Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tractor salesman has a lot of pull

Decades-long career chronicled in book

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Super-salesman Jerry Webb once took a rural movie theatre as trade for a farm cultivator.

Webb then sold the movie projector to a First Nation, the theatre seats to a historical society and donated the huge screen to a Christian school in southern Manitoba.

Another time, Webb took a coin collection in trade that included Roman coins and was supposedly worth $8,500. He sold the most valuable coins to the British Museum in England.

"I always said don't worry about money. If you've got a signature and a trade, let's deal," said Webb, the proverbial salesman who could sell snow cones to the Inuit. He's one of the unforgettable characters on Manitoba's landscape.

Who would have ever thought selling farm equipment for a living could be so, well, exciting? Webb accepted just about anything in trade in his three decades running a dealership in Swan River. That included a dog team and sled, race horses, a motel, bison, llamas, airplanes (a J3 Piper Cub, a Cessna 120 and 172, a Cherokee 6, and a Stinson), boats, a woodworking shop, farmland and paintings. He once took 285 oil paintings on a trade. "I never wanted to see a man stuck" where he couldn't pay, he said.

I first met Jerry at a luncheon where he was seated with his friends, including former NDP premier Ed Schreyer (even though Webb is a diehard Conservative), real estate developer Peter Thiessen and former provincial judge John Enns. What is a farm equipment dealer doing in that group?

Goodness knows the sales profession could use some positive press. Death of a Salesman and snake-oil salesman are two cultural markers associated with selling. "Used car salesman" indicates the bottom rung on the honesty scale.

As Jerry's pastor friend, Tom Oshiro, put it in a blurb on Webb's book, How To Make the Deal Nobody Else Can Make, sales wasn't just a career to Webb, it was "a calling." Webb doesn't disagree. He saw his profession as "helping people get what they want," and he went to extraordinary lengths to do that.

Dwight Cook and his family, when they still farmed on Peonan Point, once bought seven tractors from Webb in one year. Cook still has paintings from Webb hanging in his home in Ashern. (To move the 285 paintings he took as trade, Webb gave away two paintings with every tractor purchased as a promotional stunt.)

Cook remembers the time Webb took a clothing store in trade. "He sold suits for years. Finally, he couldn't get rid of the last ones so he sold them to the undertaker for $10 a suit. So a lot of men got buried properly dressed," said Cook.

"Many a farmer would never have been able to have a new tractor if not for Jerry," he said.

Another time, Webb took five Holstein dairy cows in a trade for a hay rake and had the cows delivered to his small acreage, figuring he'd sell them at an auction in two weeks. Webb, who grew up in Kenora and Winnipeg, didn't realize the cows had to be milked twice a day.

Webb lost his driver's licence more than once for speeding down the highways to make a sale, and needed to be chauffered around at various junctures in his career.

He worked as a telegrapher for CP Rail in Winnipeg for 14 years, selling pots and pans door to door on the side, before he took a job selling tractors in Dauphin. Within nine months, he opened his own dealership in Swan River, where he stayed for the next 30 years. He retired and moved to Winnipeg in about 1990 but still dabbles in selling real estate.

He's very punctilious about his profession. "(It's) how much you care that counts," he says in his book, that came out a decade ago but is still in print. "When you help others get what they want, you likely get what you want."

A book about selling tractors sounds like a sure cure for insomnia. That's what's so amazing about the book.

"I was on a Hutterite colony and offered an elder there my book for a jar of pickles," recalled Webb, now 79. "He said, 'I don't read.' Well, we made the trade anyway and he phoned me the next day and said he'd started reading the book and couldn't put it down."

It's true. It's entertaining and informative. Anyone in retail would benefit from it and many companies would be wise to distribute it to sales staff. It's not available in bookstores anymore. Webb sells it for $7.95 and can be contacted at gwebb@mts.net .

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 A12

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