Auto Trim & Restyling News: Rosy, Busy Times Characterize Portland Trimmer Activity by Jim Norland-March 2007

 March 2007

Rosy, Busy Times Characterize Portland Trimmer Activity
by Jim Norland

Portland, Oregon is known as the City of Roses, and for many in the automotive trimming and restyling business there, the business climate is also rosy. Some upholsterers, whose ranks are thinning, are booked up months ahead. Restyling of pickup trucks is doing all right, too, but the size of the trucks and the size of restyling orders are smaller, partly in response to fuel prices. Although gas prices had fallen from their 2006 peaks in early December, vehicle owners seemed still spooked by what had occurred up ‘til then. Car buffs find plenty to whet their appetites for vehicles, styling and accessories in Portland’s busy events calendar. By the time you’re reading this, the Portland International Auto Show in late January will be history, but what car enthusiasts have seen there should be stirring up more aftermarket business. OE manufacturers there are showing many new goodies, such as an in-vehicle FordLink computer in Ford F-series pickups; GPS systems everywhere, GM’s PhatNoise entertainment systems and Chrysler seating upholstery that repels stains, controls odors and reduces static electricity. Surely aftermarket versions of all those should get a boost. The Portland Rod & Custom Show Feb. 16-18 (2007) at the Portland Expo Center will fuel the already strong area interest in that vehicle category. The show this year introduces the “Rose City Rod” award. Shop owners ATRN spoke with in early December were generally busy. The Portland area, spread over Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, is Oregon’s largest metro community, and the Portland/Vancouver (Wash.) metropolitan statistical area now is home to more than two-million people. It is becoming more attractive as a technology-oriented center drawing and keeping young adults with its outdoorsy lifestyle. Median age for the city was 36.4 in 2005, same as for the U.S., but Portland is ahead in educational achievement compared with the country as a whole. Portland International Raceway keeps drivers’ hearts thumping with events from late March through late October, judging from the 2006 schedule. That stirs up performance accessory appetites for customers of AR Auto Service in Lake Oswego, part of Adrenaline Racing, which has a sizeable online store. “We don’t really do a whole lot in trim and restyling. Most of what we do is performance oriented and very little dress-up of vehicles. We do a lot of street cars,” said David Lee, service manager of the facility, which opened in mid 2006. Business has been good, he reported. “People like to go to high-performance driving events, and get get involved in a training session where they can sit down in fast cars” with skilled drivers at the Portland International Raceway. Most of our other visits with Portland-area shops were with interior specialists, including several who do good business in ragtops. Todd Hill, owner, Upholstery by Pacific Auto Trim, Portland, reported a growing number of cars coming to his shop from out of state. “We’re getting a lot of different vehicles, more specialty cars, and that has kept us busy.” Convertible tops figure strongly in business here, he said. Hill and his father, Ralph, started the business 30 years ago. The elder Hill retired last fall and has been ill. The company has a separate warehouse where its mail-order carpet business is headquartered. “We have a complete wood shop where we build a lot of consoles and panels and [do] fiberglass work. That also houses some of our own personal cars that we have built or some of our customers’ cars,” Todd said. The upholstery shop, with a staff of seven people including Todd, no longer experiences seasonal ups and downs, due in part to its growing reputation, diverse clientele and service areas. Boats, trucking companies and area fire and police departments all keep the upholstery staff busy. The shop used to do body and paint work, but discontinued that 15 years ago to avoid safety risks. In addition to the convertible top business, Todd used to do custom hand-built convertible conversions. Pinstriping, body side and wheel well moldings, sunroofs and other exterior modifications also were part of the mix, but Todd Hill sensed a growing need for trimmers and decided to concentrate on that side of the business. Truck business in Portland and elsewhere in Oregon is good but less bustling than it has been in past years, according to Wes Rhodes, store manager of All American Truck & SUV Accessory Centers. The company has locations in Portland, Tigard, Aloha, Redmond, Salem, Springfield and Eugene, selling and installing mostly bolt-on goods including tonneau covers and bedliners. Electronics work is farmed out to specialists. Nine people work at the Portland shop, including a salesman who serves all seven stores. The total staff consists of 50 people. All American’s strong suit was in full-size trucks, such as Ford F-250 and F-350 Super Duty trucks and Dodge Ram Supercabs. Buyers of those were big spenders, too, their tickets typically ranging from $4,000 to $6,000 per visit. Fuel prices seem to have impacted the truck business and buyers’ wallets, too. “We’re seeing smaller trucks as well as smaller tickets, now more in the $1,000 to $2,500 range,” Rhodes said. He said his company experienced a slowdown in the fall, but by early December the recovery wasn’t as pronounced or quick as in past years. One of the oldest upholstery businesses in the country, Vancouver Auto Upholstery, Vancouver, Wash. is now operated by Gary Pio. The shop has been operating since 1910, and Pio’s father retired just three years ago at age 70, so he has downsized the business and cut back on shop hours. Pio said he is extremely busy, booked up three months in advance. He said customers who’ve visited other auto interior specialists in the area tell him that they also are booked up at least a couple of months ahead. Although he avoids boat work, Pio has dabbled in aircraft interiors, doing four to six a year, has done a couple of medical or chiropractic exam tables and a few local restaurant booths, but concentrates on automotive interiors. He occasionally handles work for new-car dealers who need replacement convertible tops or carpet and used-car lots that need more extensive interior refurbishing. His commercial fleet accounts include trucks from a local distributing company as well as Boise Cascade and Alpha Pest Control. Pio’s retail work includes street rods, classic interior restorations and fixing daily drivers needing headliners, carpets, seating, convertible and vinyl tops. He handles four to six hot rod conversions a year. At least half of his business comes from repeat customers. Another one-man operator is Daniel Evans, Daniel’s Automotive Fashions, Portland. He sells and installs seat covers but does neither leather nor cut-and-sew work. He’s been doing the same sort of work for 20 years. Although he stocks a few covers that are most likely to sell, 90 percent of what he installs is special-order goods. “The Internet is killing us,” Evans said. “I can’t match Internet prices when I operate a brick-and-mortar store. Occasionally people will buy covers at a local auto parts store and want me to install them, and sometimes I accommodate them. Even if I tell a customer I’ll match a price, that doesn’t get me the business. That customer will go back to the last guy who said he’d match and keep on going until they get it [for less].” This erodes stability for professional installers, he added. Ron Hays is owner of West Coast Auto Upholstery, Portland. “We do mainly old classic cars,” but also some hot rods. Hays and his one additional staffer, Dennis, keep focused on auto upholstery and “soft parts.” “This is a slow time of year,” he said in December. “We have a slow spell every winter.” He and Dennis do both original or restoration interiors and hot rods, “probably more hot rods now,” he said. One limiting factor for many Portland interior shops is the lack of skilled help. “Any trimmer who is worth anything usually is already established, either in his own business or in someone else’s shop where the owner doesn’t want to let him go,” Todd Hill told us at Upholstery by Pacific Auto Trim. “I have been fortunate to acquire a guy who came to work for us just two months ago. Another shop let him go because they couldn’t pay him. He’s a star, does everything.” To keep good people, Hill said you have to treat them right financially. “I like to offer little extras, like bonuses when production or sales results have been very good. Treat them like they’re your family and reward them when they do well,” Hill said. Some veteran craftsmen are no longer in business, further draining the trimmer talent in the area. Russ Wicks, owner of Russ’z Upholstery, Portland, owns a one-man shop, but would hire more help if it were available. “A lot of the upholsterers in the area are retiring. It seems like it’s a dying trade and not attracting the younger generation,” Wicks said. “It’s very hard to find a reliable employee. I’ve tried nine different people in the past year.” Wicks, whose now retired father is also an upholsterer, has been in the business 20 years, 13 of them in his own shop. Wicks said his shop “has just been slammed” with work. Wicks does a lot of seat work and convertible tops. He said his is the only shop in his area that offers a full five-year warranty on tops, adding his labor guarantee on top of the manufacturer’s (Kee’s) five-year warranty on the top itself. “One of these days I need to put up a sign saying ‘Specializing in convertible tops.’ I’ve been doing a lot of them lately.” His is also one of the few shops in the area doing vinyl tops, he noted. During the past couple of years, Wicks has found customers a little tight-fisted. Still, he’s been busy with classic or older cars, especially Mopar vehicles. “I kind of lean toward them because I know what Dodge did seat-wise and how they worked in putting the car together. I’ve been doing a lot of older Chevy Impalas lately, too, and right now I have a ’63 and a ’64, along with a ’59 Corvette and two 1961 Lincolns. I got cars stacked up.” Some owners want restoration to original appearance, others I’m totally customizing,” he said. Another shop that has limited its operations due to a lack of skilled trimmers is Automotive Interior Restorations, Portland, where owner Rick Redmond is the sole talent. “I tried to hire a few people and it didn’t work out, so I just got a smaller place where the overhead is manageable.” “Business is good in this area,” Redmond reported. “I think all of the shops have been pretty busy.” In addition to his own restorations and hot rod styling, Redmond does some interior repair and restoration for a local body shop. “Hot rod owners want something a little different, and you can get creative with materials, colors and patterns. But owners of older cars want to keep everything original.” Convertible tops are a sizeable part of Redmond’s business, he said. He hasn’t had any problems with electronics in newer vehicles, but he avoids working on wingback seats because airbags have gone off. “I just don’t get involved in re-sewing the covers because of the liability.” He does little dealer work because of the pick-up and return time involved, but does work with Northwest Investment Cars, which specializes in some older Porsches and similar cars, such as BMWs. One dealership occasionally brings in a car “because their techs don’t want to disassemble the BMW seats, but they deliver and then return to pick up those vehicles.” Rodger Minton, Rodgers Auto Upholstery, Vancouver, Wash., has a staff of three, including Minton himself. Here, too, he said, “There’s no such thing as getting (more) good help. There aren’t any young people coming into the business.” He estimated that 35 percent of shops have closed in the Portland vicinity in the past few years. Minton, who started in the trim business in 1962, has been in his present location for 36 years. Much of his work is present-day vehicles. Here also he has a lot of work on convertibles and handles a good amount of warranty work for local dealers, often replacing seat heaters. “A lot of people are upgrading” their interiors and seat heaters are a popular choice, he said. Minton relies on Katzkin as a source for those. He also is installing softer or memory foam to remedy the rigid padding found on some recent model vehicles. More owners want original fabrics in their cars, Minton noted. Diversification characterizes business at Top & Trim, in Troutdale, just east of Gresham, Ore. “We do boats, auto, truck, marine, home and office work,” said Steve Davis, manager. About 30 percent of business there is in marine, another 30 percent walk-in retail and 30 percent commercial accounts. The company is in the process of building another structure at that location to house its manufacturing. “We make interiors for offshore pursuit boats being built under the Homeland Protection Act,” Davis reported, “one boat now and two more to do.” The program will include 14 boats, possibly as many as 19, each 85 feet long. In automotive interiors Top & Trim is doing everything from late-model Caddies and Lincolns to hot rods and classic cars. The quality of its work helps build its reputation. “We’re not the low end of the spectrum,” Davis said. In the middle of the vehicle age range are 1960s Chevys whose owners have tired of their present interiors. “We have a good design team, and we can take it from design to final product.” “A lot of customers in the past few years have put in stereos or other equipment without thinking about routing wires and other floor issues,” Davis added. “Recently, we’ve tried to work with the customer to discuss what they want to do. We’ll take a look at it and make sure it’s not going to interfere with what we have to do to the car.” Commercial and government accounts are another profitable part of Top & Trim’s activity. “We do fleet rigs, service trucking outfits here in town, work for several building contractors and we also do a lot of government stuff,” Davis noted. His shop will take on office and restaurant furnishings, but avoids antiques and residential furniture, sending those to nearby Ken’s Upholstery. Ken’s reciprocates by sending automotive interior customers to Davis’s shop. Five people work in the Top & Trim shop, and there’s very low turnover, Davis said. “We’ve probably hired two guys in the past five years that just didn’t work out,” mirroring the experience of others who’ve been looking for good trimmers/upholsterers. ’s hard to get the quality we need.” “We’re never really slow,” said Mike Weiler, owner of Bright Auto Upholstery, Portland, “but because of our 35 year reputation, I’m probably not the best indicator. We have more to do than time to do it in. But from what I hear elsewhere, from high-end to low-end shops, everybody seems to have been pretty busy the past year.” More than half of Weiler’s shop is devoted to full restorations, often to Concours d’Elegance levels. He’s had some other challenges, such as rehabbing a mouse-infested Volvo SUV that required more than $7,000 just in his shop’s work, including fumigation. That year-old vehicle had 14 airbags in it, and required reprogramming at the dealership. Most vehicles that need some reprogramming don’t require that level of expense. Sometimes Weiler’s shop will take care of the problem, but in most cases it has to go to the dealership. “It’s hard to explain to a customer that he or she has to go to their dealer and cough up a few hundred more because we took a door panel off or the seats out. They have a hard time understanding that, but it’s not our fault, just the way the car is built.” Automakers don’t care what problems shops like his encounter, he’s been told. They just want to get vehicles out of the factory as quickly as possible even though that may mean work on the interior may take two or three times longer than it used to. Work on daily drivers covers typical items, including carpets and door panels as well as seat repairs. Complex electronics enter into concerns here again. Bright Auto Upholstery has a number of dealer accounts, most of 20 to 25 years standing. Many customers who’ve skipped the leather option at dealerships later decide they want leather seating. However, Weiler said, “They’re forcing us to buy kit interiors now because of the airbags that are in the backrests. We can’t afford to take the liability of sewing our own.” When airbags are involved, Weiler insists on a full-fledged release signed by the customer right at the bottom of his bill. Article Courtesy: Auto Trim & Restyling News

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