A&H Turf & Specialities: The Nuts & Bolts of Growing a Business
In 1984 Dave Anderson and his dad, Al, founded A&H Turf & Specialties just a stone's throw from where the main building stands today. As the name implies, the business originally centered on irrigation supplies and equipment. Along with sprinkler heads, fittings, and pipe, A&H sold a few related hardware items, such as shovels, fasteners, and sandpaper.
By 1988, the business had expanded into power tools and hand tools. In the years since, A&H has expanded to stock and supply full lines of tools, hardware items and equipment representing at least 475 major manufacturing firms around the world. But rather than concentrating on how many products they can cram into the warehouse, showroom and surrounding acres, A&H has always focused on supplying quality products from industry leaders.
A glance at the many shelves and displays in the main store says it all. Respected names, like Blum, Festool, 3M, Accuride, Rain Bird, DeWalt, Freud, Stanley, Amerock, Belwith Keeler, Schlage, Baldwin, Emtek, Schaub & Company make up the A&H inventory line. What you won't see are the inferior quality tools usually found at famous discount centers.
Dave Anderson explains why: "We're simply not interested in carrying the low-end imported hardware or supplies. It doesn't last." Tools and hardware that last and that get the job done has proven to be a good market, so far.
Blum hardware is a good example of the quality products A&H is proud to carry. Made in Austria, Blum hardware is very high end, world famous for its quality. Dave says that A&H Turf and Specialties has been seriously involved with Blum since the beginning. In fact, A&H sold the first Blum hardware and machinery available west of the Mississippi.
And it's not just about selling products. Today, A&H continues to provide continuing education training from Blum to employees in contact with hardware buyers and installers. They can readily assist contractors and homeowners with the specs and tolerances required for proper hinge applications and installation.
Hardware in the Blood
Dave and his dad both had a good deal of previous hardware experience before starting A&H Turf & Specialties. Dave says, "I've been in the hardware business all my life, since I was 12. I've got 37 years experience in functional, building, and irrigation hardware." And he's not just blowing smoke.
Dave worked his way through college installing irrigation and sprinkler systems, having learned the trade at a previous job with a Billings hardware company. His dad, Al, was the general manager of Winter Hardware when Dave got out of college. They worked there together for a while before deciding to start A&H Turf & Specialties. The new company opened its doors in a rented building just about a block from where the business now stands.
Survival in those early days was not without hard work. Dave says that the product lines were developed one at a time, selling face to face, with many miles spent on Montana and Wyoming roads. Within a few years though, A&H was able to buy the land it sits on today. The first new building gave the business 15,000 sqft to work with. Expansion continued as sales improved and more products were added, until now A&H fills over 40,000 sqft inside space, plus the uncovered storage outside.
Good Stuff, Low Prices
Part of the success has been the A&H policy of selling at genuine high quality products at wholesale prices. American consumers are accustomed to either getting one or the other: high quality at high prices or low quality at low prices. Very rarely do you see exceptional high quality products at low, wholesale prices. That means a narrower profit margin for A&H, but the volume of sales makes it possible.
Lawn and turf supplies are still central to A&H Turf and Specialties. A&H is a major distributor for Rain Bird and Master Turf products. Rain Bird is the leading manufacturer and provider of irrigation products and services in the world, and one out of every one hundred customers, globally, is now buying from A&H Turf.
Cabinetry and home construction is also a big part of what A&H is all about. For example, more than 125 species (well over $1 million worth) of hardwood lumber is kept in inventory, including hard-to-find exotics from all over the world. Dave is considering offering some of the wood products over the Internet soon. In the mean time, you can always call for information on wood species and moldings.
Woodworking equipment, tools, and supplies have long been a major part of the picture. A&H has continually increased its inventory of large woodworking tools and equipment in the last 15 years. Performax, Jet, Powermatic, Porter-Cable, Festool, Bosch, DeWalt, and other quality brands of tools are stocked, sold and supported at A&H Turf. And here again, not only are the products made available, helpful information about proper applications and use is also offered by knowledgeable staff.
Cabinetmakers' Computer Hotline
Also in the works is a special online "Cabinetmakers" program, where professional cabinet builders can log on and receive additional discounts and special offers over the Internet. Already, architects, construction contractors, homebuilders, cabinet maker's and other professionals in the region look to A&H as a major supplier for their hardware materials, tools and equipment. The huge 1500-page A&H Catalog goes out to construction professionals all over Montana and Wyoming.
Big Work of Big Business
Business is good and that creates its own set of challenges. Customer response to the high level of quality and honest service offered by A&H has been increasingly enthusiastic, adding to the company's rapid growth in popularity and sales volume. This success forces Dave and his staff to work hard to make sure that everything offered on the web, in the catalog and in ads is available in stock. And that can be a big job in itself.
Decorative cabinet hardware is a good example. With approximately 115,000 individual hardware items in stock, customers are able choose from a wide variety any day of the week. Currently, A&H offers about 20,000 products on their website. And the rest of the inventory is just a phone call away.
These products move fast since they are very popular, high quality brands - Amerock, Emtek, Belwith Keeler, Schaub & Company, Ashley Norton, Acorn, and Sierra Lifestyles - and they're being offered at wholesale prices. A&H is now one of the top ten sellers for Belwith Keeler, and among the top 3 U.S. distributors for Amerock. The A&H website (www.ahturf.com) is the world's largest online distributor of Accuride Precision Slides. Keeping these and the many other product lines in stock and ready to ship is a full time job for A&H employees.
The World Shops Here
A&H has a worldwide online customer base that includes homeowners, remodelers, designers, developers, contractors, and property managers. Sales have been made to every state (including Alaska and Hawaii) as well as Central and South America, Africa, Lebanon, England, Germany, Switzerland, and other nations around the world. Thousands of orders come in every month, and the online business is still growing.
Quality products, fairness and honesty in business, and hard work have helped to make A&H Turf & Specialties successful. But Dave says that it takes more than happy customers to make a successful business. Wise investments in people's lives are also important.
That philosophy begins with company employees. "For me it's a moral commitment. If people work hard and make the business prosper, it's only right that we should also take care of them." Dave says. "Good pay and benefits, paid vacations and sick leave are all part of taking care of the people who take care of our business,"
The policy seems to pay off for the business. Employee turn-over at A&H is very low, and the quality of personnel is very high. "We have good, intelligent and responsible people working here," Dave says of the 30-plus employees.
A&H is also generous to the community. The business regularly contributes to Billings Deaconess Foundation, a major healthcare organization in the community. The company actively sponsors just about every local sports team that asks them for help, and also participates in the Messiah Festival, an annual local event that raises funds and awareness for cancer research.
What started out as an idea about 20 years ago has proven to be a very good idea, indeed. Dave and Al have proven that selling the very best quality hardware at unusually low prices, and treating everyone fairly really is good business. It works for everyone.
Dave and Al still work every day to sell hardware to the people who need it. Now they have a crew of good people who work with them to help see that the job gets done. They also have a large and satisfied customer base that shows their appreciation every day by doing business with A&H Turf, and by telling their friends that they should do the same.
©2006 Jim Sutton --------------------------------------------
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