Hal Lawton, Tractor Supply Company and CEO, is fond of telling stories — especially when they highlight the culture, mission and values the organization has held for decades.
During a keynote at NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show, he introduced the audience to the Wallis family and their calf. The calf was affectionately named TSC, in honor of the service the family received late one May evening. Reading from an email, Lawton told of how the calf’s mother didn’t immediately warm to her newborn, and colostrum was needed to help the calf survive. The family didn’t have any on hand, and it was 7:50 p.m.
They hopped in their truck, calling different stores along the way and finding those stores either closed or without the product. But when they tried Tractor Supply, he read, the team “graciously answered the phone,” despite it being right at closing time. They brought two bags to the register, met the family at the door, made the transaction and said they were rooting for the baby to make it. That calf has continued to grow and mature, and his mother has become involved after several months of encouragement.
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“We always talk about legendary service at Tractor Supply,” Lawton said. “It’s included in our mission statement.” But being legendary isn’t always about driving out to someone’s house, farm or ranch. “Being legendary in this case just meant keeping the lights on for three extra minutes. In today’s world, where many times you feel like retail is going the opposite of customer service, we want to make sure we’re doubling down on customer service.”
Start with the store
It’s one thing to say you’ll provide that level of customer service. But how does that actually happen?
During the conversation with Kelly Pedersen, partner, PwC, Lawton ran through a variety of initiatives and efforts to ensure the 85-year-old company’s growth hasn’t exceeded its culture. Tractor Supply, founded as a catalog retailer for tractor parts, sells everything but tractors for “Life Out Here,” offering clothing, home improvement, lawn and garden, agriculture equipment, trailers, livestock supplies, pet products and more.
Shifting values and lifestyles during the pandemic brought explosive growth for the company, expanding from $8.5 billion in revenues in 2019 to $15 billion now. That’s due to same-store sales, in addition to opening 80 new stores each year.
Maintaining the culture throughout starts with the store managers, Lawton said. Tractor Supply enjoys a 12% annual attrition rate. In addition to the retention, the company leans in with leadership fundamentals, bringing new managers to Nashville for a weeklong training on leadership, culture and expectations. It includes dinner with the executive team, and new managers attend within their first few months at the company.
As for the more than 50,000 team members overall, they’re cared for through a market-leading benefits plan, with the same offerings for someone who works 15 hours a week as for Lawton and other leaders. “We try to take life’s problems off the weight of their shoulders” to allow them to focus on customers, he said. There are also restricted stock units for store managers to drive an ownership mentality.
Tech-assisted customer service
There’s much talk about driving trust, authenticity and servant leadership. But there’s also a keen eye toward helping team members better do their jobs.
Lawton spoke of the GURA approach (greet the customer, uncover their needs, recommend products, ask for the sale) to customer service. The company is incorporating generative AI into its “Hey GURA” tool, delivering knowledge directly to team members through their headsets.
As for computer vision, smart cameras are in process that can, for example, monitor the dwell time and actions of a customer looking at a riding lawnmower in the parking lot and signal a team member inside. In-store, smart cameras can survey the scene at the register, understanding when another cashier line needs to be open and alerting the team.
Tractor Supply also receives credit for ensuring team members are representative of the communities they serve; stewarding “Life Out Here” for future generations through investments in organizations like FFA and 4-H and providing scholarships; and caring for the planet through partnerships with conservation organizations as well as building distribution centers to LEED Gold standards.
The company celebrated its 85th anniversary last year — noting the occasion with an $850,000 donation to American Farmland Trust on National Ag Day — and Lawton said he is equally as excited about the next 85 years.
“Our issue is less around having a number of opportunities,” he said. “Our issue is much more about prioritization. We’ve got so much opportunity and so much growth ahead of us, we’ve just got to make sure we pick the right thing to invest in, in a stepwise fashion, to make sure it all syncs together.”