Pacific Partnership

Sep 1, 2012

Almost 40 years in business, Auto Trim Design of King County evolves along with its passionate Pacific Northwest customer base.

Back in the mid-1970s, Bob Filbert was an enterprising young teen with a passion for customer service and automotive accessories. When the opportunity arose to open a Trim Line distributorship, he jumped at the chance.

As his business and relationships within the industry grew over the coming years, another Trim Line franchise just north of him was opened by a couple of similarly service-oriented men, Jon Sorensen and Jerry Hudson.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the national Trim Line distributors evolved and changed names to Auto Trim Design, Filbert and Hudson maintained a friendly competition, seeing who could best serve the Seattle/Everett/Tacoma area with the company’s ever-growing line of products.

The start of a great relationship

Ultimately, Filbert and Hudson became more than merely competitors. They also became close friends. With friendship, ultimately came strategic partnership; by 2006 it was becoming clear that they might do even better working together as opposed to competing.

“The decision to merge our businesses was actually a very simple one,” says Hudson. “It became clear that we could provide a better service to our customers – especially our dealer customers – by combining our efforts. Once that became apparent, it wasn’t long before we officially joined forces.”

Hudson says by that point the two organizations both were essentially offering the same products and services and area dealerships wouldn’t always know who to call. Joining forces eliminated some of that confusion and allowed the combined company to send vehicles to the best location for the customer, greatly streamlining the process.

A sharp focus on training

In addition to streamlining their interaction with wholesale and retail customers, the combined company also realized another, possibly more important, benefit: They could now combine their collective 70-plus years of automotive accessory industry experience in order to better train their growing staff.

“As we’ve grown over the years to the point that we now have about 30 employees, ranging from 34 to 38 employees at times, including the part-time drivers, that combination of experience has been a huge benefit,” says Hudson.

Today, that combination of experience and commitment has allowed the company to grow into an 11,000-sq.-ft. main store while also running a scaled-down northern store of around 3,000 sq. ft.

With an operation of that size, both Filbert and Hudson knew that in order to continue their notable growth, they would need to ensure their customers received the very best service possible. Knowing that, they have a predictably outsized focus on training for their key employees.

Today, many of the installation staff are certified by both ASE and SEMA, in addition to receiving product-specific training from their leading suppliers, including Webasto Sunroofs and Katzkin Leather.

“Over the long term, we take a lot of pride in our quality and the level of service we provide,” says Hudson. “That commitment to quality and service allows us to ultimately protect our price. We always use OEM-approved products when we can, and we always ensure we have enough certified technicians to allow us, as a shop, to have the certifications that we know our customers value.”

Creating a positive environment

That dedication has resulted in what Hudson considers a family-oriented work environment at Auto Trim Design. Many of the combined shops’ employees have been with the company for more than a decade, some more than two decades. That rarity in the automotive accessories world has been vital to the company’s ongoing success and customer satisfaction.

“At a lot of other shops, great people come and go. That’s a reality in our industry,” Hudson says. “But by ensuring that our shop is one that the employees can be proud to be a part of, we’re able to overcome that and keep the right people on the job and invest in them.

“Too many owners have shops that are holes in the wall and don’t do what’s right for the customer. Dealers don’t want to send their customers into a shop like that, and that’s all too common in the business today. By going about things with that dedication to creating a well-trained staff and a great environment, we’ve built customer loyalty.”

Hudson notes that, especially in the retail aspects of their business, the growing popularity of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook has made their dedication to creating a clean, organized environment more important than ever.

“As more and more customers rely on the Internet and social media – which they are more than ever before – having a nice shop, quality products and great service is just so important,” he says. “For retail customers, if they don’t like their experience, it’s very easy for them to voice that opinion to a broad audience of people.”

On the wholesale side, that’s equally important as area dealerships historically have accounted for a large percent of Auto Trim Design’s revenue.

“For the wholesale customers, if we don’t create a great experience for their customers, some of those customers wouldn’t buy a car again from that dealership,” says Hudson. “That makes our treatment of that customer a big responsibility, and it’s one that we take seriously.”

Hudson says that despite those responsibilities, he wouldn’t change a thing about working as an expediter primarily for area dealerships. He enjoys the long-term relationships he’s been able to build with his primary customers.

“We genuinely like our dealer partners, and that makes our work so much more enjoyable,” says Hudson. “In almost every case, we know the owners, principals and managers, and they become friends and we enjoy working with them. They help us just as much as we help them and we appreciate that mutual relationship.”

An evolving product line-up

Back at the outset of the organization, the automotive accessories business was a much simpler one, at least in regard to the products. What was then dominated by striping and graphics work, today has evolved into a highly diverse, much more technical offering of products.

With that growing diversity of product comes benefits and challenges, says Hudson.

“We’re very careful about the product lines we choose to offer,” he says. “Just like our service and our environment affect us and our customers, so do the products we offer. That’s really why we’re proud of our partnership with companies like Katzkin Leather Interiors, Webasto sunroofs, 3M chip protection films and Rosen electronics, among many others. We know that bargain products are inexpensive, but they end up costing the customer in the long run, and that ends up costing us customers and our wholesale partners’ customers.”

Today, the shop’s most in-demand offerings are aftermarket sunroofs, leather interiors, chip-protection, window tinting and electronics like navigation systems. Auto Trim Design also features a certified paint booth for custom painting and minor body work. It also believes it may be “probably the oldest window tint shop in western Washington,” says Hudson.

When a shop’s relationship with customers lasts decades, the importance of quality products and services grows, he adds. In that regard, being an Auto Trim Design distributor with access to the company’s nationwide warranty program is a strong benefit.

“We actually did a window tint on a vehicle 15 years ago that just recently came back in for a repair,” he laughs. “The customer had since moved to San Diego, and because we were part of that national network we were able to get a shop in that area to do the repair, and that customer was thrilled at our commitment to him all these years later.”

Facing today’s challenges

That’s not to say that doing business in the automotive aftermarket today is without challenges. There are a few notable ones, Hudson notes.

“First and foremost, there’s always competing companies who are selling cheaper, inferior products and imitations,” he says. “We spend a great deal of time helping dealers to appreciate that saving $100 on a car can be very expensive in the long run. That’s especially true in terms of their customers’ satisfaction and loyalty.”

Secondly, and possibly presenting an even greater challenge, is the effort required to keep up with the quickly advancing technology in factory vehicles and in the aftermarket.

“Everything is just changing so rapidly,” says Hudson. “Because of that, you have to work hard to be a better company and to stay up with what’s available.

“It’s really important that you’re up to speed on how change is occurring and keeping your customers informed, as well. That can affect customer satisfaction and trust, but it can also be a safety issue with some products.”

At the end of the day, despite all the challenges, Hudson says he still loves the work and service he performs.

“Being in the business for as long as we have, both Bob and I still appreciate what we do. We enjoy the work and we love the relationships we’ve built with our customers and our partners,” says Hudson. “That is what keeps us going.”

In the future, Hudson plans for more of the same great service, products and relationships that they’ve offered for the past few decades.

“Our goal for the future is to continue to help our customers to love their vehicles and take happiness from that, and to help our [car] dealers to grow their business and make the maximum profit on each aftermarket accessory we provide.”

With that as a goal, Auto Trim Design looks primed to build many more great relationships in the decades to come.