A Niche to Succeed

Dec 3, 2009

It’s a story that all of us have either lived firsthand or heard secondhand in our industry. Josh Elliott says, “I got started in the business at age 16 running a mobile truck route.” He serviced and grew the route by installing, “graphics, moldings, spoilers for dealers and body shops.” It was, as they say, his destiny. Mostly because, Elliott tells us, “Cars were cool when I was 16,” and he quickly backs that up by saying, “It’s all I’ve ever done.”

Elliott must have done it well and clearly saw the opportunities in the niche he was working. By age 18, he started his version of ATD (Auto Trim of Denver) in his hometown of Denver and jumped into the fray with enough business to park the mobile truck and open a small, 1,500-sq.-ft. shop in 2003. There were two work bays, one for each employee. The move finalized the ATD name and its new shop. Now armed with a facility and team to do the work, he fine-tuned his business aim to one specific area.

Smorgasbord of trim

Working primarily with new- and used-car and truck dealers, ATD kept adding more product lines and services to offer a better variety of options to the dealers and their customers. The move also helped him to decide which product lines were going to be the movers and end up in his final lineup. It was easy for dealers to see ATD was an asset for them, as they didn’t need to retain specialist technicians or additional inventory yet could still offer customers more upsell items and enjoy the resulting profit.

Today, the ATD product line is far removed from the original spoilers, molding and simple graphics. ATD offers installation of leather upholstery, seat heaters, sunroofs, window tint, clear-mask PPF and 12V electronics. Those are the biggies today, and Elliott pinpoints, “Leather seats are big; so are sunroofs, tint and clear masks. 12-volt accessories are growing for us.” Elliott sees some of his products as luxury items and notes that window tinting and clear masks don’t fall into that category.

Business grew, and recently Elliott moved operations to a bigger building of 10,000 sq. ft. It’s not unusual to see it packed with new cars, looking very much like the very dealers it services. The move to better serve customers, even in these trying times, worked out well for ATD. As Elliott says, “With the economic downturn we were able to move to a larger facility without an increase to our overhead.”

And that brings up a good point that is often overlooked. When money, work and jobs get tough, there is another side to the coin. Prices often go down with the economy and that includes overhead costs. Everyone’s biggest overhead line item is the business site and structure, and for business, that means square footage. Moving to a better and usually bigger building, either by renting or outright purchasing the property can actually help overhead. In the case of Elliott and ATD, the bigger yet still affordable shop enables them to better serve their wholesale customers, yet keep a good eye on their profit margin.

A site for more eyes

That building is not your typical retail storefront, as it is located off main streets. That’s because ATD is not looking for off-the-street traffic. The modern building is crisp and clean, is two stories and does have a sizable glass front. The glass is just the design of the building more than being a beacon for customers.

Elliott doesn’t believe in doing heavy advertising to the general public but there is a simple sign (complete with Web address) and some lettering on the windows (tinted, of course) out front. But those are more for people being able to find ATD than to draw in new customers.

Many times, the dealers ATD works with will send the customer directly to ATD for the work the customer has just purchased. To that end, a clean and attractive waiting room is a must. Customers also can get a brief glimpse of the clean and well lit work area where supplies are neatly stored for both inventory and production under attractive banners of the products used.

For generating sales, ATD’s team of outside sales pros are constantly canvassing both new- and used-car dealers, and building relationships to let them know they have a partner in selling cars and providing additional options. Elliott calls it, “Partners in profit.”

And that illustrates another strong point. It’s not just the luxury items on new cars that make up a restyling business. Of today’s roller coaster market, Elliott says, “Used cars are the only part that’s growing.” He points out that cars that are a year or two old with about 10,000 miles on them are still prime, viable items for buyers -”such as are rental turn-ins. In fact, it’s all about cars, new or old, and Elliott says, that “sales volumes have been affected by the downturn in car sales, so we are trying to partner in profit with our customers by using our services to increase profits on the cars that are sold.”

ATD services around 100 dealers in the immediate Denver area and is constantly maintaining those relationships. To that point, the fact that ATD does virtually no retail sales protects its partnerships. Elliott does not want the dealers to feel they are in competition with ATD. It’s more of that “Partners” philosophy of ATD.

Top-tier staff

ATD has about 14 employees, and when it comes to product knowhow, Elliott boasts, “We pride ourselves with having the best installers in the industry.” Part of the reason for his feeling so strong on his people is training. Elliott goes on to say, “ATD continually offers industry-leading training to all employees. Some of the certified programs are SEMA Pro Pledge, ASE certification, 3M, as well as manufacturers’ training from companies such as Webasto, Katzkin, Pioneer, etc.” Josh sends his message home by stating an emphatic, “Sales training is also very important and is provided by these companies.”

A Web that works

The slick ATD website (www.autotrimofdenver.com ) starts off with a dramatically lit photo of a BMW and the big headline, “Custom Starts Here.” You can almost picture potential customers nodding their heads in agreement and saying, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” From that opening shot, the site is geared directly toward car and truck owners, and, as such, speaks unswervingly to them: “Welcome To Auto Trim of Denver,” it says and goes on to be sympathetic to their automotive wants and desires by stating, “Sometimes, top of the line isn’t the end of the line, at least when it comes to your car or truck. Some vehicle manufacturers leave out things that many car and truck owners would crave, or make upgrades too expensive to make them accessible. That’s where we come in.”

By not writing or saying too much on the Web’s home page, ATD subscribes to the less is more theory and wraps it up with, “Auto Trim of Denver provides car and truck owners the ability to improve the look, feel and style of their automobiles. After all, your vehicle is a representation of you, and we all want just a little more pizzazz.”

From there the website lists the many products and services the firm offers in more than one convenient area of the pages, as well as having a complete listing of dealers they work with. More importantly, the listing of products is available through the dealerships, and the dealers use the site to show customers what’s available.

In just the right amount of space on the first Web page, small breakout boxes on featured items have more of the details customers need to help make their sales decisions. The boxes are informative and back up the info people may find at the dealers. Each of the six specialties (window tint, clear bra/PPF, sun roofs, mobile video, leather and navigation) of the listing has its own page where a small Q&A session extols the product’s features and usage. Even then, more details are also available on items with choices of colors and styles. There’s even a page for dealers to log in and start the sales process by sending their orders to ATD without paperwork. Elliott says, “We’re trying to go green.”

The upside of the downturn

In trying to keep the green coming into ATD despite the current economy, Elliott says, first off, he’s, “keeping a positive attitude.” He makes sure ATD opens the eyes of dealers’ other avenues they have for making money. Of the big picture, Elliott says, “I really believe business will get better,” and stresses, that “quality and customer service needs to stay up.” He also sees markets losing competition and believes this will all settle down and even pass, as he says, “sooner rather than later.”

As Elliott was once able to foresee his niche and develop it into a viable business, he may have a good read on business today. After all, he has already proven in this age of specialization that all you need to do is partner with people who want the same things as you do -”and that includes the customers, too.