By John Wolcott SCBJ Freelance Writer
When Steve Ahmann and his father, retired banker Grover Ahmann, started Pacific Power Batteries in 1985, they didn’t know how long a battery supermarket would sustain itself in the marketplace.
Today, there are six stores, including the company headquarters and wholesale office in Everett, retail stores in Marysville, Monroe, Mount Vernon and Wenatchee, and a franchise in Bellingham. All prove the firm’s marketing motto: “Batteries for everything.”
You can find racks of AAA, AA, C and D batteries in supermarkets, drugstores and convenience stores, plus car batteries in auto supply stores.
The difference when you enter Pacific Power Batteries is the variety and number of batteries in stock, from standard-sized cells to batteries for autos, trucks, van, all-terrain vehicles, camcorders, cellphones and every other device you can imagine. Pacific Power Batteries also offers bulk discounts.
Perhaps the most important advantage is that customers can talk to staff who understand batteries, what they do, how they do it, when they’re dangerous, how to store them and how to make sure a particular battery is the one you need.
When Ahmann smiles and acknowledges that the world does, indeed, run on batteries, you know why he picked this business.
“Batteries are indispensable,” he said. “When you need a battery, you need a battery.”
At first listen, a battery business sounds like an opportunity to market an indispensable product, a sure thing in the world of small business and practically a guaranteed fortune in a highly competitive world where few businesses can achieve so much stability so easily.
Listen a little more and reality begins sinking in.
“The advantage of franchises is that you can follow the pattern of success the originator has created,” Ahmann said. “You get permission to use certain products or marketing tips, plus, for our 4 percent franchise fee, you get a business adviser and counselor to guide you and answer questions so that you can both succeed.”
One of the first things franchisees should learn is that there is no way to avoid the hard work of building a successful venture.
“When we started out in 2008 with our franchises, our original scope was going to be California, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Washington and then the world,” he said, grinning. “It sounded easy. But then we found we were spending a lot of time qualifying people for a franchise, helping them out and figuring out the details. It became quite another story.”
Handling a merchandise distribution system was a hurdle, he said, as well as coaching prospective franchisors only to discover they didn’t have much interest in cold calls and marketing efforts.
“We also found that if franchise stores are spread out — one in Seattle, another in Philadelphia and another in Detroit — it’s just too much bandwidth for us to handle,” Ahmann said. “When the recession hit hard in 2009 we decided to get back to our core business and focus any franchising on Washington, Oregon and Idaho … so it was manageable.”
Ahmann says he won’t have more than two franchise meetings if the prospect’s spouse isn’t involved.
“It just doesn’t work,” he said. “Certainly the spouse has to be supportive and involved, and often the whole family, because it changes everything. Some people can’t handle it. Also, there has to be the ability factor. We’re looking for a soldier who wants to follow a format, not an entrepreneur. They’re dreamers, they always want to change everything, and that’s not how successful franchises work.”
Ahmann is using radio spots to promote franchises again, within the Pacific Northwest. In the process of evaluating his earlier franchising efforts, he’s learned valuable lessons.
“There are times to limit yourself to what you do best and keep doing it,” he said. “We’ve started all but one of our stores ourselves and they’re successful. We could always open more stores ourselves but what you get with that is more employees, more paperwork, more reports and more marketing. There’s a limit to how much you can or want to handle.”
Ahmann’s most visible marketing effort is the $45,000 Chevy Volt that’s emblazoned with his company’s logo.
“It’s an expensive car, even with a $7,800 tax credit off that price, but it’s a publicity boost for the business, it creates buzz,” he said. “It’s part of keeping up with what batteries are doing in our world and it’s a good business move, along with being a whole lot of fun to drive.”
When it comes to batteries, Ahmann believes his company should be a leader in the industry’s promotion.
“The Volt, one of three electric cars available today, is an American product,” he said proudly. “Also, it’s fun, interesting and runs on batteries. When you start telling people about volts and milliamps, their eyes start to glaze over. When a sales person can hold up a battery and say, ‘This is exactly what you need to take care of your problem,’ they relax, they’re grateful. No matter what happens, batteries are not going away. They power practically everything.”