Truckin’ through the rough spots

Jul 9, 2010

Truck accessorizing is a great segment of the restyling world. There’s hardly a product that doesn’t have an application for the truck market, and there isn’t another vehicle segment that is as versatile an opportunity for accessorizing as the truck market. Trucks are used for recreation, transportation and work; often the same truck does all three for its owner. Plus, they just look so cool.

Rob Lechot, owner of Custom Truck in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho (and a second location 40 minutes west in Spokane, Wash.), has had a lifelong love of trucks and a 21-year career that’s been a labor and a love.

Growing up, learning

“I was going to Boise State [University, Boise, Idaho] and managing a video store when I started in the restyling industry,” he remembers. “I started in a sales position with the Custom Truck chain in 1989, working in the Boise, Idaho, location. I didn’t do much installing, but I did everything I was asked to do and I learned the business quickly and liked it. I just took to it and I loved it.”

Lechot has been through a lot of growth with Custom Truck as that chain also grew. He was quickly promoted to manager of his first store in Ontario, Ore., in which he also took an ownership stake. With motivation from truck cap maker Leer and growth interest within Custom Truck he opened his first franchise in Coeur D’ Alene in 1995.

He describes his leap into ownership: “At that point I was sure restyling was a career I wanted to stay in. I wanted to stay with Custom Truck because they had a system that worked. I knew how to make money using their system. At that time, buying power was a big deal; I got deep discounts in buying, the benefits of an established insurance program, the existing software program – everything was in place and turnkey.”

Then a unique opportunity presented itself in 1999.

Lechot explains that “a camper shell dealer in Spokane went out of business and its building became available. It was the perfect place for a second location; there were two other camper shell dealers all looking at each other. So I thought, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t have to do a lot of advertising because that’s where everybody in Spokane goes [to that corner] to get a camper shell/truck top.'”

“There was fierce competition,” he continues. It was a different world in Spokane than Coeur D’ Alene where I didn’t have any competition. It was a whole new learning experience because Spokane is a totally different market than Coeur D’ Alene.”

Business grew, more shops came (and went) and Lechot hit cruise control on operating his stores.

But the recent economic downturn that struck the automotive world caused him to intensely reevaluate his business model and every aspect of his operation. Like many business owners he cut salaries, positions and benefits, restructured debt, streamlined product offerings and took on additional responsibilities. And his survival was still not ensured.

Lechot was resigned that “the last thing I had to do was go independent,” he says. “Custom Truck was really good to me, but eventually I simply had to break away in order to survive.”

Lechot knew that going it alone he would have to arrange his own software, bookkeeping and accounting, change his business name and all associated signage, letterheads and marketing materials, even uniforms – it was going to be expensive. He went to Custom Truck and told the operators he “was going to break away; and we worked out an arrangement that included them managing my books and my keeping the name for a very reasonable fee,” he says. “I’m still in a relationship with them, but on a much, much smaller scale. It is basically a marketing and bookkeeping arrangement.”

All the right things

Custom Truck offers a wide range of accessories for the truck market.

“We retail and install everything we sell. We, of course, sell the staples that everyone sells: nerf bars, Vent Visors, running boards, soft and hard tonneau covers, towing products” describes Lechot. “We are doing a lot of performance products. We do a lot of Leer products.”

Lechot also has a unique approach to spray-on bedliners. Because he has two stores, he chooses to offer two different spray-on liner franchises: the Rhino Liner that is a low-heat, low-pressure system, and the Ameriguard system that is a high-pressure system. He explains that “we sell a lot of spray-in bedliners. So whatever the customer wants I offer it. In Coeur D’ Alene we offer both systems, and in Spokane we have the high-pressure system.”

As well, Lechot demonstrates his excitement about PPF and window film.

“About five years ago I got onboard with paint protection film and window film. And that’s paid off really well,” he says. “Those products have good margins. It’s a big investment, but we do a lot of dealer and retail work in these products.”

His two stores each have a dedicated bay specifically for film installs; these bays are kept particularly clean, dust-free and are well lit.

“We have a full-time person who’s dedicated to PPF and window film installs. She’s very versatile,” he notes. “She started out with no experience; but we invested in her and got her training and equipment, and now she’s fantastic. She goes back and forth between my two stores.”

Lechot reports on a new product he’s found is gaining popularity. “We’re doing a lot of high-intensity discharge (HID) headlight conversions. We can convert any vehicle to HID. And it’s so much brighter than the factory light; it’s unbelievable. It’s amazing the choice of colors, depending on the kelvins (light temperature). Teenagers get dark blues or purples, but most people get a pure-performance white light. It’s a very simple installation and a great bang for the buck, with great margins.”

In addition to his pair of stores, Lechot maintains an e-commerce website as well as selling accessories on eBay and Craig’s List.

“We only put old product on eBay or Craig’s List; we aren’t making money, we’re just moving product.”

Custom Truck has an enviable inventory turn of 22-23 days between its two stores and Internet activities.

“We don’t have bad inventory,” Lechot readily notes. “I’m a stickler for not having old inventory. We’ve got a report that tells us of any item we’ve had more than a year. It’s our clearance list; and once an item hits that list, it’s gone. The salesmen make an effort to sell off of that list and are authorized to sell as low as cost to get rid of old inventory.”

Well staffed

Lechot’s pride in his staff is clear. He describes how “every store has its own personality. My Coeur D’ Alene store has six employees,” he says. “Spokane has four. Each store has 50% upfront selling and 50% installing. The crew I have I’ve had with me for years, and it’s a great crew. I’ve made my managers part owners. Dusty, my manager in Coeur D’ Alene, started as an installer for me in 1990 in Ontario. Kevin, my Spokane manager, has been with me since 2000.”

He continues. “It’s hard to have people that need attention,” he notes. “Honestly I’m so busy that it’s hard to babysit people. In my company I have to have people that are motivated and self driven. Over the period of years I’ve created the people who fit my mold, and they work great.”

Lechot believes good training and information is key to retention.

“When I have a manufacturer or product rep contact me and want to meet with me, I set up time for them to meet with my sales staff to go over the product line and keep them up to speed,” he says. “We go to SEMA every other year. Manufacturers hold seminars and we’ll send the appropriate staff to participate. I provide industry literature to my sales guys and they have to sign off on reading it.”

Standing apart

When pushed on what makes Custom Truck different from other truck cap accessory shops, Lechot is straightforward. “Our stores are very clean all the time; we’ve prided ourselves on that. We stay current on all the latest accessories like HID lights and LED replacement lighting. We’re trying to bring in the latest stuff, and we’ve aligned ourselves with the manufacturers that are players in the market.”

“Also,” he continues, “when we tell you that we’ll call you, we’ll actually call you. We follow through, and that includes phone calls and e-mails. We take care of customers. We install everything we sell and it gets installed right. We’ve been here a long time and we know what we’re doing. There are truck accessory guys going in and out of business all the time. People in the community know that we’re part of the community and that we’re here to stay and they can trust us.”

Rob Lechot is confident he’s made it through the toughest part of the economic downturn and is focused on the future. “We’ve got to stay lean and mean,” he says.

With his eye on innovative products for his clients, a great team at his back and a marriage of his two stores and online sales efforts, he should be truckin’ on for years to come.

Tint bay at the Spokane location. It’s curtained off for a clean, well lit work environment for applying paint protection film and window tint.

From showroom to install area at Spokane operation.