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Molly Swanston Takes Reigns of Swanston Equipment Co.

Tue April 25, 2023 - Midwest Edition #9
Giles Lambertson – CEG Correspondent


Swanston Equipment’s Chris Shea, president, and Molly Swanston, owner, are leading the company into the next generation. 
(Swanston Equipment photo)
Swanston Equipment’s Chris Shea, president, and Molly Swanston, owner, are leading the company into the next generation. (Swanston Equipment photo)
Swanston Equipment’s Chris Shea, president, and Molly Swanston, owner, are leading the company into the next generation. 
(Swanston Equipment photo) One of the more visible changes under Molly Swanston’s leadership has been adoption of a new company logo. 
(Swanston Equipment photo) Chris Shea and Molly Swanston strategize about the company’s Bobcat equipment line. For the last five years, the dealership has been ranked among the top 15 Bobcat dealerships in the country — that’s out of more than 500 Bobcat dealers.
(Swanston Equipment photo) When her father, William Swanston III, who goes by Mike, retired at age 65 Molly Swanston stepped up as owner. She immediately named Chris Shea president of the company.
(Swanston Equipment photo) Swanston Equipment Company keeps changing — at the same time remaining family-owned and customer-centered.
(Swanston Equipment photo) With new ownership and a new logo in place and a lineup of iconic and industry-leading brands in its showrooms, the future is exciting and not the least because of new technology.
(Swanston Equipment photo) “I am thankful to have Chris [Shea] by my side,” said Molly Swanston. “He has been here a long time and knows the business inside and out.”
(Swanston Equipment photo) Swanston Equipment Company has four locations: Fargo, N.D., Minot, N.D., Fergus Falls, Minn., and Alexandria, Minn.
(Swanston Equipment photo)

Swanston Equipment Company keeps changing — at the same time remaining family-owned and customer-centered. Evolution and stability. These have characterized the North Dakota construction equipment dealership for 93 years. The 2020 transfer of the company to Molly Swanston, the fourth generation of family ownership, continued that pattern.

"You probably don't hear this very often, but we really encourage change. We prefer change," said Chris Shea, who was selected by the new owner to be company president. "Molly taking over the company gave us an opportunity to look at ourselves and determine how we can be better. How we can take better care of our people and our customers. We think about that every day."

Chris Shea and Molly Swanston strategize about the company's Bobcat equipment line.

The transition of owners was orderly. It dated from conversations some six years ago when Molly Swanston decided to leave another job and return home to Fargo and to the family firm. She had gone to college to pursue a music degree, switched over to communication studies and after college headed to Michigan to work in sales for a brewery. Her success pushing suds was recognized in 2016 by another brewing company, which approached her about switching company loyalties.

"We were in the interview stage and I ended up calling Dad for some advice. He said, jokingly, ‘Well, maybe you should start negotiating with me.' That kind of got the ball rolling while I was still there in Michigan."

Persuaded, she gave up beer sales and returned to North Dakota to begin selling construction equipment. Four years later, her father, William Swanston III, who goes by Mike, retired at age 65 and Molly Swanston stepped up as owner.

She immediately named Shea president of the company. For a new family owner to turn over major day-to-day operational authority to a non-family member showed both self-confidence and trust in the executive and was a nod to the latter's experience. Shea is a 26-year Swanston employee, most recently as its sales manager.

"I am thankful to have Chris by my side," she said. "He has been here a long time and knows the business inside and out."

**

Milton Swanston Sr. founded the company as a power equipment repair and painting shop. The year was 1930 and automotive power was kind of a new thing. Example: The first cross-country trip in a diesel-powered vehicle was undertaken that year. In 1946, Swanston's company became a Nash automobile dealership and simultaneously entered the construction equipment industry as a distributor of Galion motor graders.

By 1955, Swanston Equipment Company was firmly established as a dealership. To put that year in perspective, it was a full decade before GOMACO began manufacturing concrete construction equipment and one year before Minnesotans Cyril and Louis Keller invented a little machine to scoop up and load out manure in dairy barns — a precursor to what became known as a skid steer loader.

When the senior Swanston died in a car accident in 1958, his son William "Bill" Swanston II took over the company and began to add to the equipment lines such leading brands as Etnyre oil distributors and GOMACO slipform paving products. In 1968, the Keller brothers' little machine, manufactured in North Dakota as a Melroe Bobcat, was taken on by Bill Swanston and the company's future began to come together.

"Bill saw the potential of the skid steer loader right away," recalled Shea, who joined the company a few months before ownership passed from Bill Swanston to his son, Mike Swanston. "Bill also was responsible for getting us into the asphalt paving and compaction business."

When her father, William Swanston III, who goes by Mike, retired at age 65 Molly Swanston stepped up as owner.

Today, the early acquisitions of Bobcat, Etnyre and GOMACO are still paying dividends for the company. They are perennial top sellers for Swanston. Other foundational manufacturers at Swanston include Cimline asphalt sealing and patching machines; WRT asphalt and aggregate handling equipment; and Broce Broom sweepers. All 24 brands represented by the company are on the company website: swanston.com.

But Bobcat leads the way. For the last five years, the dealership has been ranked among the top 15 Bobcat dealerships in the country — that's out of more than 500 Bobcat dealers.

"We are proud of that," Shea said. "I'm not bragging, but we are very proud of that."

The top-selling Bobcat model for Swanston is the T770 track loader, a 92-hp unit with an 11-ft. vertical reach. In the Etnyre line, the truck-mounted S2000 hot asphalt distributor, which comes in various 10-gauge steel tank capacities, is a sales leader.

A new addition to the stable of brands is Green Climber remote controlled slope mowers. They can operate on slopes as steep as 60 degrees from horizontal, are controllable from 500 ft. away, and knock down undergrowth as large as 8 in. in diameter. Other new brands at the dealership are Toro mowers and snow blowers and Stihl chainsaws.

Not every piece of equipment that leaves the Swanston lots is sold. Rental equipment is as big in North Dakota as anywhere else.

The company president said growth of equipment rentals "is a big piece of our business, and not just from the shortage of components and availability of new equipment as a consequence of COVID. We're experiencing general growth in rentals and expect double-digit growth next year."

The equipment being rented ranges widely. Shea said that, during construction season, 100 heavy paving and compacting machines are out on rental contracts.

"On the compact side, we probably have 500 pieces rented out in season."

In the winter season, that means renting track loaders to developers and business owners to clear away snow. Fargo commonly receives 50 in. of the white stuff between October and April.

When rented or customer-owned machines are disabled, the company's field service trucks hit the road from any of the four locations. When a part is needed, Swanston Equipment pledges to deliver it whenever the distress call is received.

"Every single person here has no problem answering the phone at, say, 2 a.m. and delivering the piece," said Shea. "When you are willing to do that, you build a relationship with a customer for life."

**

Swanston Equipment still calls Fargo home, though it has three other locations operating in North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota. The current Fargo location isn't the original one in the city.

The company's first move within Fargo came in 1956 when the business relocated to a West Main Street address. Forty-eight years later — references like that bring home the age of the company — in 2004, the dealership moved a little farther along West Main to an 18-acre site that Swanston had acquired in 2000.

There, the company erected an 8,000-sq.-ft. sales and showroom building, next door to what is now the home of Swanston. Next to the office rose a 20,000-sq.-ft. equipment service building with 15 service bays. The various brands of machinery are displayed around the grounds.

In 1994, a second company store in North Dakota was opened in Minot, farther north and west of Fargo. It features a 13,000-sq.-ft. office building and 5,000-sq.-ft. service facility. In 2020, the company jumped across the state line and opened an outlet in Fergus Falls, Minn. A new building there was remodeled into a 20,000-sq.-ft. sales, rental, parts and service facility. Just two years later, a fourth location was opened in another western Minnesota town, Alexandria, with a 12,000-sq.-ft. building

The multiple locations offer similar equipment choices, though availability varies somewhat from state to state. Roving sales staff in North Dakota aren't tied to any one location, Shea said.

"We have dedicated salespeople covering the state and are in their vehicles every day. Products they sell will come out of whatever location or lot the equipment is sitting on."

The expansion into two new markets in the span of two years was an eye-opener and a portent of things to come.

"It is mind-blowing to think how long we were a two-location dealership," said Swanston. "We are quite ambitious and want to maintain the trajectory we're on."

But expansion only will come at a pace that feels right to management. She noted that Swanston Equipment has declined requests to open stores in other areas, the timing and other variables not being right.

"We want to grow to be strong, not grow to be fat."

Her company president concurs that for the moment the company is concentrating on consolidation.

"As Molly said, we always are shopping for locations and looking around, but right now our focus is supporting the new Alexandria and Fergus Falls stores with as much energy as we can muster. They don't need a lot of handholding, but before we look anywhere else, we want to make sure that as an organization they are past the crawling and walking stage and are getting ready to run."

Shea added that personnel in the two Minnesota stores "are doing some things even better than we anticipated. The new hires are getting along extremely well and relationships with customers are developing faster than we expected. That is all very rewarding."

All 70 company employees have adapted well to the disruptive COVID and post-COVID period in the business world, Shea said.

"From sales and rentals to service and parts, all are doing a really good job of navigating through these crazy times of parts and machinery shortages."

The pandemic years proved helpful in a way to Swanston and other companies that adapted to them. Shea said every manufacturer was forced to "step up its game, and it forced us to do business smarter. We're still utilizing some of those skills that we developed during COVID such as Zoom meetings."

Swanston said the pandemic disruption helped create a more innovative mindset.

"We learned it was OK to try new things. It sort of forced us to tell everyone to bring your ideas to the table and let's figure this out. We hadn't been challenged in a way that COVID challenged us."

A remaining challenge is the shortage of new machinery with telematics. The disrupted flow of components has manufacturers building machines without the electronic monitoring equipment.

"Telematics is in very, very high demand with our customers, but the parts shortages are causing problems," Shea said. "We look forward to having machines fully equipped again."

"Danged COVID," Swanston added.

**

Four company presidents bear the same last name, but they were — and are — individuals. Shea worked briefly with Bill Swanston, the company's second owner, and characterizes him in retrospect as "respected and dedicated. He had a way of making sure when you left the office that you had a smile on your face. He led the company in a caring way. He would fight for both his employee and the customer."

Shea called Mike Swanston, the third family member to head the company, "the king of PR. Everybody loves Mike. He ran the company with a firm hand but with infectious goodwill."

As for new owner Molly Swanston, she said that after two years at the helm, she still is defining who she is as the company's leader.

"I like to try new things, I know that. But it's going to take a few more years before I will be able to say, ‘This is the kind of leader I am.'"

Shea said her leadership has been welcomed.

"She is open to any discussion or topic. We have had many conversations and we always know that everything we do affects something else. She has unselfishly given me the opportunity to be the effective leader I want to be."

He added that all the Swanston Equipment Company presidents have held in common a belief in serving the customer.

"They all have understood that if the customer doesn't exist, we don't exist."

The new owner dates her association with the company from childhood memories visiting the office. Her father Mike would go to the office on Sundays to get the weekend mail and she and her sister, Michaela, would go with him to play with the phone system.

She now owns the phone system and the company it serves, the first female Swanston to do so. The construction industry isn't rife with women in ownership roles, though it is not unheard of. Just how has she been received?

"Having the last name Swanston perhaps makes my experience a little different than other women in the industry. Whether it is specific to our company or because we are in the Midwest, I don't know, but I have been welcomed with open arms."

She said her position exemplifies the diversity she wants Swanston Equipment Company to have.

"I want to make a point of being a diverse company, welcoming people of all kinds and having diversity in leadership is the way to make that happen. I am very fortunate to be in this position."

She added that every trade is experiencing a workplace shortage "and if you don't look at women as part of the solution, you are excluding about half the population."

One of the more visible changes under Molly Swanston's leadership has been adoption of a new company logo, which incorporates a swan and a graceful sweep of lines that might remind old-timers of a 1939 Pontiac hood ornament. The dashing design came about after the new owner and president decided a fresh marketing approach was needed to symbolize changes occurring in the company. Instead of continuing to work with an outside agency, they brought the task in-house and hired a marketing manager, Adam Zavalney.

"Adam has done a wonderful job and brought a lot of thought and energy to it," Shea said. "One of the first things he suggested in July when he came aboard was a rebrand. He took a hard look at the company, who we have been over the decades, and designed that logo. When he presented it to us, it had a wow! factor. He is very vocal about what he wants to do for the company, and we get energized by that."

**

The immediate future of Swanston Equipment Company is clear, with new ownership and a new logo in place and a lineup of iconic and industry-leading brands in its showrooms, the future is exciting and not the least because of new technology.

Shea began work with the company as a Bobcat sales specialist. So, his interest in Bobcat's latest product comes naturally. The machine is the T7X track loader, which eschews hydraulics and fossil fuels in favor of battery power and an electrical drive system for its working arms.

"There's a lot of customer interest in it. Quite a few units have been sold already."

Other products in the wings that make the future bright include autonomous vehicles, including skid steers. The company also is looking at hi-tech glasses. They let a technician at one location put on the glasses and look at, say, a machine part and a tech at another location wearing a similar pair of glasses can see what the first person is seeing. The yoking of the two technicians lets one tech coach a distant tech on a repair job.

"We talk about innovation and trying new things and we mean it," Shea said. "We volunteer for manufacturer's pilot programs with new machinery so we can be on the cutting edge. We believe it's OK to try new things."

Something old also bodes well for the company's future: It enjoys good employee retention.

"Not too long ago, we did a study and found that we have an average tenure of 11 years," Shea said. If that number has fallen slightly, it is for a good reason: The company is experiencing organic growth and has had to hire new help to keep it on track.

New owner. Old hands. Smart technology. The future seems to be coming together for Swanston Equipment Company. Looking down the road, what does Molly Swanston make of all this?

"I don't have a fancy answer," she said. "I don't have a magic number of company locations. We just want to continue to do a good job for our customers. In our industry, things are changing every day, so we are constantly trying to adapt to a very changing market. We will adapt, though, and will change as we need to, just as we have for 93 years." CEG




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