Chances are you’re reading this article because (a) you build horse barns and want some tips on how to expand your business, or (b) you’ve thought about entering the equine market and want some advice on how to begin.
The story of the North Texas sales office of MD Barns offers something for everyone — how a previous franchise failed, how a new operation is marketing itself to reclaim the territory, what a building manufacturer seeks in a dealer, what a dealer looks for in a contractor.
MD Barns is the brand of MD Enterprises, a manufacturer headquartered in Ontario, Calif., that has specialized in pre-engineered barns since 1974. As president Cliff Robbins explains, “We specialize in designing complete equestrian housing systems” that arrive onsite complete with shell, stall fronts, and divider walls. Working in factory-controlled conditions, he continues, the company “designs and builds all of our components, which gives us complete control over quality.”
MD Barns works with dealers across the country rather than selling packages directly to builders or consumers in those territories. But one dealer in North Texas expanded into other types of buildings, so that its focus on the equine market languished. About a year ago MD Barns bought back the franchise and established an office in Denton to rebuild its sales in a region that encompasses the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area and runs from the Oklahoma border as far south as Waco.
Longtime employee George Engler was named North Texas sales manager, after stints selling MD products in Missouri and Northern California. With a decade of experience at MD Barns and a total of 35 years in the building business, he was ready to hit the ground running when he arrived in Texas in June 2007.
Among the first moves Engler made were deciding how his products differed from the competition, what types of customers would be most attracted to those differences, and how the North Texas sales office could make those prospects aware of the differences.
The latter challenge — making prospects aware of what MD Barns has to offer — was tackled in three ways. First, he established a show lot in Denton that provides a place to meet with prospects and let them see examples of MD Barns designs. “When we get leads,” Engler explains, “I like to bring them to the show lot. That way, they can see for themselves that our products aren’t just conventional metal buildings.”
The North Texas office covers a huge territory. So bringing prospects to Engler — rather than vice versa — frees up his time to develop the market. For example, he has a goal of selling two projects per month. And though he does not perform the construction with his own forces, Engler likes to be onsite everyday to ensure all goes well.
In addition to the show lot and the sales reps, Engler is leveraging the advantages of working for a nationally-known manufacturer. MD Barns is a corporate sponsor for several equestrian associations and, among others, is the “Official Barn” for the American Quarter Horse Association. As it happens, he says, “North Texas is the quarter horse capital of the world.” So his sales office can trade on MD Barns’ national marketing to raise its local profile.
Indeed, that’s one of main advantages that franchises — in any industry — have over independent operators who go it alone. Thus Engler had ready-made opportunities to supplement MD Barns’ national marketing efforts through his own advertising in Texas-based equestrian magazines and by attending local and regional events.
With a marketing infrastructure in place, Engler had to decide what to market. How did his products differ from the competition? And should he go after the growing hobbyist segment, the serious competitive riders, or the big-dollar commercial market?
“We decided to serve all the niches of the equine construction market,” Engler replies, “because an advantage of our product line is the flexibility to address all of them. We’ve been able to win more business that way, rather than focusing on just one niche.” His diversified strategy has proven to be prescient since, he reports, “The economic downturn has affected the hobbyist segment more than I thought it would.”
One obvious difference between MD Barns products, as compared to many competitors, is that “everything is included — not just the shell,” Engler says. With many other builders, the owner gets only a shell and then must seek other suppliers for stalls and accessories. But while the convenience of “one-stop shopping” might seem an advantage, from a marketing standpoint, it also presents a challenge.
“When I’m pricing a job against other builders who are only pricing the shell,” Engler explains, “then my initial price seems a lot higher. Even though our total price ends up being competitive with what the owner eventually has to pay to finish the shell, I have to deal with the initial sticker shock of giving a total price upfront for the shell and the interior components.”
So rather than make his primary pitch the convenience of a single-source supplier, Engler bases his appeal on quality. Because MD Barns controls the design and manufacture of all components, adds president Cliff Robbins, the company can “make them chew-proof, kick-proof and fire-resistant” and engineer them to “outperform the average barn” in safety, strength, and longevity.
For Engler in North Texas, the decision to emphasize quality in his marketing appeals has dictated the type of customer he generally targets and attracts.
“Our barns have the strength and safety features that horse people tend to see, and offer the low maintenance they appreciate,” he notes. “So even though our barns can be customized and go the ‘fancy’ route, most of our projects are perhaps a bit more utilitarian. That’s because we typically serve customers for whom the horses are their primary consideration.”
Engler helps his customers “get the right siting, the right design and the right airflow for their particular climate and the breed of horses they own,” which is no mean feat since the North Texas region features a variety of climatic zones and local terrains. “I’ll go the owner’s property and see how it lies, and then relate that to the design,” he states.
When a project is sold, Engler executes a computer-aided custom design for the client. “In a way, we design the project backwards,” he says, “because we start with the desired number of stalls and then work from there.”
The design is then submitted to the MD Barns factory in California where the panelized walls and other components are built with the options selected by the customer.
“It takes about six weeks from the time the design is submitted, to the time the barn is shipped and arrives onsite,” Engler continues. During those weeks, customers act as their own general contractors to prep the site. Nevertheless, Engler is available to help match owners with concrete contractors who know MD Barns’ specifications and with erectors who have been trained to assemble MD products. Once the package arrives, a typical 6- to 8-stall barn can be erected in two or three days.
One advantage of MD Barns’ all-in-one concept is that, with the stall fronts and divider walls included in the package, owners can begin using their barns immediately. “Being able to get their horses into the barn right away,” he adds, “can really increase the customer’s satisfaction, which again helps with referrals.”
Since the North Texas sales office has been open for only a year and a half, Engler and his team are still scrambling to get MD Barns reestablished in the territory. But he is hopeful that, with continued customer service that fosters positive word-of-mouth, he can ultimately attain his goal of generating between 50 and 60 percent of his business through referrals.
Let’s make a dealer
MD Barns, as well as many other equine building manufacturers, currently have dealer territories open in numerous states. While different manufacturers may look for different traits in prospective dealers, Engler believes, “It usually works best if you’re already franchising other complementary products — such as metal buildings — so that you can add barns to your existing line of services.” An advantage of working with a manufacturer that sells all barn components, and not just shells, “is that you can add barns to your services without having to add multiple suppliers,” he says.
Dealers for MD Barns and other manufacturers are also seeking contractors who can do site prep, concrete slabs, and erection. “If you want to market yourself to dealers,” Engler says, “then what dealers typically look for are contractors who have a great reputation, are timely, courteous to customers, and willing to travel.”
After 35 years of selling buildings, including the last 10 for MD Barns, Engler has some advice for other equine barn builders.
“Above all, listen to the customer,” he counsels. “For some clients, building their own barn is their dream. For others, a barn is just a structure.”
Over the years, he notes, “About 80 percent of my horse barn customers have been women, though it’s somewhat less in North Texas. But whether you’re dealing with men or women, a lot of people have dreams that are bigger than their budgets.”
Successful equine builders, Engler believes, are those “who are willing to do a lot of hand-holding, and who are patient. Sometimes I’ll talk to a prospect for two years before we have a sale. You’ve just got to be available and wait.”
Taking a customer seriously
A recent case in point is a barn completed in November for Dale and Debbie Jordan of Decatur, Texas. As it turned out, Dale Jordan was in the concrete business and had previously poured slabs for horse barns.
“He liked what he’d seen of MD Barns, and particularly the low maintenance of our products,” Engler recalls. “So I brought them out to our show lot in Denton, listened to Dale and Debbie talk about their needs, and walked them through the process.”
The result is an attractive and ultra-functional raised center aisle (RCA) barn, a design that “is one of our bestselling,” reports Cliff Robbins. The MD design for RCA barns provides owners with “flexibility, giving them the option to choose between porch designs that further extend the RCA roofline, or gable roofline porch systems that add more variety to the design,” he notes. “Sliding windows can also be inset between the upper and lower rooflines of the RCA barn to maximize ventilation control in colder climates, adding up to 400 percent more light and ventilation” than comparable barns without the sliding windows.
These kinds of quality designs will be needed to survive the current economic downturn. Some have suggested that, unlike the agricultural construction market, the equine market is recession-proof and driven by baby-boomer enthusiasts with money to spend.
“But the economy has hit the market harder than I expected,” concedes Engler. “I think it’s going to recover. But right now we just have to wait and see.”
To position themselves for profit when the good times return, horse barn builders must learn how to differentiate their products and target their likeliest customers. A slow economy can be an opportunity to connect with customers while your competitors are retrenching, a chance to form relationships that will blossom later into repeat and referral business when
customers are ready to start building again.
At least one operation in North Texas is trying to do just that.