ASHLAND, Neb. — Electrician Don Freyer, who never saw a tool he didn’t like, turned his love of them and his knack for sales into a local enterprise that remained in business for nearly four decades.
But Donco Tools will close in about a month, according to Freyer’s son, Lloyd, who took over the business in 2005, three years before Don Freyer died.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling to be closing the store,” Lloyd Freyer said. “It was my father’s passion, and I bought it to keep things going after he retired.”
While it will not be in the family any longer, the business may have a future. Freyer is negotiating to sell the business, though it will not remain in Ashland.
“It appears that the Donco Tools name will live on in Nebraska,” Freyer said.
Also, a new business will move into the Donco Tools building in March, Freyer said, though he declined to name it.
Don Freyer started Donco Tools in 1975. He realized there was a demand for replacement tools after he started selling tools to his fellow construction workers while on the job.
In the early years, his business was strictly on the road, occasionally accompanied by his wife, Connie.
Donco Tools’ focus was replacement handles.
“It’s a niche market nobody has ever gone after,” said Lloyd, who has worked as an electrician and also a real estate broker, and who lives in Omaha.
Donco Tools began to sell and install its private-label fiberglass handles. Don insisted the handles be American made. He found a company in California, Nupla, which began manufacturing handles to his specifications.
Don also required the handles to be durable — so much so that they have a lifetime warranty, Lloyd Freyer said.
After working exclusively on the road for the first few years, Don opened Donco Tools in a former grocery store building at 14th and Silver Streets, as well as at two sites on Highway 6. Eventually Don Freyer built at 509 Ashland Road, where the business has been located for the past several years.
Don’s salesmanship was the key to the business’s early success. He traveled to three or four hardware stores, welding shops, rural co-ops and auto parts stores per day in small towns in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and Iowa. He would persuade them to buy an assortment package of handles, along with the epoxy, rivets and supplies needed to install the handles for their customers, Lloyd said.
“Dad was not a sophisticated kind of guy,” he said, “but he was a good salesman.”
Don was a master at getting existing customers to continue making purchases, but he was even better at bringing in new customers, Lloyd said. After that, they were regular customers.
“It turned out they needed (handles), because we lived off of repeat sales,” Lloyd said.
Don also liked to give demonstrations at the Nebraska State Fair, where he would show how his fiberglass handles wouldn’t break, his son recalled.
Lloyd watched and tried to learn his father’s sales tactics. But when he took over the business, he realized it wasn’t as easy as it looked, especially when it came to new customers.
“I learned to appreciate my father all the more when I tried to fill his shoes as a salesman,” he said. “He had an ability to connect, a flair for demonstrating his wares, much like the old-fashioned peddler.”
Don’s legacy continued with the business after he was gone. A red Tootsie Pop wrapper is tacked to the wall above Lloyd’s desk as a tribute to his father, who loved the candy.
And a hand-painted sign that says “Experienced Tools” hangs on a shelf above a selection of used tools at the store, most purchased by Don.
“Dad loved buying used tools,” Lloyd Freyer said.
Don scoured garage sales, attended auctions and would buy a tradesman’s entire tool collection when he retired. He’d keep the antique tools, but most tools were cleaned and put up for sale.
“If he found something he didn’t know what it was, he’d put a huge price on it so somebody would come in and tell him what it’s worth,” Lloyd said.
Donco Tools also sold new tools, including cutting wheels, grinding and abrasive wheels, drill bits, saw blades and hand tools.
And handles, of course. It was not uncommon to see a local resident walk in the door with a broken handle in his hand.
“We still have weekly walk-in traffic as locals find broken axes, shovels, sledgehammers and lawn implements and bring them in for repair,” Freyer said. “I hope that one of the local businesses would fill this need and continue to provide handles.”