Battle of the Builders: Finding Success on the Aftermarket’s Biggest Stage

If one thing’s for sure, success doesn’t happen overnight—at least according to some of the industry’s top customizers.

Gathered at the annual Keystone BIG Show customer event in Colorado to talk last year’s Battle of the Builders, four aftermarket stars, both new and experienced, discussed not only the impact of the SEMA Show’s annual build competition, but what it takes to get there.

Hosted by television personality Chris Jacobs—best known for his work with Overhaulin’ and Mecum Auctions—the panel included the four finalists from the 2022 contest: winners Jim and Mike Ring of Ringbrothers fame, TJ Russell, proprietor of Russell Built Fabrication, and Josh Michels, the 22-year-old owner of Michels Auto Design who claimed the Young Guns category with his 1966 Corvette restomod. SEMA VP of Marketing RJ de Vera also joined in the conversation, offering an industry insider’s perspective on making a name for yourself as a builder.

Although the panel spanned generations, the participants all had one thing in common: success on one of the aftermarket’s biggest stages.

Battle of the Builders: Finding Success on the Aftermarket’s Biggest Stage | THE SHOP
Josh Michels

For the Rings, it’s almost business as usual (they also won the Battle of the Builders in 2019). But for Michels, he’s still trying to find his footing amid all the newfound attention.

“It’s been crazy,” Michels said. “I still can’t wrap [my head] around it that all this is happening right now. We’re getting a lot of attention not only from social media, but potential sponsors and different companies. Clients are also calling me more, so it’s just been an eye-opener for me.”

And as de Vera noted, he serves as a great example for others trying to ascend to the level of those on the stage.

“There’s this idea that ‘fortune favors the brave.’ All of these people were very brave with what they did,” de Vera said. “It’s taking every advantage of the opportunities and the platforms the industry has, including shows like [the BIG Show].

“Promote your business in every facet that you can. You all have passion. You’re all looking for opportunity. You’re all trying to be innovators,” he continued. “How do you put all of those together? It’s really just going out there, being brave and not expecting it to come to you.”

That also applies to supplier relationships, the Rings said.

“We’re lucky in that people answer the phone when we call, and I think that’s the biggest part of networking: getting to know a face within [a] company,” Mike Ring said. “Get a name, get a card, and hopefully say something to them that they’ll remember you. You’ll find the ones that work. And you’ll use them over and over.”

Battle of the Builders: Finding Success on the Aftermarket’s Biggest Stage | THE SHOP
Mike Ring

“Those relationships are really important. And they have to work both ways. They need to be beneficial to both people,” Jim Ring added. “We’ve always tried to reach out to some of the best companies, the best products we can find for our vehicles.”

However, you must be particular about the products you chose, or you’ll be in for a whole new set of problems, they warned.

“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to use other peoples’ products, and we feel honored every time we get offered that. But you don’t want to just take things to take things,” Mike Ring said. “You have to stay focused on if that’s the right product for me. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.”

Despite their recent success and the many opportunities that followed, the Rings were once at Michels’ level, too, keeping the doors open with easier work to find in their home state of Wisconsin.

“We figured out we could make some money in collision,” Jim Ring said. “We live in an area with a lot of deer.”

“We started changing oil and putting visors in trucks, whatever it took. Putting brakes in, changing tires and wheels,” Mike Ring said, “but your passion is always to do something different, so you use your base business to fund what you really want to do.”

Battle of the Builders: Finding Success on the Aftermarket’s Biggest Stage | THE SHOP
TJ Russell

Growth isn’t always sunshine and roses and $300,000 cars, either—something Michels is learning for himself as he tries to balance the hands-on work with the clerical things, like paperwork and hiring employees.

“What’s really hard for me is finding the time to take away from building and actually do the paperwork, the billing, the parts-sourcing, the quotes and all that stuff. That’s not really what’s fun for me, but I know I have to do it to succeed,” Michels said. “It’s finding the fine line of when to take time out of the day from actually working on the car.”

While difficult, especially in today’s job market, you have to learn to delegate, according to Russell.

“You can’t do everything. That’s something you learn. I thought I could do everything. I thought, ‘I’m the welder, I’m the electrician, I’m the engineer, I’ll clean the toilets.’ But at the end of the day, if you really want something to work and function, it takes a team,” he said. “You can’t go to school and be taught what it takes to build a team. You just have to learn.”

But once you have those things mastered—or at least taken care of—it will free you up to think outside the box.

No strangers to ‘outside the box,’ the Rings’ two Battle of the Builders vehicles, ENYO, an otherworldly 1948 Chevy Loadmaster that took the top prize at this year’s show, and BULLY, a 1972 K5 Blazer that won the 4-Wheel Drive and Off-Road category, were also featured at the BIG Show, demonstrating what is possible when you’re free to let your imagination run wild.

Battle of the Builders: Finding Success on the Aftermarket’s Biggest Stage | THE SHOP
Left to Right: Josh Michels, TJ Russell, Mike Ring, Jim Ring

It’s a sentiment Russell echoed, stressing the importance of creativity and imagination—exemplified best by the Russell Built Fabrication entry in the Battle of the Builders, a rally-inspired 1991 Porsche 911.

“Everything’s been done multiple times. You want to branch out and be different and [create] a brand that says something different,” Russell said. “You have to push well beyond your comfort zone and the times you want to quit. You’ve got to keep going.”

And if you keep going, just like the builders on the BIG Show stage, it could end with a trophy, a spot as a finalist in the Battle of the Builders, and a growing business.

“I was just happy I got my car to SEMA. To get Top 40, then Top 12, then Top 4 was quite the honor for me,” Michels said.

“Take that leap of faith, build to the best of your capabilities, and see what it does for you,” he added. “You never know what can happen.”

Photos Courtesy of Keystone Automotive Operations

A.J. Hecht

A.J. Hecht is the managing editor of THE SHOP and host of the In Gear with THE SHOP podcast. Have an idea, a tip, or a question you’d like to see answered? Contact A.J. at ahecht@cahabamedia.com.

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