Smithton Mowers: Turning disadvantage into advantage
Tasmania is one of the places that sadly, we do not hear about very often here at PEA, so we jumped at the chance to speak with Nigel Kingston, owner of Smithton Mowers, about how things are done in Tassie, and learn about how relationships drive every aspect of his business.
BUSINESS: Smithton Mowers
PRINCIPALS: Nigel and Lisa Kingston
LOCATION: Smithton, Tasmania
Nigel and Lisa Kingston run a small, family-owned Husqvarna dealership in Smithton, Tasmania, roughly 220km north-west from Hobart.
Mr Kingston has worked in the shop since he was 15 and completing his apprenticeship, then purchased the business in his thirties. He has had the pleasure of building his business through relationships with customers, suppliers and other dealers, despite – and even because of – the challenges he faces not just being a small business, but also being separated from the mainland.
Smithton, and the surrounding area of Circular Head, is located on the far north-western tip of Tasmania. Surrounded by lush forest reserves, the area enjoys high annual rainfall and high grass growth, which Mr Kingston says, “goes to figure, it’s not a bad place to have a mower shop!”
According to Mr Kingston, the area is undergoing a period of growth, and the town is finding itself a magnet for middle aged, semi-retirees from the mainland who are attracted to the comparatively lower cost of living and wanting a tree change.
“They’re able to come over here, sell up where they are and with the money they’ve got, they come over here and are basically be debt free. That money gets them through until they’re 65 when their super kicks in,” he explained.
The high grass growth means the area is also home to many dairy farms, which, when combined with the semi-rural lifestyle blocks that are attracting mainlanders, it is perhaps no surprise that ride-on mowers are among Smithton Mowers’ best sellers. Recently, however, Mr Kingston has capitalised on an opportunity to better serve his customer base, and become a dealer for Argo all-terrain vehicles, which he says are popular among the local dairy farmers.
Manufactured in Ontario, Canada, Argo ATVs are six-wheeled amphibious vehicles, that according to Mr Kingston, suit Tasmanian dairy farmers who are constantly inundated by rainwater, providing greater reliability than four-wheeled ATVs.
“It was just something that happened; it’s something I sort of fell in to,” he said of his foray into dealing the ATVs. “There was probably 10 to 12 [Argos] in the area already – the machines themselves basically only run lawn mower engines – and I had guys coming in here going, ‘Hey my Argo’s broken can you fix it?’ And I was like, ‘Of course I can!’ and basically it went from there,” he said.
“The guys down here are using them for farming because a lot of the blocks where they build dairy farms these days are that wet, they can’t even get around in ATVs – they’re just getting bogged all the time; whereas these things can still get around. They’re not for every farm and every farmer, but definitely there are certain people that these machines benefit.”
Advantage or disadvantage?
While living in Tassie – with its high rainfall and grass growth, and population growth – has its advantages for a mower shop, Mr Kingston reports it has its fair share of disadvantages too. While only approximately 240km from the mainland (tip to tip), the treacherous waters of the Bass Strait cause a geographical isolation that can mean three-day delays for stock delivery, compared to the mainland.
“The problem I’ve got is I can’t get stuff instantly… freight is the biggest thing for us in Tasmania,” Mr Kingston said.
“We’re used to waiting for stuff… We’re not quite in that instant, ‘I need it, I need it now, if you don’t have it I’ll drive to the next suburb to get it’ [mentality]… And most of the people here are used to that.”
But even that has its advantages, Mr Kingston says. The Husqvarna dealers across the local area enjoy a camaraderie with each other, and even with other-branded dealers, because they understand how difficult it can be, meaning they help each other out and leave the competition at the door.
Case in point: Smithton Mowers has another OPE dealer right next door, but Mr Kingston isn’t fazed.
“They’re more of an agricultural store; they’ve got a lot of tractors and big stuff… they’ve got diesel mechanics and they’d much rather sell their $200,000 tractor than their $1000 chainsaw. And even though they’re there, I’ve got a pretty good relationship with them… They come over here and borrow stuff off me and vice versa.”
“But realistically, they’ve got their customers and I’ve got mine. And every now and then one jumps ship, but generally not very often.”
“Even the [Husqvarna] dealer in Burnie rang me up the other day and he needed a belt, so I sent one over. When he gets it in [from the supplier] he’ll send it back to me… I must admit we’re a little bit more laid back in Tassie.”
The need for strong relationships runs through every aspect of Nigel’s business – not just with other dealers, but from customers through to suppliers as well, due in part to the geographical isolation, and because of the smaller-sized community in Smithton.
“The thing is, I don’t do a lot of advertising,” Mr Kingston said. “I live in a small community – I’m born and bred – so a lot of it is word of mouth. I base a lot of my business on friendships. I think that when you’re living in small towns – I see these people every day: up the street, at sports and all that sort of thing – you’ve got to be honest with people, and basically have friendships. A lot of people come to my store because they love me.”
“That’s probably the real point of difference with a small business run by yourself: it’s my money! If I do something wrong or upset someone or anything like that, that’s directly out of my pocket, and I suppose that makes you a bit more aware of everything.”
“I run the shop as my own: I’m the salesman, I’m the spare parts man, I’m the mechanic – everything. You can give the service and relationship right the way through.”
“It does give people consistency in what they do, which is something I think really sets us apart, and something that sort of gets lost a little bit in the bigger businesses,” he said.
What makes the business go ‘round
It is perhaps no surprise that Mr Kingston enjoys relationships with his suppliers too, noting that he has been working with the team at JAK Max since day one in the business.
“They’ve got a product that’s good. It’s well priced, their service is good, and at the end of the day, I just ring Adam and Andrew up now – I call them all the time – and they just do stuff for me.”
“It [the business] works on relationships and they make it go round. That’s pretty much how it all sort of works and runs. I’m definitely not a big player in the world; I like to think that I run a good little store. We do alright out of it and it keeps me busy. It gives me flexibility.”
At the end of the day, the biggest lesson Mr Kingston says he has learned through operating his business, also perhaps unsurprisingly, is to have patience.
“I must admit, when I first come in as a young guy, I was going to take on the world,” he said.
“I’ve had some tough years, don’t worry about that! But you sort of come through it at the end. I learned from it. Just patience – that you’re not going to build Rome in a day, but you just keep chipping away at it.”
And what is left after all that chipping away is a successful local business that both owner and customers love.
“I love coming to work every day. That’s the main thing, isn’t it!” Mr Kingston said.