Talkin’ With Lou: John Hotchkis, President/CEO, Hotchkis Performance

Dec 2, 2009

Although I’ve since traded it in for the ubiquitous, eco-unfriendly, and now exorbitantly expensive SUV (read = kids and the price of gas), a few years ago I owned an Audi A4 B6. Although John doesn’t know this – I wrote this intro after our interview – my first upgrade on the S4 was the H Sport sway bar set recommended to me through the local Audi club. His recommendation went something like this, “you think you’re having fun on that 696 on-ramp today, just wait until you install these sway bars!” In all these interviews, there are typically only a few wherein I have first-hand experience. Hotchkis is one of those brands. And, more importantly, Hotchkis is another excellent American entrepreneurial story starting from one man’s mix of passion, sweat equity, and determination.

L.J.: John, unless I’m wrong, you just celebrated 15 years with Hotchkis Performance. How’d you get started building Hotchkis Performance and where do you see your company in the next 15 years?

John: My aftermarket career began in a very unorthodox way. My life goal was to be a successful race car driver and I was fortunate to have done just that. My driving career reached a turning point when I met legendary Corvette tuner, Dick Guldstrand. It was during an extended tour of his original shop on “Thunder Alley” in Culver City, Calif. that I became fascinated with the performance aftermarket. Naturally, being a car guy, I had purchased plenty of performance parts for my project vehicles. My view as a consumer was from the outside; at Guldstrand I immediately noticed the excitement from inside their facility. They developed parts that consumers enjoyed purchasing. From that moment on, I knew the performance aftermarket was for me.

I needed a way in and signing up as a demonstration/test driver at Guldstrand Engineering was just the ticket. Jumping right into Guldstrand’s sales and marketing department gave me a first-hand, insider’s look at the high-performance aftermarket industry. Just three years later, in 1993, I made the decision to open my own firm, manufacturing performance suspension components that would maximize the handling on a wide-variety of production and racing vehicles. Now 15 years later, we continue that trend.

Hotchkis Performance has grown into a multi-faceted performance aftermarket company specializing in sport suspension for American muscle cars and trucks, premium European vehicles, sport compact cars and OE auto manufacturers. We concentrate on producing high quality, thoroughly developed performance suspension that dramatically improves the vehicle’s handling and control.

L.J.: Superior quality seems to be the benchmark for all Hotchkis products. Can you tell me more about your design and engineering process as well as the rigorous testing process?

John: Yes, quality is the benchmark for our products. But, that is only the beginning. We design and develop our sport suspension products to make classic muscle cars handle like new cars and new European cars handle even better. Our customers want a radically improved driving experience without a stiff, unpleasant ride. Initially we conduct base line testing on the stock vehicle. In addition to rigorous street driving, these tests include 600′ slalom, 200′ skid pad, 60 to 0 MPH braking and an autocross or road course. We punish the cars to determine the weak areas of the suspension and then design a better solution. We design our sport suspension using Solidworks CAD and CosmosWorks FEA analysis program. This ensures a light weight, durable and efficient suspension. With prototypes in hand it’s back to the test track for more brutal driving. Once the prototypes are proven we optimize the designs for production. The trick to our business is making awesome quality adjustable sport suspension that bolt on to a variety of cars time and time again. Our suspension must look great, be easy to install, and make a dramatic difference in handling and control over the stock suspension.

L.J.: And all this results in some of the most popular and proven race and street suspension products. Now, a lot of people make the mistake of simply swapping out their original springs with aftermarket springs only to discover rough or bouncy handling. Balanced handling involves more than just the springs, right?

You said it! For many companies performance suspension is not performance at all. For example, the suspension on any car is designed to work in a certain area of travel. Too low and the suspension arms are at severe angles way out of the intended sweet spot travel range. Terrible things happen, such as, excessive bumpsteer, bottoming, ball joint binding when a car is lowered beyond an acceptable height. Stock suspension geometry determines the height a vehicle can be lowered. Generally anything lower than two inches below stock is detrimental to handling, stability and ride quality.

Another very important factor is that a lowered car has less suspension travel than stock. This reduced travel must be managed well for successful performance improvements. Pitfalls include, shocks bottoming out or running in their last inch of travel, springs without enough spring rate to keep the car off the bumpstops.

Balanced handling is the result of careful suspension analysis, testing and ride work. This result is a handling package that dramatically improves handling, control and most importantly is a blast to drive.

L.J.: You started this business in 1993 with suspension products. And today, Hotchkis Performance is doing much more like fabricating show and race cars, transporting cars, track day prep, and more. What else are you guys up to and how can a performance retailer take advantage of your momentum?

Offering enthusiasts premium Sport Suspension that dramatically improves vehicle handling is our focus. We are fortunate to have expanded into many exciting areas that enhance our performance suspension product line. The capabilities of our installation department are outstanding. While we design our suspension for the “do it yourself” home mechanic, many customers ask us to perform suspension upgrades at Hotchkis Performance. Our technicians are enthusiasts, so they know the importance of performance alignments and track ready maintenance. Our team has built and maintained race cars, show cars and more. Currently we have three in-house project cars in various stages of development.

We constantly monitor our suspension products for durability, longevity, fitment and ease of installation. Installing Hotchkis Sport Suspension on a variety of vehicles gives us terrific insight to these issues. We can modify the production products, change hardware specs, improve the directions and much more with the knowledge gained from our installation team.

The performance retailer can take advantage of our momentum in many ways. We are constantly working to gain increased exposure for our Hotchkis Sport Suspension brand by aggressively working with print, web-based and television media. This increased name recognition along with our quality product line creates the opportunity for the performance retailer to sell and install Hotchkis Sport Suspension. Our goal is to create the “pull through” on our line so the enthusiast customer is presold on Hotchkis. The performance retailer should confidently recommend our Sport Suspension in combination with performance engine parts, exhaust and wheel/tire sales. Suspension is a vital component to a successful automotive project. A car, truck or SUV with inadequate suspension will not reach its potential regardless of how much horsepower or tire grip it has.  The solution: Hotchkis Sport Suspension.

L.J.:  Tell me more about the Hotchkis 2008 BMW 335i and your recent finish at the BMW CCA LA Autocross.

What a car! We have developed our Sport Suspension package that transforms the twin turbo coupe into a serious handling machine. Like most BMWs, the as-delivered 335i has adequate, but rather benign handling characteristics from the factory.  Our customers want quicker, crisper, more precise handling than stock without degrading ride quality. In order to accomplish this task, we need consistent real world testing and therefore have been running the car at local BMW Club and SCCA autocross events. We even shipped the car to The Tire Rack in South Bend, Ind. to compete in the 2008 Windy City BMW Club Challenge autocross event in June. The BMW Club autocross you mention was held last spring at California Speedway. This was a crucial event for us because the BMW was really quick and responded well to the latest prototype parts. Not unlike developing a race car, we tested spring and sway bar rates, alignment setting, ride heights and more during the previous autocrosses. The car was good, but not great, until we hit on the right suspension combination. Just takes time! Our 335i is a fully equipped street car, so we were delighted to take home second place in the modified BMW class against some seriously improved BMWs.

L.J.: John, one of my goals here at Performance Business is to give the retailer one good idea, something they can run with today for dramatic results. If you were a performance retailer, what would you be doing to differentiate yourself and increase your sales?

I believe performance suspension is a huge area for growth with the performance retailer. The vast majority of salespeople are comfortable selling wheels, tires, exhaust and engine upgrades. The customer is generally more comfortable with these topics as well. Suspension is a bit more mysterious and subjective.

Our traditional muscle car consumers in most instances are conducting a restoration on their Camaro or Chevelle. This is a perfect time for the performance retailer to suggest the car be outfitted with our TVS complete suspension package. The stock suspension is probably worn out and needs complete replacement. Therefore, the customer can either choose the old technology, ill handling stock replacement suspension or upgrade to our superior handling, bolt on Total Vehicle System packages. We hear from many customers that their old ’67-’69 Camaro handles better than a new sports car. Many even mention late-model Corvette handling. The retailer should strongly suggest the car undergo a suspension improvement, not just a restoration.

Often the new car customer doesn’t know how much better the car can be. Having checked off every performance-related box on the order sheet the customer says, “I have the ultimate”, when in reality the automakers must cater to a larger audience and can’t offer the refined performance suspension like Hotchkis Sport Suspension.

We strongly suggest that performance retailers recommend new enthusiast car owners start with our sway bar upgrade. This relatively inexpensive purchase transforms the handling from numb to quick and alive. Unlike many exhaust or intake products, the sway bar purchaser will feel a dramatic difference in their vehicle, which will make the subsequent suspension upgrade sales to that enthusiast even easier. They will believe!

The team at Hotchkis Performance realizes the consumer and performance retailer needs better education on the features and benefits of performance suspension. We are striving to accomplish this with an aggressive PR campaign, web site improvements and customer-reseller training and increased visibility for Hotchkis Sport Suspension at shows and competition events.

L.J.: Great advice. I’ll be back to see you when I take the plunge on a used RS-4. Meantime, I look forward to catching up with you at SEMA.

John: Sounds good. We’ll see you then.

JOHN HOTCHKIS, President/CEO, Hotchkis Performance

Favorite cars:
Porsche 962, Ferrari 250 GTO

Last book read: 
The Innocent Man by John Grisham

Favorite place to drive: 
Highway 2 starting inLa Canada, Calif.

Person you’d most like to have lunch with
Roger Penske

What’s on your iPod:
Jimmy Buffett, CharlieDaniels Band

If someone was to play “you” in a movie, who would it be:
Brad Pitt