Dashing off to one of his three Denver muffler shops to cover for an employee attending his daughter’s school function, Dave Fuller pauses to make sure payroll is running on time. “My employees are great guys,” he gushes. “I try to take care of them.”
It’s clear that he does, offering other perks when he can, such as giving them an extra day off on long holiday weekends like Memorial Day and Labor Day—not always an easy feat at a company that’s open six days a week.
Fuller’s father founded Mighty Muffler 31 years ago. Although officially retired, he remains a partner in the company, but it’s Fuller who now runs the business. A long-term employee himself, he started working after school and Saturdays. These days he floats between the three metro Denver shops: one in Lakewood and two in Westminster. Multiple locations help him cover a wider area; it also gives him greater buying power. And having a reliable manager at each shop frees up Fuller to bounce between shops to help out where needed.
His thoughtfulness could explain why one manager has worked for Mighty Muffler for 19 years. “That’s unheard of!” Fuller exclaims. “Guys in this business hop around a lot. I’m very fortunate to be able to keep my employees.” The last time he hired anyone was six years ago, and he doesn’t anticipate having to go through that process again any time soon. Unsure of where he would even begin to look for a new employee should the need arise, he did say experience would be an important asset in a candidate, “But if I find the right guy, he can pick it up quickly. Some guys still learn on the job.”
Courting the Customer
Fuller works just as hard to keep customers as employees. Although his caped mascot, Muffler Man, wheedles prospective customers with a slogan of “Why pay more?,” Fuller insists that Mighty Muffler’s good service and quality of work are what win—and keep—business.
Most of that business is initially earned through word-of-mouth endorsement, because Fuller says he rarely pays for ads. There’s a concern about trust, he speculates, but personal recommendations overcome fear and mistrust. “Some of our customers drive as much as 30 miles to come to us, just because we took care of someone in their family once. People will drive a long way due to word-of-mouth.”
With a customer demographic that includes “everyone,” Mighty Muffler has been attracting a lot of what Fuller deems “young kids” with 4WD trucks. Trucks may be practical for Denver’s snowy weather, but with the help of Mighty Muffler, they can also sound throaty and loud, just the way this dynamic demographic likes. They also like the added power of a diesel, and Fuller notes his shops are seeing a lot more diesels coming in for exhaust systems.
While most of his customers are “into performance,” many also want better fuel mileage. “We can put on a more free-flowing exhaust system, and they’ll get an extra 3-4 miles per gallon.” But some customers are more interested in noise and fancy chrome. “They want more sound; they want to go faster and they want the look. The right exhaust system plays heavily with the engine in boosting power and giving that throaty sound.”
The customer can influence that sound level by choosing from the many brands of mufflers Mighty Muffler carries. “Motorheads love the sound of a Flowmaster,” Fuller reveals. Cherry Bomb is another popular muffler among enthusiasts. But there are no packaged systems; everything is custom.
Mighty Muffler starts by building its own pipes. “We’re unique in a fading industry,” Fuller laments. “We bend our own pipe.” By doing so, they can route a system to exit wherever the customer wants: straight out the back or angled behind the rear tire, for example. “We don’t simply bolt on pre-bent pipes!”
That comes in handy for hotrodders and customizers, but also for guys with older vehicles. Manufacturers of cars and trucks from the 1950s through the 1970s don’t make parts for them any more. “You can’t order an exhaust system for a vehicle from that era, but we custom design, build and install for any vehicle.”
Mighty Muffler’s ability to provide custom designs boosts business in what some worry is a sagging industry. Fuller says that while they’re keeping up with new emissions regulations, they could do custom exhausts more freely before. “Now, it’s more limited. We can only replace anything after the catalytic converter. You can’t run true duals any more; you can’t fool emissions.” But, you can put on an exhaust system that provides more power, better sound and good looks.
Fuller says emissions regulations have acutely affected business, slowing sales the past five to seven years. Stainless steel exhausts especially hurt the industry, he believes, because they don’t need to be replaced.
Seventy-five percent of Mighty Muffler’s business is exhaust systems, but because the market is down, Fuller says the company is diversifying by getting into brakes, shocks, struts and CV axles. However, those are highly competitive markets with smaller margins. In addition, he says, “It’s tough to diversify without having to purchase expensive machinery and hire knowledgeable, trained people.”
Contributing to the challenge is the fact that, as Fuller explains, they make their money on “want” sales, not on necessity purchases. Luckily, guys still want performance and they like to personalize their vehicles. “That’s why we depend on aftermarket systems to maintain our business. Original equipment exhaust systems last 10 years now, but people will always want souped-up cars with louder sound and better looks, so we stress change with aftermarket exhaust systems.” It’s also why word-of-mouth is so critical.
“The future frightens me,” Fuller confesses, “with stainless exhausts and emissions…We sell a lot of catalytic converters, but with a factory warranty of eight years/80,000 miles, we don’t see a car very often to replace that converter.”
He may not be seeing customers as often as he’d like, but Fuller makes sure Mighty Muffler is being seen as much as possible. Locating all three shops at busy intersections helps with visibility and can encourage new business. “Thousands of cars drive by every day,” Fuller reflects. “Eventually, we’ll get some of them. When we do, we’ll make sure they leave happy. Guys who are passionate about their vehicles really spread the word.”
And in that way, Mighty Muffler is a marketing machine.