Talkin’ With Lou: Ryan Gebhardt

Feb 23, 2011

I first interviewed Ryan for this magazine several years ago and I remember being most impressed with his seemingly balanced, or grounded, way of looking at this industry while maintaining such a passion for racing and performance.

It’s a rare combination: level-headed executive and racing-bred enthusiast. Numbers guy and marketing visionary. In my experience, you’re either one or the other. But not so with Ryan. He’s both and it serves him well.

Oh, and he’s also a guitar player. So of course, we hit it off immediately. He’s a Gibson Les Paul guy. Me, I’m an EVH Wolfgang guy. But we both play through Marshall JCMs and we both want to have lunch with Eddie and in our conversation at PRI, we noticed how similar the music industry is to the performance industry-a battle for discretionary dollars where the small shops struggle as mail-order drives pricing.

And in those similarities, we noticed what seems to work and where it seems to work and how Nickels continues to blaze ahead with this knowledge.

Back when I first chatted with Ryan, he was handling the marketing programs for Nickels. Now, Ryan is the director of purchasing and marketing for Nickels. His desk looks like a Wall Street trader’s desk sometime around October 1987, yet instead of the ubiquitous Value Line, it’s performance catalogs, WD sheets, and inventory reports for their new Dallas warehouse.

Much has changed and it was time to catch up with him again…

LJ: First off, congratulations on your first full year as a Dad! No greater gig out there, eh?

RG: Wow, words would not do that question justice. I am super-stoked and very grateful. Thanks for asking.

LJ: And it only gets better. OK, you were super-busy at PRI this year. You and I always have a least a few minutes to grab lunch or a beverage in Orlando, but this year was especially busy for you. Do you find being a buyer has more demands than in your role as a marketing manager? 

RG: The impact of either position is noticeable on the bottom line. When a deficiency is identified in a company it normally points to purchasing first. That dynamic alone is a hard one to warm up to. The “demand” or “challenge” of buying the correct products for a customer base is what motivates me.

LJ: You’ve worked your way up at Nickels through spending time in sales and marketing and it’s clear you know your customer. Now, you still handle the marketing initiatives for Nickels as well as the buying, right? So what’s a typical day like for you?

RG: Caffeine-injected!!!? Haha. I am wide-open from the time I start until I lock the building. It is time for me to apply everything I have learned: school, the motorsports experience and almost 15 years at Nickels. Industry relationships have been established throughout the years that are now supporting me in a brand new way. I am thankful.

LJ: It’s nice to see a “Real WD” acting like a “Real WD.” But I have to wonder for how long will this two-step distribution model last? It seems the weak are getting weaker and the strong are getting stronger. All the while, many niche jobbers are morphing into one-step WDs. What kind of compression or growth are you seeing with your customer base?

RG: We see growth. Growth happens when you pick a niche as WD, surround yourself with professionals and consistently increase the service level. Nickels is growing due to a lot of hard work by the employees and our GM, Mike Mobley.

Nickels offers the manufacturer a knowledgeable sales team that understands every aspect of the product. Many WD’s hire order-takers-that just won’t cut it these days. Nickels is proud that its purchasing, sales and marketing departments have racing resumes.

LJ: You’re definitely part of a strong team at Nickels.

RG: Exactly.

LJ: You simply must stay focused on profits to help your jobbers, right? What kinds of tools do you have to help your jobber base stay focused on profitable parts and as a buyer, how do you make sure you have the right inventory mix? 

RG: The quick answer here is to review national part rankings, but that is only 20 percent of the solution. Managing three warehouses has opened our eyes to regional needs.

Our weekly email blast, “Acceleration Nation,” showcases our latest and most profitable products. We do not bombard our customer base with information.

Our website, nickelsperformance.com, houses each manufacturer rebate and latest product releases. GoToMeeting has also been utilized to educate our entire sales force in Tennessee, Florida and Texas, and will allow manufacturer seminars to be broadcast to Nickels’ select jobbers in the near future.

LJ: With offerings such as your proprietary Engine Works brand, you’re better-able to offer fast-moving product categories with a protected margin, and we all know margin is eroding. How do you help your jobbers maintain margins?

RG: Mail order dictates margins within the jobber base of America. This is no secret and is also one of the leading causes of two-step erosion.

That being said, a private-label program is commonplace at every WD in this industry. Engine Works cannot be found in a mail order flyer, which allows a jobber to sell at Nickels’ recommended price.

Large or small, a strong white box program can help bottom lines at every level: retailer, WD and manufacturer. Our sales in branded product have not decreased with this program in place. In fact, branded product that relates to Engine Works is growing each year.

LJ: And you’re expanding right? Tell me about the new Dallas location.

RG: Nickels of Dallas can service most of Texas and all of Oklahoma next day. Several trips by our sales manager, Tom Ressler, revealed Nickels’ inventory fit the hardcore performance Texas customer. Our “Southern Hospitality” was welcomed with open arms in Texas and we are grateful for the opportunity.

Our inventory in Tennessee, Florida and Texas caters to the performance engine builder, machine shop and speed shop. Nickels is looking to expand again very soon.

LJ: You know the drill. Every issue I ask, as jobber, what would you do differently. So, say you and I own a place called Ryan & Lou’s Performance & Guitars (might as well diversify, eh?) and you’re in charge. You send me out onto the store floor first thing Monday morning to do what? What one thing can we implement today that will make us successful?

RG: Call a WD and establish the desired stocking levels of popular products sold by Ryan & Lou’s Performance. Inventory overhead cripples a small company in a challenging economy.

Work with a knowledgeable WD to increase your day-to-day working capital. Nickels caters to the needs and requests of every customer. We are growing due to the ability to communicate with the ever-changing hardcore performance customer.

Communication and relationship-building is the key to success in every business on every level. Oh, and we’ll be stocking Gibson, EVH and Marshall equipment, as well!

LJ: Right on! Now, let’s quit talking shop. When are you and I gonna get together to jam?

RG: You name it and I’m there!

More with Ryan Gebhardt

Last book read? “Was Jefferson Davis Right?” by Walter D. Kennedy and James R. Kennedy
What’s on your iPod? Van Halen, Jimmy Hendrix, Clutch, Alice in Chains, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin
Person you’d most like to have lunch with? Edward Van Halen
Favorite place to drive? Back roads of Tennessee-great place to shake down a muscle car after restoration.
Current daily driver? Chevrolet Avalanche Z71