Driven to the Hills

Apr 1, 2010

The French word cache means to store one’s treasures.

Northern Utah has some treasures of its own: Cache Valley and its resident truck accessory shop Thunder Mountain Truck Outfitters.

Cache Valley, a mountain valley nestled in an agricultural area with burgeoning industrial growth, is about 90 miles north of Salt Lake City. The winters are harsh yet the recreational opportunities are plentiful with the mountains near by.

These factors, notes Thunder Mountain owner Shane Barrington, means “there are many more SUVs and trucks on the road than cars.”

And this means lots of business opportunity for a restyler who listens and responds to his customers.

Barrington left a career in electronics manufacturing and production because “I decided that if I was going to work so hard, I should at least do something I love,” he says. “At that time, my dad had just retired young after owning a number of corporations and was looking for something to do. So it was a good match with his business ownership experience and my background in manufacturing and production.”

With a longstanding love and passion for offroading, trucks and being outdoors, as well as a businessman’s sense for a market opportunity, Barrington approached the local owner and manufacturer of RockerFlares about the possibility of his buying out the small company.

A deal was struck.

Opportunity strikes twice 

“I took the RockerFlares product national by going to the SEMA shows, getting out and marketing and advertising in a way that hadn’t been done before,” is how Barrington describes his first steps toward restyling success. “We did well and the product continues to do well.”

He continued to grow the business, CRE Products.

“What we did was move the operation out of a garage and into a 1,100-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility,” he notes. “Locals could buy the product at the local car dealerships and body shops, but they also knew that they could buy it direct from the manufacturing facility and even have it installed.

“When these people came down they would always ask ‘Can you get me bug shields, can you get me steps, can you get me door handle trim, tonneau covers?’ For about three years the answer was ‘No, we don’t do that. Go here, go there.'”

The customers’ reaction was always dismay at having to go elsewhere; eventually Barrington realized that a retail opportunity was making itself available. -¨Manufacturing and retail.

“Thunder Mountain was driven by the demand of the public,” he says. “In the surrounding Cache Valley region there are about 80,000 people, and before opening Thunder Mountain there was one hard-core offroad shop specializing in rock crawlers and one fiberglass truck cap retailer. We saw a need in Cache Valley for a truck accessory place.

“We didn’t know if we wanted to get into it [accessorizing] because we didn’t want to take the focus away from CRE. But the demand was so strong that we jumped in with the retail store, opening in May of 2008, and the response was overwhelming.”

Sticking to a plan 

Barrington says the right business plan breeds success.

“Our business plan has been strategic and we’ve followed it very closely. And even throughout the economic problems the nation has faced we’ve experienced significant sales growth. We didn’t fall into it by accident,” he says. “We had the local demand and we did a lot of research, did a lot of thinking. SEMA has a lot of great tools for researching trends and we used them.”

“We’ve learned that if we have it in stock we can sell it. The biggest advantage we can offer our locals is having it now versus ordering it off the Internet. It is painful, hard to do and you worry about inventory going stale and having a lot of money tied up.

He continues: “The Internet is our biggest competitor. The only advantage that I can have isn’t in price but in availability. If a customer has to wait one or more days for the product we usually won’t see them back in the store, whereas if we have it they walk out the door with it.”

Shop logistics 

Thunder Mountain is located at the site of the CRE manufacturing location, in a light industrial section of Logan, Utah. Barrington notes that “this turned out to be a good thing because we are surrounded by contractors and there’s not a contractor in the world who drives a car.” With five adjoining units including a 1,400-sq.-ft. showroom, three 1,100-sq.-ft. work bays and the CRE manufacturing facility, the operation has filled all available space in the current complex.

Barrington describes Thunder Mountain’s showroom.

“We took a very different approach; our concept of how we set up our showroom uses a lot of space because we always have a vehicle on display. We wanted to give the community something that they would enjoy and something that would be talked about. It is very open with a very high blacked-out ceiling. We put up an aluminum flat wall around the perimeter of the store so we have the ability to hang the whole perimeter. We didn’t use any florescent lights; we have a truss system that hangs around the perimeter of the showroom with little spotlights that highlight the products and the display vehicle. The light is very natural, contributing to the openness of the showroom.

“We didn’t want a parts-counter-type shop where someone could pull up a bar stool and hang out all day,” Barrington continues. “We wanted a very professional-looking feel. Instead of the parts counter we went with two very nice executive desks. The customer seating area has two very nice oversized leather chairs. Customers have repeatedly said that our shop is nothing like anything else in the automotive industry.”

Inside/outside VIPs 

Like any successful business owner, Barrington acknowledges the importance of his employees. “There are six of us here,” he notes. “We have never had to advertise for a position. People always come to us. When we need somebody, we just plan very far ahead and we kind of review these people who come to us, finding the right fit.”

Thunder Mountain netted some talent from a nearby hard-core offroad shop who “eventually made their way to Thunder Mountain, and that has been significant,” Barrington notes. “Prior to these guys coming on we were primarily bolt-on/stick-on. What these guys brought to the shop was the knowledge of lift kits, level kits, tires, wheels, axles, lockers and gears. That’s why our sales increased significantly – the result of this infusion of skilled labor and product knowledge.”

Barrington also notes that two of the most key people to Thunder Mountain’s success aren’t actually his employees, highlighting the critical importance of good relations with accessory distributors.

“We have a primary distributor, Keystone, and two individuals there I credit with having a very large role in the success of Thunder Mountain: inside sales rep Tiffany Dorin and outside sales rep Rusty Dunham. If it weren’t for them I can assure you that our situation today would be very, very different.

“Rusty got us up and going; he was one of the only distributors who took us seriously when we were opening. He came in and listened to us and gave us great advice on what to stock, how to buy and showed that he really wanted to work with us. Tiffany, multiple times a day researches products available for any project vehicle and provides us with a range of ideas and solutions for our customers’ needs.”

The business of business 

At Thunder Mountain, 80% of sales are retail and 20% are wholesale fleet and work trucks for dealerships, cities, counties and school districts. Barrington observes that his retail clients come into his shop to give both personality and function to their vehicles. “Sixty percent of our client vehicles are new and 40% are used. We’ve seen a trend of people holding on to vehicles longer and wanting to make them look, perform and feel new. We install 70% of the products we sell and the other 30% are sold to the DIY’er.”

A huge portion of the wholesale business comes via body shops. When Barrington started Thunder Mountain he went to the local body shops and quizzed them on their procedure for replacing damaged aftermarket parts.

“Their frustration and lack of knowledge of accessories led us to tell them ‘Let us handle it; we want to be your aftermarket parts department,'” he says. “We provide anything to them that isn’t OEM.”

With some of the body shops Barrington helps write repair estimates, noting that “I go down, and anything that is an aftermarket part I identify and provide replacement parts for. Some of our body shop clients also upsell body repairs with RockerFlares and other accessories, acting as an extension of our retail shop.”

With Cache Valley’s proximity to the great outdoors, seasonality plays a large role in accessory sales.

“Spring months are usually crowded with the Jeep stuff before the Moab Jeep Safari,” Barrington says.” Summer is usually the appearance-accessories months. When we go from summer to rain and snow, mud flaps and splash guards are huge. Right before hunting season people want to get their truck ready to go up into the mountain. And before the snow flies we sell a lot of tonneau covers and fiberglass truck caps. Our tonneau cover months are October and November. We also sell more Century and Leer fiberglass truck caps in September, October and November than we do throughout the rest of the year.”

Growth in sales has been consistent since the firm’s inception. January 2010 compared to January 2009 showed an astounding sales increase of 452%, reflecting the addition of the lift kit/tire/wheel-knowledgeable staff and greater product offerings. There’s been a big investment cost to be able to offer additional tire and wheel products and services to customers, and his shop has worked hard with local car and truck dealerships to swap out tires and wheels on their inventory to keep that new equipment working all day, every day.

Sales growth is also reflected in the mix of vehicles at Thunder Mountain. Barrington reports “Just this week we’re building a custom rear axle for a ’37 Ford, a new grille on a 2010 Chevy Camaro. We had a fire-rescue truck in here and we lifted two Jeeps. So although in name Thunder Mountain Truck Outfitters is limiting, our shop isn’t restricted to just trucks. We’ve had to do a lot of creative marketing to let people know ‘We can do that.'”

Marketing

Barrington is effusive about the Thunder Mountain brand and the local community has embraced his efforts.

“T-shirts and stickers are very big for us. We’ve developed such a culture and such a following that everybody around town wants a Thunder Mountain sticker on their vehicle,” he says. “We print and give out an extraordinary amount of T-shirts and stickers. We provide T-shirts to pretty much anybody who comes into the shop and wants one.”

Other efforts include a lot of radio and some print advertising as well as event sponsorship like school functions, mid-size car shows and county fairs.

“We sponsor about four rodeos a year where we pull an outfitted truck out into the arena and sling-shot T-shirts out into the audience in the stands.”

Fully accessorized company vehicles are a tangible demonstration of Thunder Mountain’s product and service offerings.

“We have two trucks, a 2009 Chevy Silverado 2500 HD and a 2006 GMC Sierra 2500 HD, that we built for SEMA show trucks that we had in our booth for CRE products. We have a third truck, a 2005 Chevy Colorado that is more of a shop delivery truck. We added a 2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited [Restyling’s cover vehicle, February 2010 issue] as we’ve gotten more into the rock crawling segment.”

Barrington’s business has evolved since he first identified a viable product that would benefit from wider exposure. Listening to his clients requests and being a part of his community has driven his growth and his success at a time when the automotive market has stalled. This active business management has turned him into a restyling rising star.