The thing to know about Cody Johnson, founder and owner of Illtech Auto Salon in Tacoma, Wash., is that his seven-year-old business is the result of his being both a businessman and a well-trained, passionate car guy.
He’s worked for all the major automotive manufacturers, and also had the good sense to launch his business online while he still held a full-time job.
Such work ethic is the backbone of a performance shop that handles many things-the design of Japanese and European vehicles, including installation of products Johnson sells, plus complete builds of vehicles including wheels, suspension, brakes, drive train upgrades, audio/video and security, plus full paint, body and collision services via an in-house bodyshop.
As Johnson explains: “We do just about anything you can do to a vehicle to personalize it. We specialize in upgrading, designing, tuning and servicing high-end Japanese and European cars, with lines ranging from BMW, Porsche, GT-R, 350Z/G Series, Supra MKIV, RX-7 FD, Subaru STi, and Mitsubishi Evolution 8/9/10.”
Moreover, Johnson’s work history includes extensive behind-the-scenes experience with the big-name auto manufacturers, experience he pairs-up with a personal passion for all things automotive.
“I first began working for different auto manufacturers,” he says, “from Nissan to Lamborghini to Range Rover, Jaguar and Ford-”pretty much every major manufacturer in the business. I worked in the back-end as a parts and service director.
“I’ve always been around cars,” he adds. “My father is an engineer and it’s been in my blood, even as a little boy, so I went into the profession working for the larger companies. Also, I always built my own car, and never trusted people to work on my car.”
Doing It Yourself
A little mistrust of auto mechanics and parts distributors added to a great big sense of “if you want it done right…” syndrome. Over time, Johnson wanted the best and came up against mediocrity.
“Often vendors were less than sub-par,” he says. “So, out of frustration, I started doing my own version of Illtech. I went to people at larger companies to get technical info and after awhile, I saw I enjoyed the business. I thought I’d take a major pay cut doing it on my own.”
As a first step, he turned to the Internet.
“I started my business online in 2002, while still working at dealerships,” he says. “I’d go home from my day job and then work on Illtech, often working until 2 a.m. The rest is history. We’ve had our resale license since 2002, and the brick-and-mortar company since 2003. At the tail end of 2002, I was shopping and blueprinting the plan, and the truth is that I just dove in headfirst without having it all sorted out. I sold my house, the cars, and cashed it all in to try this out and see if I could make it happen. The good news is that I ran across great people along the way. I’ve got a strong family and everybody helped out.”
More good news is that Illtech has grown steadily since 2003. The company’s sales have gone from an initial few hundred-thousand gross annually, to a couple million in annual sales. Of course, Johnson is quick to point out that he partners with like-minded vendors who help his business expand, as he helps theirs.
“There are a few companies that we work with that have risen to the occasion,” says Johnson. “One company is Agency Power. As we’ve grown, so have they and we really like working with them.
“TurboSmart and Motovicity are two others we work with,” he adds. “It’s important to note that we try products on our own cars, so we have confidence in selling products to a client, and we’ve gone through hundreds of companies and products doing that sort of testing. TurboSmart and Motovicity have both done excellent jobs handling us and our customers very well and doing a very good job of following up.”
Mackin Industries and Squires Turbo Systems also help stock Illtech’s shelves.
“With all of these companies, if there’s an issue, they want to follow up with us,” says Johnson. “That’s hard to find in this industry. We’ve dealt with other companies that often offer bigger discounts, but if they make a mistake, it’s final. There’s no follow-up, no real customer service.”
And that’s where Johnson says that his company excels-in providing the best customer service possible.
“The biggest thing we pride ourselves on is customer service,” he says. “Anyone can bolt on parts to a vehicle, but customer service is key to succeeding in this industry.”
It’s one of the lessons he learned from the big boys.
“Large manufacturers spent thousands of hours training me,” he adds, “and I firmly believe in that for our employees. The mechanical ability is necessary, of course, and lots of people have that. But the customer service side, coupled with the knowledge side and business knowledge, provides us the biggest edge.”
Illtech serves as a local distributor as well as a performance installation shop.
“We offer many discounts on different product lines, and we are master distributors of old and new companies,” Johnson explains. “We do well with parts sales. Our technicians are certified and they know what they’re doing. But our customer service simply cannot be beat anywhere in the region.”
Illtech’s physical growth is also evidence of Johnson’s winning knowledge/business/customer service combination approach. The company has moved several times in the last half-dozen years, and revenues continue to trend upward.
“We were in Seattle in a sub-rented space initially,” he says, “but it was not really our own. Within a year we went from that space to a 4,000-square-foot facility and shortly after that, went into a 7,000-square-foot facility. Now we’re housed in 10,000 square feet, with a full body shop. We’re in a lease-to-own space and we use every square inch of it.”
That 10,000 square feet helps the six-person Illtech staff focus on their individual talents.
“When we started, it was me doing everything,” says Johnson. “Now we have six employees who do everything from sales to service to design and merchandising. We’ll soon be adding more staff.”
Some of that additional staff will likely service Illtech’s widening customer base.
“When we first started the business,” says Johnson, “it was launched by word-of-mouth advertising and business cards. We’d hand out business cards to friends and family and put up flyers at the mall.
“From there we grew to today having Shawn McManus as our full-on marketing director,” he adds. “We do a number of marketing efforts that include creating our own HD videos for websites, YouTube and other companies-we use that as advertising. We have a lot of hi-res photography and print media (www.illtechauto.com), and we build vehicles to showcase products. It’s important that we demonstrate the skill we have to show potential clients-to show that we can build anything.”
Anything includes current Illtech projects that, by anyone’s standards, can only be called radical and visionary.
“We’re working on a 2009 Nissan GTR,” says Johnson. “We were the first in Washington to have one and definitely the first to have one this heavily modified. We’ve added a lot of different components to make it special. It’s a big enthusiast car, and we’re trying to create a market. We want to be at the forefront and it’s been well-received.
“We decided to reinvent it for next year,” he adds, “and it’s getting completely redone by our shop. We’re looking at wheels, a lot more power, turbo upgrades and tons of custom interior work. We’re also going to do lots of cross-promoting with vendors we know well, and new ones. That’s a big project and we’ve just started working on it.”
Success, in addition to successful special projects, comes in all forms at Illtech. Johnson credits his employees as one of his personal successes, and excellence as one of his professional ones.
“Our employees, I feel, are my own biggest success,” he says. “That’s a big success internally. Creating a business and opportunity and meeting a demand that was out there is my biggest business success. We do many things right. We re-inspect everything. Mediocrity simply isn’t acceptable here. We’re our own worst critics.”
And Johnson offers advice for those thinking of launching their own performance custom auto shop.
“If you’re going to do this, think about it a lot,” he says. “It’s really tough. I’ve had employees that worked for me say this is the hardest job they’ve ever had-and it truly is. It’s nothing you can explain-it’s one of those things that Mom and Dad said, ‘Don’t do it.’ But you do it anyway and learn the hard way.”
But even with his strong will, Johnson didn’t go it alone.
“I don’t recommend this to everyone-you need a lot of help,” he adds. “At the same time, if it’s your dream and passion, you should go for it no matter what. Nothing can stop you. You’ll make it happen.”
The businessman turns to his inner car guy to relate with customers and tell it like it is.
“It’s important to remember that people are coming to you for service and advice, and all you can do is give them what you have and be honest about it,” he says. “I don’t have to know everything, but it’s about giving what you have to give them.”
It’s what’s helped Johnson build the business he always wanted.