Tool debt overwhelms some techs, saps service department morale
When Kevin Inkell was a service technician in his teens, he decided he had to have a state-of-the-art toolbox. He eagerly awaited each visit of a tool company representative to his dealership's shop. In their fancy trucks, the persuasive salespeople displayed the latest, greatest, shiniest tools to the techs.
Money was no object to Mr. Inkell. That was the problem.
"I was 18 years old, living at home with Mom and Dad, with maybe $200 a month in expenses," recalls Mr. Inkell, now 39 and a veteran tech at Arrigo Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"I started to pull credit lines from all the tool guys," Mr. Inkell said. "I had $10,000 here, $15,000 there, $8,000 at another. I just went on the truck and said, 'I want this, this, this and this.' I handed the tool guy my credit card and told him to charge it."
Despite working what he calls "crazy hours," paying back as much as he could and at one point returning $8,000 worth of tools he had bought, Mr. Inkell amassed tens of thousands of dollars in tool and interest charges. Coupled with an on-the-job injury and the costs of a subsequent marriage and divorce, the tool debt Mr. Inkell couldn't repay forced him to declare bankruptcy.
Today, Mr. Inkell is out of debt and his credit score is good. He owns a customized toolbox that sells for $17,000 — empty. He counsels younger techs at his dealership, relating his own experience, accompanying them aboard the visiting tool trucks, urging them to avoid taking on finance charges.
"I ask them, 'What do you need versus what do you want?'?" he says.
Big box retail
A service technician's toolbox is routinely worth tens of thousands of dollars. Because most dealership techs must buy their own tools, the temptation to splurge on new big-ticket gear can leave some in deep debt. Stories are told of techs hiding in the shop bathroom when the sales representative comes back to collect.
Evidence of technicians' tool debt is more anecdotal than statistical. The National Automobile Dealers Association says it has no data on such debt.
But a forum for technicians on the job website Indeed.com includes numerous accounts of technicians who say they are "drowning" in debt because of "massive" and "skyrocketing" tool prices, double-digit interest rates on tool purchases and "house-sized" investments in their toolboxes.
Techs' tool debt can sap a service department's morale and efficiency, even when dealers and automakers provide some essential tools or otherwise help with tool costs and insurance. For techs such as Mr. Inkell, tool debt can create personal emergencies — wrecked credit, dunning by bill collectors, even bankruptcy.
Credit and financial services can be major profit centers for tool companies, but the problem of technician debt is one that the companies evidently don't care to discuss. Spokesmen for Snap-on, Matco Tools and Mac Tools — the largest suppliers of automotive tools to techs — did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
'Tool guy's' view
The holder of a tool company franchise says, "Sometimes the tool guys put the technicians into a bad situation" by showcasing the company's most expensive tools. "As a tool guy, you have to show a little restraint as well," says the franchisee, who asked that he and his company not be named because he is not authorized to talk about the company's sales practices.
A $1,500 roll cart serves most technicians as well as a $5,000 megatoolbox with a built-in Wi-Fi connection and LED lighting, he says. A standard ratchet can be as serviceable as an air ratchet that costs hundreds of dollars more, he adds.
The franchisee says he urges technicians to buy only what they need to do their jobs.
"If not, then you'll end up with a guy who owes you $1,000, but he can only pay you $25," he says. "Then comes the dodging and ducking. That doesn't help anyone. If you don't have the money, be honest with me. I may not be happy about you missing a payment, but if you tell me, we can work around it."
He says he refers technicians who seek larger credit lines to his company's finance department, but only if he feels they can handle it.
"Once they fall delinquent, the tools are up for repossession," he says. "I have to say to them, 'I need to come and get your stuff.' The technician usually says, 'Yeah, I get that.'?"
Greg Sutton, a service technician at a dealership in Pennsylvania that he asked not be named, says he avoids debt by paying cash for tools.
"I have seen guys buy quad-bay toolboxes, spending $10,000 to $20,000 just to hold their gear," he adds. "To me, that's an irrational move. If you work for a dealership, you'll need some specialized tools rather than gear for every make and model of vehicle."
Eric Cook is a veteran master technician in Mason, Ohio, who posts auto repair videos on YouTube under the nickname "Eric the Car Guy." He says, "Sometimes mechanics have eyes that are bigger than their wallets." Tool vendors, he adds, "wanted to put their franchisees in the position to make as much money as possible, and started their own credit divisions to make this happen."
Mr. Cook says he advises young technicians to borrow specialty tools from older colleagues instead of buying them — as long as they don't make an annoying habit of it.
Ian Cavanaugh, service manager at Bill Dube Ford-Toyota in Dover, N.H., says he has fielded phone calls from tool companies about technicians at his dealership who fell behind on their tool payments.
"The tool company starts to call the dealership to see if the tech is still working there," Mr. Cavanaugh says. "At the end of the day, I think it would be a lot easier to keep good technicians on staff if we supplied the tools."
Mr. Cavanaugh concedes that his dealership, like most others, requires its technicians to buy their tools.
Michael Sullivan, a personal finance consultant at Take Charge America, a credit counseling and financial education agency in Phoenix, says it's not uncommon for a technician to spend $100 a week or more on tool payments. He recommends that technicians consider buying used tools from online sites such as eBay, or at estate sales where complete toolboxes may sell for pennies on the dollar.
"Were they required or were they an impulse buy, coupled with pressure from other workers who might have better tools?" Sullivan says of some technicians' tool purchases. "Sometimes we need to look in the mirror and ask, 'Am I making enough money to cover the cost of this job?' If not, you might be in the wrong line of work."
Mr. Inkell doesn't regret his career choice. But he acknowledges that he paid dearly because of the technician's temptation "to want to buy everything on the truck. It comes down to self-control."
Fixed ops professionals and financial consultants offer these tips to service technicians to stay out of tool debt:
- Buy only the tools you need, not those you want.
- Buy only what you can pay cash for.
- Borrow specialty tools from co-workers — but after 3 such loans, be prepared to buy the tool yourself.
- Look for used tools on websites such as eBay and at estate sales.
- See whether your dealership will help you acquire tools or subsidize costs.
- If you get into debt, don't ignore it. Try to work out a payment plan with the tool company.
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