This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
In 1995, Josh Elliott was 19 years old when he started Auto Trim Design in Denver. Installing pinstripes, moldings and spoilers like many restylers did in those days, he simply reacted to whatever the needs of the car dealers were at that time.
Year after year he would add products like gold packages, wood dash kits and CD changers to his arsenal. In fact, in the days of residualization on leases, one Toyota dealership asked if he did pop-up sunroofs. Even though he had never done one, he still said yes and started cutting holes in roofs.
Elliott has always brought determination, boldness and a positive mindset to his restyling business, which is now called AutoPlex. A recent award from LLumar for his quality work and dedication made it the perfect time to catch up with this industry leader.
When did things really start going in a different direction for your business?
JE: In 2003, we changed the name of our business to Auto Trim of Denver and began changing direction. At that time, paint protection film was just beginning to catch on in Colorado. Dealerships started asking for it, so we adapted and began installing PPF.
Naturally, that led to window film installations as well. Leather was also taking off and we began selling kits to car dealers. At that point we were 100% focused on the car dealer business.
What were some early challenges that you overcame?
JE: One big challenge was building a shop to handle all the work we were doing at the time. We were growing, and we were renting a couple of spots that just weren’t conducive to our business. So, we made the decision to buy a piece of land and build our own shop.
This was quite a worry, as you can imagine, but we moved forward and finished it in 2008—only to have the market collapse shortly thereafter. We rode the waves and made it through the Great Recession and realized we needed to do more than wholesale business.
How did you shift your focus to offering more than dealer work?
JE: I really felt the future was to be diversified with retail business, so we focused on trying to grow our retail footprint. However, our shop was not in a retail-friendly location.
Even though we did grow that side of the business, we knew there were better opportunities to make it much larger with our current product offerings.
What was the next step to growing that retail footprint?
JE: In 2012 we took a large leap and purchased a company that had two stores in Fort Collins (north of Denver). This store was retail-only and focused heavily on truck accessories, including suspension lifts, wheels and tires, tonneaus and toppers.
These were all new products, allowing us to diversify. At the same time we’d now have a northern location to serve our existing wholesale customers.
So, we bought the company and eventually consolidated the two small stores into one large store on property we bought in Loveland, Colorado. It’s a great location for retail customers and we have grown our retail business to the point that it is 60% of our overall business while still maintaining our good dealer business over the years.
We eventually changed the name of the entire company to AutoPlex.
Any other growth you can tell us about?
JE: It hasn’t always been easy to grow, but last year we purchased another store in Colorado Springs to bring our offerings to that market. The store we bought was family-owned and had been in business for a very long time and had a few different brands that we needed as a company.
It made sense to add this fourth store and now we are remodeling, adding 5,000 square feet and offering products like leather, films and truck accessories.
Last year you also won the LLumar Select PRO Dealer of the Year award for a second time. To what do you attribute this accomplishment?
JE: It was quite a surprise—2018 was the last time we won it and a lot in the world and in our company has changed since then. I would say it is 100% our team.
LLumar management told us how we were missing the boat on an apprenticeship program, since experienced tinters are so hard to come by, and it was limiting our growth. This was the first big project for Chris Wachendorfer (our COO) when he came on board in 2021.
Adam Dahl, our manager who oversees the tint department, saw our vision and has run with it. Five apprentices have become full-time installers and we have two installers in training and five apprentices that hopefully we can elevate to the installer level in the next 12-18 months.
What do you see being the future of the film industry and the restyling industry?
JE: The film industry has a very bright future. Tint and PPF can go on any vehicle, so every car is a potential customer.
LLumar FormulaOne products offer heat rejection and protection against UV rays, making them a great opportunity for upselling. The brand is perceived as a top player in the industry and has helped us get above average ticket pricing.
As a whole, the restyling industry is always changing, but I really do feel the best days are still ahead for us. Labor shortages, vehicle shortages and the overall cost of doing business are making it harder for car dealers to start a restyling center in-house.
I think the easier we make it to do business with us, the better a solution we’ll be for dealers. They face many challenges like finding technicians and shop space, plus dealing with Customer Satisfaction Index surveys that limit their ability to really perform the type of work we do on a daily business.
It is easier for them to simply partner with us and make a profit than it is to compete with us. Thus, I think we will always have a place in the market.
Lastly, diversifying your customer base, your products and even your processes are always things to look at.