Rental Veteran Opens Innovative Parts Store, Where Online Orders Are Clicking Away
Gordon Chew, a handyman in remote Tenakee Springs, Alaska, needed a 12-volt coil to get his Case 686G telehandler up and running again. He called a dealer and was told the part was not in stock.
“Case couldn’t find it,” says Chew, who notes the price quoted to him was $230. Not wanting to wait for a special order, he typed the part into a search engine and found GCIron.com. Chew had never heard of the site before, but that didn’t matter. He called up the company, and the operator cross-referenced the part and quickly located it in inventory. “They had a killer price—they quoted me $71,” Chew says. Finally, the correct part arrived in the box, “unlike 25% of the parts [shipments] in America,” Chew remarks.
Frank Villella, 37, a veteran of the equipment rental business and co-owner of the five-year-old online start-up based in Hollywood, Fla., is helping thousands of equipment owners like Chew find parts fast and fix their own machines. The site gets over 10,000 unique visitors per month and last month received its biggest order to date, valued at more than $100,000. Who made the click? The U.S. Army, which needed hoses, filters, switches—more than 170 different items for its military fleet. Contractors on ENR’s top lists also are regular customers, Villella says.
The site isn’t as big as Amazon.com, Villella admits, but he hopes to grow it into a premier marketplace for contractors, rental companies and other equipment owners needing to fix machinery. “You see the Amazons and eBays of the world, and you try to mimic something that’s successful,” Villella says.
More than selling parts, GCIron helps clients diagnose and fix their machines, which it does for free as an incentive to make a purchase. One unique feature is an interactive troubleshooting wizard and a library of digital shop manuals—reprinted with the manufacturer’s permission, of course—in detailed, exploded diagrams. Users can visually scan the diagrams, guided by pull-down menus, and follow an interactive chart to help diagnose the problem. Once a part is located, the site directs users to an e-commerce platform to place an order.
Normally, original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) don’t like companies robbing the lucrative parts business, which is usually set aside for dealers and inside sales. However, GCIron sells only OEM parts, and it is an official dealer of several large manufacturers, such as JLG, Multiquip, Stow and G.M. Powertrain. “We are not trying to sell you a knockoff Chinese controller,” says Villella. “We are buying the controller from the manufacturer who makes them.”
One limitation to GCIron is that not all equipment vendors—Caterpillar, Deere, Komatsu—are willing to share the parts business. Villella makes no apologies. “Frankly, there are some manufacturers that do not want to do business with us, and that’s OK,” he says.
Regardless, contractors are becoming more comfortable transacting sales online, making companies like GCIron well poised to grab a share of the construction-equipment parts business, which amounts to about $3.8 billion a year in the U.S., according to the Dept. of Commerce.
Villella, whose family’s Gold Coast Crane business has rented lifting machines and other equipment for over 50 years in Florida, learned how to “dot-com” the hard way. Backed by venture capital, in 1998, he started up a Website selling whole goods, such as light towers, air compressors and scissor lifts. “People were just getting familiar with how to buy online,” he says. The site folded.
Going back to the drawing board, Villella and several partners created GCIron. The original intent was to sell whole goods again, but clients said they needed help with parts and service. “Our reaction to that was, Let’s give them an answer,” Villella says. A crucial lesson, he notes, is to make it easy for clients to get exactly what they want. Online auctioneer Iron Planet.com, an original dot-com survivor backed by Caterpillar, Komatsu and Volvo, did just that and has filed for a $92-million initial-public offering. Though GCIron isn’t baking with the big boys yet, it has found a way to grab a piece of the pie.