Restorer Profile: Innovative Marketing Brings New Customers to JTM’s Hot Rod Shop

Oct 17, 2009

Many shops are concerned about a general lack of young, up-and-coming customers entering the hot rod, street rod, muscle car and classic car ranks to replace the current Baby Boomers. Instead of sitting and waiting for the younger crowd to just show up at his shop, John Mays of JTM’s Hot Rod Shop in Corona, California developed a marketing strategy to meet the younger crowd where they are- on social networking Web sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

“We looked at SEMA demographic data to see who fits into three or four of our niche areas like the 50- to 71-year-old male,” said Mays. “In 2004 and 2005, we saw the age group go down to the 42- to 45-year-olds and we also noticed more and more young kids in their 20s that were really interested in the muscle cars of the ’60s and early ’70s. Here in California, 21- to 23-year-olds, and in certain areas, 23- to 25-year-olds, are very interested in ’68 Chevelles. If you’re going to grow your business, you want to capture all the markets, or at least a good portion of those different demographic markets.”

While building his traditional customer base in more conventional ways, Mays imagined a different sort of marketing model- one that is just a tad unconventional.

“One of the ways the younger generation communicates now is through social networking Web sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter,” added Mays, who employed the help of his 29-year-old nephew in expanding their Internet presence.

“Younger people often have families, so it’s very difficult for them to get into a very expensive hobby, but we wanted to reach out to them where they are communicating.”

We started this business on a premise that we wanted to work with younger kids and younger adults to encourage a passion for the old muscle cars, project cars and hot rods,” he said. “We also wanted to work with community colleges in their occupational trades area, bringing the students onboard as interns to work with the gray-haired people. “At the same time, we still wanted to focus on the older core group because they have more spendable or discretionary income,” he said. 

Mays didn’t include a method to precisely measure the impact of their social networking exposure, but he believes their presence is big enough to command more attention and more development, causing him to plan for an upgrade of these sites.

“It’s significant enough that we’re aware that we’re getting calls and sales from those sites,” said Mays. “At the minimum, it’s a status quo quantity of business as the older people fall off and go on to something else. We get a lot of our retail sales from younger people on the Internet, but what’s amazing is that it’s not just bolt-on performance equipment. We sell a tremendous amount of sheetmetal repair. We’re also getting a tremendous amount of sales in Wisconsin, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. Potentially, the younger crowd offers a great deal of business.”

In his local area, Mays also encouraged a younger market, beginning with regular visits from school groups.

“We worked with the local high schools, donating a lot to their various programs,” said Mays. “We get a lot of tours and groups that come in with the high schools and grade schools around here. We also get a lot of high school kids that come around to clean the shop or we’ll get younger fathers who bring their kids in. It’s fun to watch the younger kids- boys and girls- and what their preferred tastes in vehicles are.”

While the potential for using social networking sites is nearly unlimited, there is also a downside.

“We’ve got to be careful with selling things over the Internet to kids under 18,” Mays reported. “We don’t have much problem with that, or at least we haven’t yet, but you’ve still got to watch it and be prepared with your policy statement and other things. That’s one of the drawbacks to that type of networking. You need to be prudent within today’s environment and social mores.”

Another downside is the time and effort required to keep the sites fresh and avoid stagnation.

“Maintaining your presence grows, depending on how much you want to put into it,” he said. “It can get really big. There’s a lot of business on the Internet, but it takes a lot of time. When you include MySpace and Facebook, you’ve got to have a dedicated individual and depending on how large it gets, maybe two.”

Mays and his nephew are currently upgrading their Web site and social networking presence.

“We want to establish a metric where we can collect demographic data and pursue more of a documented marketing approach without getting too survey-ish,” said Mays. “I know I hate taking surveys. We want to be able to quantify our results. We also want to feature a green area with products like hydrogen boosts.”

Taking an unconventional approach is nothing new for Mays. In fact, before JTM’s Hot Rod Shop opened, a truly serendipitous and lucky break cemented his path.

“We were lucky to do ‘Chop-Cut Rebuild’ in its third season on the Speed Channel,” said Mays, who worked for 30 years in the defense and aerospace industry before retiring at 55.

“We hadn’t opened the new shop. We were installing work benches and cabinetry and we got a call from Dan Woods, the executive producer, in July of 2005. He’d seen our sign from the freeway and wanted to stop in and talk. We didn’t have any cars in there, no tooling- we had nothing. “We thought he’d stay for 10 or 15 minutes, but he stayed about four hours and told us that Speed Channel would make their decision during the SEMA show,” said Mays.

“We figured nothing would happen. My friend Mike and I were at the SEMA show and Woods left a voicemail message saying that we’d better clean up the shop because the Speed Channel had selected us.”

When filming began on December 1, 2006, there was only one car in the shop: a ’34 Ford.

“You could hear echoes in the shop, so we had to deaden the sounds,” he said. “But from there, everything just skyrocketed. We never had a grand opening, we never moved any one of my cars in there, but by about the sixth show, we had 17 cars in the shop. Sometimes, you’re better off lucky than good.”

Mays influenced and changed the show’s content, taking viewers on a step-by-step journey, including the down-and-dirty details along with the fun stuff.

“We watched Rick at Valley Engines build the engine,” said Mays. “We went to Doug Thorley Headers and watched them design and build the headers and we watched MagnaFlow make a one-of-a-kind exhaust system. We presented a lot of the technical stuff that people didn’t normally get to see. We also took the show to Hot August Nights. We drove in the parade and then we raced the car down the drag strip. We thought it would help the ratings for the show and for Dan’s business next year with the Speed Channel- and it did.”

The shop gained an outstanding level of visibility and credibility in the U.S. and in Europe, Australia and South America.

The good news was that JTM’s business grew like gangbusters.

Simultaneously, the bad news was that JTM’s grew like gangbusters.

“Until recently, we were growing really fast and that’s something I wasn’t prepared for from the business perspective,” said Mays, who still handles the business tasks himself. “That’s a learning curve that I’m still going through and it’s gotten to be way too much.”

Currently, Mays intends to downsize his shop temporarily, reflecting both the current economic conditions, which are particularly difficult in California, but more importantly, his desire to step back and redirect the shop’s focus.

“In the last six or seven months, ten or 15 shops have closed within a 50-mile radius,” he said. “Our backlog has dwindled to nothing. Part of it is the overall economy. People in the 55- to 77-year-old group who had the income they could spend no longer have it. They cannot rebuild their wealth until the economy turns around. That’s not going to happen in a short period of time, so we’re moving to a smaller facility.”

Mays also wants to refocus to his original idea of what JTM’s Hot Rod Shop is all about.

“We want to do turnkey-type cars,” said Mays, who is currently pursuing his remanufacturer’s license. “I don’t know how the younger folks play into that, but I get the feeling by relating back to myself when I was 16- to 18-years-old, we didn’t have the money to have somebody else do it. You wanted to do it yourself and I think you’re seeing the same thing now. Younger people get their knowledge right off the Internet and community colleges are coming back to the vocational and skilled trades. I think history is repeating itself.”

JTM’s Hot Rod Shop has many strengths working in their favor.

“We have a customer base that always comes back,” he said. “We wanted a clean, presentable shop and we’ve got that. One of our strong points is that we can take on pretty much anything and get it done right. We still operate under the idea that the customer is always right, although it’s getting harder and harder these days.”

Among a couple of things Mays would do differently is over-equipping the shop.

“I went overboard on some things,” he said. “I bought all the hand tools and all the roll-arounds- every tool I thought I could ever use, we had it in the shop. That was overkill. Everyone who has ever come to work for me has all their own stuff and would rather use their own stuff.”

Mays also regrets wandering away from his original objective.

“Rather than pick or choose what kind of work we wanted to do, we took on everything,” he said. “I don’t recommend it, but a great percentage of the cars that have come through the shop are cars that have been pulled from other shops. That’s extremely difficult. What normally happens is you have to tear apart everything that has been done; sometimes because you find such horrific work that you’ve got to tear it apart. We’ve done a tremendous number of restorations and customs, and those take time-” sometimes more time than people want, but it just doesn’t go that fast. These projects also present a cash flow problem.”

In the meantime, there are two parts of the business that Mays can count on to bring in a large portion of the shop’s income: small repair jobs and sheetmetal sales.

“From a business point of view, the best mix is an abundance of quick turnaround jobs with a couple of long-term projects,” he said.

“Conversions like disc brakes from drum brakes, or power steering conversions, installing air conditioning or doing all new wiring are quick and they’re very good money-makers.”

“Our number-one seller, hands-down, which is really amazing to me, is sheetmetal,” said Mays. “We sell a lot of sheetmetal to places like Sweden, Canada and Australia. We didn’t expect that at all.”

Though Mays is downsizing now, in five years, he expects to be building his own cars in a larger building, where he hopes to organize a kind of hot rod-oriented industrial park.

“I want to have a showroom to sell the cars that we build,” he said. “I’m planning on five models that will be either steel-bodied or fiberglass replicas of the ’35 to ’40 Chevrolets and Fords with their own JTM name, car model and their own registered VIN numbers. I think we can do that with a $60,000 price tag, still using stainless and showy suspension, a good interior and a nice paint job with a 350 Chevy engine, a 700R4 transmission and a Ford nine-inch rear end. That’s my ultimate goal. “I’d also like to get into a large complex where you have your upholsterer right there, a paint shop and all the other needed pieces in a one-stop shop business-to-business relationship,” he said. “I think that’s do-able. ”

For more information visit the shop’s Web site at www.jtmshotrodshop.com.