Listening, Hard Work Key to H.O. Penn’s Paul Donahue’s 52-Years of Success

Thu September 22, 2005 - Northeast Edition
Dave Chartock

As a child, Paul Donahue said he had a “hankering” for equipment. His father was an electrician who also owned a farm in Somerset, MA.

“Trade journals with tractors came to the house,” he recalled. “I read them, and every time I saw an offer for a brochure for any type of tractor, I sent for it. Then, one day, a local salesman from a local dealer showed up with an Allis-Chalmer crawler tractor on a trailer. The salesman was looking for me — I was nine years old. I ran across the street and hid in some woods for a while, while my mother dealt with the angry salesman. After that, my father told me to stop sending away for the brochures.”

Donahue stopped sending for the brochures, but his love for heavy machinery was in his blood.

After graduating high school and moving to St. Albans, NY, Donahue said one day he found himself walking down Jericho Turnpike in Mineola, NY. He stopped in front of the H.O. Penn Caterpillar dealership, walked into their office and at age 19, asked for a job. That was Sept. 21, 1953, and Donahue has been with H.O. Penn ever since.

Donahue began his career as a track press operator in the shop. Then, in June, 1955, he was drafted.

Joining the U.S. Air Force, he served 44 months in Munich, West Germany, repairing construction equipment.

He returned home and to H.O. Penn, now in Westbury, NY, in February 1959. From then until June 1967, he served H.O. Penn as a shop mechanic and then a field mechanic. In June, 1967, he was promoted to sales trainee, and from October 1967 through October 2004, he served as a general line salesman in Suffolk County, NY.

Unable to retire because the heavy construction equipment is in his blood, Donahue became a part-timer, servicing municipalities in Suffolk County as a full-line sales representative, and at age 71, is still doing it.

“I like H.O. Penn, the people and the products. I worked for two owners,” he said, “both of whom treated me well. They have also treated their customers well, and continue to do so. Their success lies in addressing every customer’s need — and they addressed all my needs too, from providing health insurance and a great work environment to a job I enjoy.”

Over the 52 years Donahue has been with H.O. Penn, he said he has seen advances in the products each and every month. These advances have been in product quality, durability and reliability.

In addition, over the years, selling Caterpillar products through H.O. Penn has changed. Today, Donahue noted, customers are more knowledgeable and they also know the competitors’ products.

One of the long-time advantages offered by Caterpillar is that it was and still is one of the very few manufacturers that offer Life-Cycle costing (LCC). LCC guarantees municipal customers the value of each individual piece of equipment at the time it is traded in for a newer product, he explained.

Donahue, himself, said he believes that being both a Caterpillar-trained sales representative and a Caterpillar-trained mechanic has given him a “great edge in selling the product because I know every product inside and out.”

Donahue said H.O. Penn’s Caterpillar product line includes bulldozers, rubber-tired loaders, excavators, skid steer loaders, pavers, rollers, telehandlers, backhoes and off-road trucks.

The secret to Donahue’s 52-years of success is his philosophy, “You learn more by listening than you do by talking.”

This philosophy, he continued, “allows me to get inside a customer’s mind. It allows the customer to tell me all his needs, how his business is run, and how I can provide product to meet his needs.”

In 36 years of sales, Donahue estimated he might have sold as many as 8,000 pieces of Caterpillar equipment valued at more than $20 million.

Elaborating, Donahue emphasized that he sells Caterpillar products strictly on their short-term and long-term benefits, including LCC.

Over the years, 75 percent of his sales have been repeat business. While he attributed much of his repeat business to the quality, durability and reliability of Caterpillar products, “there is a relationship factor.”

According to Donahue, “We do relationship selling. This includes establishing and maintaining a relationship with the customer by addressing all of their needs, checking in with them weekly, seeing how to grow their business with Caterpillar equipment, visiting them weekly to discuss new product and ways to use their existing Caterpillar products.

“I also present them with the latest ideas from Caterpillar and elsewhere, and I keep them updated on industry news and events,” Donahue said.

Today, based in H.O. Penn’s Holtsville, NY, branch, Donahue added that many of his customers are friends. “I visit their job sites, send them Christmas cards, send them gifts for newborns in their families, and I try to make helpful suggestions,” he said.

“Most important,” Donahue emphasized, “is that I listen to them, their needs and how they can make the best use of the equipment they have already purchased.

“Hard work too,” Donahue pointed out, “is also a key to more than half a century of my success at H.O. Penn.”

For more than 36 years, Donahue worked from eight hours to 10 hours a day, six days per week — and still found time to raise six children and travel.

On Sept. 1, 2005, Donahue will reach the 52-year mark at H.O. Penn. This, he said, would not have been possible without his wife, Barbara, who “has been a very understanding” wife for 48 years.

“Barbara knows the business and what it has required,” he noted, implying that the key to success here too, is listening.