It’s not too often the side-hustle overtakes the main gig. But in the case of Jeff Browne and Matt Sand, it’s exactly how they came to launch a successful equipment dealership. As co-owners of Northern Kentucky Equipment (Northern Kentucky), they never intended to turn their profitable hobby of fixing up mowers and hot-rodding garden tractors into a full-fledged company. Yet in just three years, the business has become an exclusive Gravely and Ariens dealer and is already pulling a million dollars in revenue annually.
“Matt and his dad worked on mowers and tractors on the side, and they got into buying and selling them. I owned a residential construction company, building new homes and renovating properties, as well as selling real estate,” Browne said. “We had been friends for a long time, so I rode with him a few times to get inventory and sell a few things on the side. I found out how much fun it was to play with these ‘toys,’ and we realized we could really make some money with this.”
Browne and Sand sought out a location to house their equipment inventory and bring people to test machines out. They found a 9,000 ft2 storage building on six acres of land in Boone County, Kentucky, just a short drive south of Cincinnati on I-75, and they set up shop right off the interstate. They struck a deal-lease option and eventually bought the property. Thus, Northern Kentucky Equipment was born.
Initially, the newly minted company didn’t intend on sticking with one brand of equipment, but after researching the market, Browne and Sand met with a Gravely representative and were impressed with both the product range and the support offered by AriensCo. They signed on to carry the entire Gravely and Ariens mower lineups and have been selling loads of equipment to commercial and residential landscapers ever since.
Northern Kentucky has seen success come very quickly. The company has already grown to six full-time employees in its three years. Browne attributes the company’s growth to a few key principles. Chief among them: ensuring each and every customer gets a positive experience.
“We get as much business as we do by taking care of customers from the beginning to way after a sale,” Sand said. “We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes. If it’s a used machine, we certify it. If a machine breaks down, we fix it or buy it back. Our reputation is excellent in our area because our customers feel like they’re taken care of.”
Another key principle for Northern Kentucky is to create a team atmosphere at all times. The staff eats lunch together in the showroom to build team spirit (of course, taking a break to help any customers that come into the store). Browne’s mom, who has experience in the accounting industry, runs the office. She makes lunches for the team.
“We have a family-owned and operated feel. It’s admittedly a ‘romantic’ small business mindset,” Browne said. “The backbone of Northern Kentucky is our ability to service customers to the highest standard, and operating as a strong team helps us achieve this goal. Word of mouth is the best reputation to have. We treat everyone correctly. It’s about quality over quantity.”
Browne and Sand strive to keep a local feel at Northern Kentucky. The two partners were raised in Boone County, and they aim to serve the community with the friendly and helpful manners they were taught growing up. The company often sponsors local sporting events and it has a presence at the Boone County Fair.
“Matt and I grew up here,” Browne said. “We’re a locally-owned company. We don’t have multiple store locations. Someone can come in and talk to the owner every day. There is always someone here to answer their questions. We’re usually here long past closing time. We want to be a one-stop shop providing sales, service, maintenance and repairs to our customers, and we want to do that using the neighborly ideals that seemed to have disappeared in recent years.”
Northern Kentucky carries every single Gravely and Ariens model in its store. Customers can see the entire ranges, lined up from smallest to largest. About 60% of landscapers that shop there are rural homeowners, estate property owners and folks that have 2-8 acres to cut. They’re going for the Gravely mowers. Another 20% are cutting a half-acre or less, and they are choosing the Ariens models. The remaining 20% is a mix. The Gravely ZT-HD is the company’s number one seller. The most popular size of mowers are ones with 60” decks, followed by 52” models.
Sit-down mowers are still the most popular models in the area, but the company is seeing a rise in stand on mower sales, particularly among the commercial cutters. Browne attributes the shift to their more compact size. The company still sells a lot of walk-behind mowers to commercial landscapers that want to reduce overhead costs with smaller mowers and smaller trailers to transport them.
“When we were choosing which equipment line to sell, we really liked that we could have a direct relationship with AriensCo. We didn’t have to meet through a distributor, and that meant a lot,” Sand explained. “AriensCo stands behind its products and we feel very comfortable with that. Customers love their Gravely and Ariens machines. It’s the word of mouth we were looking for.”
One standout feature at Northern Kentucky is its four-acre testing field. Customers can take machines out and demo them on real grass, comparing different styles of mowers against each other. Browne says it’s “nothing special, a former hay field that’s bumpy like the rest of Kentucky,” but he estimates about a quarter of his customers make use of the demo field and it helps them make their purchase.
Soon, the company will improve its infrastructure. It’s going to overhaul its parking lot to manage traffic flow better and expand its showroom to include more indoor displays. Northern Kentucky does sell some snow blowers and has begun to sell Atlas JSV job site vehicles, but both are only a fraction of the business at this point — it hopes to expand its offerings for each product line in the near future.
Electric mowers are also on the horizon. Browne expects there to be demand for them for municipal use, such as for airports and big commercial operations like warehouse and shipping hubs.
Browne says that Northern Kentucky makes use of its direct line to AriensCo to talk about these products. At GIE + Expo, the industry’s most important tradeshow, the partners had the chance to talk to Dan Ariens, chairman and CEO of AriensCo, and they were impressed with how seriously he took their suggestions for machine design.
“He went and grabbed an engineer to take notes on the suggestions we had for the Pro-Stance line. We talked for about 20 minutes even though it was right in the middle of a big national tradeshow. It’s the same level of attention and respect that we want to provide to our customers, and we know it makes all the difference.”