Cars as an art form

Dec 3, 2009

For Steven Gonzalez, owner of Red*Star Auto & Truck Works in Sacramento, Calif., a long-standing love for all things automotive that inspired him to work in the aftermarket is now the passion that sees him survive – and thrive – in a challenging economic climate.

Like countless other shops in the aftermarket today, Gonzalez and his staff at Red*Star are learning that it’s necessary to adapt and evolve on a near-daily basis to position themselves to grow in coming years.

“For us it’s about doing whatever it takes to be the best,” says Gonzalez. “A few years ago, I had a couple more skilled guys on staff, but to stay healthy and grow today, you’ve got to run as lean as possible and be adaptable.”

Gonzalez says that for as long as he can remember, he’s been infatuated with two things: cars and art. Logically, he naturally tracked toward a successful career as a painter, doing just that for years until getting interested in big-picture business management and working as a consultant to a large franchise, teaching new painters how to paint, set up trucks and maintain accounts. It was through that position that he became acquainted with the idea of ownership.

“That consulting job was an opportunity to do a little bit of everything in microcosm,” he says. “It gave me a great platform of skills, and the desire, to be a business owner. And it also put me in the right place to meet people and find out about this opportunity.”

It’s about skill sets

In 2004, Gonzalez jumped at the chance to become a business owner himself and founded Red*Star.

“I believe that things are somewhat predetermined in life, but you have to follow the signs and have the heart to go after it. And I did,” he says.

And now – rather serendipitously, according to Gonzales – that underlying passion for automotive work and the broad range of skills he’s acquired from the spray booth to the boardroom is allowing him to build a loyal staff and continue doing great work, even if the outside pressures on the business are greater than ever before.

“I started as a painter and that was my first true love, so in addition to doing sales calls, interacting with our key accounts and all of our online marketing and all the other administrative things that an owner needs to do, I’m also getting back into the paint booth, too.

Gonzales says that even his previous work as a music DJ now plays a role in his work for Red*Star.

“When I used to DJ I would do graphic design and Web marketing, make fliers, T-shirts and business cards myself, ” he says. “If I had to pay everybody for all that now, how much money would be left for me? That’s why I’m here while the bigger companies are doing bankruptcy auctions.”

That versatility doesn’t end with Gonzalez himself, either. The entire staff has had to acquire that same mindset.

“The most important part of this business today is being willing and able to perform vital shop and business duties and to find good help that is willing to expand their skill sets and perform multiple tasks,” he says. “I get resumes from specialists that find themselves without work half the time. The versatile ones can stay busy all day and all week.

“We have a small, versatile staff and we’re all great at different things, and I try to treat them like brothers or family,” he adds. “I value them above all else. They’re the thing that allows us to do what we do so well.”

Body work works well

Although their bread and butter is in the wholesale paint and body business, the diversity that Gonzales values so much from himself and his staff also applies to its customer mix – a blend of insurance repair customers, new-car dealers and rental car companies, and a healthy dose of custom and classic car restoration and refinishing.

“If you asked me a year ago, our workload was about half and half (between wholesale and custom aftermarket jobs), but now we’re doing more wholesale auto body work than anything else,” he says. “With rental car companies, insurance companies and the auto dealerships, that’s the work that keeps the doors open for us to continue doing custom aftermarket work.

“Things will turn around soon, but you have to be satisfied with the cards you’re dealt,” he adds. “We all want to be millionaires on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but you do what you can to pay your dues and put yourself in the position to be there when the opportunity comes back around.”

Since founding the company in 2004, Gonzalez has been building custom aftermarket packages, upgrading stock vehicles (most often for Ford Mustang, Focus and F-150, among others) and placing them back on dealership lots at a markup. But Gonzalez says they’re always up for a new and interesting challenge, regardless of the genre of work.

“We take in custom jobs that most body shops turn away,” he says. “Our biggest and most unusual job was a Chrysler 300 SRT8 that was practically brand new. We chopped it up, shaved all the emblems and installed a custom set of suicide doors in the rear. Installed Lambo doors in the front. Added a body kit, grille, and coil-overs, plus 22” staggered wheels, a custom stereo and a custom ‘piano’ black-and-white interior with a white headliner.

“The car is currently being sold and headed to Miami for a while and then will be headed to Gambia, Africa. There have been many wild projects but this one stood out to me and is a very classy vehicle,” he says.

Diversity of car cultures

Gonzales says that Red*Star’s event calendar is indicative of the company’s broad range of interests and abilities. An old-school custom car show one weekend might win Red*Star a couple of jobs building rat rods, while a booth – replete with dancers and a DJ – at Hot Import Nights the next weekend might have the shop buzzing with sport compacts.

“Our love for cars is not genre specific,” says Gonzalez. “We find success in fitting into these very wide-ranging groups. We assimilate and earn respect from all different kinds of people.”

Part of that adaptability is derived from Gonzalez’ environment, he says. Growing up in California, he’s always had the good fortune of being exposed to varying cultures and how they relate to their vehicles.

“I take pride in being Californian, in that diversity of cultures we have here. We hang out with people who are into all those different cultures, and that’s where a lot of our customers come from,” he says. “A guy might come in to chop the top of his ’29 Coupe, and then a family member will come in with a completely different vehicle a few months later because he heard about the quality of work we do.”

Gonzalez says he is aware that some shops fear a backlash from one subculture of the aftermarket for catering to another, but that hasn’t been his experience. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. Appreciating that diversity is “who I am,” he says.

“It’s really about car culture at the end of the day, and in my mind nobody is excluded,” he says. “Some people worry about being judged by one genre, but this way of thinking is working for us. It’s who I am and it helps me build more relationships and get more referrals. I can appreciate other people’s interests – even if I’m not into it myself – and I think that today most other people can, too.”

Building a brand, not just a business

While Red*Star is paying dues and cranking out solid paint and body work to keep its aftermarket options – and its shop doors – open, Gonzalez harbors big dreams for the shop and the Red*Star brand in the future.

Gonzalez hopes to create a high-profile, nationwide Red*Star accessory package for a major vehicle manufacturer. In the past, he was in talks with Ford about creating a Ford Red*Star Edition accessory package, but the numbers didn’t work out under Ford’s pricing structure.

“I did a ton of research and talked to the Ford reps, but the timing just wasn’t there. But, I had some people try to steal my ideas for Mustang and Fusion packages, which tells me we are on the right track,” he laughs. “The main problem was that a lot of those packages are just too expensive as a licensed package. Regardless of how cool it is a $25,000 Ford Focus would just sit around on a dealer lot.”

A Red*Star-branded package would fit in well with Gonzalez’ overall plans for building the Red*Star brand. And that brand-building effort is always top-of-mind in any major endeavor the company undertakes.

“In everything we do, we’re working to create a brand, and that’s why we aren’t a ‘Steve’s Customs,'” he says. “It’s marketable. It’s Red*Star. We get a lot of customers around the country that think we’re on the same level as a Galpin or a West Coast Customs. They think we’re bigger than we are because we value the brand and put a lot of effort into building it into something bigger.”

Part of building a brand, he says, is an absolute commitment to quality.

“I use vendors that sell reputable and proven products. Each job we do has our name on it and I will only use products that are going to perform as close to factory as possible and not fail,” he says. “These products help with customer satisfaction, trust and loyalty and make for easier cost and time estimating. We’re dedicated to four things: quality, creativity, honesty and craftsmanship. I try to make all of my customers feel like a friend. We can’t please all the people all the time, but we still try.”

Show it off

Gonzalez owns the registered state and federal trade and service marks for Red*Star, and markets the brand over the Internet with a website that is optimized on search engines and with a new Facebook fan page. He attends car and truck shows and always puts on a show, with attractive models wearing Red*Star-branded clothing, DJs, dancers, flags and even a junior entourage of men women and cool children.

“We always get attention,” he says. “I attend events and meetings of area car and truck clubs and become friends with the members and sell my shop in a trust-building, time-tested way. When they need me, they already know me and can easily find me. I have made marketing the company a way of life, down to the clothes I wear and the vehicle I drive.”

What Gonzalez ultimately wants for Red*Star is to have the name recognition and brand reputation that sells products on its own.

“A good example would be Chip Foose: People will buy for the name, regardless of whether he’s ever touched it,” says Gonzalez. “I have no illusions. I know I’m not at that level yet, but over time I believe we could be. You keep working hard for yourselves, and if you get in front of the right people, great things can happen. I feel like God has entrusted me with a certain amount of sovereignty and with the responsibility of providing for a work crew as well as a beautiful family.”

With that perspective-and a commitment to quality and unending dedication to doing whatever it takes to succeed -it’s not hard to see a bright future for Red*Star.

Company Snapshot

Name: Red*Star Auto & Truck Works
Location: Sacramento, Calif.
Owner: Steven Gonzalez
Business Launch: 2004
Specialties: Body work; building custom aftermarket packages; upgrading stock vehicles
Motto: We’re dedicated to four things: quality, creativity, honesty and craftsmanship