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Longtime Batavia businessman cuts new path


When Thomas Houseknecht purchased Moffett Turf Equipment Inc. three years ago, he had no experience in the industry, aside from mowing lawns for his family’s business as a youth. But that did not discourage him from throwing all his energy into the ailing business.
"It’s been a learning experience," says Houseknecht, company president. "I had absolutely no history in the turf equipment business."
While he declines to discuss the company revenues, Houseknecht, 55, notes that since his arrival the company has grown roughly 5 percent a year.
"We’ve basically stabilized the company after I bought it," Houseknecht says. "This year we’re hoping for double-digit growth."
MTE employs some 36 people at locations in Henrietta, Albany and Tewksbury, Mass. Some 21 people work from the company’s main office and showroom on Thruway Park Drive.
MTE was founded by the Moffett family in the 1970s, primarily as a lawn equipment dealer for golf facilities and municipalities. As the golf industry grew through the 1990s, MTE also expanded.
But MTE suffered a rough exit from the irrigation business in the early 2000s, then also struggled through the recession. In February 2010, Houseknecht purchased the company from Mary Moffett.
"The company did go through a rough patch," he says. "I think customer service suffered somewhat, so we basically had to turn that around."
Houseknecht called on his decades of experience with his family’s businesses-Pepsi-Cola Batavia Bottling Corp. and Loose Ends Vending & Food Service-to help MTE get back on its feet.
His family founded the Pepsi bottling franchise in 1890. He worked at the company, mowing lawns and sorting bottles, from the time he was 14 and joined full time as vending and food service manager after college.
In 1984 Houseknecht spearheaded the founding of Loose Ends Vending, serving as president of the new venture while also working as vice president of the bottling company after his father’s retirement. When his brother retired, Houseknecht became president of both companies.
Houseknecht says his role models were his father, first and foremost, and his finance professor at St. John Fisher College, Edward Stendardi, as well as other individuals who helped run the family business through the years.
"They always focused on having great relationships with employees," he says of the Houseknecht business leaders.
Being in a family-owned business for a long time taught him a lot, Houseknecht says.
"I learned that you can’t always necessarily have things your own way-and that if you do want to effect change, you have to prove that that change will be worthwhile if you’re going to get it done and get everybody to buy into it," he says.
Early in 2008 the Houseknecht family sold the bottling franchise to Pepsi Bottling Group, and later that year the family sold Loose Ends Vending to Massachusetts-based Next Generation.
"Then I was looking for something else to do and this opportunity came up," Houseknecht says of his purchase of MTE less than two years later. "It’s basically the same principles of operating a business."
When Houseknecht arrived at MTE he began making changes, both in the product lines and the culture of the business. The company sells and services new and used equipment, including wide-area rotary mowers, zero-turn mowers, turf equipment, tractors, utility vehicles and handheld power equipment.
MTE is an authorized dealer of Mahindra tractors, Ventrac tractors and Husqvarna lawn tractors and is the exclusive dealer for Jacobsen mowers in much of the Northeast. The company also offers pickup and delivery service.
While its primary customers continue to be golf courses and municipalities, Houseknecht knew the company would be more successful if it added lines and appealed to a wider variety of clients.
"When we added the other lines it was basically to be able to sell to landscapers and large land owners and institutional buyers," he explains. "We’ve really expanded who we sell to."
That shift has worked well for the company. MTE was named 2012 Vendor of the Year by the New England Sports Turf Managers Association.
Short-term goals for the company are for each of MTE’s locations to become retail destinations for customers, to grow market share and to expand its customer base.
"We were always basically depots for the salesmen to work out of and a place to service the equipment, but not a place to draw people in," he explains.

Culture shift
Houseknecht’s biggest focus since purchasing the company has been to create a culture in which the focus is on the customer. Improved customer service and focus has been the catalyst for its recent successes, he contends.
"You need to keep your customers happy and provide them with the best product at the best possible price you can, or at least a fair and reasonable price, and make sure that they’re properly serviced," he says. "In that respect it’s not much different than any other business, because it’s the customer that’s important."
MTE service manager John Dumar has been with the company three decades. He calls Houseknecht’s turnaround strategy one of tightening the belt and fixing the leaks.
"Tom took a company that was on its knees and he stood it right back up," Du-mar says, adding that there was a time several years ago when he was not sure he would have a job the next day.
He no longer feels that way.
"These people have turned this place on its side. The reorganization, we’re a lot better company than we used to be," he adds.
Houseknecht says employees are equipped to make their own decisions, but teamwork is a must.
"We try to focus on building that culture of respect and teamwork among all the players," he says.
He tries to live by the golden rule of treating others fairly, no matter what, Houseknecht says.
Houseknecht’s brother-in-law Benjamin Mancuso-a partner in a commercial real estate brokerage-joined him at MTE as vice president when he purchased the company in 2010. Mancuso says that when they arrived, they worked as though they were starting a new business.
"We went back to the basics and sort of retooled the back end of the business through the parts and service operations," Mancuso recalls. "In addition to that we were building a sales organization."
Long-time friend and accountant Rick Wojciechowski says Houseknecht did several things right when he bought MTE.
"He was very astute with respect to what should be included in inventory. He was very judicious in making sure the things they weren’t selling were converted into cash," he says. "They did a very good job of identifying what was selling and making sure those items were actually available for customers."
In addition, Wojciechowski says, Houseknecht is technologically savvy, which he used to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of sales calls.
"The thing that you look for in turnaround companies, you look for the little successes that you can continually build on," Wojciechowski says. "And that’s what Tom does. He takes the little successes and puts them all together for a big success."
Houseknecht brought energy to a tired company, Wojciechowski adds.
"He had a few people follow him from his former organization that had been very keen on making sure he had good information," he says. "Surrounding himself with competent people is another thing he did very well."
The lessons he learned about effecting change at his family’s business served him well when he took over MTE, Houseknecht says.
"People don’t like change. They get very nervous about it," he says. "Sometimes you have to try and sell it, and sometimes you have to forge ahead whether people like it or not."
That is the one thing that has made him want to pull his hair out at times, Houseknecht says.
"It was a little more difficult to change the culture of the company than I anticipated it would be," he says. "With the company operating in survival mode versus a customer-focused approach, there were culture problems."
Houseknecht describes himself as a delegator.
"But I’m a hands-on delegator. I think one of my favorite quotes of all time was by Ronald Reagan: Trust, but verify," he says. "So I delegate but follow up to make sure people are doing what you’ve asked them to do."
In leading a staff, it is crucial to offer at least as much praise as discipline, he says. The best part of his job is seeing people succeed.
"He’s hands-on to the extent that he’s obviously working in the company and overseeing the big picture for the company," Mancuso says. "We have some great people who run our service department and run our parts department. Tom is basically steering the ship."
One of his strengths, Houseknecht says, is that he has a good feel for how to operate a business and understands the numbers.
And while he jokes that his wife could come up with a list of his weaknesses, he says he sometimes gets caught up in minutia.
"Sometimes you have to know when to pick your battles," Houseknecht explains.
The biggest challenge he has experienced in his time with MTE has been working with cash-strapped customers.
"Within the industry as a whole, municipal and golf budgets have been strapped, yet their equipment is aging and they’re trying to operate with limited capital," he says. "It makes it difficult for them to keep their equipment repaired and/or replace it. It’s been a difficult marketplace."
Despite the challenges, Houseknecht keeps coming back for more. He has sons who have either entered the business or are planning to join the company soon.
"I’m grooming them to take over and grow a family business," he says with a smile.

At home
Houseknecht was born and raised in Batavia and continues to live there with his wife, Lynn. The couple has four sons: Mark, 23; Craig, 22; Eric, 21; and Ted, 20. Mark is branch manager of MTE’s Massachusetts facility.
Houseknecht has been a member of the Batavia Rotary Club since 1985 and serves on the board of directors for United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia.
In his spare time Houseknecht enjoys cross-country skiing and has a summer home on Silver Lake, Wyoming County. He also likes golf but acknowledges that his mother-who was ladies’ champion at Stafford Country Club for many years-got the golf genes.
"I’m the best at ‘customer golf,’ because the customers always win," he says, laughing.
What he enjoys most when he is not working, Houseknecht says, is spending time with his family.
"The thing I respect most about Tom and Lynn is how important family is to them," Wojciechowski says. "One of Tom’s main attributes is how dedicated he is to his family and how he and Lynn have raised their sons to be such fine young gentlemen. It’s impeccable, what they’ve done."

Thomas Houseknecht
Title: President, Moffett Turf Equipment Inc.
Age: 55
Education: B.S., business management, 1980, St. John Fisher College
Home: Batavia, Genesee County
Family: Wife Lynn; sons Mark, 23; Craig, 22; Eric, 21; and Ted, 20
Interests: Family, cross-country skiing, golf
Quote: "It was a little more difficult to change the culture of the company than I anticipated it would be. With the company operating in survival mode versus a customer-focused approach, there were culture problems."

5/31/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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