A 'BUSINESS AS A MINISTRY' SEEING EXPONENTIAL ONLINE GROWTH
WRITTEN BY: MARK MILLER
This is a story about how an owner’s manual for a used 10-year-old John Deere garden tractor became more than 40 new jobs. It is also a story, according to at least three people, about the mysterious ways that God works. It dates to 2008, when Steve’s Landscaping was located on Ind. 124 East. Next-door neighbor NESCO needed more room. Steve and Gayla Gerber found a new location on North Main Street, sold the property on Ind. 124 and began the process of building a new building and getting ready to move. As part of that, they would also change the name of their business to Outdoor Concepts. Their son, Landon Gerber, was the parts and service manager at the time.
“I told Landon that I didn’t want to move junk,” Steve Gerber recalled. During the 13 years they’d been located there, for example, they had amassed a collection of owner manuals for lawn equipment they had accepted as trade-ins.
“The intent had been to include them when we sold the used mower but obviously, we often forgot to do that,” Steve explained. “So as we were going through things, we couldn’t track which manual was meant for who, so I told Landon to just throw all of those away.” Landon, however, had an idea. He had purchased things occasionally on eBay.
“Why not take a picture of one of them and we put it up and see what happens?” he proposed. “So we priced the shipping and handling at $5.95, knowing we could send it through the post office for $2 to anywhere in the country,” Steve said. “At least we knew we wouldn’t lose anything on it.”
They chose the “auction” option as opposed to putting a price on the manual and gave it a one-week deadline. It sold for $52.
“That kind of got Dad’s attention,” Landon Gerber said, smiling. They began taking pictures of other manuals. Some sold well, some only “brought a buck or two,” and some they threw away.
“What else could we sell on eBay?” they mused as they looked around the store.
“I thought we’d try something everyone would buy,” Steve continued. He chose the radio headphones that people wear while they’re mowing. Instead of an auction, they put a price on it so that they would make a fair profit and cover the shipping and handling. This was, they recalled, during the summer of 2008.
“We sell maybe 15 to 20 of those a year” in the store, he said. They sold 233 headsets by the end of the year. In 2009, they sold more than 2,000.
“That’s when I started to really grasp that there are opportunities here,” Landon Gerber said. “I might have a part that maybe I’d sell three a year but on the internet, I could sell 300.”
“We’re selling to the whole world,” Steve chimed in. Perhaps the next big leap came from pressure water pumps. These are replacement parts for home and industrial pressure washers.
“The store has historically sold only a few of these each year,” Steve Gerber shared. “Our supplier found out we were selling some things online and called Landon, said he had a good closeout deal so he ordered six of them. When I saw them come in, I asked Landon ‘What are you doing?’ Well, they were gone in just a couple weeks.”
“This was probably the first items we purchased wholesale for the express purpose of selling online,” Landon Gerber said.
“We started with four different models,” he continued. “It was just crazy.” He ordered 10 at a time; they would come in individually boxed so that they could easily slap their own label over the supplier’s and send it right out. Orders soon became 20 at a time and then 30. When he began to order 60 or 80 at a time, they started coming on skids so they had to package them themselves, which of course, impacted their costs and hence, changed the price.
Today, pressure water pumps remains one of their best sellers, with about 15 different models. They get 150 pumps on a pallet; the pallets fill up a 40-foot semi-trailer and they now come direct from the manufacturer with their new company’s logo laser-engraved on the pump.
“At some point, we needed to come up with a name,” Landon said. He wanted something catchy but didn’t want anything associated with “parts” in it, as that could limit them. They came up with “ROP SHOP,” pronounced like “top shop.”
“Initially, it stood for ‘rugged outdoor products,’” Landon Gerber explained. “ROP” in the home-and-garden business usually means “rollover protection.” These days, the Gerbers simply refer to the business as “TRS” — The ROP Shop.
A new manager for the parts and service department was hired in 2012. Landon Gerber continued to help out in the department but became more and more focused on the internet efforts. They hired a high school student to come in after school to do the packing while Landon printed labels and stayed on top of their listings and worked with customers.
The first full time employee was hired July 1, 2013. They continued to work out of the parts area, but soon commandeered a corner that had been used for the storage of used mowers taken in as trade-ins. In either 2014 or 2015 — they’re not quite sure — they purchased a 48-by-64-foot building at the back of their property that Juan Ortiz of neighboring El Camino Restaurant had erected for his family’s growing restaurants. Two years later, a 104- by-75 addition was erected and then two years ago another 104-by-104-foot building was added.
Employees and sales of course, drove that. Year-over-year growth has averaged between 35 and 40 percent. Today there are more than 40 employees, about three-fourths of whom are full time. The coronavirus certainly had an impact on their business (see sidebar).
Besides eBay, the Gerbers are also selling their products through Amazon and Wal-mart’s websites, in addition to their own e-commerce site just recently developed by Roanoke-based Reusser Designs. The strategy will be to continue actively selling on the three platforms, and then to gently guide regular customers to www. theropshop.com where prices will be a bit lower.
“Basically, we’ll split the difference with our customers on the services fees we have to pay Amazon and them,” Landon Gerber explained. Services fees range between 11 and 15 percent.
Diversification and price-controls have been key to their growth, and survival. After starting with solely lawn-and garden products and parts, “we also now have trailer parts, powers sports, stuff for Harley motorcycles, boats, jet skis, golf carts, garage door parts and we got into plumbing fittings,” Landon Gerber said. Some of those products have come from buying out others who had launched into the online sales business but couldn’t make it work.
“You have to really know what you’re doing,” Landon explained. “You have to keep a handle on your costs and watch your margins.”
They can share stories of finding identical products online at significantly lower prices than they were offering.
“We’d be selling something really well and then all of a sudden, sales would drop off,” Landon said. Some online research would always turn up a new competitor. One he tracked down was in Indianapolis, so Landon knew he was getting the product from the same distributor.
“My supplier assured me they were getting the same wholesale price as us,” he continued. Further research found the seller was a small lawn-and-garden shop who had a guy in the back who didn’t realize that with Amazon’s fees and shipping costs, they were losing about $30 on each order.
“We will always have others doing this,” Landon said. “We just have to work through it and wait it out.” They will either raise their prices, he has found, “or they’ll be gone.”
“We have a standard,” he continued. “If we can’t make this (amount) then we don’t sell it, it’s not worth our time. A lot guys just look at volume.” Survivors quickly learn, he added, about overhead — the space and time needed.
“Some of this stuff we’re shipping, we use a 3-cent poly mailer,” he continued. “That’s all factored in. Everything has to be tracked and accounted for.”
The Rop Shop has experienced first hand the impact of tariffs. The first load of a shipment of the pumps from their Chinese manufacturer had a $40,000 tariff fee that’d to be paid up front.
“That was about six or seven thousand pumps at $5 or $6 per pump,” Steve Gerber said. “We had no choice but to pass that along to the buyer.”
Merchandise arriving daily in Bluffton comes from as far away as China, India and Taiwan. There are also “plenty” of manufacturers from the U.S. that are utilized as well.
Steve and Landon Gerber can share some stories — tales of what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned the intricate details of operating a successful web-based enterprise and tales about the people they’ve met.
There is Landon Gerber’s new German friend, whose initial request for a bulk quote on the headphone sets eventually led to two visits to Bluffton. Landon and his wife met him in New York City to help him celebrate the Germans’ honeymoon. They had been planning a trip to Germany but that has now been delayed. His German friend now places orders for as much as 500 headsets at a time, reselling them on German websites which the Gerbers would otherwise not have access to. Likewise, The Top Shop has developed several items they buy from Germany.
There are tales about dealing with the behemoth that Amazon has become including, most significantly, the trials and tribulations when their merchant’s account at Amazon was hacked and the precautions they have implemented to prevent that from happening again.
Their experience of having TRS’s Amazon account shut down for a period included dealing with the FBI, who have “inside contacts” at Amazon that even a decent-sized vendor like TRS cannot reach.
“The craziest thing,” Landon Gerber will share from that experience, “it made me realize just how big Amazon is, and it’s scary.”
The Rop Shop’s success has changed how Outdoor Concepts does business as well. They used to have an annual auction of their used equipment. It had served as an efficient way to clear out that inventory and get a crowd on their property. They quickly discovered, however, that used equipment more often than not brought a higher price.
“A couple of years ago, we sold a year old mower to a guy in Alaska,” Steve Gerber said. “He paid us an extra $1,200 to put it on a pallet and ship it up to him.”
How OCI dealt with used equipment became a new opportunity for both businesses.
“We’d get the trade-in mowers, or people had junk mowers,” Steve Gerber said, “and they’d ask us to please just take them off their hands. We used to sell them for scrap, but one day I thought, ‘There’s some good parts in them.’” As in their initial experience, a John Deere product would once again play a role.
“We got this junk John Deere tractor in because the engine was blown,” Steve continues the story. “I told Landon, ‘Let’s try one.’” Landon was sure it would be a good thing for everyone.
“So (the ROP Shop) paid Outdoor Concept’s parts department $100 for what they’d received for free,” Landon Gerber picked up the story, “we took it back and we tracked everything — every minute.” Landon’s crew tore it apart, cleaned the parts that were in good shape, took pictures of them and posted them on the internet. “We ended up with almost $2,000 for a mower with a busted engine,” he said, “for a mower that might have sold for $800 with a refurbished engine.”
These days, OCI rarely sells a used piece of equipment. TRS will buy the piece for $100 more than OCI allowed for trade-in and then get to work. Diversification was applied here as well.
“We’ve done snowmobiles, jet skis and two Mercedes cars,” Landon said. And these were not “junk cars” — they ran fine.
“Generally speaking,” Landon continued, “things are worth more in parts.”
That portion of TRS’s business is now its fastest-growing area in terms of both space and people. Indeed, future considerations include relocating the original operations to another nearby complex and devoting all of the current space to this new parts reclamation work.
That growth, the two agree, seems to have unlimited possibilities as they continue to diversify.
“It really comes down to people,” Landon said. “If we can continue to bring in great people, we’ll continue to advance the business and missions opportunity that we feel we have here.”
Landon Gerber’s mention of “missions” brings the story back to the Gerber family’s perspective on the role of their faith in how they operate their businesses. Angie Topp had nominated OCI for the Chamber of Commerce 2020 Business of the Year honoree in large part, she explained, because the family uses their business as a ministry.
The Gerbers attribute much, if not all of their success to God. Landon Gerber said they went to a conference at Hope Missionary Church where they learned about using a business as a mission. He gave his parents credit for demonstrating a good example of how to do that.
Steve Gerber said there are a lot of ways to use a business as a ministry and a mission aside from donating money to charities. One way the business gives back is by giving people with criminal pasts a second chance.
“We all deserve a second chance,” Steve Gerber said. “We feel like God has blessed our business. We don’t want to hold back.”
Employees also volunteer together, such as through Forgotten Children Worldwide or participating in two Christmas Behind Bars outings in late December 2019. Separate groups went to the Wells County Jail and the Delaware County Jail in Muncie. (A second Outdoor Concepts location was opened in Muncie in 2017).
“They all said, ‘Wow.’ It really opened their eyes,” Steve Gerber said. “And that’s why we do that stuff. It really opens all of our eyes.”
Landon Gerber said using the business as a mission is also motivation to keep growing the business, even though he is happy with the way it currently is.
“The more we grow, the more we can give back and the more people we can bring in and help,” he said. More often than not, new employees come from referrals of their current crew.
While there have been numerous studies that show one new employee can potentially create up to two other jobs in the community, Wells County Economic Development Director Chad Kline feels that the job growth at 2275 N. Main St. tells a broader story.
“It’s not so much about how many jobs they’ve added to the community,” Kline said, “as how many people they’ve added to their family. It’s quite a remarkable culture they have out there.”
#theropshop #ruggedu #stayrugged #ruggedoutdoorproducts #OutdoorConcepts
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