John Quinlan, center, with sons, Adam, left, and Tom, operate Quinlan’s Equipment dealership in Antigo, a family-owned business that has proven that “bigger isn’t always better.” The Business News photo by Lisa Haefs

For Antigo’s Quinlan’s Equipment, evolution has been key.

Over the past half-century, Quinlan’s has shown that a small, family-owned company can survive in an era of “bigger is better.” It has proven that being nimble is key to success in a time of changing customer demographics.

“When my father started the business in 1963, Langlade County had hundreds of small farms,” John Quinlan said. “Now, we only have a handful of much larger farms, but we have a new generation of small hobby farms, property owners and homeowners. Those people have become many of our customers today.”

Adjusting to meet those needs has been key, Tom Quinlan, the third generation in the business, said.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Tom said. “The market has continued to evolve, and we continue to sell and service vehicles and equipment.”

Located on Antigo’s south side, the business dates to 1963 when Jerome Quinlan purchased an International Truck dealership in Antigo. He had been territory manager for International, serving northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and saw an opportunity at the hub of the famed Antigo flats, covered by dairy farms and potato fields.

“International wanted a store in this area,” Tom said. “This was really a farm area, and they were looking for a bigger presence here.”

Jerome and his wife, Mary, moved their family north from Milwaukee and opened up shop, specializing in International Trucks and gradually branching out into other lines such as International Harvester farm equipment and GMC trucks.

John joined the business in 1974 and the third generation, led by Tom, 22 years later.

The business evolved with the increasing family presence, expanding across Highway 45 to add GMC passenger vehicles, increasingly popular compact tractor lines, and lawn and garden equipment.

“We just had two lines at the start, International and GMC,” John said. “That was it, but it just kept changing and we kept adding products.”

In addition to International and GMC, those lines now includes Boss snow equipment, Cub Cadet and Hustler lawn implements, Mahindra tractors and Bobcat skid steers, track loaders, excavators, and tractors.

New lines required newer, more modern facilities. The International Truck dealership, managed by Tom’s brother, Tony, was constructed about a decade ago and the former building repurposed for a storage warehouse. It focuses on sales and service of medium and heavy-duty trucks and equipment, a growing area.

“As companies expand their lines,” Tom said, “the market grows in Northcentral Wisconsin and the need for inventory, including parts and service support, goes up.”

The west-side headquarters for the GMC vehicles, compact tractors, and lawn and garden equipment received a complete overhaul in 2020, a massive project that added 25 feet to the north and east sides of the building along with a modern, clean-lined façade.

“That was a huge undertaking,” John said. “It was really a complete refurbishing of the dealership.”

“That really goes hand-in-hand with the changing marketplace,” Tom said. “We needed to create a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere not just for the farmers and potato growers, but for the homeowners and hobby farmers who want to come in and look at GMC vehicles, compact tractors or the latest riding lawnmowers.”

In a throw-away age for many pieces of equipment, Quinlan’s has continued to stress only highquality equipment. The parts department, managed by another third-generation Quinlan, Adam, includes everything from fittings and lines for agriculture, forestry and construction equipment to conveyor belting used by potato graders and manufacturing customers.

Tom noted that, on the farm and in the factory, time is money.

“We have parts on hand to get our customers up and running faster,” Tom said.

The evolution has also included more emphasis on those compact tractors and sports utility vehicles, increasingly being purchased by hobby farmers, maple-syrup producers, and owners of small woodlots.

“It’s amazing how many of those little tractors we sell,” Tom said. “They are very popular.”

The Quinlans are quick to credit their employees — many with decades of involvement — for the company’s success.

“We’ve got good people out there,” John said. “The employees work with the people. They make sure they get them the part they need and perform their service repairs quickly and properly. They take care of our customers on a very personal level.

Those customers have responded by voting Quinlan’s Equipment as the top medium-sized company in Antigo in an annual survey promoted by The Antigo Times/Shoppers Guide.

“We are blessed to have that customer support,” Tom said. “Our customers are loyal to us and we and our employees are loyal to them.”

A fourth generation of Quinlans now work in the dealership on a part-time basis as they pursue schooling and consider other options. With a bit of luck, they will always have the option to return to the business started by their great-grandfather, with the family name emblazoned on the front of both buildings.

“We are there for our customers through the purchase and life of all of their vehicles and equipment,” Tom said.

It’s simple, John said,” if you treat your customers right, they will be back.”