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SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE: A-1 VACUUM CLEANERS AND JANITORIAL SUPPLIES: Vacuum dealer on his own Franchise dissolution gave owner freedom and more responsibility

June 26, 2006

SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE

A-1 VACUUM CLEANERS AND JANITORIAL SUPPLIES Vacuum dealer on his own

Franchise dissolution gave owner freedom and more responsibility For his entire adult life, Tony Stahl has been helping other people clean up their messes.

From the time he graduated from John Marshall High School, Stahl has had A-1 Vacuum Cleaners as part of his work life, first as an employee and, most recently, as an owner.

In fact, Stahl's work with vacuums and customers was so impressive, it prompted Fred Biddy, the longtime owner of the local A-1 franchise chain, to sell a unit to Stahl in 2003-the first time an outlet went to a non-family member.

"I knew what kind of guy he was because he'd been working for me," said Biddy, who operated the A-1 Vacuum Cleaners franchise in the Indianapolis area for about 50 years. The chain eventually grew to 12 stores under the direction of Biddy, a member of the Vacuum Dealers Trade Association's Hall of Fame.

About 18 months after that sale to Stahl, Biddy decided to dissolve the franchise and sell the shops outright. Stahl bought his store in August 2004 and has been independent ever since.

The release from franchise requirements was an eye opener, said Stahl, 41, who owns and operates the business with his wife, Doanie Stahl, 48. The youngest of their four daughters, Candace, 16, works at the store, as does another part-timer.

Immediately after the dissolution, the Stahls had to find new sources for their equipment and supplies because, under the franchise agreement, they had bought only from Biddy's operation.

"And it was all COD, and we were pretty much on our own," Tony Stahl said. "We've pretty much kept it that way," with only one account with Riccar America, a high-end vacuum cleaner manufacturer in Missouri.

When he bought the franchise rights from Biddy in 2003, Stahl financed the deal by withdrawing funds from his investment account and borrowing money from a family member. He had to pay $10,000 to operate under the A-1 name, he said, and then buy supplies, equipment and other essentials.

"When we opened up, it was seat of the pants. We did not have that much money, but the first day, I sold six sweepers and within a month, we doubled what the store did before we took over," said Stahl, also a member of the vacuum dealers trade group.

His store in Beech Grove has several corporate customers, including the Indianapolis Colts complex, several cleaning companies and other organizations. Even so, about 75 percent of his business comes from walk-in traffic, Stahl said.

Stahl said his career with the A-1 franchise was the perfect training ground for owning and operating a shop. "I was the service man on the bench and I worked in sales," he said.

He says that experience sets his store apart from similar retailers.

"I treat everyone like I want to be treated," Stahl said.

For example, he offers a two-day turnaround on service. Also, his store is open seven days a week, because Stahl remembers that Sunday was the only day he could take care of errands when he worked six days a week in retail sales and service. "I think you need to be here when your customers need you," he said.

Stahl "is honest with the customers and he gives them good advice," Biddy said. "And, he knows the machines."

Those attributes serve Stahl well now, but business pressures are mounting as mass merchants continue to edge out shops like his. Big-box stores sell most of the brand-name vacuum cleaners, such as Hoover, at lower cost than many independents, he said.

Service alone may not be enough to survive in today's competitive market, said Scott Wells, executive director of the floor care division of the 2,000-member Vacuum Dealers Trade Association, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

The number of independents has shrunk during the last 10 years, and is still declining, albeit at a slower rate. The downward trend is blamed on a society with a penchant to dispose of broken vacuums and buy new, low-cost models rather than have the old ones fixed, he said.

Like Stahl, successful independents have diversified their offerings while sustaining their stake in the service area, Wells said.

Stahl has added the high-end Riccar America to his stable of Hoovers, expanded his parts and janitorial supply inventories and added the sales and service of related equipment like air purifiers. He also continues an agreement with Hoover to service the manufacturer's warranty no matter where the equipment was purchased.

He toyed briefly with operating a second store in Franklin shortly after he became independent in 2004. He built out the store, opened it successfully and made money when he sold it a few months later. He says he's content with a one-store operation right now because of the time demands on him and his family.

Although he carries several brands, he opted to align himself as a special representative of one manufacturer, Riccar America, rather "than being in bed with more than one dealer."

"I don't know how you can do that and be loyal to any one of them," Stahl said. "Besides, it's what I use at home."
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