*See Sunrider for Hardtop product images by clicking below
The most dramatic example of the key business philosophy driving Bestop’s new CEO was when he flew to Tennessee last month to personally install the first-sold Sunrider for Hardtop-”the company’s new easy-fold, open-air convertible that replaces the Freedom Panels on a Jeep Wrangler. The trip was less about finding a good photo-op and more about proving a point.
“Hey, I said it at the beginning and it wasn’t just a line. It literally starts with the customer and I want to be this close to the customer,” said John Larson, while pinching his thumb and index finger together. “I want us to be the company that works for the Jeep community, that gives them what they want. They should be able to pick up the phone and call us or send me a message directly, or write a blog that says, ‘This is what we’re really looking for.'”
The Sunrider for Hardtop is the running example of Bestop’s new customer-driven initiatives. The product was first sent to Jeep clubs for feedback, suggestions and to build initial product reviews for retailer websites.
“Because in the end,” Larson said, “I believe in user-led innovation. That means the people who use your product everyday, those are the ones who know the best way to execute it.”
Whatever Larson has brought to the table since becoming Bestop CEO last August, something seems to be clicking. The company recently recorded its best sales month ever.
“On the aftermarket side, our growth in March was about 20- to 25-percent bigger than any month ever in the history of the company,” Larson said. “The tremendous part about that, it didn’t include one Sunrider for Hardtop, because that didn’t start shipping until April.”
Initial orders for the Sunrider for Hardtop eclipsed Bestop’s sales goal by double before units could be shipped, according to Larson.
“We’ve taken production capacity up by triple,” he said. “We’re trying to catch up with all the orders we have.”
The company’s fast beginning to the year started in December by establishing a retail calendar with Bestop partners and then Larson making a calculated bet.
“We’ve typically been caught a little short on inventory for the spring load, so I made a bet: I would put the working capital investment in to make sure we didn’t miss the upside of the market,” he said. “So, more this year than at any point last year, we were capable of meeting any orders that came in from our customers-”even on a short-term basis.”
Customer Service Toolbox
The customer service department, now a star of the show at Bestop, is also undergoing a few changes. The department is being expanded and restructured.
“We’re looking to group all of our product development, customer service and marketing together in an open atmosphere,” Larson said. “Our customer service staff will be able to turn around right there and talk to the product development manager, or the category manager, and say ‘People are having this issue, what can we do to make it better?'”
Bestop’s latest initiatives also mean keeping retailers and distributors tabbed and prepared.
“They are our face to the customers,” Larson said. “That’s part of the reason I brought in Garett Graubins (as director of marketing)-”it was to build a toolbox that’s the best for those customers. Now, we have great high-quality videos for each one of our products, sell sheets that exist, easy ways for our partners to get it all out to the jobbers, get it out to their own websites, web activity, and social medias.”
With the Jeep Wrangler market booming at a rate of 240,000 units sold per year, Larson has increased Bestop’s marketing spending by a multiple of five.
“Now that the Wrangler market has expanded so broadly to much more of an everyday consumer and SUV owner, we need to make people more aware of our position,” he said.
The “Frictionless” Experience
Consumer awareness is just the first component to building a “frictionless” distribution network-”Larson’s ultimate goal and buzzword for the Bestop brand.
“I want the consumer to have the easiest way to our products than any other product in the industry,” he said. “So, if you want a Bestop product, you should be able to call up our retail partners, go to one of the websites, go to our website, make the order and have it in two days. And if they need somebody to do it for them, they should be able to contact us and we should have an appointment set up for them in two days with a specific time and with an installer so they can drive away with the product.
“I call it the frictionless experience,” Larson said. “I’ve shared that with all of our retail partners and asked, ‘How can you help with that?'”
Larson was established as CEO of Bestop after Kinderhook Industries bought into the company last year to form a partnership with Magna International. He previously spent six years as CEO of radar detector-leader Escort Inc., and more than 20 years at General Motors, a stint that included him overseeing Buick, Pontiac and GMC as general manager.
“It’s often a challenge for people who come from bigger companies and have these huge support activities moving to a smaller company, but I think it fit me. I love doing it,” Larson said. “Escort was very similar to Bestop-”a premium brand that everyone knew about. It was the leader in the category, and although it was a relatively small category that wasn’t growing, our brand was considered the absolute best.
“One thing about my reputation at General Motors, whenever I went to a new division or operation, I found an innovative way to approach the market. The same thing happened at Escort and I expect the same thing will happen here.”
The Kinderhook-Magna partnership provides the necessary resources for Bestop to continue its recent growth spurt, according to Larson.
“We’re also aggressively looking at acquisition targets that are out there in the Jeep space. That’s a whole different area of add-ons,” he said. “We’re really looking to own this Jeep space on a premium level.”
Bestop is also active in the power sports market, making soft goods for UTVs.
“We’ve performed in that market for awhile but we decided about a month after I got here to focus on that as a key category and to really see what their needs were,” Larson said. “That market uses a lot of plastic doors and plastic tops, but there’s a need for soft product.”
Bestop has plans for at least two “big” product announcements before it debuts an even bigger booth at the SEMA show.
“We have a great three or four years ahead of us,” Larson said. “We’re on a path for great success-”I’m just fortunate to be here to oversee it.”