Southern Hospitality: Offroad and on Target

May 1, 2012

For the folks at Tom’s 4 Wheel Drive, good business is about more than just making a quick buck. It’s about creating community, having good times and making great friends.

Within just a few minutes of talking with Conrad Fritts, it becomes readily apparent that operations at Lexington, N.C.-based Tom’s 4 Wheel Drive Inc. aren’t merely focused on the business of turning a profit.

“The best part of this work is the repeat business and the repeat customers,” he says. “If we’re all seeing eye to eye, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what you sold or how much you sold. What is important are the people you meet along the way. Seeing somebody go out there and have pride in their vehicle because of the work we’ve done together, I’m inspired by that.”

Make no mistake, between a brisk retail business with roots stretching back to the 1960s and a substantial and growing wholesale business – serving about 400 accounts of various forms of jobbers, restylers, dealerships both domestically and internationally – Tom’s turns a nice profit. But, Fritts insists, that’s not what his operation is focused on.

If that sounds a little hokey, be assured that it’s sincere. For proof, look no further than the unofficial company slogan peppered around the shop and on the company’s website and promotional materials: “Goin Broke – Makin Friends.”

“We love doing business and we care about it, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But I’m in a good place. I love my community. I love where we’re at in terms of geography. We’re close to the mountains and the beach. And the community supports our business and we do our best to return the favor. We’re truly blessed. It’s good to be me.”

Of the company’s slogan, Fritts knows how it could appear to an outsider.

“I admit it’s kind of goofy, but we have fun with our work,” he adds. “I always tell my guys, ‘Remember that the high school kid coming in for some $20 plastic headlight covers is probably just as excited as a guy coming in for a $2,000 lift kit.’ It’s all the same passion and we, as salespeople, need to acknowledge that excitement and have fun with it.”

Deep roots

A passion for community and doing great business is the family heritage for Fritts, whose uncle, Tom Fritts, founded the company as a tire store back in the 1960s on the very same plot of land where the company operates today.

“Tom was one of a kind,” Conrad Fritts says.

Tom’s original plan was to pass the growing company on to his two sons, Conrad’s cousins, David and Dennis. Life being as it is, though, things didn’t quite go to plan.

David’s and Dennis’ real passion lay in the emerging sport of four-wheeling, and they encouraged Tom to open a second shop with that focus on the existing property, which he did in 1979.

After a few successful years, David Fritts’ other major passion, fishing, started to creep from weekends well into the workday on Friday. Then even parts of Thursday, too. Before long, David was calling his cousin Conrad and encouraging him to come and manage the offroad shop.

“Well, David went on to win the Bassmaster and basically said, ‘I don’t want it. Conrad, you take it,'” The current owner says with a laugh, noting that he had not a single day of experience in retail at the time. “It wasn’t long after that, November of 1993, that Tom sold it to me.”

In coming years, Tom’s remaining son would also leave the business, leaving the company in Conrad Fritts’ capable hands to grow it into what it is today: a solid retail operation and simultaneously one of the leading distributors of direct-from-the-factory four-wheel-drive parts and accessories in the region. Today 60% of the company’s revenue is generated through wholesale transactions.

Service-focused success

While the company’s original family members no longer man the shop, an important legacy from their time remains: commitment to outstanding product knowledge and impeccable customer service.

That commitment, says Fritts, is what has allowed the company to remain strong even in the face of tough competition from online retailers who, all else being equal, would win on price every time.

But not all else is equal when it comes to the automotive aftermarket, he stresses.

“For us, it has got to be all about the quality of service and the knowledge and experience with what we are selling, because someone’s always got a better price somewhere,” says Fritts. “We’ve got years of direct knowledge and when we sell a product, we know what we’re talking about.

“There’s something about walking into a brick-and-mortar that some customers just prefer,” he says. “If they have problems, I’m not going away. I’m not knocking the Internet – I’m there with my business, too -” but there’s something special about talking, in person, with people who know these products and live with them.”

Fritts says that even if an online retailer has a staff with excellent product knowledge, they still won’t be able to connect with someone the same way they would in person.

“Our customers trust us, our opinions and our knowledge,” he says. “Not that we know any more or less than anyone else, but we take the time to build trust. If we don’t know, we will find that answer, and our customers trust us because of that.”

The proliferation of online purchasing also raises a number of issues when it comes to installation, including warranty concerns and proper fitment.

“It didn’t take too many experiences with products that don’t fit right or work right to know that we needed to do something to address that,” he says. “It’s not the customer’s fault, but you have to talk about it. It’s about educating people.”

Right People, Right Products

Educating customers on a sensitive topic like manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), the pros and cons of online shopping and the value of a brick-and-mortar shop can be challenging.

In Fritts’ case, however, he has a wealth of talented folks on staff to guide those conversations. It certainly doesn’t hurt that among his staff of seven employees, the greenest started with the company seven years ago. That committed staff gives Tom’s a crucial edge on its competitors, whether they are down the street or across the globe.

“Through the years, we’ve been very blessed in our business to have dedicated people who enjoy being here,” he says. “I think it speaks volumes about who we are and the type of business we run. That’s where our focus on having a good time and making friends pays off.”

Where staff commitment really pays dividends is in the area of product knowledge. The company has long been known as a go-to shop for performance offroad suspension upgrades, which make up the bulk of the shop’s business. Tom’s today carries brands including Rough Country, Truxxx, Hellwig, Superlift, BDS, Trailmaster, Skyjacker, Procomp, Fabtech, Zone Offroad, Tuff Country, Performance Accessories, Groundforce and Revtek.

Tom’s certainly doesn’t stop at just suspension systems, though. Today the company installs and distributes a range of products, from bolt-on accessories like running boards, grille guards and chrome trim, to bedliners and tonneau covers, winches, hitches and performance parts like intake systems, with such known products as Access, McGard, Perrycraft, Husky Liners, Curt, Bushwacker, Owens, Body Armor and Draw-Tite. Wheel and tire packages also are popular.

In recent years, the company has diversified into the RV market, as well, which Fritts says was a logical extension of its truck- and towing-heavy customer base.

“In today’s market, you have to figure out your niches and who your competition is,” he says. “Then you need to provide something they don’t have.”

Destination location

For installation work, the company enjoys a modest but adequate physical space of about 4,200 sq. ft., which includes a dedicated showroom area and a raised mezzanine level above three-quarters of the floor space. Also nearby is a 30′ x 60′ shop space located in a separate building on the company’s land.

For its wholesale shipping operations, the main building includes a drive-in dock and a backup dock. Throughout the buildings, effort is taken to provide a wide-open, well-lit and clean environment, says Fritts.

The shop’s location, about 20 miles south of Winston-Salem, N.C., located in a rural, wooded area separated from any other businesses, has both its benefits and drawbacks, says Fritts.

On the upside, when customers get to the shop, they’ve generally come on purpose with a product in mind to purchase.

“I don’t think people are coming here window shopping,” he laughs. “They definitely have something in mind; it’s just a matter of getting the chance to draw it out of them. You’re coming to see us, so what can we help you with?”

The shop is opened from Monday through Friday, but rarely on weekends: “If you can’t get it done in four or five days, you won’t get it done in six,” he laughs again.

The downside to the location, though, is that the company has to make some effort to keep up its traffic and to build its wholesale network. While Tom’s hasn’t ever advertised, per se, it does rely on a substantial website to promote the product lines. He is sure, though, to not sell directly online so as not to jeopardize the business of his wholesale customers.

In addition to their online presence, the staff members also regularly attend the annual SEMA Show. Fritts says it provides an important link to what’s new in terms of products, and also gives the team members an opportunity to build their network of suppliers in person. He also appreciates the legislative voice the association provides for the industry.

“[SEMA] is an important voice,” he says. “You may not always like what it says, but it’s our voice. They do a lot in regards to programs they put together and do a lot on the legal side of things.

“And maybe most importantly, it seems to me that the vehicle manufacturers don’t always see the value of our work on their vehicles, and SEMA helps us to get that value across. And the show itself is great. If you haven’t been, you have got to see it. The passion, the energy. It’s a special place.”

If a sense of optimism is apparent, it should be. Fritts says he generally takes a positive approach to building Tom’s 4 Wheel Drive. When asked what it is about his business that keeps him excited, he’s quick to answer.

“Each day is different,” he says. “Either it’s the year, make and model of the vehicle you’re working on that is changing or it’s the people you’re making friends with. That’s a fun business to work in.”

With that positive perspective, it’s no wonder the team at Tom’s makes so many new friends. And it certainly helps to keep the running joke about “Goin’ Broke -“ Making Friends” only half true.