5 Minutes With… Karl Stearns

Dec 3, 2009

The economy is a factor in our personal and business lives. But do any of you feel that perhaps too much negative talk on the economy drives the economy, to a degree?

Restyling contacted Karl Stearns, long-time restyler (19-year owner/operator of Graphics Advantage, a vinyl graphics company), industry group participant, eight-year SEMA board member and current president of SEMA’s PRO Council, for a refreshingly positive look at the current state and future of the vehicle accessory market. Read on for some high-quality perspective and advice.

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RE: What are your perceptions of the state of the restyling business today?

Stearns: It would be foolish to say there is no problem, but I think a lot of people’s ability to make decisions is too influenced by listening to too much negativity. I really feel there are plenty of opportunities out there. It requires a willingness on a person’s part to make changes in their business. It dawned on me: How would you feel one day if you suddenly woke up and discovered that 30% of your restyling competitors were out of business?

You would think it was a huge opportunity, yet here we are crying over car dealers having to close up. And the media is fanning this fire about how bad it is for car dealers.

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RE: So, what are restyling retailers doing, including those who’ve lost dealer business?

Stearns: Retail stores have been the salvation for many of the good restyling companies.  In conversations with restylers who’ve seen their car dealership customers diminish, they’ve gotten busy with their retail stores as the competition [dealership parts departments] disappears. Retail stores open up a lot of other opportunities. As an example, a number of restylers who’ve been providing automotive window tinting have gotten into flat glass, both commercial and retail applications. The profit margin is huge.

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RE: OK. What can restylers do to be more visible, grow more sales?

Stearns: Somebody who runs a good retail store that has availability of products or is able to fill orders quickly is going to be attractive to customers. Businesses must be able to give 150% on customer service; response to customers must be immediate and first-rate. Once a person begins to build a reputation as a good business in a community, they generally find that their repeat business is enormous.

Have some kind of plan of action: Develop a marketing plan, develop a business plan. If people are going to ignore what their market is telling them, what their potential is and what their opportunities are, they’re not taking control of their businesses. Go to your manufacturers; get involved with your trade associations, with SEMA, with PRO. There are a lot of things made available to people who join PRO; we have a business development guidebook and a guide to selling to dealers direct, both produced by peers in the industry. Rub shoulders with your peers.

One big challenge historically for the restyling industry is how do we get the retail public to know what we do and what products are available? If you aren’t advertising, you aren’t doing anything to promote your business.

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RE: Anything else they can do?

Stearns: We’re looking at all kinds of things happening all at once including the contraction in the number of outlets for new-car sales, and many new-car dealerships who’ve been terminated by the OEs are turning their facilities into used-car operations.  The inventory of used cars as a result of lower new-cars sales is thinning. If I was out in the restyling business right now I would be putting my plan of action together based on what I am seeing in my own market. I wouldn’t necessarily rely on national numbers only to be a guide; I would be looking at my local dealers and what they’re doing.

I would help used-car dealers with cosmetic things that are going to lift the appearance of the vehicle. I would get some used-car dealers to consider setting up accessory sales in their showrooms and let them share in the profits with you. Be the company of choice by helping the dealer set up an accessory sales display or train a salesperson to sell accessories; do something to get them to sell accessories for you. Used-car dealers are very creative, so it is very possible they will find a way to get the accessories that their customers want financed with the purchase of their vehicle.

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RE: Do you see any specific product areas that look to grow?

Stearns: You are going to see a lot more demand for electronics. Microsoft is moving into the automotive arena; they’re looking to get their operating system installed in every vehicle made. So anybody who’s been scared to death of electronics and didn’t want to touch them may find that they’re going to have to learn how to install them.