Ralph Helm III, owner of Ralph Helm Inc. Lawn Equipment Center, shares product information with a customer at his Crystal Lake store. (Blake Nunes photo)

Success Story: Ralph Helm Lawn Equipment Center

Discover a family-owned business that, for three generations, has served homeowners and farmers around McHenry County. Learn how this company has grown and adjusted to its customers, while always putting service first.

Ralph Helm III, owner of Ralph Helm Inc. Lawn Equipment Center, shares product information with a customer at his Crystal Lake store. (Blake Nunes photo)
Ralph Helm III, owner of Ralph Helm Inc. Lawn Equipment Center, shares product information with a customer at his Crystal Lake store. (Blake Nunes photo)

Ralph Helm III didn’t plan on following in his grandfather’s or father’s footsteps, as owner of his family’s lawn equipment center.

At least, not right away.

“I was 22 and managing a McDonald’s in Elgin,” he says, “I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The hours – working every weekend and evenings – weren’t conducive to a family lifestyle. One day in 1983, my father said, ‘If you’re ever interested in doing something else, I’d love to sit down and talk to you about coming to work here.’ I never felt obligated to work for the family business, and my dad always made sure I didn’t feel forced into working here. He said, ‘You need to go to school and do what you have to do.’ Once I started working here, though, I thought it would be for the rest of my career.”

Today, the younger Helm is the third-generation owner of Ralph Helm Inc., an outdoor power equipment and parts dealer, located at 36W710 Foothill Road in Elgin and 7402 Teckler Blvd. in Crystal Lake. His two children, Ralph IV, 21, and Anya, 19, have pitched in at the family business.

“We sell anything that you would use in your yard – tractors, leaf blowers, sidewalk edgers, water pumps and generators, in a variety of styles and sizes,” says Helm. “If a customer wants to do it themselves, we’ll provide them with the parts.”

Ralph Helm sells STIHL, Toro, Cub Cadet, Honda and BOB-CAT brands. New equipment sales make up 80 percent of the business, service 10 percent, and parts the other 10 percent.

The company was founded in 1923 by Ralph Helm Sr. and his brother, Ed, who sold mostly agricultural equipment, such as tractors and plows. The brothers operated the business until Ralph Sr.’s son, Ralph Helm Jr., took over in the late 1950s with Burt Pearsaul, the husband of Helm Jr.’s cousin. They operated as Helm and Pearsaul, but the partners went their separate ways in the 1970s. Ten years ago, Helm Jr. retired and handed the keys to his son and Jim Brandes, a longtime employee who joined the company in 1972. Ralph Helm employs a staff of 10 between its two stores.

The lawn equipment business has changed significantly over these three generations, as it’s shifted from agricultural equipment toward residential and commercial landscaping tools. In the 1950s, Helm Jr. started selling tractors that could push snow.

“‘Why do you want to fool around with those things?’ my grandfather told my father,” says Helm. “In the late 1980s, when we started selling smaller tools, like chain saws and string trimmers, my father said the same thing to us: ‘You’re not going to make any money selling those.’

“Years ago, the products we sold made the business unique,” he adds. “A customer could only purchase a specific model at a service dealer, and most of the time, there was only one dealer in the immediate area. Over time, however, most manufacturers have placed their products in multiple locations, including hardware stores and big-box stores.”

Ralph Helm serves a 20-mile radius around each store. Customers are homeowners, professional landscapers, government municipalities and local businesses. In 2005, Helm and Brandes opened a second location in Crystal Lake, an area that had seen the departure of other equipment dealers. “We found this area had a large clientele base that needed a business like ours,” says Helm, who had considered other communities before choosing Crystal Lake.

While many outdoor equipment stores have gone away due to a sluggish economy, Ralph Helm has managed to survive, primarily thanks to a solid commitment to the customer. The business guarantees that service work will be done in one week or less, and if it can’t, a loaner is provided at no charge. For commercial customers, the guarantee is one-day service. Ralph Helm also services equipment purchased from other retail outlets.

“What sets us apart is our service,” Helm says. “We service what we sell. We make a guarantee that as long as the equipment is bought here, the customer will receive preferential treatment. I’ve impressed upon our employees to take exceptional care of that customer who comes in looking for a part. If you treat a customer right, every time he needs parts, he’ll come back to us. It’s all about helping the customer.”

Even with outstanding service, there are other forces at play when it comes to success in the lawn equipment business – namely the economy and Mother Nature. Lack of sales greatly impacted Ralph Helm in 2009 and 2010, before the business rebounded with a strong 2011. But sales plummeted 30 percent last year, due to a lack of precipitation.

With no snow, customers aren’t buying snow blowers or having them repaired. With little rainfall, customers aren’t looking for lawn mowers. Landscapers don’t have income to purchase equipment for their businesses, either. And most manufacturers require businesses like Ralph Helm to place orders ahead of time, based on anticipated sales. In a good year, Ralph Helm sells 200-300 snow blowers and 400-500 lawnmowers.

“Unless we get a substantial snowfall two or three days in a row, I’m probably not going to sell a lot of snow blowers,” Helm says. “Snow is the icing on the cake in this business. You can maybe get by without a snow blower, but most people can’t go without a lawn mower. There’s nothing I can do about the weather. Fortunately for us, we’re somewhat conservative and have saved for a rainy day. You do what you need to do, to keep the doors open. I’m optimistic that 2013 will be a strong year.”

Many customers walk into Ralph Helm unsure of what brand of equipment to buy. That’s where the input of the experienced staff comes in. “We like to educate the customers and let them know what each unit can do,” Helm says. “We’ll show them a variety of models, even if it’s not in their current budget. Sometimes, they don’t realize what they need until they look at various options.”

When Helm started in the business, mowers and snow blowers were designed to last 15 to 20 years. While most equipment remains durable, manufacturers these days make products at different price points that can last from five years and up. “We have customers who come in looking for a $499 model that will last a long time,” he says. “Other people are content with spending $299 and coming back in five years and buying another one. Ultimately, it’s their decision.”

While the lawn equipment industry, like many others, has seen its share of good times and bad, Helm can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s too busy continuing a family legacy that his grandfather started 90 years ago.

“We’re still open, and we’re still successful,” he says. “I’m proud of Ralph Helm Inc. and the job we’ve done over the years. We’ve succeeded during a time when others have not been as fortunate.”