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Rural Missouri Magazine

Knox City's clipper king
Huff's Wholesale offers everything for clippers

by Bob McEowen

Founder Bob Huffman gathers parts to fill an order from his extensive inventory at Huff’s Wholesale Distributing. The Knox City business claims to be the world’s largest supplier of clipper parts.

Most of the vehicles traveling Highway 6 just keep on going when they reach Knox City en route to Edina or Lewistown and places beyond. The post office, a lumberyard and a woodcarver’s shop garner some traffic but, generally, things are pretty quiet in this town of 220.

The sole exception is at 200 E. Main St. Inside, it’s a bustle of activity as six employees answer phones and e-mails, pull products from inventory, pack boxes and work diligently at workbenches. And while other vehicles pass through Knox City with barely a glance, the UPS truck never fails to stop.

In the annals of improbable pairings, the phrase “world’s largest” and tiny Knox City would rate high on anyone’s unlikely list. And yet, here, in the town’s only two-story storefront, is Huff’s Wholesale Distributing, the world’s largest clipper parts supplier.

“Nobody has ever disputed it,” Bob Huffman says of the claim of global dominance posted on his company’s Web site. “That’s what the manufacturers tell me, ‘Nobody buys as much as you do.’”

Finding replacement parts for well-worn electric clippers may not occupy most people’s concerns, but barbers, dog groomers, veterinarians, sheep shearers, carpet installers and many others rely on these tools for their livelihoods. When they need parts or repairs fast, they turn to Huff’s.

Bob and his wife, Karen, have operated their wholesale supply, repair and sharpening company in Missouri since 1994 (their son, Bobby, is now involved). The company’s clients include everyone from veterinarians and livestock exhibitors to sharpening services and the people who install and maintain the artificial turf in football stadiums. When they’re not selling goods and services to clipper users, they’re providing information.

No matter what customers use an electric clipper for, they can find parts, repairs and sharpening services at Huff’s Wholesale Distributing.

“They’re my supplier and my mentors,” says customer Wayne Taylor, owner of Wayne’s Clipper Service of Holt. “If I’ve got a problem, I can call them up and they will definitely help me out.”

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to imagine a business surviving anywhere selling only clipper parts. It’s even more remarkable in Knox City. But spend a few moments inside this shop and you’ll quickly realize there’s a lot of demand for the services this family-owned business provides.

The phones ring constantly and orders stream in from the Internet as Bob, 62, scurries among row after row of parts cabinets and bins, gathering screws, gears, motors, cords and other parts for packaging. The sheer number of individual items that Huff’s Wholesale carries is mind-boggling. Even Bob won’t venture to guess the number. What is clear is that a lot of parts pass through his hands each year.

“There are parts — we’re talking one part number — that I’ll sell over $10,000 a year of,” the Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative member says. “The people from the manufacturers tell me, ‘Bob, I have companies that don’t do that in the clippers and everything. You do it in one part.’”

Parts seem to run in the Huff family blood. Bob’s father sold small appliance and clipper parts from a business he launched in Los Angeles in 1945. Concerned about the negative influence of the big city on his children and wanting to live in a rural area where they could enjoy their horses, Bob and Karen eventually closed the business they inherited. In 1992, they moved to Knox City where Bob’s father and grandparents were born.

Today, Bob’s business is focused on supporting three product lines: Oster, Andis and Wahl, the primary makers of commercial-grade electric clippers. Unlike the consumer-level clippers sold in discount stores, professional clippers are made to last under extreme service. Some of these machines, which retail in the $100 to $150 range, differ little from similar products made decades ago and, in fact, many of those venerable tools are still in use today.

A practiced hand guides a clipper blade on a sharpening wheel. Huff’s Wholesale manufactures the machines that sharpeners use to hone clipper blades.

Huff’s recently expanded its repair facility, building an addition and hiring a second technician. With the economy struggling, Bob says he sees a greater demand for repairs as many tradesmen keep their old tools in service rather than replacing them.

The company charges $16.50 to return most electric clippers to original factory specifications. While replacement parts will raise that price considerably, the Huffs say they find most customers will pay up to half of the price of a replacement clipper to keep an old tool running.

“These are people’s tools,” says Bobby Huffman, who works at Huff’s Wholesale and also operates his own mobile sharpening business. “This is what makes their living, so they want to keep them repaired rather than buying new.”

Vicky Burton, who operates Belton Dog Grooming outside of Kansas City, has come to rely on Huff’s quality and speedy service.

“I use them to repair my clippers, and they’ve always done a wonderful job,” she says. “The turnaround is good, and they are very, very knowledgeable about everything. If you have a complaint, man, they’re right there. They’re good.”

While Huff’s Wholesale repairs clippers for all sorts of end users, by far, their most frequent clients are pet groomers like Burton. “Where we’re going to see more repairs and more sharpening is dog groomers, because dogs are dirty,” Bob says. “Dirt is our enemy to a sharp edge.”

Working with a manufacturer of sharpening wheels, Bob developed his own line of clipper sharpening machines, which he sells under the ExtremeKut name. His most popular machine, with a 16-inch wheel, sells for $1,450. The company also offers an in-house sharpening service for electric clipper blades and scissors, honing clipper blades for $5 each.

Bobby Huffman sharpens a pair of barber’s scissors inside a converted ambulance he uses as a workshop. The younger Huffman provides sharpening services throughout northeast Missouri.

“We get blades in from all over the United States. We’ve actually had some come in from New Zealand and places like that,” says Bob’s cousin, Tony Pulse, who began working as a service technician at Huff’s Wholesale 10 years ago. “We have groomers that send blades in once a month to get them resharpened.”

With factory-authorized service, expert sharpening and the world’s most extensive inventory of parts, Huff’s has established itself as the clipper-user’s best friend. But for many customers, it’s the support Huff’s provides — often in the form of insider information and tricks of the trade — that separates it from competitors.

“I look at every customer as a franchise,” Bob says. “The more franchises I can get out there, the more successful ones that I can make, hopefully, it generates dollars back to me by them buying more.”

Bob is so committed to educating his customers that he launched “The Huff Show.” Inspired by a workshop for saw blade sharpeners Bob attended in Iowa, the weekend seminar is a veritable boot camp in electric clippers, with hands-on instruction on clipper repair and blade sharpening.

“I came up with the idea of having meetings for sharpeners from all over the country,” Bob says, recalling his first seminar in 1995. “Everyone said, ‘It won’t work.’ Everyone said, ‘Nobody is going to come to the middle of Nowhereville, 150 miles from an airport. Nobody is going to come.’

“It was a one-day show, and we had more than 100 people show up from all over the USA, from Canada even,” he recalls.

Held in Knox City for more than 10 years, the shows were popular with customers who enjoyed the opportunity to immerse themselves in their trade, while enjoying hometown hospitality at the hands of local churches, volunteer fire departments and other groups who prepared meals.

“I’ve gone to every one since 1999,” says Taylor of Wayne’s Clipper Service. “No matter how much you think you knew, you come away knowing more. You definitely learn something every time you go there.”

Technician Tony Pulse rebuilds an electric clipper in Huff’s repair facility. The business recently expanded its repair shop and added an additional technician to keep up with growing demand.

The events were so successful, Bob eventually took them on the road, hosting seminars in major cities in partnership with a manufacturer of scissors sharpening equipment. This year, the Huff Show returned to Knox County, as Bob conducted an intense limited-class size workshop for 50 people in Edina.

The fact that 50 independent business owners from across the country would travel to tiny Edina to learn about clippers is powerful praise for a small, rural business that leads the world in its field. While there are other businesses that sell clippers and parts, and plenty of competing repairmen and sharpeners, few garner the kind of customer loyalty and respect that Huff’s Wholesale enjoys.

With the help of a high-speed Internet connection, a toll-free phone number and daily visits from the familiar brown truck, Bob Huffman has managed to build a successful business in Knox City, an adopted hometown that he proudly refers to as “Nowhereville.”

“I had the vision that it would work and I applied it,” he says. “I’m a true believer that you can make dreams come true. You may have to tweak it here and there but anything can work.”

For more information, call Huff’s Wholesale at 800-664-8337 or log onto www.clipperparts.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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