003, it was only 5 percent of the business. It’s now only 1 percent.

“The type of industry we’re in was changing,” Joe said. “We had to become more diverse and complex ourselves.”

The first move was to push agricultural and light industrial equipment. Following John Deere’s lead, Highland began purchasing smaller ag dealers; the manufacturer encouraged its larger dealers to do so in an effort to get all of its lines under one roof.

Joe said Highland was able to pick up a strong area for light industrial equipment in Tampa and Orlando. The light machines were introduced to all of the locations that only sold commercial equipment.

With a third new branch opened in 2004 in Leesburg, acquisitions added locations in Winter Garden, New Port Richey, Dade City and Lakeland in 2006. A second wave added Melbourne and Cocoa.

In an effort to consolidate operations, Highland closed the locations in Chiefland, Cocoa and Lakeland in 2007.

But in 2008, Palmetto and Plant City were added to Highland’s store count.

With the expansion, “we definitely are moving the business away from retail lawn and garden customers to business-to-business relationships.”

Even with eight locations, Joe said Highland is looking to add new locations and upgrade several of its current locations in the near future.

Each location is able to accept all types of machinery when it comes to product support. If there is an issue with the size of the machine or the capability of the branch, the machine is sent to another branch, but it will be brought back when the work has been completed, “so it’s seamless for the customer,” Joe said.

As part of the effort to get as much John Deere equipment out in front of potential customers as possible, Highland has entered into an agreement with John Deere Landscapes to display and sell commercial mowing, light industrial equipment and parts through 30 of its locations in Central Florida.

In addition to John Deere, Highland sells Morbark and Alamo equipment at all locations and Land Pride attachments in some branches. CEG Staff