NEZPERCE Gordy Webster took a chance in 1978. He bought into Bell Equipment with his friend, Gary Stapleton, and moved his family from Seattle to Nezperce.
“They had worked at Boeing together in the accounting department,” explained Brian Webster, the youngest of the five Webster children, and just 1 year old when the family moved to Nezperce.
Gordy did not have farm or ranch experience, but he had a good business head, and was excited to buy into the John Deere dealership.
It was here that Brian, now 40, began what would later become his career. Lessons at an early age gave Brian the worth ethic he still possesses today as manager of the company.
As a child, Brian would hang around at Bell, looking up parts on microfiche and seeing what went on at the shop.
“My dad gave me a button-down, official Bell work shirt when I was 7 or 8, with my name on it and everything,” Brian said. “It was a big deal.”
So when his friends were just settling in to summer vacation when Brian was 10, his dad had other plans.
“He said he wanted to talk to me at the shop and I was like, ‘uh, oh. What did I do?’” he recalled.
Gordy had his son pick out an array of equipment and Brian now knew his fate: A summer lawn-mowing business.
“He took me in the office and wrote a bill of sale. I will never forget that amount – ‘You owe me $90.22 a month until this is paid off,’ Dad said. Then, Gordy took his son to the bank and helped him start a checking account. “And, at age 10, I started my lawn-mowing business and wrote a check to my dad every month until the equipment was paid off.”
Brian admits his dad was firm, but he now says he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“My dad taught me about work ethic and the importance of a job well-done, invaluable lessons that I’m so grateful to have learned at a young age,” he said.
When he was 14, he sold his lawn equipment and went to work for a local farmer where he spent the next two-plus years driving tractor and combine, haying and doing whatever needed to be done.
After graduating from Nezperce High School in 1996, Brian headed to the University of Idaho where he majored in business. When his mother died in 1997, he came home often to be with his father.
Today, Brian says his dad is his best friend.
“I have the utmost respect for my dad. We’re very close,” he said.
It was in 1997 that Bell purchased Brown Motors in Grangeville and merged into one business, Bell Equipment, Inc. Each store employs about 12 people.
Following his graduation from college in 2001, Brian and his dad agreed he would spread his wings a bit and get some life experience elsewhere. Brian moved to Oklahoma where he worked for a John Deere dealership.
“I worked in the parts department and I learned an incredible amount,” he said. “I learned customer service skills and learned to be a forward-thinking sales person. I recognized a few business practices that I thought could help Bell Equipment better serve their customers.”
That someday came eight months into his Oklahoma stay.
Brian returned home and in 2002 began working for his dad. Since that time, revenue has increased significantly.
Since that time, the business has gone from about $6 million a year in sales to a company that has approximately $16 to $20 million a year in sales.
The business serves local families, farmers and ranchers, but also customers throughout the L-C Valley, Palouse and into Walla Walla.
“We have very loyal customers and have had some really good years,” he said. The last year and half or so, however, he said, have been very challenging.
“Who we serve has really evolved throughout the years. I appreciate them so much – I value each and every one. They are the heart of this business,” he said. “We are trying to remain a pertinent business in today’s market, where smaller companies do not always make it.”
His brother, Mike, moved to Nezperce in 2015 and took over the management of the Grangeville store.
“I’m so thrilled to be working alongside my big brother whom I have always looked up to. He complements me well and has been a great addition to the company.
Brian said one reason Bell Equipment has been such a sustainable business throughout the years is the employees.
“Our employees are dedicated and they have pride and a vested interest in the success of the company,” he said. “Our employees are invaluable to me. They care about this business as much as the Webster family does and that kind of loyalty is hard to find.”
He said Bell takes “great pride” in its customer service.
“And that’s the same for the guy who spends $400 as it is for the guy who spends $400,000,” he said. “Everyone who walks through our doors is important.”
Employees and technicians keep up on the technology advances and are continually trained as they, in turn, can train customers on items such as GPS and computers.
“John Deere has great products and I wouldn’t want to represent any other manufacturer,” he said. “They produce a fantastic product they stand behind.”
Brian knows the future of agriculture is unpredictable and what the future holds is as unknown to local producers as it is to him.
“I know they’re trying to do the same things in this economy that we are — stay viable, stay relevant,” he emphasized.
And now that Brian is a father – he has two sons, ages 6 and 2 – he appreciates his upbringing even more than he already did.
“I am firm, like my dad,” he said. “My boys are respectful. I want them to be raised in a similar way to how I was, and to have the same work ethic.”