Trying Times: Tackling Adversity Head-on, Shop Finds Success With Forced Change - Tire Review Magazine

Trying Times: Tackling Adversity Head-on, Shop Finds Success With Forced Change

Tackling Adversity Head-on, Shop Finds Success With Forced Change

Do you ever feel like your business is stuck in a rut?

The doors are open, money is changing hands, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t seem to be enough, or isn’t worth the effort you are putting into your business.

Have you ever looked at your store and location not as an owner, but as a consumer? Have you noticed the big nasty spot on the carpet? How about the cracked window and well-scuffed floor? Do the chairs in the waiting area look like they could crawl away on their own?

With the Performance Training Guide, one of our goals is to help guide business owners to develop their performance-oriented business into a complete retail package. Sometimes the best way to illustrate the point is to draw on real-life success stories.

Not that long ago, Harley-Davidson stores were low rent ‘biker’ joints that kept all but the hardcore away. Today, H-D stores are attractive, massive and bright, with showrooms that beg the passers-by to stop in and browse, even if they don’t own a bike.

H-D branded clothing and trinkets now adorn the front of the store, while new and used bikes and traditional hard parts and accessories are displayed under modern lighting fixtures. For Harley-Davidson, the focus shifted away from the motorcycle as transportation to the motorcycle brand being a complete lifestyle.

For Harley-Davidson, the move was a case of ‘change or die.’ Sometimes turning a passion into a profitable business takes unusual acts of nature, perseverance, a strong family and a little luck to do the trick.

After 34 years of plugging away, Steve’s Off-Road (stevesoffroad.net) located in Mobile, Ala., is now the premier off-road and truck accessory retailer on the Gulf Coast. To understand where it is today, you truly have to appreciate what it took to get here. I know that many of you have faced or are facing similar challenges, so I hope that this will be an inspiration to you as much as it is to me.

In 1974, Steve Blitch walked away from a good-paying job that he hated. Fueled by a passion, he rented a couple of 10×20-foot units at a local mini-storage facility and Steve’s Off-Road was born. One unit served as his office, the other a shop. Within a year, he had rented 10 of the 200-square-foot units. It was time to move.

“I went from paying $120/month for rent to $1,200/month and didn’t know how I was going to afford it,” recalls Blitch. Haven’t we all been there! Steve moved to a larger building facing the interstate in 1975 and was there for almost five years.

Then, the first tragedy struck. Hurricane Frederick, a 125-mph Category 3 came right up Mobile Bay on Sept. 12, 1979. The building that Blitch occupied was totally destroyed.

The following year was one of many changes. Blitch located another building not far from the old location, but it was in a warehouse district. He laments, “I rented the back half of a warehouse and built a three-bedroom loft on one side and the shop on the other. I would get up at 7:50 a.m., take a shower and be open by 8. Lunch was just a few steps away.”

He also got married that year. He and his wife, Brenda, lived in the loft until 1985. They bought their first house together after finding out that Brenda was pregnant with their first son, Seth. Within a few years, the family expanded to include sons Dar and Caleb.

By 1989, things had slowed so much that Blitch sold the business to a franchise company and took a job working at a motorcycle shop. He kept his business licenses current, though, with one eye open for opportunities. After two years working on bikes, Blitch realized that he missed the creativity, fabrication and working with clientele that had grown to include many of the prominent area doctors. So in 1991, he went back into business.

“I had customers who would find me no matter where I set up shop. I didn’t really feel that location was of any concern,” he says. “The location we found did have a small showroom, but only one bay. After a couple of years in this location, we found a place in a strip mall that had more room for both a showroom and shop. The store had frontage on a busy road and we continued to grow.”

Eventually, though, a big box retailer built right in front of his location, nearly obscuring it from view.

Another Setback
Business went along smoothly, and continued to grow. But in 2005, Blitch had a health scare and needed to have stents implanted. By then, Seth had been working side-by-side with his dad, but with Blitch sidelined and recovering, the weight of the business rested firmly on his young 17-year-old shoulders.

With the help of many friends and his mom, Seth continued to grow the business while Blitch recovered.

When he was finally back on his feet, Blitch found a larger building in a warehouse district and made what he thought was his very last move.

In a bigger location and with a bright outlook for the future ahead, things couldn’t be better. Blitch’s other son Dar was helping out now, and Steve’s Off-Road had become a full family affair.

Then it happened. Steve had a full-blown heart attack. Once again his wife and sons stepped up and kept the business together while he recovered. A few months later, while still in recovery, a major disaster began percolating in the Caribbean.

“We had just dodged Hurricane Ivan the year before with little damage,” Blitch recalls. “Katrina moved along the Gulf far enough to the South that most everyone didn’t expect much more than heavy rain. The storm lulled many people into a false cense of security. Then it turned north toward New Orleans and the wind and rain here in Mobile started increasing dramatically.”

Before the storm made landfall on the evening of Aug. 29, Seth and Dar drove to the store to check on its condition. When they arrived, they found the front door had nearly blown off and was swinging violently. Seth called his dad to come down to help, and the three of them managed to secure the door. As they were about to leave, Dar pointed at the side of the building and screamed, “The bricks are falling!” Seconds later the entire front of the building collapsed.

Twisted steel, broken glass and crumpled concrete occupied the exact spot on which they had stood just minutes before. With everything they owned now exposed, the three of them sat in the truck next to the building throughout the night while being battered by 100 mph-plus winds and a harsh, driving rain.

What a Blessing
With daybreak, they were able to assess the storm’s damage. Even with all of the destruction, remarkably none of the six vehicles or two boats in the shop were damaged.

“As we started picking up the pieces, word got out that the store was destroyed,” Blitch recalls. “Soon, we had friends showing up with all types of trailers to help pick up and secure all of our inventory and tools so looters wouldn’t get them. Within days, we were open again using only the shop area. We didn’t have any power for six weeks, so we had a huge military-type generator brought in and just kept on working.”

The city eventually condemned the building, forcing Steve’s Off-Road to move yet again. The owner of a nearby warehouse offered a space for Blitch to set up shop. It was a small area, but at least it was dry and secure. Knowing that this was a temporary stay, they managed to make it work for two years.

During this time, Seth, realizing the business’ potential and the local boom in construction, went searching for a permanent location. What he found was a huge retail site recently vacated by a flooring company. Instead of another well-hidden warehouse, this store was all about “location, location, location.”

Situated on one of the busiest streets in Mobile, this building had a gorgeous showroom and plenty of shop space. For 30-plus years, Blitch had worked out of a number of locations, most of which were chosen for space and cost, not location.

Familiar with the location, Blitch told his son, “No way, it’s too much. We can’t afford that.” Seth, as persistent as his father, bugged him until Blitch agreed to take a look, if only to “get him to shut up about it.”

Walking into the store for the first time, Blitch says, “I saw that showroom and the workspace and thought, ‘This would be the ultimate, but there is no way we can afford this.’”

After seriously contemplating the matter, Blitch told Seth and Brenda, “I’m not going to be here forever, so it’s up to you to decide, yea or nay. We have enough reserve to last 90 days. If it doesn’t make money in 90 days, we have to leave.”

Mom and son gave it a yea and commenced moving. Weeks of agony and sleepless nights followed as they prepared the new location, wondering how they were going to cover the huge increase in rent. The new, improved store opened in July 2007, with a showroom filled with nice hands-on displays from many of the best-known manufacturers in the industry, and a nice array of products like auxiliary lighting, ornamental items, leveling kits, tires and wheels.

New Location, New Focus
If you think that accessory customers are just a bunch of guys who don’t care what the place looks like, think again. Blitch learned this one the hard way. “Within a few weeks of opening, a lady driving a Lexus came into the store. She needed something to fit a Jeep as a gift for her husband. Until then, the only women who came to the shop were with their boyfriends or husbands.”

The next awakening came when the wife of a long-time client came into the new location for about the third time in as many weeks. After waiting on the woman, Blitch looked at her and said, “Can I ask you a question? We’ve known each other for 25 years and you rarely came into any of my other locations. I’ve seen you more in the last few weeks than I have in years. Why are you stopping by so often now?”

The woman politely told him, “I was intimidated by the other locations. It was always a ‘guys’ shop. I like coming to this store because of the nice showroom and how everything is well displayed.” Over the next few weeks, that woman spent some $2,500 on gift certificates and other items, all because she felt comfortable at Steve’s Off-Road.

Lesson learned. “The hardcore people didn’t need a location,” Blitch says. “They would find me no matter where we went. Now, we have 30- to 40-year-olds with their first off-road vehicle coming in to find out what products are available for their trucks or ATVs. One guy who came in and bought from us said he was glad that the area finally had a 4-wheel shop. The guy had lived here for over 25 years, but he had never bought anything because he thought Steve’s Off-Road was a club, not a business.”

Generation X and Y
“The young affluent crowd that would never associate with the hardcore group are now coming in,” Blitch continues. “They’re buying accessories for hunting and fishing and bringing in their friends, as well. We are seeing a whole new group of customers, including a lot of walk-in business.”

A lot of faith was needed to get through years of ups and downs. It took another leap of faith to bring Blitch to this location and its growing success.

Now that he is getting ready to retire and pass the torch on to Seth and Dar, he offers some insight: “My competition isn’t with other shops. We can go head-to-head with anyone. Our competition is the home improvement stores or furniture stores. We sell products that no one really has to have. So we are vying for disposable income. If a guy wants a winch, but his wife says she wants flowers, which one do you think he’s going to buy?”

As for advertising, Seth points out, “We don’t spend much money on advertising. Word-of-mouth is the best advertising for us.”

Steve’s Off-Road is a well-established business with a huge base. If you’re starting a business or expanding it with new products, you will need to formulate a marketing plan to let potential customers know about your new products. Don’t expect to hang some brush guards and tool boxes on the wall and have people flock to your door.

A very efficient way to let customers know about new products is to utilize a good software package that allows you to maintain vehicle records and generate a newsletter that can be e-mailed at least monthly. Include new products, services and a coupon for something in each newsletter. Ask your vendors to advertise in your newsletter to help cover costs. This way, your customers will have a higher expectation of finding a deal and be more apt to open the email.

This hardcore off-road “shop” has now blossomed into a thriving retail “store.” To keep the momentum, Steve and his family are broadening their scope to include transforming 4×4 utility trucks into ATVs for a local importer. They can also build a serious trail truck like this Dodge 1500 that has appeared in a popular four-wheeler magazine on four occasions.

As you can see with Steve’s journey, it doesn’t matter how bad things seem to be; they can always be worse. Being nimble, determined and willing to change not only kept Steve’s Off-Road afloat through the hardest of times, it put him and his family in the best possible position to succeed when things started upward.

On those days when business is at its worst, remember that you’re not the only one who has or will face difficulties.

It’s how you react to any setback that will strengthen and show your real character. And reveal tremendous opportunities. 

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