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A Pretty Sound Business

Tom Morr is an automotive industry writer and owner of Morr-Ink, a California-based public relations company.

Doing one thing well is apparently the modern key to failure. Specializing might be profitable for doctors, but diversity keeps restylers’ doors open during slow economic times.

Tintmasters Motorsports is a prime example of a shop that’s grown with its customers’ needs. Founded by Shane Noble in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1994, the company initially focused on one thing — window tinting: automotive, residential and commercial.

In 1995, Noble decided to capitalize on his automotive-tinting customers’ interest in performance accessories. He tacked “Motorsports” behind the Tintmasters name and expanded his shops’ products and services. Since then, Tintmasters’ Grand Forks store has upsized to the point where it’s now in its third location.

In 2001, Noble opened a second Tintmasters store in the “big city,” Fargo. It’s since grown into the company’s flagship shop, relocating to its current, larger location in 2005. A third Tintmasters opened that year. Shane Noble and one of his North Dakota employees struck a licensing agreement to use the Tintmasters name and combined-buying power for a store in suburban Minneapolis.

Audio activity

Tintmasters’ Fargo shop is known as the area’s go-to place for professionally installed aftermarket modifications. “We’re the elite shop in the area for those on top,” says Fargo store manager Jason Christopherson.

Custom audio is one of the main areas where Tintmasters has made its name. Although Fargo has a Best Buy and other electronics stores, Christopherson says, “We get a different customer. They [the electronics stores] get the people on a budget; our customers are interested in exclusive lines.”

Tintmasters’ audio-related brands include Kenwood, Clarion, Panasonic, Scosche, Optima, Metra, Peripheral, Diamond Audio, Pioneer, JVC, Infinity, Audiovox, Kinetic, Audio Enhancers, SAVV, Rosen, Myron & Davis and Harmon Kardon.

In October, Christopherson admitted that auto-audio business is “way down across the board” in the Upper Midwest. National chains and custom shops are all experiencing the squeeze.

“OE systems are much more elaborate now,” Christoperson explains. “Bose, Infinity and other premium systems are OE in many vehicles as cost-effective upgrades in option packages. They’re decent for everyday use. They’re also harder for us to upgrade.”

As a result, about 75% of Tintmasters’ whole-system audio jobs currently go into 1995-2003 model-year vehicles. “It’s not what it was in the ’90s,” Christopherson says about the decreased demand for custom audio in current-model vehicles.

Sound investment

Competition and technological advances have also taken out some of the profit. “You can get a good entry-level system now for as little as $500,” Christopherson says. This is especially appealing to the core demographic for ICE (in-car entertainment), males aged 16-25.

Although Tintmasters’ audio customers tend to be young, they’ve become more attuned to sound quality as opposed to just quantity. “Most people want clarity and a level sound now more than just heavy-hitting bass,” Christoperson says.

As an example, Christoperson says that Tintmasters used to shoehorn four 12-in. subwoofers into many vehicles. These days, most enthusiasts are happy with one or two high-quality subs. Tintmasters prefers Diamond Audio or MTX, usually 12-in. or 10-in. models. “We use a lot of the MTX Thunder Forms,” Christopherson says. “They color-match well and have sleek styling that follows OE contours, so you don’t lose much space.”

In late-model vehicles, Tintmasters’ doesn’t fight the system — the company usually retains the factory stereo, especially if it’s integrated with a navigation and Bluetooth system. Its audio-upgrade prescription is often an amp and sub(s). Christopherson says that Tintmasters installs a lot of the RE-Q line-drivers because the unit accepts the factory inputs and produces fuller, clearer sound, all for about $100. A high-end subwoofer or two rounds out many late-model sound-system upgrading.

Sound off, picture on

Based on 13 years’ experience, Tintmasters sees aftermarket mobile audio as a slowly dying industry. Christopherson cites declining IASCA and USACi (auto sound shows and competitions) attendance as one indicator. “Satellite radio installs are basically gone,” Christopherson adds. “Four years ago, we installed about five units a week; we’ve done about five this year, so far.” Most new satellite-radio customers choose it as an OE option instead of having the technology retrofitted to older vehicles.

But other mobile-electronics areas help Tintmasters compensate for sagging audio revenue. “iPod integration is demolishing the industry,” Jason Christopherson says enthusiastically. Video is also up slightly. “Cost has come way down,” Christopherson says. “A 7-in. system that was a thousand bucks a couple years ago can now be had for $600-$700.” Tintmasters installs primarily Panasonic video systems.

Security systems are also hot electronic upgrades at Tintmasters. The shop pushes Compustar as the premium product currently available on the market. “The factory security systems are a deterrent, but they’re a far cry from Compustar,” Christopherson says. Features that help sell these systems include the two-way remote that pages the owner in case of incident, GPS monitoring with vehicle tracking and text alerts, and remote control of the vehicle’s ignition.

Speaking of ignition, one of Tintmasters’ cash cows is auto-starting systems. “First snowfall to about Feb. 1 is our harvest,” Christopherson says. “We install AutoStarts for 15 hours on a lot of days.”

Show your stuff

Although mobile electronics are an important chunk of Tintmasters’ revenue (about 90% of the customers who buy electronics also pay to have them installed), the bulk of the business comes from selling and installing aftermarket performance and accessories. The company has successfully adapted to a changing market. “People are downsizing, and we’ve seen a huge increase in fuel-efficiency products such as tuners and intakes,” Christopherson says.

Pimped-out SUV business is obviously sparse compared to last year. Still, this past May was Tintmasters’ best-ever for tires and wheels. Unfortunately, June and July hit rock-bottom for tires and wheels, but intake and tuner business was up.

“Eneos synthetics lubricants are skyrocketing,” Christopherson says, “even for hybrids. We don’t do general repairs, but we do do synthetic oil changes. We’ve even done a few $75 synthetic oil changes in minivans.”

To reach its customers, Tintmasters has a three-headed marketing approach: advertising in the Yellow Pages, attending/sponsoring events and word-of-mouth. “We did some advertising in the early 2000s to promote the name and build brand-recognition,” Christopherson says. Tintmasters has been riding on momentum ever since — the shop is consistently booked two weeks out for installations.

To meet enthusiasts and keep up on the customizing trends, Tintmasters exhibits at shows, specifically Hot Import Nights and DUB events. “We haven’t seen a decline in those shows,” Christopherson says. “One thing we’ve noticed about the slower economy is that people are going for a cleaner, less-gaudy approach. [Modifications] are now streamlined, more OE-looking.”

Tintmasters also hosts an annual show in Fargo. Heading into its fifth year, the Perfect 10 event “is exploding,” says Christopherson, adding that enthusiasts came from North Carolina and Virginia to attend the 2008 show. “It’s good recognition for our hard work.”

Tint my car

Overall, Tintmasters Motorsports is succeeding by keeping its fingers on many different aftermarket pulses. The shop still gets the occasional Vette or Escalade owner who drops off the vehicle on the way home from the dealer’s lot, and Tintmasters prides itself on being a one-stop solution for automotive enthusiasts.

“We’re more of a ‘want’ than a ‘need,’” Christopherson says. “However, we could do the needs — head gaskets, alternator replacements, general repairs — if it ever came to that.” In the meantime, Tintmasters still attends to its original business, noting that window tinting is solid. As Christopherson says, “It’s one of the most cost-effective ways to improve energy-efficiency.”

The forecast in Fargo looks fair to partly sunny. In 2008, Tintmasters Motorsports is within 5% of its 2007 revenue. “Some months are up, and a few are down,” says Christopherson. “Hopefully we’ll end the year about 5% up.”

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Restyler Snapshot

Company Name: Tintmasters Motorsports

Owner: Shane Noble

Main location: Fargo, N.D.

Satellite locations: Grand Forks, N.D.;Osseo (Minneapolis), Minn.

Years In Business: 14

No. of employees: 5 full-time, 2 seasonal (Fargo store)

Specialty: “One-stop shop for aftermarketperformance and accessories”