As the Wheels Turn

Aug 23, 2013

“I’m always looking and thinking how to improve what we have going on, whether it be more diversification, new products, improvements to the showroom, new displays and practical opportunities for advertising,” Vallis says. “My wheels are always turning.”

Since Vallis established the restyling shop in 1997, California Customs has grown to staff 14 full-time employees, and now includes an additional location solely serving dealerships and a custom fabrication shop.

One-Stop Shop

California Customs retails a complete line of truck accessories, mobile electronics, interior leather, sunroofs, wheels, tires, window tinting, spray-on bedliners, and alignment and suspension systems. The company also offers custom fabrication and commercial upfitting services.

California Customs’ Fort Smith headquarters are housed in a 10,000-square-foot building, which includes the retail store, an installation area and a 2,400-square-foot showroom. Just around the corner is a separate 5,000-square-foot facility where the company performs commercial upfitting, spray-on services and custom fabrication work. Another 2,500-square-foot facility in Springdale, Ark., primarily caters to dealerships and has no storefront.

“We draw from a really big area,” Vallis says. “They’ll come an hour or two away to do business with us, so we serve a pretty good surrounding area.”

Vallis has a difficult time narrowing down his businesses’ most popular services, though commercial upfitting with truck packages has grown to provide the greatest volume of work, he says.

Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., California Customs’ largest commercial customer, relies on the shop to upfit all of its Wingfoot trucks. The custom shop installs bed rails, headache racks, front- and rear-camera systems and hydraulic lift systems on 100-200 of Goodyear’s service and delivery trucks per year, according to Kris Carroll, shop foreman at California Customs.

“We kind of go with the flow,” says Carroll, who has worked at California Customs for more than 10 years. “We see what needs to be done and what’s popular at the moment, and that’s what we start doing. We used to be into tuner cars, and do a lot of turbo, exhaust and body kits. Now, we mainly do four-wheel drive trucks.”

Vallis says a key to California Customs’ success is diversification. The company aspires to offer as many product options and services to its customer base as possible.

“Diversification is extremely important, and I think a lot of restyling shops have probably learned that over the last few years, especially when they went through hard times,” Vallis says. “If you’ve got the qualified technicians, the facility to handle the work, and the customer base, it’s a natural fit to add some of this other stuff that’s automotive related.”

Full Speed Ahead

Vallis’ eagerness for continual growth was something Carroll had been seeking in shop management before he joined the California Customs team.

“In the past, I did jump around a lot,” Carroll says. “I couldn’t really find anybody that was reaching like I wanted to. I wanted to continually grow and do more things. When I started working for Rick, he had the same attitude.”

Carroll says he also values Vallis’ willingness to invest in shop equipment and training. For instance, California Customs recently acquired a PlasmaCAM CNC plasma-cutting machine that Carroll says has revolutionized the shop’s custom fabrication capabilities. The machine allows the shop to produce its own custom parts without relying on manufacturers.

Carroll and another technician also were recently trained to use an alignment machine, while the shop plans to expand its presence in the wheel and tire market. Vallis likes to explore new markets and keep employees’ training as up to date as possible.

Spoiler Alert

Vallis started the restyling business 16 years ago selling rear-deck spoilers to new-car dealerships out of the back of his 1986 Chevrolet Blazer. He targeted vehicles at dealerships that already had spoilers installed and brought the attention of dealership principals to the poor quality of the installation work.

“I would physically carry my spoiler inside and show them the difference between my spoiler and the spoiler they had been getting,” Vallis says. “I would ask them to let me put one on and then I’d show them my install versus what they had been getting, and it was a done deal.”

Harry Robinson Buick GMC in Fort Smith, where Vallis sold his first rear-deck spoiler, is still California Customs’ No. 1 wholesale dealership customer.

Vallis moved the business to its current location in Fort Smith 12 years ago. With the help of a professional designer, an expansion and redesign of the shop and showroom was completed in 2011.

“The first year that we moved in here in 2011, our retail sales grew $500,000, and our commercial upfitting grew $500,000,” Vallis says. “It is very difficult to say how much the new showroom had to do with that, but it’s probably not a coincidence.”

Although California Customs experienced slightly slower business in 2008 during the economic downturn, Vallis says 2009-2011 turned out to be a profitable period.

“2012 was actually a little more difficult for us. We had been growing at such a steady rate and doing so well that we had to cut back a bit, because we had geared up to do such big numbers,” Vallis says. “We scaled back and got a little bit smarter in 2012, and 2013 has gone really well. It’s back up on the upswing and growing again.”

Primetime Marketing

California Customs’ targeted TV advertising strategy has helped make a difference in sales during the past few years, according to Vallis.

“I don’t do a lot because it’s so expensive, but I do some primetime stuff,” he says. “I advertised in the two Final Four basketball games of the NCAA Tournament. Those two ads cost me $1,400, but come Monday, the phones were absolutely ridiculous.”

In the past, California Customs has had commercials air during primetime network TV shows, such as “American Idol,” and “The Voice.” The shop even had a couple of ads air on local TV prior to and during the past Super Bowl between the NFL’s  San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.

Because the cost of running ads can be high, Vallis says he’s strategic about when and where to run them.

“When you’re spending $4,000 to $7,000 on a single ad, it’s important to know where you’re putting it,” he says.

Vallis now turns to a professional film company, called Imagine Film, in northwest Arkansas to shoot California Customs’ TV commercials. Shops often underestimate the effect a positive image can have on customers, he says.

“Your total image is so important. People draw so much from that when they’re deciding who you are,” Vallis says. “I try to look at big and successful companies-”they’re not big and successful for no reason. They know what works. There are reasons why big companies will pay $50,000 to have a commercial made.”

In addition to TV commercials, Vallis says word of mouth and social media bring in business and increase consumer awareness. Vallis says he decided to stop advertising in the Yellow Pages-”an advertising avenue he had used for more than a decade-”after surveying customers about how they discovered California Customs. The survey revealed that most were repeat customers or were referred by friends or dealerships.

“The referral is so important,” he says. “All of the sudden you have credibility because somebody vouched for you. When that person comes in, you don’t have to sell yourself, because he’s already convinced.”

Also vital to California Customs’ business operations is maintaining sound business practices, according to Vallis. This includes maintaining competitive pricing, turning out quality work, and taking care of customers before and after sales transactions.

Vallis says he strives to “do the right thing no matter what the situation is,” even if out of pocket costs are involved.

Since California Customs always stands behind its work, it only uses vendors that stand behind their products. Its top vendors include Tri-State Enterprises, Katzkin, Wheel Pros, MHT Wheels and O.W. Donald Co.

Specially wrapped vehicles and project vehicles also have been used to help draw attention to California Customs, according to Carroll. The shop once had a Hummer lifted and a truck wrapped with the California Customs logo by California-based West Coast Customs. Magazines such as Street Trucks andTruckin have also featured show and project vehicles constructed from the ground up by Carroll and the California Customs team.

The Intangibles

The California Customs staff includes sales associates, technicians and window tinters. Vallis’ wife, Marilyn Vallis, works in sales and handles the shop’s bookkeeping. Vallis himself handles the sales end of the business, while Carroll manages the internal operations.

“The marketing, the sales, getting my customers, retaining customers-”all that comes fairly easy to me,” Vallis says. “For me, the most challenging thing was creating the team atmosphere and keeping morale high.”

To help California Customs maintain a strategic edge, Vallis studies management books and the successful business practices of larger corporations. He folds some of what he learns into  California Customs’ daily business practices. He also values bringing a positive attitude to work every day and creating a nice workplace for his employees. Newly implemented team-building events help improve employee morale.

Carroll, who manages all of the shop’s technicians, says it’s important to treat every employee as an individual, because everyone is motivated differently. Although each technician is cross-trained to perform nearly every service the shop offers, employees often specialize in different jobs.

“We try to hire people that are excited about what they do for a living,” Carroll says. “We have a really good, strong crew.”

“It’s neat to know that something you created from nothing provides all of us with higher standards of living,” Vallis says. “I really enjoy watching our employees’ standard of living rise once they come to work here. Most of them get to a point to where they’re doing better than they’ve ever done before.It would be real tough to make this place go ’round without the right crew.”