Family ties

Jan 28, 2010

Samuel T. Evans Sr. was an entrepreneur at heart, so when the opportunity came up in the latter part of the 1950s to leave behind the safety of a position with the United States Department of Defense and open a gas station in Ogden, Utah, he jumped at the chance. In the early years of the gas station, Evans would occasionally acquire used cars and pickup trucks, and fix them up to sell as a sideline business – which was the business he really wanted to be in. The used-truck business soon overshadowed the gas station business, and in 1959 Sam T Evans Auto Sales & Leasing opened for business.

Evans never looked back.

Honest integrity

As entrepreneurial businesses go, Evans’ had its share of struggles. But success came as its owner laid the groundwork for a solid business. Evans’ “business plan” was fairly simple: Stand apart from the competition. That was the first part of the business plan.

Evans’ son, Sam T. Evans Jr., recalls those early days, at age 15, as one of his father’s two employees. The younger Evans’ job responsibility was to detail and prep used trucks for the market.

“We found that if we paid attention, not only to details but a few minor accessories, we’d make that truck stand apart from the competition,” says Evans Jr., himself now retired from the business his father began. Evans Sr. had, in other words, identified a niche market of truck owners who were really proud of their trucks.

“The trucks back then didn’t come with carpet,” Evans Jr. continues. “It was a truck – a little different kind of a concept than today.

“If you did a good detail job, a new coat of rubber paint on the rubber floor mats, new polished kick plates, upgraded mirrors – we used to buy cases of mirrors – and a new seat cover, then you were ready to meet the competition head on. If you went all out, new chrome bumpers would set you apart. We used to do not only the chrome front, but we also had a strong aftermarket for diamond plate bumpers on the rear.”

Third generation owner Eric Evans, Sam Evans Jr.’s son, sees that early shift of emphasis to detail as a turning point in the business.

“What made that truck sell was accessorizing it to make it look new,” he says. “To me, identifying that niche was the start of making Sam T Evans what we are today as a restyler.”

The second part of the plan was to build the business on repeat customers. This to the elder Evans Sr. was more important than, say, eating the cost of putting in a new clutch.

The third part of the elder Evan Sr.’s business plan was simply the Golden Rule, as applied to business: Treat customers the way you want to be treated. Be honest and straightforward in your dealings.

Bumpy roads

Evans Jr. graduated from college with a manufacturing engineering degree in 1968 and went to work at the Ford Motor Co. in Sandusky, Ohio. Ten years later he came back to the family business.

At the time, the elder Evans, then 60 years old, was ready to retire.

During Sam Evans Jr.’s absence, the business had twice relocated and expanded to include pickup covers and more truck accessories. Upon his return to Ogden, “we went ‘gung-ho’ and took on customized vans, motor homes and travel trailers,” says Evans Jr. But just a year later the patriarch of the family and its business passed away on his first retirement trip. Then, in 1979, the gas crunch hit. With long lines waiting to buy gas, the sales of motor homes, vans and travel trailers all but stopped. “The bank was knocking at my door for curtailments,” Evans Jr. recalls. “I thought I would never survive.”

But the business did survive by returning to its roots: accessorizing vehicles.

“I also have a loving and supportive wife who has been through the ups and downs of being a small-business owner,” Evans Jr. says. In the meantime, the third generation was preparing to step into the business. Daughter Sheri was handed a broom and a wash mitt in the early ’80s. A few years later son Eric followed suit.

“I personally could not have imagined any other career because I have a passion and true commitment to this industry,” says Eric Evans. “I sincerely enjoy being an entrepreneur. I have grown up around this industry and it is an important part of who I am.”

Continuing the journey

In 1990, driven by the growing size of the market area, a broader availability of product lines and a desire to expand the business, the Sam T Evans operation opened a second location in Sandy, Utah, in the Salt Lake City area. Sheri and her husband, Val Clark, own and operate the Sandy location, a two-acre property with about 4,000 sq. ft. of retail sales area and 6,000 sq. ft. of shop and indoor storage. Eric Evans owns and operates the original Ogden location, which completed its third expansion in 2007.

At the Ogden location, the shop and warehouse are housed in the same 3,500-sq.-ft. building. Normally there are three vehicles in the shop area, but there’s room for four. The showroom is in another 4,000-sq.-ft. building. The remaining space on the acre-and-a-half property is used for trailer and RV storage.

The two locations support each other through buying power, advertising and customer service.

Both stores employ staffs of from eight to 12 that swell during busier times and stronger economies. Positions include a sales team, a technician who does all the service and repair on RVs and cargo trailers, and the shop installation team.

“The key is to offer a nice working environment,” says Eric. “We work to meet their needs and promote from within, offering our employees opportunities as the company grows.”

Sheri Clark agrees. “We have nine employees and value their product knowledge and commitment to customer service,” she says. The staff has learned the business from beginning to end, and can offer more to customers because they’ve done all the different jobs.

It’s a tight-knit group. Everyone works together on a daily basis. Everyone is hands-on and wants to see how something looks and how it installs. Everyone is interested in the auto industry.

Market waves

Diversification of products and services is important according to both Eric Evans and Sheri Clark. Truck caps and accessories are Sam T Evans’ roots. In the late 1970s, Coleman folding trailers and pop-up RVs were added, and the company diversified into the RV market. A few years later, enclosed cargo trailers were added to the mix allowing them to tap into three different markets: truck tops and accessories, RVs and cargo trailers.

“As a whole, truck tops and accessories have been the No. 1 market,” Eric Evans explains, “but in the last few months, cargo trailers have been first. So it’s a wave of when one market is down, another market is up. Which is nice. It gives us a steady line of consistency to keep the doors open and customers satisfied.”

Evans says an added benefit to diversification is that a lot of customers don’t just look for products from one industry segment. A building contractor, for example, may be looking for a cargo trailer, but also needs a topper or something to help increase fuel economy.

“We’re always open-minded with respect to looking at new markets that will bring in new business. But the main way we bring in new business is through customer service,” Evans says. “If a customer buys ‘this’ and we’ve done our jobs right, they will come back and buy ‘that’ the next time. And they will tell their friends. Word-of-mouth is probably the best marketing method of all. We place ads in local papers and radio stations, but people always come in and say, ‘My friend said this is the place to go; don’t go anywhere else.'”

Connections

The Sam T Evans Co. is a member of the Light Truck Accessory Alliance (LTAA), a Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) council that was formed to advocate for the industry. Eric Evans says that the most immediate benefits from the association are in gaining inter-product knowledge and in getting key insight toward understanding the direction the industry is headed.

“When we know of future products, new trucks that will be released ahead of time, we can gear up for marketing them and have those tops and accessories on hand when that model hits the dealer showroom,” he says.

Other association benefits include attending forums at SEMA events to learn as well as share tricks and tips with others in the industry who also are attending the same forums.

Networking also involves building relationships with dealers. Some of the brands the company represents include Leer and Snugtop truck caps and Haulmark, Mirage and Mission trailers along with just about every aftermarket supplier in accessories.

“We’ve been fortunate to find manufacturers who have supported us long term and we’ve built strong relationships with them,” Evans says. “But we also intertwine that with what our customers need. They are very much related to each other.”