Talkin’ With Lou: Steve Tooker, CEO, American Racing Wheels

Dec 2, 2009

L.J.: Steve, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. There aren’t many folks in the aftermarket who can honestly say they haven’t heard of American Racing, but what many folks don’t realize; American Racing is really a family of some of more popular brands like Motegi, Dropstars, Weld, ATX, Twenty Inch Strong and the Boyd Coddington collection of wheels.  How did American Racing get started and when did the growth really start to take off for you guys?

Steve: It all started in 1954 when a couple of drag racers wanted to build wheels that would help them go faster. It was their love of wheels, racing, and innovation that led to the incorporation of American Racing in 1956. The introduction of the Torq Thrust during the heydays of hot rodding in the ’60’s was the first big surge in sales and it was in the late ’90’s that American Racing expanded our brand offerings and really took off. The company is unique in that it’s a collection of brands like American Racing, that founded the company, brands like TIS and Dropstars that we market through partnerships, Weld and Boyd Coddington, which were acquired, and a brand like ATX which was developed by us organically.

L.J.: How much synergy exists between the brands within product development, sales & marketing, etc.?

Steve: There is a tremendous amount of synergy although it doesn’t always appear that way on the surface. Each brand has its own identity, positioning and target audience. The origins and motivations for the designs that we introduce are varied and brand specific, but the execution has a lot of commonalities. At the end of the day, we are all car guys. Whether your particular interest is Hot Rods, Import Tuner, Luxury SUV, or any other segment, the consumer is looking for a high quality product that accentuates their vehicle, performs to their expectations and is priced where they expect it to be. That is where the synergy lies; we want each brand to deliver on Quality, Style, Performance, and Value. The marketing vehicle to deliver that message depends on the brand and its audience, but the underlying message is the same. This approach gives us the unique selling proposition for each brand, while keeping the operating platform beneath the surface, the same.

L.J.: Any recent acquisitions or planned acquisitions?

Steve: The acquisition of Weld Racing at the end of last year was our last major acquisition. It has helped us to expand our product offerings with a complete line of forged aftermarket and race wheels, as well as add a state of the art manufacturing facility in Kansas City. Prior to that, we acquired Boyd Coddington.  That’s enough for us for now, and it gives us a great portfolio to now grow and expand.

L.J.: You’ve got wheels for late model cars and trucks, off-road vehicles, vintage cars, signature or celebrity series wheels, and of course, racing wheels. In your experience, where are most consumers purchasing wheels and tires? Chains like Discount Tire or Belle Tire, independent retailers, mail order? Do you foresee any significant changes in the distribution channels?

Steve: As it stands today, consumers are voting with their choice of retailer and they haven’t significantly narrowed down a preference. The chains are growing significantly within their territories, but the independents remain strong. The internet is of course a growing channel which is having a significant impact on how people purchase wheels and what they expect to pay for them. Finally, dealerships are slowly developing their own aftermarket wheel capability, and especially for the new car market, are becoming a new channel.

L.J.: It’d be great if new car dealers embraced the aftermarket.  They own the customer and in many cases can roll the purchase into the original financing.  Now, you’ve got an excellent dealer locator on your site, tell me more about your dealer locator and this great support program, Dealerline.

Steve: Active dealers in our system are included in the dealer locator. Dealerline is a program we created for our customers to make it easier for them to check inventory, pricing, and shipping status of their orders. They can also see the application guide and review their account history. It is like having an American Racing employee available to them 24 hours a day to answer their questions quickly and easily. We also offer Dealerline special promotions to keep our products and brands top of mind. This is something that is available to all customers who have an account established with American Racing.

L.J.: The wheel and tire market strikes me as extraordinarily competitive.  What types of sales & marketing programs do you offer to support your dealers and help them grow their business with you?

Steve: Yes, the market is very competitive and we recognize that we need to help our customers in as many ways as possible.  We have been developing regional and national promotions to help drive consumers to our customers to purchase our product.  In particular, we have been using our sponsorships and relationships with professional teams and drivers to create traffic driving promotions.  As an example, we are completing a program with Discount Tire Centers here in Southern California where we have been running a promotion with Motegi Racing products.  At these store events Formula D drivers Tanner Foust and Steph Papadakis have made appearances, signed autographs, and generated some tremendous support and excitement with consumers.  We also use our partnership with DUB Magazine and their DUB Superseries Auto Show and Concert to involve local market customers, provide tickets to shows, etc., as an incentive to purchase the TIS and Dropstars wheels.

L.J.: I understand you have a line of wheels with Dale Earnhardt Jr.  How did you select Dale Jr. as the personality to do a line of wheels with and how has that been received?

Steve: We introduced The Dale Earnhardt Jr. Signature Series line of wheels this year and it is off to a great start.  We are often approached by various personalities and brands who want to create a line of wheels. However we are very careful to select only people who fit well with the American Racing brand, who have a performance heritage, and are known as leaders in their field.  Dale Jr. fits that description and being the most popular NASCAR driver obviously helps as well.  He has been very involved in everything from the designs we go to market with down to the names of the wheels.  He and the Jr. Motorsports people have been great to work with and share our passion for creating high quality, performance products.  The only other person to date that we have chosen to work with directly in association with the American Racing brand is Carroll Shelby and the Carroll Shelby Legend Series of wheels has been similarly well received by consumers

L.J.:  As you know, one of my goals at Performance Business is to give the performance retailer one good idea every issue – something they can implement today.  If you were a performance retailer, what would you be doing today to grow your business and differentiate yourself from the competition?

Steve: Know your consumer, market to them vigorously and stick with it.  Be creative.  Survey your customer base, find out who they are and what they buy.  Where did they learn about you, why did they come in, who else did they consider, etc.?  Since the business is so competitive, I think that the single biggest thing that a retailer can do is target market.  It creates a point of difference, a loyal following and eventually a competitive advantage.  We look very simply at our model as Supply and Service and if we are doing both with excellence, we will be very competitive.  We also have a bias toward knowing and embracing the younger consumer.  If their first experience with you is good, you have potentially built a lifelong customer.

Make everyone in the company the Director of First Impressions.

L.J.: Steve, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. We’ll undoubtedly see you at SEMA this year.

Steve: We look forward to meeting your readers and introducing them to our 2008 product line.

STEVE TOOKER,CEO

Favorite car: 
My 2006 Range Rover Sport, now that it has new TISM 22˝ custom wheels! Land Rover only made 250 of the Vesuvius Orange color and it rocks.

Last book read:
I read all new Clive Cussler novels. First, he’s my neighbor in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and second, I love oceanography and the mysteries that it uncovers

Favorite place to drive:
Like many people who love performance, the Autobahn.

What’s on your iPod playlist? 
No time for an iPod, but my car satellite radio is always tuned to the 70’s. I know all the words.

Person you’d most like to have lunch with:
Well, it’s a long list, but I always look forward to lunching with my kids, and I really want to stay in tune with teenagers and trends amongst youth.