General Equipment & Supplies: Reflecting on 40 Years

Written by: Grant Ayers

In 1984, General Equipment & Supplies, Inc. was founded by Don Shilling, Jerry Kern, Gene Hestdalen, and Orvis Stockstad, all former employees of General Diesel and Equipment. These founders set out to create a company that would stand the test of time while supplying heavy construction and aggregate equipment to the construction, mining, and oil exploration industries, as well as the municipal governments in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa.

Initially beginning with one location and 22 employees in Fargo, ND, General Equipment has grown to have over 280 employees across 10 locations in the United States, as well as an additional two locations in Canada. I had the pleasure of connecting with Don Shilling, Jon Shilling, and Jerry Kern to discuss their roles in the company, the growth of General Equipment from each of their perspectives, what business practices and advice they would promote to other businesses, and the company’s evolution from their unique perspectives.

Our main focus here at General Equipment & Supplies is our people. Our people are outstanding and we live by our core values, which are how we hire, fire, and promote, as well as how we determine what customers and manufacturers we’re going to work with.” JON SHILLING

In the early 1980s, America experienced a recession in which General Diesel and Equipment faced prime interest rates of 14.5%. When this happens, commercial development stalls in the construction industry. Choosing to opt out of weathering the storm, the former owners of General Diesel and Equipment decided to seek out an exit strategy.

Knowing of this opportunity, Don Shilling (Sales Manager), Jerry Kern (Fargo Territory Salesman), Gene Hestdalen (Bismarck Service Manager), and Orvis Stockstad (Secretary-Treasurer and CFO) saw an opportunity for a parallel transition as General Diesel and Equipment made the decision to cease operations and liquidate.

Did You Know?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment by heavy construction contractors declined by over 130,000 positions across the United States in the 1980s due to high prime interest rates.

This transition would come with a new name, General Equipment & Supplies, Inc. Stockstad helped the others in putting together a business plan, operational budget, and processes, and hiring General Diesel and Equipment employees to retain hard workers and fill the void of General Diesel’s market exit. The group of four became part-owners in 1984, with Stockstad becoming the President of General Equipment & Supplies. Soon after, General Equipment & Supplies launched in April of 1984, slowly absorbing the former’s inventory and staff throughout the remainder of the year.

“When we transitioned the company, we streamlined the business to be profitable and expanded the product lines that we took over and, by the end of 1984, we were officially off the ground,” Don said. “I handled the rolling stock side of the business while my partner, Jerry Kern, took care of the aggregate sector.”

Over the next 10 years, General Equipment & Supplies was appointed the Komatsu dealer for North Dakota and 11 counties in Minnesota and expanded their reach to Bismarck and Minot through purchases and acquisitions. Seeing this success come to fruition was a proud moment for Stockstad as the company’s president.

After 16 years with General Equipment & Supplies, Stockstad retired in 2000. It was at this time that Don stepped up as president and appointed a sales manager for the rolling stock division so that he could focus on the broader aspects of the business while continuing to work closely with both sides of the company.

In the years since Stockstad’s retirement, General Equipment & Supplies has expanded its reach across North Dakota and western Minnesota, and eventually into the Twin Cities metro area and Canada. As the team grew General Equipment & Supplies, they settled down into comfortable lives, having children and growing their families. Don’s son, Jon Shilling, is one of those children who grew up alongside the company.

General Equipment & Supplies’ Core Values

Do The Right Thing

With all team members, business partners, customers, vendors, and communities.

Be Curious

There is an urge within us to know more because it’s within us to solve problems.

Have Passion

Always, in everything we do.

Be Innovative

Bring ideas, challenge the status quo, and think creatively.

Jerry [Kern] and I are so grateful that Orvis [Stockstad] had the insight, knowledge, and relationships with lenders to get us up and going. General Equipment & Supplies wouldn’t be where it is today without his leadership and vision for the company’s future.” DON SHILLING

Did You Know?

Don Shilling and Jerry Kern officially retired 40 years to the day after General Equipment & Supplies’ founding.

Jon, who is now the current president and CEO, initially began with General Equipment & Supplies by performing odd jobs around the company at 14 years old. “It wasn’t really my thing per se, especially in the cold, but my dad, Don Shilling, was teaching me the value of hard work,” Jon said.

Jon took that hard work with him to UND in Grand Forks, where he pursued a degree while, of course, working. On the side, Jon grew to love the world of sales while selling cell phones during his part-time gig. With a hard work ethic and several professional interests, it was no certain thing that Jon would end up back at General Equipment & Supplies.

Of course, his father mentioned to him that he could pursue a position at General Equipment & Supplies if he wished, but never pressured him. After graduating with an aviation degree, Jon was just getting his footing when many airline jobs disappeared after the tragedy of 9/11. This tightened the industry’s competition, leading Jon to take his father up on the offer in early 2003.

Over the next 13 years, the next generation became more heavily involved as Matt Kern, Don Kern, and Sara Frith (Jerry’s children), Tanya Groft, and Steve Stafki, alongside Jon and others, developed their skillsets under the founders’ guidance.

In 2016, the oil economy faced a downturn, impacting much of General Equipment & Supplies’ bottom line. Much of their work supplies heavy construction and aggregate equipment to oil exploration companies. “It was a scary time for us, but it was also one of the most pivotal moments in the business for us,” Jon said. “Don and Jerry were getting ready to hand the next generation the ‘keys to the castle,’ in a sense, during challenging times to push us to step out onto our own path.”.

In 2017, Don and Jerry semi-retired and the next generation stepped in to begin running the company. Since then, the new generation has found secure footing once again and even expanded to new regions including South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Duluth, MN. Looking ahead, Jon shared the company’s ambitious goals, which include aiming to exceed their financial targets years ahead of schedule.

“Our 10-year target is always in sight, and our objective is to move closer to hitting that goal each year,” Jon said. “In 2017, we established a financial goal to hit by 2027. Last year, we nearly hit 97% of that goal, and I believe that we’ll exceed our goal ahead of schedule this year.”

One way that General Equipment & Supplies stays on track while trying to reach their achievements is through building quarterly revenue goals and determining three to seven major things that need to happen each quarter to help push them towards their target. “We make those goals visible to our employees by connecting either in-person or over a video that shares that information each quarter so that we’re all on the same page and can tackle those goals together,” Jon said.

General Equipment & Supplies’ growth over the last four decades can be credited in part to each generation’s hard work and vision for the company’s future. With each generation that’s stepped in, the company has been forced to adapt and set ambitious goals, yet has still been achieving them consistently.

The Original Leaders of General Equipment & Supplies. (Pictured Left to Right) Orvis Stockstad, Jerry Kern, Don Shilling, Gene Hestdalen

10 Pieces of Advice From General Equipment’s Leaders

As General Equipment strides into the future, the leaders shared insights for entrepreneurs and business owners in North Dakota. Check out some of the most notable lessons learned over their careers, and what’s helped General Equipment & Supplies grow over the last four decades.

#1 Transition during the RIGHT time, NOT during an easy time.

“When Don and Jerry handed us the keys to the castle during a time of hardship, it did wonders for us as professionals to grow into our positions and prepare us for any situations that would be thrown our way. Anyone can take over a business while it’s booming, but it’s very difficult to take on a transition like that during a downturn as severe as ours was.” – Jon Shilling

#2 Connect with your team, no matter the distance.

“I’ll visit and connect with other branches every other quarter to discuss our current position as a company, General Equipment’s quarterly goals, and more. In the quarters that I’m not physically visiting, a video update is sent through our system to employees. Once we get through that, we like to mix in some fun for them. Also, every other quarter, we put together a video spotlighting one of our customers. We make it a point to select customers from different regions to keep things interesting. We go out, chat with them, showcase what their business is, and highlight why they enjoy working with us.” – Jon Shilling

#3 Highlight and uplift your team frequently, just like family.

“We also have what we call a ‘Quarterly Core Values Champion,’ which is someone from our team who embodies our core values. We share stories about their daily life, why they love being part of General Equipment, and what their day-to-day work looks like. We aim to feature different job positions or roles each time so that everyone gets a glimpse into the different positions across our company.” – Jon Shilling

“While General Equipment isn’t necessarily a family business, we operate like one and make a lot of decisions based on that idea. A big deal for us is our annual post-Christmas appreciation party in Fargo, where all of our employees, whether they’re from Williston, ND, or Cedar Rapids, IA, come together. It’s our way of saying thank you and keeping that close, family-like connection strong. It really makes our business feel like a big family gathering.” – Don Shilling

#4 Develop a Customer Experience Philosophy (CEP).

“We’ve been inspired by how retail stores like SCHEELS operate and wanted to create a similar environment. So, we’ve been working on making our branches feel welcoming and familiar, with friendly, knowledgeable staff.” – Jon Shilling

What is a Level 10 Meeting?

A Level 10 meeting is a weekly, collaborative meeting with the same agenda every week to ensure that everyone is on the same page. At the end of each meeting, participants quickly rate the meeting on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how well they followed the meeting format and how productive the meeting was.

#5 Promote frequent communication between employees.

“Our Level 10 meeting system is a big deal here for promoting employee communication. Every team, from the top executives to the technicians, holds structured meetings to keep everyone in the loop. For example, the executives meet every Monday from 7 to 8:30 a.m., and it’s an hour and a half of solid planning and problem-solving. Technicians have their own version, even if it’s just 15 minutes, but it’s still structured and keeps things consistent across departments.” – Jon Shilling

#6 Feedback from customers goes a long way.

“To really nail down what customers want, we ditched surveys and started having real talks with them annually. Our Vice President of People & Culture, Sara, leads this by chatting with a mix of customers. Their feedback has been incredibly helpful, leading to better relationships and even bringing some old customers back. Based on what we’ve learned, we rolled out a comprehensive training program focused on improving the customer experience, which everyone goes through. It’s all about keeping a consistent, friendly environment across the board.” – Jon Shilling

#7 Set your strategic plans to paper.

“There’s truth in the saying, ‘Be careful what you put on paper because it might just happen.’ If you don’t lay out your goals and the direction that you want your business to head in, and if you’re not sharing that with your team, you’re only holding yourself back. We make an effort to communicate everything that we can publicly with our employees, so they know exactly where the company is heading. This helps us avoid any lack of communication between employees, manufacturers, and partners.” – Jon Shilling

#8 Be hands-on in everything you do.

“Being hands-on at job sites has helped us understand our customers’ needs, leading to better solutions and successful products. Our service department was crucial, providing excellent support that helped us build long-term customer relationships. In essence, we’ve thrived by being willing to get our hands dirty and really understanding the work, which has been key to our success.” – Jerry Kern

#9 Promote community involvement across your team.

“We encourage our employees to be active in their communities and participate in fundraising activities across the state. We urge them to take time, even during the occasional work hours, to make a positive impact, such as helping with leaf raking. We support our employees by providing them with a $600 fund, which they can use to advertise a cause, join a softball team, or any other community event.” – Jon Shilling.

#10 Look to your community to invest in.

“Our growth has really been driven by investing in our people and building strong ties with our customers through education and support. As we were expanding during the initial phases, we were sometimes going into a market that we weren’t as familiar with, so we were always on a continual learning curve. But if you focus on hiring good people and continuing the process of education and training, everything will work itself out. You may have issues that come up, but it’s important to have people in place who, with a little guidance, can make a big difference.” – Don Shilling

Jon Shilling and the General Equipment & Supplies, Inc. team recommend The Traction Library from EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) to any business owners looking to take their business to the next level. According to Jon, this approach has steered the company towards hitting its financial targets more efficiently and has also strengthened the team.

“Back in May of 2017, we ran into a Traction speaker at a conference. He wasn’t pushing services, just talking about the books. I saw the value in that and felt it could help us grow as a company. I brought it up with my partners, and they were all on board, thinking it was the right move for us if we were going to do it. Now, seven years down the line, it’s become a big part of who we are. It’s helped us, both as employees and as a team, to dig deeper and develop creative and efficient solutions. We’re over seven years into the Traction journey now, and it’s become central to our culture and core values.” – Jon Shilling

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As General Equipment celebrates 40 years, there’s a sense of gratitude toward the founders and their families for taking the initial steps, no matter how challenging they have been at the time. Their vision and grit laid the foundation for the General Equipment & Supplies that we know today, which is pushing for a greater North Dakota.

“I want to honor and thank Orvis Stockstad, Don Shilling, and Jerry Kern, and their wives, Diane, Kay, and Jean, for their sacrifices that pushed General Equipment to where it is today. They started with only a little traction, but a strong vision of putting their employees first. We’re beyond grateful for them, especially the wives for supporting the home front and allowing them to focus on growing the business. Without them, General Equipment wouldn’t exist,” Jon said.


Q: Reflecting on the 40-year journey of the company, how do you feel about this milestone?

Don Shilling: When we do the annual employee parties, we always have a theme. Years ago, I went ahead with a theme called ‘The future’s so bright, you have to wear shades.’ As I look at the present team that General Equipment has and where the company is going, I would say it’s still the same thing. General Equipment & Supplies’ future looks very bright. They should all be very proud of what they’re building and it’s fun to see the direction that they’re taking it in. I feel comfortable that we’ve made the right choices over the years and we’re sending it in the right direction.

Jerry Kern: When I think back on it, I never would have dreamt that we’d be where we are today, knowing where we started, and it all comes down to the people. I’m proud of the current organization and the next generation. We’re transitioning to the second generation and it’s been going very, very well, and the thing that makes me the happiest is seeing it continue on with that generation.

Q: When General Equipment & Supplies, Inc. officially began in 1984, what did you think the potential for its success would be?

Orvis Stockstad: It was a challenge, that’s for sure, but I wasn’t nervous. I don’t think I ever had the thought that we wouldn’t make it; we seemed like we were growing every year more than the one before. I think that everyone felt good about having a routine in their job and that they were excited about things changing for the better.

Q: How has having different sectors within General Equipment & Supplies benefited the company?

Don Shilling: I think that it’s helped us balance our market a lot. Sometimes, when one area dips, another picks up. Our aggregate side might boom while rolling stock stays steady, and it can flip the next year, so it brings a bit more security to the operation.

Q: How do you think that General Equipment & Supplies’ transition during a challenging time helped you and the next generation of leaders in the company?

Jon Shilling: All of us, my partners and I, were a little scared. Don and Jerry were our “safety nets,” in a sense, with over 35 years in the business. Eventually, Don encouraged us to make our own strategies. While they would review our plans, the responsibility to direct the company’s future was ours, especially as we would be taking full control in 2017. We faced some heavy decisions in 2016, but had we not moved as quickly as we had, we certainly wouldn’t have been profitable. It was a scary time, but it was also a huge learning curve for me and my partners.

General Equipment & Suppliers, Inc
Bismarck: 701-223-9700
Fargo: 701-282-2662
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Grant is a Senior Editor at Spotlight Media. Grant writes for Fargo INC! and Bis-Man INC!