5 Minutes With… Chuck Blum

Dec 3, 2009

Restylers always share the big concerns – competition, prices, supplier relations, employee issues, cost of doing business and a whole host of other operational matters. But these challenging economic times have added a greater dimension few have had to endure before, even during the slowest economic times in recent history.

To gain perspective on the automotive industry as a whole, and how the current economic climate is affecting aftermarket retailers, Restyling asked Chuck Blum to comment on what he thinks it will take to weather the storm.

Blum is the former president of SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) and current president of STWA, a research and development company working on products to improve fuel efficiency for diesel trucks. _____________________________________________________________________________________

RE: Looking at the aftermarket parts and service industry, what are some the biggest challenges restylers and jobbers will face this year?

BLUM: Obviously it is, very honestly, hard to stay afloat in these tough times. Many companies can’t sustain this kind of downturn for long, so they reduce as much overhead as they can so that they can survive to fight another day. Some companies will not make it, but those who do will be stronger for it. _____________________________________________________________________________________

RE: How can they increase their chances of success?

BLUM: We can talk about finding new markets and how restylers should be creative. Not to say this is an entirely bad situation; every now and then new opportunities come out of a difficult time. We are finding out now that the 12-volt industry is seeing a bit of an increase thanks to manufacturers de-contenting.

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RE: What do you mean by that?

BLUM: As vehicle manufacturers de-content –  take everything they can out of the vehicle to put it in the showroom as cheaply as possible – that doesn’t mean consumers don’t want it. We’re seeing a lot of the upscale sound and GPS systems taken out of new vehicles in order to increase their likelihood of being sold quickly. There are great opportunities there. This is not a panacea that is going to cure everyone’s ills, but if it gets you a little more revenue that keeps your head above water, then it’s worth it. _____________________________________________________________________________________

RE: Where else do you think there is opportunity to grow, or at least to help a company to survive in these times?

BLUM: Buyers still have to be enticed to purchase vehicles. And I’m sure the dealerships aren’t saying “What can we do to dress up these cars?” Someone needs to plant the seed in their minds. New-car sales are down to 12-13 million cars. That is a big loss when compared with recent years, but it’s still a heck of a lot of cars. There is of course opportunity there. But because more people can’t afford new cars, used cars are a great market. A car is a car-what do you care if the canvas is a few years older? The new-vehicle market that has been hurt the most is the truck market, but there has been a lot of activity in that market in the used arena. Consumers aren’t dumb. They want a truck, but don’t want to buy new. Especially with gas last summer at around $4 or $5 a gallon. But there were some great deals to be had on those vehicles, and certainly those buyers are looking for accessories.

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RE: What are the best accessories for dealerships right now, for both used and new vehicles?

BLUM: Each dealership wants to stand out from the rest of them, especially now. Subtle graphics, a set of wheels, these are not the type of things that are going to offend anyone. Graphics may turn off certain people who wouldn’t buy a vehicle with that look, but a very tasteful pinstripe down the side is an excellent option. You have to find the right buyer no matter how you slice it. Be a little creative. Restylers have more creativity in their pinky than I do, so look for chances to increase business instead of sitting back and saying “woe is me.” _____________________________________________________________________________________

RE: It sounds like creativity is the bottom line, but overall, isn’t it true that this will be a great time for restylers to really hone their skills and get down to the essence of what makes a successful business?

BLUM: I think you have a good point. The dust will clear, and those who survive will be stronger and better. This industry will not go away, people will not stop wanting to add accessories to their vehicles. When I was at Keystone Wheels from 1967-1980, we used to talk about the fact that in the days of Genghis Khan, people would put ribbons in the horses’ manes to differentiate them. People have had this desire to personalize their things. It will always come back, and a depression will not destroy it. Cut overhead and get rid of what you don’t need, but that alone isn’t going to save you. You have to go out and find success for yourself.