72: Serving Their Community Is What Drives Advantage Appliance

Written by Rob Stott

June 1, 2021

Advantage Appliance independent thinking podcast

Co-owner Mark Braun founded Advantage Appliance in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1993, and since Day 1, his mission has been to serve his community with the best deals, best service, and by giving back. He shared his story and the role Nationwide Marketing Group has played in his success.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and real excited right now to be joined by a guy that you’ve been talked up to me so this should be fun. I’m excited to see. Our team here at Nationwide has said a lot of good things about you, Mr. Mark Braun. Co-owner of Advantage Appliance there up in Bismarck, North Dakota. So I’m excited to have you on now and actually get the chance to talk to you.

Mark Braun: The reason is that the other two are just so easily impressed. That’s why. They were easy. Let’s see if you’re as easy as they are.

Rob Stott: I know. They’re like the pre screeners. When you call into a radio show, you get through the producers. Now you’re on with the host. Let’s see if I can crack you.

Mark Braun: Good luck.

Rob Stott: See what we got. So, like I mentioned, Bismark, North Dakota, Advantage Appliance. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and your retail upbringing.

Mark Braun: Okay. I started selling appliances back in 1972. Yeah. That’s far stern for me. But it’s something I really fell in love with. I had had a sales background prior to that, but once I started selling appliances, and I was bouncing around in different stuff and I started selling appliances and I went, “Hey, I like these things. These things are fun.” And a couple of times a week, a truck would show up and it’d be just like Christmas. You’d open up the back of that truck, I’d tell them what was on there. Especially with what we’re going through now, hard telling if anything is on there, but it was just a lot of fun. And I did that for many years and in 1993, along with a partner, decided that maybe we should do this on our own and have had a lot of fun doing it.

My partner today is my son, Josh. He got in touch with me while he was in college and said, “Dad, I really don’t know what I want to do.” And I said, “I’m begging for service techs all the time, it’s hard to get somebody to repair something. Why don’t you take a look at that?” He ended up going to school to be a service tech. Ended up working in Colorado for a few years for another dealer down in Colorado, came back, opened up his own store as far as just in service and made enough money in the first four years to buy my other partner out. I think I should have been in the service industry instead of the appliance industry. But we started in 1993 and I’ve said many, many, many times that if it wasn’t for Nationwide and Nationwide West, we wouldn’t have lasted the first five years. It just wouldn’t have happened. They showed us the correct paths to be on there. We’re really appreciative of that group.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And we obviously love hearing that and we’re going to dive some more detail around that. But before that, a lot of ways we can go. We’ll get to talking about your son too in a second, but I want to start with that decision to set out on your own. You mentioned it sounded like a lot of fun. Was there something that in particular that happened, a moment or an idea that just sparked that you finally decided that now’s the right time to do this?

Mark Braun: Yeah. Actually what happened was, me and my partner at that time, we were working for another dealer and his background had been with Sears. He had been a regional manager with Sears and decided he was going to open his own appliance store and he was pretty successful with it. But then all of a sudden, he got the big box store and the Sears store mentality. And in North Dakota, we’re a down-home European community, a lot of immigrants from Europe and they want the down-home style store. And we could see him moving away from that and we could see that this was not going to be a good idea. And at that time, I was 40 years old and was going, “I’m going to be looking for a job within a year.” And so we decided to open up our own store and six months later, he was out of business. That’s how quick it went.

Rob Stott: The timing, it’s crazy. Obviously, you saw the writing on the wall. What’s it like making that decision and then setting out and trying to actually start your own business?

Mark Braun: Well, it’s scarier than hell. It really, really is because I had two children and my wife supported me all the way. In fact, she looked at me and she says, “If you’re going to get this done, do it now. Now is the correct time.” And I had two children in high school. And so you’re taking a look at you’ve got college coming up, you still got your house payment, you got your car payments, you got everything. And you’re going, “Well, I got nothing. But I got nothing to lose either.” So we started out and it was scary for those first few years, but I’m going to tell you, the rewards have been very, very good.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. What was the start of Advantage Appliance like? If you look at what it is today, what did you guys start out with as far as products and things like that?

Mark Braun: Well, we started out talking with the Magic Chef people who at that time were opened by Maytag or owned by Maytag and also KitchenAid. And when we first started talking with them, the KitchenAid people said, “Yes, you can have the line.” And the Magic Chef people said, “Okay, let’s sit down and talk.” And they asked what kind of order we were going to give them with Magic Chef. And so obviously we had to be pretty conservative on their very first order. And we gave them that order. And then they said, “Okay, now what are you going to order up in Maytag?” And I just stared at the guy. In my wildest dreams, I’d never thought that boy we’d be able to have… These two goombas would be able to have Maytag just coming out of the shoot. And at that point I knew that we were probably going to be okay.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome.

Mark Braun: That’s what we started out with. We started on in a little strip mall that we had about 1500 square feet in the back. We had about 500 square feet of warehousing. My partner and I sold all day long and delivered it all evening in a ’76 Chevy short box pickup. You couldn’t get a whole lot of stuff on it so we had to make a lot of trips. And it was a little trying. Ended up hiring a couple of football players to deliver for us from local colleges here. And some of those guys are still really, really great friends with us after 29 years.

Rob Stott: Is that North Dakota State by chance? Is that where you are?

Mark Braun: No, North Dakota State’s in Fargo. This is University of Mary.

Rob Stott: All right.

Mark Braun: To get a North Dakota state football player, just ask the Philadelphia Eagles what that kind of money costs.

Rob Stott: I’m in Philly so I know all about Mr. Woods. If I could be honest for a second, I was sad to see him get shipped off to Indy. I enjoyed having him here for those four years that he was here with us.

Mark Braun: Actually, he’s a Bismarck boy. I went to school at Century High School here in Bismarck and to watch him come up through high school, this skinny little kid. And he was like a receiver and then all of a sudden see him in college where he’s like six foot at 19 and 300, just an unbelievable football player. It was really a great career to watch.

Rob Stott: For sure. And we obviously wishing him luck in Indy because his success only means a first round pick for the Eagles next year. So we’ll see how that plays out.

Mark Braun: He’ll do just fine.

Rob Stott: He sure will. You mentioned you started out in a strip mall in just a tiny step. What does Advantage Appliance look like today?

Mark Braun: Well, clearly after three years, we purchased our own building and built our own building. The building here is 8,000 square feet. We’ve got about 5,000 of it devoted to warehousing. And then about 3,000 with warehousing. And at the time, our thought was is that we just wanted to be in a small town dealer, which we haven’t been allowed to do that. And so we do have two other warehouses, that 3,000 square foot warehouse just doesn’t make it. So we do have two other warehouses that we’ve got product in. But we’re on main street in Bismarck. It’s a pretty heavily traffic street. But we’re away from the big box stores, they’re all the way on the other side of town from us so that they really don’t bother us at all. And we don’t allow them to.

Rob Stott: Now that’s awesome. And one of the things I know just from perusing your website, it seems like it’s been a thing since day one for you guys and that’s the free delivery carry away and the hosing and all that sort of stuff. Is that something you always wanted to do? Have you guys ever looked at that? Has it been a challenge at all offering those kinds of benefits?

Mark Braun: Actually, we really believe that it’s what caused us to get being successful. When we left our old employer, he was switching to the big box mentality and it was always understood that when you bought an appliance, that the company was going to deliver it for you. And that you’ve got the cords and you got the hoses. And what we decided was is we’re going to be that old time appliance store and we’ve carried that through. And it really, really does make a difference. In fact in our advertising, we do some live radio advertising every Monday morning and every Friday morning during drive time. We talk to the people at the beginning of their week, we talk to the people at the end of their week. They think we’ve talked to them all week.

And the thing that we always hit up is that we’re going to have the free hoses, we’re going to have the free cords, we’re going to have the free delivery, we’re going to have the free Holloway. Everything that the big box stores, nickel and dime the heck out of here, that’s free here at Advantage Appliance because if you take a look at it, do they have a low price? Yeah. But by the time you get done, they’re way more expensive than what we are.

Rob Stott: Yeah, you don’t realize it, you really don’t realize it.

Mark Braun: You really don’t.

Rob Stott: And something even beyond that, you mentioned the Holloway. I know something you guys do that’s really awesome is, obviously conditioned pending, you take those used appliances and you’ll donate them. Talk about that a little bit, where that came from.

Mark Braun: What we did is we talked to a few places in town. We’ve got a place called Abused Adult Resources that we have taken a lot of appliances to. And we’ve also got the local charities here that do work with people that are disadvantaged. And if we’ve got something that when we’re talking to the consumer on, we’ll say, “Okay, your old washer or your old dryer, what do you want to do with it?” And they’ll say, “Well, can you please haul it away?” First thing the sales personnel ask them is, “Okay, is either one of the two in working order? And if they say, “Well, yeah, it’s the washer that shot, but the dryer is okay.” We tell them we’re going to take that dryer to a local charity. And the most one that we normally take it to is something called Community Action.

Okay. We’re going to take it to Community Action and then once you wait two or three days and get in touch with Community Action and they’ll send your donation receipt. And so the consumer ends up feeling good about it also. And the other product, we’ve got a huge roll off dumpster in the back for that stuff that is no good. But we don’t own that roll off dumpster. We got in touch with a recycling company. They have the dumpster, we put the stuff in the inside of it. They haul it away and pay us tonnage on scrap metal for it. So we’ll still end up getting paid by selling the scrap metal.

Rob Stott: That’s great. The idea, was that something you always wanted to do as far as the donating or where did that come from?

Mark Braun: We started that right off the bat. To us, it just made sense. We knew that we couldn’t be everything to everybody and every manufacturer, but what we wanted to do is we wanted to go, okay, if we’re going to do something with donations, it’s going to be towards kids. And if we can do something for the consumer, we’re going to try and find a way to go to a donation with that also. People need it so that’s just our way of helping the community.

Rob Stott: It’s obviously something too. You talk about trying to differentiate yourself from others in your market, but what better way to do it than just by doing good in the community. And obviously it helps make a name for you, but also it’s benefiting someone or many someones. So it’s just cool to see those kinds of things for sure. And you don’t see it from other big box stores and things like that so it’s always those independents, so guys you that are stepping up in their communities and have that personal connection to who they’re benefiting so that’s awesome. And I mentioned differentiating. Those are a couple of things that already, you talked about, they’re pretty big differentiators, but what else do you think sets Advantage Appliance apart in your community and what you guys do?

Mark Braun: Well, there’s a couple of things that we’re doing and have done. And actually a lot of it has to do with Nationwide. When we started first in Nationwide, we took a look at that and we started a Nationwide West. We took a look at the reason that we wanted to go in is because the dollars that we could save in what we were buying. And I think that’s the reason that most people look at to buy goods. How much money can I save in what I’m purchasing? And then after a little while, you all of a sudden realize, “Hey, that’s the smallest reason to be in Nationwide.” You’re receiving so many other benefits. And that’s why I said we wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for Nationwide. I can remember sitting in a prime or university. In fact we didn’t call it prime time university or academy at that point, it was just breakout sessions.

And this was at a prime in Dallas. And Jim Feeney from Nationwide West was giving a presentation on how you go to your manufacturers to get additional dollars for different things that you wouldn’t even think of talking to about. And I went to that meeting because I didn’t have anything else to do. So I went and I sat through 20 minutes of Jim Feeney. I walked out of there going, “Wait a minute.” So I went over and I sat down and I took a piece of legal paper and I started writing down some stuff. And I walked into the display fort and I walked over to the Amana booth because we were selling Amana at that time and I said, “I want to have some basketballs.” And the guy says, “Well, what do you want the basketballs for?”

I said, “Well, because I’m going to put Amana’s name on them in Advantage Appliance.” And he said, “There’s a little league basketball where there’s basketball camps.” And I say, “I want to give them to them because these are all future customers and they’re all young people that are the parents.” This is what’s it’s going to cost me. And I thought that’s probably what I should have started out with, is finding out the cost before I went to see him. And I went, “$4,000.” And the guy goes, “Okay.” How? And actually I was dumbfound. And in the first few years, we did basketballs, we did volleyballs, we did baseballs, we did footballs, we did everything. And it wasn’t just Amana. It was Whirlpool and Maytag. Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon and it wasn’t costing me anything. But coming back, all of a sudden, I have customers that are coming in the store and saying, “Hey, thank you for the basketball for my kid.” stuff like that.

Rob Stott: That’s cool.

Mark Braun: Another one that was a huge success, we were in Nashville and we all went over to the Opryland Theater and a little tiny girl comes out and she starts talking about her friendship bench. We decided that that might not be a bad idea. Maybe that’s something we can stand behind because it has to do with kids. And that’s what our stuff is with kids. Next day, I went and talked to her, find out what is all about, heard her mother. I went over to the Whirlpool booth and said I need five friendship benches. And we’re going to give them away to five at-risk schools from Bismarck Mandan.

There’s now 62 of them in Bismarck Mandan. And it just started out that way. We’ve got a huge one out in our front yard here at the store, but it was a case that the whole community got behind it. And it’s known as the friendship bench from Advantage Appliance. It was all about Acacia and her project. And in fact, we brought her to Bismarck three times to give these friendship benches away, but it ended up being a fantastic deal. And again, because of what happened, why sitting and listening for 20 minutes to Jim Feeney, it’s turned into over the last 20 some odd years, I’m not kidding you, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Rob Stott: That’s great. And the funny thing is you always think of that cliche of like, “Hey, I’m at this meeting. What can I take back to my store? What kind of business strategies can I take back to my store and implement.” There’s immediate takeaways, immediate things you can do. You didn’t even get back to your story. You just went from the breakout session onto the trade show floor and had that conversation. No, that’s awesome. That’s really cool. It’s neat to hear those types of things. Kind of following up on that, I know it may not be the sexiest topic in the world, but payment processing is something that recently came up. I know you were involved in some conversations around… I think you do a program with Payroc, correct me if I’m wrong there.

Mark Braun: Yeah. We sure do.

Rob Stott: So talk about what it’s like being active in that program and working with them and what they’ve done for your business.

Mark Braun: Because of what Nationwide has done for us, I make it a point to at every prime time to walk around the showroom floor and stop pretty much at every booth. Whether it pertains to me or not, I’ll stop, I’ll talk to the guys, I’ll thank them for being there. And one day I walked by a card table that had a guy sitting behind it. And he had just this little tag about this big up on the screen behind him that that said Payroc. And so I said, “Okay, what the hell is Payroc?” And so he started explaining it to me and I said, “Okay, give us a readout on what you think that you’d be able to do for us and say for us.” And Payroc’s been very good.

We don’t have any problems with them. It’s extremely easy. They did cut way back on my processing fees. They’ve really cut back on a lot of my telephone time of the other guys calling me up and saying, “Hey, can we handle your credit card processing?” It’s very easy for me now to say, “No, I’m sorry. We have who we want.” But folks, if you’re not doing Payroc, you want to go and listen to them. We do Wells Fargo on a lot of stuff and they have the processing. And I did look at Wells Fargo and Wells Fargo was great people. But I felt that Payroc fit our business a lot better. It was a nicer fit. I know every last single morning when I come in and I take a look at the deposits for the day I pull up the bank account, it’s going to be there. It’s there all the time. It’s there before I get here in the morning. And I get here at 7:00.

Rob Stott: So it’s working early for you.

Mark Braun: It works really good. Payroc are great people. It’s fantastic.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Is that something where you… Obviously you popped by their table and had a conversation. Was that something that even was on your mind to consider even-

Mark Braun: Wasn’t even on the radar.

Rob Stott: No?

Mark Braun: It wasn’t even on the radar, it was… Excuse me. We were using another company through Nationwide. We tried to do everything with group vendors that we can do. The group has been good to us, we’re going to be good to the group of vendors. It’s just the way that it is. And we were using another company. They were doing the job that you expect from most of the processors. Payroc just stepped up and did a better job. And it was less dollars. The last dollars gets your attention. But now also doing a better job, that really gets your attention. And they’re great people. They really are.

Rob Stott: Are there any… Like I said, obviously not a sexy topic and it’s pretty straightforward as far as what the job of a vendor like Payroc is to do and that’s to help make it a seamless process for you to process payments. Is there any other benefits of working with them that you didn’t necessarily expect to receive or realize that now that you’re working with them, they’ve brought to the table?

Mark Braun: Well, in the last 60 days, I gave them a telephone call. I said, “We’re adding sales staff and we need to put in some additional terminals. How are these things going to work together? What can we do?” And they just said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” And everything was seamless. It was just, “In the next couple of days, your new terminal is going to come in, they’re going to be preloaded. All you do is plug them in. They’re going to work with your POS system.” And by the way, folks, Whirlwind, Brian at Whirlwind, take a good dang look at Whirlwind. These guys are just amazing also. But Payroc, it was seamless. They just took care of it.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And it’s good to hear those because I know obviously we had the connection made because of an awesome testimonial. You’re talking well about them and everything they brought to the table so it’s neat to hear those stories and how it comes together in full circle for you guys. Because like you’ve mentioned it, there’s obviously the product side of things and getting the pricing and availability and access to things but there’s more to the show floor than just appliances and furniture and electronics and bedding.

Mark Braun: There’s way more to Nationwide than just saving yourself some money on an invoice. I don’t know anything about digital advertising, nothing. With Nationwide, I don’t need to. Nationwide takes care through ad rocket and ad rocket plus. I don’t have to worry about. I don’t know what a keyword is but they do and they take care of it. We started out writing everything down on just a paper invoice. If it wasn’t for Nationwide, I wouldn’t have known about Whirlwind software and Whirlwind software takes care of everything for me. I don’t need to know it because they know it and they just take care of it. Does it cost me some dollars to do that? Yes. But it costs me a heck of a lot less dollars than if I had to hire somebody for each one of those individual things. So it’s great, absolutely fantastic. I’ve got a world-class website. We’re in North Dakota, in Bismarck, North Dakota is a goomba selling appliances is going to get a world-class website. I got it from Nationwide. Those are all things that you get from Nationwide that are just great.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome to hear. And one thing I want to close on and we’re circling back to, you mentioned it at the top and that’s working with your son. You mentioned he came into the business and did well for himself, went to school for servicing. The thing that struck me about you describing how he came back to your store and took the ownership stake of your partner is that he went to school for service and it’s something he wanted to do, which I know… We obviously have the new service leaders network initiative with Nationwide where it’s all about addressing the challenges of service, because we know that it’s not something that is easy for a lot of retailers, a lot of appliance dealers that also have service departments finding talent. People that are actively out there getting themselves trained on service. Talk about bringing him in as part of… Did you guys always do service as well, or is that something that he’s taken up and-

Mark Braun: We had never had a service department. And we had always used some independent servicers I had saw in the company that we worked with before we started our business, that one of the biggest cost elements that company had was their service department. And service companies have the ability to make really nice dollars. In fact, my son made enough to buy an appliance store. And I’m starting to get a little bit long in the tooth so one of these days he needs to buy the other half too. But in a normal service department, what I saw is that the stuff would be outside of warranty and the consumer would walk through in door and say, “Well, you sold it to me, you should still fix it.” When we started, one of the ways we can get away from that is not to have our own service, use an independent service company.

And he is still independent in the service company. Advantage Appliance is the sales side of the two of us but then he also still owns a company called Appliance Solutions. The service is separate from the appliance business. He still goes through the challenges every day of trying to find good quality service techs. He has used Fred’s and it’s a challenge. It’s a really big challenge especially in North Dakota. When the Bakken came in, a lot of the service people headed into the oil fields because they didn’t have to put up with many problems and they made five times as much money. And so that really hurt for a long time, but he’s doing fantastic now, really great.

Rob Stott: When he approached you and had the idea to go into business with you and become part of the appliance family, what’s that like for you as a dad?

Mark Braun: It was great. And in fact it happened at a family supper. My other partner was losing interest and so I offered to buy him out. And he’s still a great friend today and he was a great friend when we went into business so we remained friends as in business. But I could see that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Originally, I was the older of the two partners. Originally, he was to buy me out with his family, but then his daughter moved to a different city and his son went in a different direction. And so I could see his heart wasn’t in it. And so I offered to buy him out. And he agreed. I told my family at supper that I was going to be buying him out.

And my son said, “No, I’ll buy him out because dad, if something happens to you, the company will go to my son and my daughter.” And he says, “And then I would have to buy my sister out at half.” He said, “This way, I’ll only have to give her a quarter.” And I said, “Okay, if you want to do that, that’s fine.” And he still takes of all the service stuff we need every morning. And we go through stuff. He understands most of the appliance stuff on this side that I can handle. And he handles pretty much all the service stuff, but then on the focus of the business and the financing of the business and all those types of stuff, we sit down and make all those decisions together.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And you mentioned prepping him, wanting him to take… Is that something? Are you starting that now to talk about just getting him interested in the sales side of it or what’s that like?

Mark Braun: Yeah, he’s a fantastic salesperson too. He works the floor and stuff like that when we’re starting to get overloaded with stuff on the floor. The plan was that this December 31st that I was going to ride off into the sunset, but what happened with COVID and still the challenges of availability and all that stuff, I’m sorry, I’m not going to drop that on anybody much less my son. So I will be here for a little while, yeah.

Rob Stott: No, that’s a good dad. That’s cool though. It’s neat that you see these kinds of things. One way or the other, it feels like the family aspect of this always plays out and is a big part of it. It’s cool to see situations like yours where it works out and obviously an easy brand and family to get behind and root for so we appreciate all you’ve done and continue to do for us here at Nationwide and being a part of the family. Mark, I’ve taken up a lot of your time. We’ll have to get your son on, Josh, right? That’s his name?

Mark Braun: Yeah. One of these days we can do that.

Rob Stott: We’ll have to get Josh on to talk about the service side of things because obviously that’s a big initiative for us and to get his take on it and what it’s like being someone that wanted to get into that side of the business would be something that we’ll definitely have to follow up on, but for another day.

Mark Braun: All right. One last thing I’d like to leave you with. And that is to anybody that might be watching this or is going to watch this is that if you’re thinking about going to Nationwide, or you’re thinking about going into a buying group, I’m going to tell you Nationwide is fantastic. You want to go there. You want to talk with them. Come in as a guest to prime time so you can see what’s going on. And then after you decide to go to Nationwide, or if you’re already a Nationwide member, get involved with nationwide. Go to prime time. You’re missing it. Prime time does not cost you money to go. Prime time makes you money every time you go. So go get the prime time, go into the universities, get involved with your subgroups. I’m going to tell you, it’s not only going to save you money. It’s going to make you money.

Rob Stott: Mark, we appreciate that plug. And if I was cutting you checks for those lines, I’d say it’s in the mail but we don’t even ask. We appreciate it. Like I said, it’s awesome to hear that when you put your heart into it, these are businesses that you built. You built this business and you want to obviously see it succeed and continue to succeed when you’re ready to move on. And what better way than by being active and being involved in a group that, hopefully, from our perspective, that you think we have your best interests at heart. And to see you put in what you’ve poured in and get out what you’ve gotten out is a testament to you and everything you’ve done to make the most of it. We thank you and look forward to catching up, hopefully in Nashville here soon and before long.

Mark Braun: We’ll be there. Even if there’s not prime time, we’re going, we’re on our way.

Rob Stott: Hey, us too. So I’ll see you there one way or the other.

Mark Braun: All right. Thank you.

Rob Stott: Thank you.

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