USA Performance, located in Pensacola, Fla., is celebrating 21 years of being in business this February.
It is owned and operated by Bill Blauvelt and Stan Powell, two buddies who decided to go into business for themselves after working for a warehouse distributor, Speed Warehouse, during the 1970s and ‘80s—the first several years of their careers in the performance aftermarket.
“We opened it together,” Stan remembers, “We started here day one together, and we’re still it.”
Commenting on their decision to leave secure positions working for a steady business, Bill says, “I think it’s just the fact that you’re independent, and you’re able to call your own shots. We’d pretty much been working for the other guy all of those years, and we saw some changes that we wanted to be made in the industry. And in Pensacola, we had some pretty good ideas on how to do it. Plus, you can always make a little better living working for yourself than working for the other guy,” says Bill.
Stan’s comment was a little more concise, “Being able to open at 9:00am and close at 5:30pm,” he says with a laugh.
Over the course of its 21 years in business, USA Performance has seen some changes, the biggest change, of course, was going from the basic carbureted vehicles of the ‘70s to the computerized vehicles of today.
Sharing how they educated themselves, Stan says, “It was just a case of trying to keep abreast of all of the trends and keep up with all of the technology and be versed on the product yourself.”
Stan adds he and Bill did, and still do, a lot of research and ask a lot of questions.
“Of course, we’re never going to know everything, but if we have any questions about any of the products that are out on the market today, we have no reservations whatsoever about calling the manufacturers to get a little update on things or talking to somebody who might be better versed on the products than we are.”
Of course, having worked for a WD for 10 years, Bill and Stan had strong relationships with many of those manufacturers.
“Oh yeah, we’ve still got a lot of relationships that we built back in the early ‘70s, and a lot of folks we still deal with,” says Bill, who adds that those relationships helped out greatly when they were first starting the business.
“They absolutely did. We had a couple of WDs who worked with us very closely when we opened up, and they were very instrumental in helping us get going with our initial inventory, and they were just a huge help. The WD network is awesome,” says Bill.
“It was Seco Performance in Birmingham, Ala., and American Performance in Atlanta, Ga.,” remembers Bill.
“They basically put us in business,” says Stan.
They both added that today, they enjoy doing business with Nickels Performance.
Challenges of the Early Years
Remembering what is was like two decades ago when they first stared their business and were still facing many of the challenges inherent in a young company, Stan says they learned to live within their means, and that meant, “Living lean,” says Stan.
“Not that we had it that bad,” adds Bill. “We were fairly fortunate with the background that we had. We weren’t getting rich by any means, but we were making a living and able to support ourselves, and as Stan mentioned, you learn to live a little bit lean in the early days. As the years went by and the business started to grow a little bit, things just got better.”
The pair of entrepreneurs remembers that one of the fortunate aspects of the circumstances they created for themselves was that they had a good, established clientele who knew Bill and Stan. And, that clientele extends beyond the Pensacola area.
“We drop ship parts into different parts of the country and even different parts of the world from time to time. We sent a supercharger to Germany one time,” says Stan.
Bill adds, “Most of the guys that we started out with in the ‘70s and kind of came up through the industry with are still doing it.”
If those old industry hands aren’t doing it themselves, it’s their kids and their grandkids, people also know Bill and Stan and deal with USA Performance.
Breaking Down Tasks
The number of employees at USA Performance is same as its number of owners.
“We’re both generals, and we do what needs to be done,” says Stan, commenting on who does what at USA Performance.
Bill says, “If I’m on the phone, then Stan is waiting on customers and vice versa. We pretty much do whatever it takes to get it done. We’re the guys that wash the windows; we’re the guys that sweep the floors; we’re the guys that vacuum; we’re the ones that answer the phones, un-box the boxes, load up freight, check inventory in—we pretty much do it all.”
Stan and Bill are USA Performance. And today, USA Performance sticks to selling parts. However, when they started out, the business also had an installation shop.
Stan recalls, “Of course, the guy that we had working with us had worked for me when I was at one of our previous employers—for whom I had worked for since ‘72, up until Bill and I opened up in ’87—he came on with us.”
At that time, they we were doing lift kits and lights, or, “all of the truck stuff,” as Stan says.
“We’re pretty well rounded—you can’t make a living just selling hot rod parts. You’ve got to roll with the seasons, winches, bumpers, lift kits, etc., you name it, we’ve done it; we do it. And there’s an aggravation with employees. You don’t know what attitude is going to show up every morning. We ran the numbers for a few years in a row there, and basically, we were just keeping him in a job, and usually one of us was in the back helping him half of the time,” says Stan.
So, he and Bill decided to ax the installation side of the business. They have a reliable network of people who are capable of doing what they were doing.
“We just hooked up with those guys,” says Stan, “and we grease their pockets and they grease ours.”
USA Performance sells the parts and their associates install them.
Bill adds, “As Stan said, we’ve got some people locally who are extremely capable, and they’ve proven to us that they’re capable of taking care of our clientele the way we want them taken care of, and they make sure everybody is satisfied. We do some follow up, and we tell our customers, ‘If you have any problem with the work these guys do, let us know.’”
All businesses face obstacles that arise daily and annually. For businesses in Florida, hurricanes are among those annual challenges.
“There was a gentleman by the name of Ivan who came through here in September of 2004, and there’s nothing more depressing than driving up to your business and seeing the roof ripped off,” says Bill.
“Two walls and the roof of the shop were gone,” recalls Stan. “It peeled the front back about fifteen feet; it busted out windows. We had the front of the shop all boarded up.”
Despite the serious damage, Bill and Stan wasted no time pitying themselves. They simply took it in stride and then just went about the business of fixing up the shop.
“That’s one of the hazards of living in Florida. That’s just a part of the program. I think the only other hurricane we had was back in the mid-‘90s that came through, and that did a little bit of damage. But, it was nowhere near as devastating as Ivan. Hurricane Ivan just totally wrecked Pensacola; it was terrible,” remembers Bill.
Stan remembers they came in that morning, sloshed around in the water that covered the floor, checked out all of the wet parts, took a look at each other and said, “Well, let’s start cleaning up.”
“And that’s how you start,” says Bill. “We just began picking stuff up, moving stuff, drying stuff out, separating the good inventory from the bad. It was a job. We worked on that for weeks.”
A year passed before they were completely done repairing Ivan’s damage. However, they had the business up and running in much less time.
“It came through on a Wednesday night, Thursday morning,” Stan recalls. “We came in, cleaned as best we could, and we started moving all of our parts out into the undamaged trailer (behind the shop, where they kept their race fuel). We also had a buddy with a big racecar trailer that let us borrow his trailer. Then on Monday morning, we had another buddy that was in the roofing business—it’s nice knowing all of these people—and by Tuesday morning of the next week, we had a roof back on the building.”
Stan continues, “The first thing we had to do was get a roof so we could dry the inside, so we did that, four days after Ivan. We weren’t roofers, but we were up there hammering nails just like the rest of them. You do what you got to do.”
One of the things that they hated to see go was their carpeted showroom, remembers Bill. “Every square inch of that carpet was waterlogged,” and, he adds sarcastically, “I can tell you, that was fun peeling out of here. We peeled carpet for four days. It was awesome.”
Answering the question of whether or not they had to shut down shop for awhile, Bill says, “We put everything on the back burner for a week, but probably about a week later, we had some locals coming in needing winches for repair and recovery work. We also had guys needing tires to get out onto the beach with. So, we did what we could do to keep the business afloat.”
Customers of USA Performance
Commenting on how their challenges have changed as their business has gone on, Bill says, “You’re always going to have certain obstacles you’re going to have to get over. There’s always going to be some difficulties and some problems, but over the years, we’ve pretty much learned to deal with them and cope with them and do the best we could with what we had.
“Our main concern is to keep our customers happy, and sometimes that’s difficult, but the majority of the people we deal with are great people who are easy to get along with and are very understanding. As far as dealing with the problems, hey, if they pop up we’re going to deal with them. We make sure our clientele is handled.”
As to the type of customer that usually comes into USA Performance, Bill says, “Our clientele base ranges from young kids just getting started on their first hot rod to business executives. We’ve got a very broad range of people we deal with. We’ve got the guys coming in here wearing their three-piece suits, and we’ve got guys coming in here in their work boots.”
Things To Remember
When asked to pass on gems of knowledge gathered from 21 years of experience to those businesses out there who are just starting, Stan says, “Don’t be greedy, be patient and good things will come.”
That advice is exemplary of an attitude shared by Bill and Stan that whatever challenge presents itself—no matter what that challenge is—they will find a way to deal with it. That attitude might actually be the best lesson to learn from them.
Bill says, “You’ve got to stay positive. If you open a new business, you’ve got to be positive. I mean, you come into work everyday with a bad attitude, you might as well lock your doors and go home.”
Stan adds, “The biggest problem a lot of new guys in this business face is, they get rolling along and they start living beyond their means. Then things start slowing down, and the next thing you know, they can’t pay their bills. After that, they’re gone.”
Stan notes that he and Bill take a draw out of the business. That draw is just what it takes for them to live—not so little as to live poorly, but certainly and not so much as to live exorbitantly.
“We put everything back into the business. Our business and our land, our location, we own it outright, it’s ours. We knocked it out in five years. Put it back into the business rather than in your pocket,” says Stan.
Bill adds, “Take what you got to in order to make a living, but don’t forget you got to keep the business rolling, and you’ve got to keep money in the bank to keep your business rolling. Like Stan said, when times get lean, it’s always nice to have a little nest egg.”
Over time, it seems that many businesses develop a sort of personality—a temperament and character that usually reflects those of their owners. This is certainly the case with USA Performance, which reflects the positive, never-say-die, we’ll-find-a-way-to-get-it-done attitude and generally cheery disposition of Bill and Stan.
And, in the spirit of assigning human characteristics to businesses, let us make this additional anthropomorphic observation of USA Performance: If it were human, it would now have reached the birthday making it old enough to drink. So, here’s to USA Performance: Cheers.