Auto Trim & Restlying News: Auto Trim Design of Alaska: Battling the Elements Tests Mettle and Metal by Gary Wollenhaupt-Janury 2007

 January 2007

Auto Trim Design of Alaska: Battling the Elements Tests Mettle and Metal
by Gary Wollenhaupt

In the land of the midnight sun, the hardy souls at Auto Trim Design have grown a loyal customer base while battling weather that freezes and bakes equipment to the point of failure. From its beginnings in 1984 as an automotive graphics business run out of the pickup of founder Bob Boswood, this shop in Fairbanks, Alaska, has expanded to include a full accessories sales-and-installation operation, as well as the graphics business that includes vehicle applications and signage. General Manager Steve Vincent chalked up the shop’s success to keeping in tune with the customers. “The key to survival for anyone in the business is to diversify your product lines and keep your stock levels to a point where you can move with the market and you don’t get hammered on owning too much highly valued stock that depreciates at a rapid rate,” he said. Put to the Test However, offering the newest products can be a challenge. See, the temperatures in the Tanana Valley in central Alaska range from 60 below zero Fahrenheit to 90 above, putting a strain on electronics, graphics and nearly everything else. “Everything in our store we test in cold weather before we sell it,” Vincent said. “Any manufacturer will tell you their product works great in cold weather, but they don’t have a clue.” Taking the time to test products means the shop is not always the first to offer a hot new gadget. But Vincent likes to think they do it better, with an emphasis on quality and service, not being first with a fad. “If there’s some new whirligig that hits the marketplace, I’m not apt to jump on it and buy 20 of them and get them out in the store quickly,” he said. “I’m more likely to test it through the winter. I want to make sure it will survive the winter before I invest in it or I sell it in the store because we’ve built a reputation for quality. Sometimes by the time we get a product to market, it may already be in a box store. That doesn’t really bother me. A box store just sells the product; we sell the product, installation and our reputation.” For instance, remote autostarts are popular in a climate where spit freezes before it hits the ground, but not all of them work as advertised. In 2005, the shop sold and installed 3,353 autostarts for local car dealers as well as the public. They warrant the autostart for as long as the owner owns the vehicle, so it’s important to have equipment that hold up to the temperatures. “Cheap electronics fail around minus 37-38 degrees,” Vincent said. “A lot of autostarts that work at minus 35 won’t work at minus 38. You actually have to touch the remote to the glass of the windshield to get it to operate. We test them to make sure they’ll work at 60 below.” Installation Challenges Working on car and trucks in subzero temperatures presents a few challenges. For one thing, vehicles have to be brought into the shop to warm up to something close to room temperature before any work begins. “What you can feel with your hand, like the forward face of a dash, doesn’t tell you if cold air is trapped behind it,” Vincent said. “It could be 30 degrees on the face of the panel and it could still be 30 below underneath the dash.” Of course, there’s plenty of room to get cars out of the weather. There are two bays designated for tinting, one for graphics, and one for bedliners. Ben Boswood, general manager of the signs and graphics department, said they usually let cars warm up inside for an hour before working on them. Sometimes, there are as many as 14 cars in the shop getting up to temperature. Subzero temperatures outside pose a special problem for vinyl graphics and tints. “When we tint a vehicle, we have the owner leave it in the shop overnight before we put it back out on the road because tint that’s frozen will blow right off the glass,” Vincent said. Electronics installations are tricky as well. “We solder all our connections because the expansion and contraction from the temperature extremes causes a lot of crimp connections to loosen after a period of time,” Vincent said. Even installing the basic accessories such as running boards and mud flaps takes extra care in this rugged environment. “We have to make sure we Loctite our bolts and do all that because there are many washboard and gravel roads up here that just tear things apart,” Vincent said. Training for Consistency Because of the demands of the installations and the emphasis on quality workmanship, Auto Trim Design started a mentoring program for newly hired installers. The new installer works under the supervision of an experienced veteran for six months. Installers are ASE certified in electronics systems, and some tackle installations on new vehicles even before a wiring diagram is available. The installation procedures are standardized, which is important for popular items such as autostarts. “Everybody in the shop uses the same tools and layouts so that from a consistency standpoint, because we warrant these things as long as the person is the original owner of the vehicle. If we have to go back in and troubleshoot the problem we don’t find that one guy used a passlock bypass module and another person hardwired the lock bypass,” Vincent said. Training is part of the shop’s strategy to attract and retain good installers, and to keep everyone busy throughout the year. “We try to cross-train people enough so that we don’t have to lay them off,” Vincent said. “Sure, there may come a day when we have a layoff, but we’re doing our best through diversification and running vacations during times when different departments are going to be slow. It costs an awful lot more to train somebody new than it does to retain good people.” Product Mix Fits the Market Vincent calls Fairbanks “truck country, because about half the vehicles here are trucks.” They mount a lot of lights and light bars, brush guards, mud flaps, running boards and other basics for work and personal vehicles. They also install sound systems and mobile video. “We do a lot of step rails [so people can] get in and out because there’s a fair amount of mud up here,” Vincent said. “We put lots of DuraShield on hoods and rockers, and also spray-on bedliners on rocker panels for people who live on gravel roads.” Pickup truck toppers are big sellers in the summer months for people going hunting, fishing, and camping. Interestingly, sales of electronic temperature gauges pick up when the short Alaska fall turns to winter. “I guess people want to drive along and see how cold it is, and know they don’t want to be outside,” Vincent said. About half the bedliner business, which amounts to three to four a day, comes from vehicle dealers and the other half from individuals. The shop thrives with two outside sales people, one of whom is dedicated to generating business from those car and truck dealers. He introduces new products and sells existing services. “Our salesman is out there talking about it, as opposed to having counter sales people call them, because that builds relationships,” Vincent said. The graphics department is a major part of the shop’s approach to diversification, with graphics and tint work on customer and commercial vehicles, including fuel tankers, buses, and even airplanes. “We’re not scared to try anything,” Vincent said. Ben Boswood, a son of the founder, works with his brother, Billy, who manages the installation area, and his mother, who does the bookkeeping, alongside their father, Bob, who started the shop. Vehicle graphics were the core of the business for many years, starting with pinstriping and vinyl graphics, then adding smaller signs and moving up to 14 ft. x 8 ft. signs. “Over the years we moved from just dressing things up for dealers into a lot bigger deal,” Ben Boswood said. “We’ve diversified the sign shop into different areas of vinyl applications.” Ben noted it’s still very much a family company, despite having grown to employ nearly 40 people, that stays true to its roots. The success has come over years by being responsive to the marketplace. “We’ve done a good job of knowing what would be a hit,” he said. “My dad started seeing a need for a product, he’d invest in it and get it going, which has helped us get where we’re at now.”  

Article Courtesy: Auto Trim & Restlying News

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