In sunny southern California, an area known for its picturesque coastlines and consistently comfortable climate, beauty tends to be taken for granted. Current and potential customers won’t find this aesthetic oversight in the work bays of Bill Dunn Inc. in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Over the past 10 years, Hector Cisneros and his crew have reinvented beauty in their custom leather shop, and gained quite a bit of high-profile recognition in the process. That inventive spirit even landed them on the set of the highly popular customization show Overhaulin’.
“I try not to duplicate my work,” Cisneros says. “I show customers pictures of old jobs that we have worked on and I try to utilize some of those same design techniques, while doing our best to make every job unique. This causes more stress on my team, but ultimately makes the job more satisfying on both ends.”
This customer-influenced design approach permitted Cisneros to steer his company away from dealer expeditor jobs-working with what he considered unappreciative dealers at low profit margins-to a healthier retail market with customers looking for high-end interiors for their hot rods and classic cars.
“I worked with dealerships that wanted the work done yesterday and paid me 45 days later,” he laments. “I felt like we weren’t being respected for our quality of work.”
That’s changed, he says, now that the focus is on retail customers, where Bill Dunn’s commitment to quality has a chance to shine.
Considering the caliber of the work it has produced in the garage and on television, it’s no surprise that the company was able to grab a place in the national spotlight.
The Benefits of TV
Cisneros’ affinity for vehicles and his background in furniture sales originally laid the groundwork for an entry into the world of car upholstery. Today, his shop is the second incarnation of Bill Dunn Inc., the original having opened in 1962.
Cisneros realizes the financial significance of diversifying his product line and it shows, considering the scope of work his shop offers. Today, potential customers come to Bill Dunn for not only leather, but also state-of-the-art audio and video equipment, window tinting and alarm systems. Some have even dropped off dilapidated boats for an interior facelift.
With the considerable exposure the shop now enjoys, it’s hard to believe there was a time when business wasn’t exactly booming.
“I remember back in 1998 when the phone would ring once a day,” Cisneros recalls.
Slow times are nearly inconceivable these days, however, as the Bill Dunn team works at breakneck speeds to keep pace with the growing business, provided in part by the colossal name recognition the shop achieved while working on Overhaulin’.
The producers of the show first took notice of Cisneros’ deft customization abilities at a local trade show, and since then the two have operated in a mutually beneficial relationship that provides the audience with improvised upholstery work done in the show’s rigorous seven-day timeframe.
Looking back, however, the first test at Overhaulin’ was almost Cisneros’ last. After being pushed to exhaustion and discouraged about the contract details with the show’s management, he left the set after the first project with no expectations for a contract renewal.
“Man, the show is truly intense and realistic,” he says. “It took us awhile to become comfortable under the pressure and time constraints. Eventually, though, we settled down and started to really work as a team, and I think that experience not only helped in developing credibility for the company, but drove us to be a better team in such a time-intensive industry.”
The Bill Dunn crew worked for seven days to deliver a fully reupholstered 1967 Mustang with a wheelchair installed on that first episode. The work apparently spoke for itself, as a week later the producers at Overhaulin’ were restructuring Cisneros’ contract, providing him and his team with more attractive financial and marketing incentives.
Bill Dunn participated in more than 80 percent of Overhaulin’ shows in seasons three and four.
“People like to talk a lot about their work in this industry, but for us, the show proved that we could talk the talk, and walk the walk,” he says. “We delivered week-in and week-out and proved to the audience that we were credible and could deliver in a timely fashion.”
Working with Chip Foose certainly helped put Bill Dunn on the map. But Cisneros didn’t just sit idly by, waiting for the phone to ring.
“Overhaulin’ has helped us gain exposure, but I also hit every trade show I can,” he notes. “I’ve realized that is where you find the customers that are most willing to make an investment in their car. Those customers are gearheads like myself, and are at the trade show to find a partner to do business with on their old-school Chevy.”
Cisneros credits the company’s Web site [www.bill-dunn.com] for highlighting the shop’s work when pursuing new business relationships. He also relies on monthly marketing brochures and flyers to spread the word.
“My reputation and credibility in the area also creates a lot of customer referrals,” he adds. “That is the benefit of doing quality work.”
But Cisneros doesn’t go rock star on his clients. Instead, he works closely with them to produce the interior of their dreams.
“I try to involve my customers as much as possible,” he notes. “Customers might shy away from wanting to be involved, but deep down inside-specially when you are paying such a high hourly rate-it’s in their best interest to be at the jobsite as much as possible.
His belief in an open design format encourages interaction between customers and the Bill Dunn crew. That group is comprised of Cisneros’ son, Hector Jr., who is responsible for seat removal on all jobs; Gabriel Corona, resident handyman who does the majority of trimming and other tasks ranging from taking apart dashes to installing necessary fiberglass; Orlando Ojeda and Raul Villamer, who collaborate on all aspects of the upholstery work; and Cisneros’ niece, Lupe, who comes in twice a week to take care of the payroll, books and answer phones.
“I’m the first to admit that I don’t know it all in this ever-changing industry, so allowing my customers to work with my crew is a very important aspect of design at Bill Dunn,” says Cisneros. “A lot of customers feel intimidated about the whole process, but we try to make them feel comfortable and become more hands-on with the whole job. This open line of communication is a major reason behind our jobs being done on time and in a satisfactory manner.
Such chemistry in the work bays has always been a secret behind satisfying the shop’s high-end clientele.
“It has taken me all of my years in business to find the crew that I have now,” he says. “Keeping them around means paying them well and incorporating them into all of the projects.”
The 2,600-square-foot facility at Bill Dunn-containing two offices, 10 work bays and six parking spaces-seems constantly abuzz with activity. But that isn’t stopping the team from keeping an eye on the future.
The growing popularity of customization in general in southern California has led Cisneros and his crew to consider opening a second location closer to his home in Corona.
“I envision one day finding the right managers to apply the quality we have produced in Huntington Beach to a new shop that is closer to my home,” he says. “I have to respect and trust them to implement the same design scheme we use, with the same quality and punctuality.”
After all, that formula helped put Bill Dunn on TV and on the area’s customizing map.