Burning Desire to Succeed

Apr 1, 2011

Kevin DeRouselle, owner of Automotive Gear Inc., has built his company from a specialty tire and accessory store to a diverse automotive center offering a wide selection of goods and services: truck, Jeep and auto tires, wheels and accessories, performance accessories, spray-in bedliners, window tinting, leather conversion and, most recently, auto and boat graphics. In addition, Automotive Gear offers the service capabilities to install everything it sells on site.

Our story takes place in the city of Opelousas, La, located about 20 miles north of Lafayette. The third oldest city in Louisiana, Opelousas is home to a diverse culture of Creole and Cajun ancestry. It is a rich tapestry of tradition, food, music and language. It is also a thriving community where old-fashioned, solid ways of doing business are meeting new ideas.

Just out of college, Kevin DeRouselle’s original interest was in the swimming pool business. He worked his way up through the ranks and, while doing so, learned all the facets of the business. Eventually he and his partners opened their own company offering pool design and construction, pool service and a chain of retail stores specializing in pool and spa supplies and accessories. This successful venture started in the late 1980s and continued until 2003. That’s when DeRouselle decided to make the move toward other interests.

As it happens, one man’s interest can be another’s opportunity. This was the case when DeRouselle became aware of an auto and truck accessory store that was on the market. The owner was hoping to retire and Kevin was looking for a change. It proved to be a good move for both parties; and so in 2003 Kevin bought the business and Automotive Gear was born.

‘The Fire’

The building that Automotive Gear first operated in was located in the center of several commercial structures that offered related automotive services. DeRouselle’s first move was to expand on the selection of goods to include more offroad and Jeep accessories including wheels and tires. He also began to increase the amount of services offered such as four-wheel alignment. It was his goal to install and service any and all of the products his company sold. In addition to accessories, tires and wheels, they now offered lift kits and spray-in bedliners.

Things continued on successfully and business grew quickly until the unthinkable happened, simply known as: “The Fire.” A fire so devastating that it destroyed the entire contents of the building. This one took it all: goods, fixtures, tools, equipment -¦ everything. And, it happened in a heartbeat.

At 4:30 on a sultry June afternoon in 2006, Kevin had been driving back from picking up a vehicle from a dealership and saw thick, black smoke in the distance. He supposed that it might be the diner down the street, but it looked real close to his shop’s location. Just one more corner and he’d see for sure that it was his building. Automotive Gear was in flames.

The Opelousas Fire Department was already on the scene battling the blaze, but it would be to no avail. It would be a total loss. It was determined that a defective ballast in a fluorescent light in the bedliner spray booth had shorted out, melted and started the booth on fire. Before the store personnel on duty could get the fire out with extinguishers, it had spread to the tire inventory that was stored above the booth; once the tires were ignited, it was all over. The smoke was so thick and high, it could be seen by folks in the neighboring town of Eunice, a good 20 miles away. Luckily, no one was hurt.

Good(s) vibrations

Most any of us would be down for the count after a tragedy of this magnitude, but DeRouselle and his crew ain’t just anybody. In fact, they were at the site working out of the parking lot the next morning. They used borrowed tools and the adjacent storage building as a warehouse to store merchandise. Where they got goods to sell is another amazing part of the story.

Rick’s Pro Truck, a truck accessory retailer and distributor out of Jackson, Miss., had heard about the fire and had contacted DeRouselle to see what it could do to help. Kevin asked Rick’s to fill a delivery truck with the fastest-selling, triple-A products and deliver it as soon as possible. This was on a Friday afternoon; on Saturday the truck arrived, overflowing with parts and accessories. Rick’s Pro Truck went way beyond the call of duty and proved again how invaluable a dedicated supplier can be. Hat’s off to Rick and his professional crew.

Six long months later, the new shop was finished, and the staff could finally go back into operating from a building, and out from underneath canopies and standing on pavement and gravel. The challenging ordeal was over and the business was kept intact.

Back in the swing of normalcy, DeRouselle continued to grow his business by acquiring more of the service facilities. He went on to purchase all of the buildings in the complex, which allows Automotive Gear to repair all types of consumer vehicles and many commercial. And with the addition of a 3,600-sq.-ft. showroom, the shop could display and sell truck, 4×4 and Jeep accessories.

As time went on, DeRouselle realized that with success and growth comes the need to think even more toward the future. And while his labor facilities were in order, his showroom was not. It was time to move forward and bring something special to Opelousas, something that would turn some heads and make a statement in the automotive aftermarket.

Modern motif

DeRouselle had visited his friends in Mississippi at Rick’s Pro Truck and had been inspired by what they had done to their showroom. Rick’s had made a quantum jump from old to bold, by upgrading nearly every facet of the showroom’s layout, design and fixtures. Armed with that vision, DeRouselle called Aftermarket Advantage Store Design to discuss ideas and opportunities. It was decided that Automotive Gear’s current showroom would strongly benefit from changing from old-world wood (MDF) slatwall and an overly heavy use of POP, to steel slatwall perimeter and merchandisers.

The overall color motif of the current showroom did not reflect the company’s logo and corporate colors of red, gray and black. This required extensive change that would include floor covering, wall paint, door and window frame paint, sales counter modification and more.

Metal slatwall perimeter was used as the foundation of the showroom’s new look, featuring a bright metallic brushed finish with an accent strip of candy apple red, trimmed out in satin finish black. Metal slatwall can accommodate merchandise of just about any size or weight, and is the perfect background for Automotive Gear’s extensive selection of wheels. Performance products like exhaust systems and suspension components come to life when augmented by metal backgrounds.

The old showroom lacked adequate merchandising space for carded, open stock and boxed goods that are so necessary to promote tie-in and impulse sales. Two types of mobile merchandisers were employed on the sales floor; The “H Unit” which is a simple 4′-L center panel with 2′ end panels, and the “Pinwheel” that consists of four 2′ panels connected by a hub. Both merchandisers have brushed steel slatwall centers, with the candy apple red accent strip built into black-satin powder-coated frames. This combination is a perfect match to the perimeter walls; and because the frames are mounted on heavy-duty casters, the merchandisers are completely mobile and, therefore, easily moved to re-set the floor plan when required by seasonal or promotional changes.

The sales counter is a relic from the past that is made of a special wood -” “Pecky Cypress” harvested locally and is somewhat of an heirloom (or an old friend) to local clientele and Automotive Gear staff. It was modified to blend with and enhance the changing landscape of the showroom by being (gently) refinished and resurfaced. The barstools that serve as companions to the old counter also got a facelift to match the red and black corporate colors.

The old checkerboard-style floor was replaced by light gray “sterling” Armstrong Excelon commercial grade tile, that doesn’t “compete” with the merchandising with a busy pattern, is tough as nails and highly light reflective.
The Automotive Gear name and logo was prominently incorporated into the showroom’s overall message, in the form of graphics and visuals. It is a common pitfall among independent retailers to give lots of exposure to every brand name they sell, but not their own brand.

A showroom for clients and staff

The new showroom layout offers customers ease of access to product and better ergonomics for sales staff. A solid interaction between staff and clientele is a must for good service and effective selling. A “no barriers” concept allows a free flow of contact. Low-profile fixtures will ensure the whole showroom can be seen by all, from any point of view.

Along with the fixture and design changes, a new merchandising plan was implemented to create statements that allow customers to at once know what they are looking at, and lead them on a logical path. Tie-in merchandising, and impulse displays are used to their fullest. Customers always appreciate sensible add-on purchases, and, yes, they like the buys that they hadn’t planned on making, too.

Automotive Gear can truly call itself a one-stop center for most things you’d want for your truck, 4×4 or Jeep: full-service repair and installation including four-wheel alignment, tires, custom wheels, suspension kits, towing products, a full line of accessories and, now, a state-of-the-art retail showroom that stops customers in their tracks; they’ve got it all. Partner that with a team of professional salespeople, mechanics and installers and you’ve got an operation that’s tough to beat.

DeRouselle’s entrepreneurial spirit and drive is a great example of what small business is capable of. In this truly uncertain economy, Automotive Gear continues to thrive and grow. Even major setbacks (like your business burning down) didn’t make a dent in this company’s forward progress.

So here’s to the Kevin DeRouselles of the industry: Independent retailers who recognize business opportunities and work to harvest them. Let’s all take a page from his book.

Until then, good selling.