5 Minutes with … Bob Smith

May 15, 2010

People in the industry know him as Bob. Bob Smith.

Others, from the racecar circuit in the ’80s and ’90s, know him as RK, from his initials, RKS, sported on the racecars he owned and drove.

But whatever moniker he’s known by, Bob Smith, owner of RKSport, the Murrieta, Calif., body kit maker, knows how to pick winners in the aftermarket and keep business alive and well even during turbulent times.

For a time he raced Swift cars, about 158″ long with a ground clearance of 1.5″, powered by a 1,600cc inline four-cylinder engine with 114hp. He won a lot of races.

That eventually got him noticed and had him moving into Formula 2000 racecars by 1985, winning six of 11 races, and then to an Indy prototype by 1987, winning six of six races.

In both 1990 and 1992, having been picked up by GM, he took first in the World Challenge Series driving a Corvette.

RE: So, you were a racecar driver before you started RKSport? Was that your profession, or were you involved in other automotive-related ventures?

Smith: No. I would always consider it a hobby. I didn’t start racing till an age when most drivers quit [42]. I went to a driver’s school…I had owned race cars…I got hooked in Formula Ford. In 1982 I made a commitment to be in the car at least twice a month…I [eventually] got picked up by GM, racing a Corvette in the World Challenge Series…I loved the competition.

RE: Just how and why did you get into the business at RKSport (that’s your initials, I see)?

Smith: In 1991 I was back in GM at their design studio – I had pretty good access – and a friend, Randy [a GM designer], said, “You want to see the new Camaro [1993]?” They had the full mock-up. [Randy] said, “There are things that could make the car a whole lot better, like a ground effects package. You know [Bob], with your name recognition you ought to do something like that.” So, he sent me a rendering of what GM was not going to do. I partnered with a guy whose business was into fiberglass; I knew absolutely nothing about aftermarket parts or design. We decided we’d start a business…Randy actually came up with the name RKSport. -¦ GM gave me a pre-production car so we could model on it.

RE: When did you know you had a winner in body kits?

Smith: [After a show in Florida where we took the Camaro] in the fall of 1992, I got a call from an editor [who had taken pictures of the car] and he said they were sending a complimentary copy of this magazine to the first 50,000 owners of the new Camaro…We had a wing and the ground effects, and that was it. We had a few things that we didn’t build but were going to remarket in a kit…The magazine hit January 1st. We had no store set up – we weren’t ready to go, because we didn’t expect any business…On January 2nd, we began to get a minimum of 75 calls a day. They wanted headlight covers and ground effects…The business just launched! We were extremely profitable in that first month. That whole year it grew…I couldn’t have predicted that it would have been anything like that.

RE: How did you grow the business?

Smith: We moved into a small warehouse and shipped out of there. We recognized that we were going to stay with GM and start accessorizing other vehicles, with Randy designing the parts and us creating the parts. We stayed with GM…pretty much up through the late ’90s – [but] we realized that there were vehicles that GM had at that point that were not fitting the market we were after. We knew the Camaro was going away, and that was our bread and butter, so we branched out into other parts, which led to Ford, Chrysler, Toyota. [Directly] reaching our customer was becoming too expensive, and we were not able to generate the profit needed to market that product. So we decided to change our philosophy to go to a wholesale front for the products we design and manufacture.

RE: How do you partner your company with others that complement one another in the restyling business?

Smith: We do very little retail. We leave that up to our market arms out there – people who are set up to do that. We do all of our manufacturing in house…We list all of our partners on our website so [if someone wanted to] they could go to them and try to get a better deal. We’re not after that part of the business; we’re more interested in supporting our partners. If we were trying to compete with them (partners), we wouldn’t get the same effort on their part. We’re willing to invest with partners… We don’t do one-off cars. Everything we do is to make it easy for the customer to install…With our manufacturing capability we do a lot of private label.

RE: What’s your “Golden Rule” of business?

Smith: Be available to make any situation, any problem, right… [And] if business isn’t fun, I don’t want to be in it. I’m not motivated by making money – I know we have to, to stay in [business]. The image of the company is extremely important to me. RE: How has the industry changed? Smith: We’ve suffered like everyone else. I think if we had been in a financial bind to start with, we wouldn’t be here today… Right now business is up for the first quarter over 25%, which is extremely encouraging. [After all] we don’t sell anything that anyone needs; it’s all discretionary… Some people [in the industry] are down and complaining… and here we are buying more product.