By Steve Campbell
Custom Trucks Unlimited employs 17 people, not counting owners David and Kevin Walker. There are currently two stores, one in Auburn, Alabama, and the other in Columbus, Georgia. A third is in the works.
Custom Trucks Unlimited Builds and Succeeds Through Service
Like so many small-business owners involved in automotive retail companies, David and Kevin Walker were enthusiasts early on. They loved anything with an engine, and they helped pay their way through college by working at a truck accessories store. That experience gave them a foundation in auto-parts retailing, so it was natural that they should start a store of their own when the chance presented itself. David was 21 and Kevin 20 in 2006 when they opened the doors to Custom Trucks Unlimited (CTU) in Auburn, Alabama.
The business thrived, and they had ambitions to open a second location, but David and Kevin had made a promise to their parents that they would finish school before undertaking any expansion. They both now hold degrees from Auburn University, and Kevin also earned a law degree from Northwestern University. They opened a second store in Columbus, Georgia, just a few weeks ago, and they also own the construction company that built their new Auburn facility. The two brothers own multiple Line-X franchises, and they’re finalizing plans for a third CTU location to open within
Kevin Walker (left) was 20 and David 21 in 2006 when the brothers opened the doors to their first Custom Trucks Unlimited store in Auburn, Alabama.
The two current CTU operations employ 17 people, not counting the brothers. The 12,000-sq.-ft. Auburn store includes retail space as well as adjacent installation bays that house six lifts accessible through 12 drive-through bay doors, and the 8,000-sq.-ft. Columbus store features six bay doors and three lifts. The Auburn store is, the brothers say, a state-of-the-art facility that was built to impress.
Meyer Distributing Vice President of Sales and Marketing Nick Gramelspacher said that CTU has become a top customer for the national warehouse distributor through “…actually caring for their customers, service after the sale, being proactive in trying new products and not being afraid to think outside the box.” SEMA News recently spent some time in conversation with the Walkers about how they’ve developed their stores.
SEMA News: What do you feel has made your company successful? Who are your customers, and what draws them to your stores?
David Walker: Because we were so young when we started and were the sixth competitor in this market, we had to really sell people on our knowledge and our customer service—and we enjoyed it. We didn’t feel like we were selling you anything. If you came in with a truck, we would look up everything made for that vehicle as if it were our own. We would explain to you what we thought was good, and we weren’t afraid to give people our personal recommendations. We showed our customers what was being featured in the most current enthusiast magazines so that they would know what was hot, and we weren’t afraid of pricing those products.
A lot of our competitors missed the mark in that they wanted to push certain brands or certain packages that they were used to ordering. But our customers were looking to personalize their trucks, so we didn’t limit ourselves. We showed them anything and everything that was out there, and we’d even further modify something like a wheel with custom paint or a decal. We’d powdercoat suspension components so that they’d look different from what other people had. That has helped make us unique.
Kevin Walker: Our customer demographics are similar at both stores. They’re typically male and anywhere from 16 to 70 years old. But our large-ticket customers—people who spend in excess of $7,500—are typically 35 to 45 years old, and they’ll have us install a full-blown lift, wheels and tires, a spray-in bedliner, fender flares, custom paint and interior work all at once. They come in looking for an individualized project, and that is what we supply.
The 12,000-sq.-ft. Auburn store includes retail space as well as adjacent installation bays that house six lifts accessible through 12 bay doors, and the 8,000-sq.-ft. Columbus store features six bay doors and three lifts.
SN: Do you specialize in specific products or types of vehicles? If so, how did the company decide to target that market?
DW: We do all types of truck installations, but we are known primarily for our suspension work. When we opened our business, Kevin had a truck on 44-in. tires, and I had one on 49-in. tires. They both obviously had custom suspensions, and we wanted to make a presence in town. Before we opened, the shops in town were comfortable with only moderate suspensions, but Kevin and I had lifted trucks to accommodate anywhere from 33- to 54-in. tires. We now do at least one suspension lift a day every day of the week.
SN: How do you determine what new products to include in your inventory? What factors help you decide to take a chance on something different?
KW: We won’t sell anything that we wouldn’t put on our own trucks. If a company approaches us about selling something, it has to be a quality item. We won’t sell cheap or knock-off products. We look at our customers’ trucks the same way we look at our own. If we were to sell something of lesser quality, and that customer showed it to a knowledgeable friend, our reputation would suffer. Our customers ask us for advice about their trucks, and we have to be trusted to give them quality answers.
SN: What are your best marketing tools? How do you reach out to customers to stimulate sales?
DW: Kevin and I buy and customize a lot of trucks. We are usually the first people in the area to have the newest model. We put $7,500 to $10,000 worth of stuff on each one and drive them 10,000 miles. We usually have a buyer for each truck before we even get the first 2,500 miles on it. We also do a lot of dealership trucks, and the dealerships give us free reign. They don’t give us a budget or tell us what to build. They tell us to do what we think will sell. We usually have one of those trucks in our showroom. We sold seven of them out of our shop in the first six months of this year.
While CTU does all types of truck installations, the stores are known primarily for suspension work. CTU does at least one suspension lift a day. “What differentiates us is that we are cutting edge in what we carry and install,” said David.
Our business has grown 20% year-over-year for the last nine years. Our growth has been so rapid that we really don’t have to consciously seek more business. We’re already working 60- to 70-hour workweeks, and we’re open six days a week. The Columbus store is going to pull a little bit of the market away from the Auburn store, but it will also give us more total reach.
SN: How do you train your staff to best serve the business and its customers?
DW: The guys we hire are enthusiasts. They were doing these types of installations for themselves when they were 16 years old. In fact, the first paycheck for half the guys I hire goes right back into what they drive—at employee cost. We just try to teach them about the products and the distinctions between—for instance, different types of suspension.
We teach our employees about our products by having them look up every possible product for a given make, model and year of truck. We have them look up a complete blackout package and price the whole thing, then do the same for an all-chrome package. Then we have them do the same thing for a different make, model and year. We make sure that our counterperson welcomes everyone who comes in the front door and that we have enough employees on hand so that every customer gets attention immediately. We also pay our guys by the hour rather than by commission. So whether they are learning or selling or installing or even cleaning, they’re making the same money.
Custom Trucks Unlimited
• 1817 Opelika Rd.
• 8238 N. Crossing Ct.
• Owners: David and Kevin Walker.
• 17 employees
• Sells and installs truck accessories and components; specializes in custom packages and suspensions.
• Sales have increased 20% each year of operation.
• Offers customers high degree of personalized service.
• Operates two facilities, including a 12,000-sq.-ft. store in Auburn, Alabama, and an 8,000-sq.-ft. store in Columbus, Georgia. Plans are nearing completion for a third store.
• Biggest challenge is guarding against complacency.
When we first train somebody in sales, we train him on Line-X bedliners. It’s a very easy product to learn, and we have them memorize 10 facts about the product and then have them personalize three or four of those facts into their own sales pitch. We’ve found that if our employees know the products very well and can explain product manufacturing, installation and warranty information, people will be confident in their knowledge. And when you’ve educated customers about what they’re looking for, they’ll listen to the pricing you’re able to give them.
SN: How do you differentiate your business from others in the segment? What do you do to ensure that customers come to you rather than going to others?
DW: Our store in Auburn is one of the nicest truck stores in the South, if not in the country. We have about eight nice demonstration trucks out on the front pad, and we’re not afraid to tackle anything. The only thing that limits us is the customer’s wallet. We have done $35,000 builds on trucks, including superchargers, custom leather and custom bumpers, and we also do a ton of sustainable business—window tint, leather, hitches, dealership work. But what differentiates us is that we are cutting edge in what we carry and install.
SN: What have been the greatest challenges for your business?
DW: Keeping current is the biggest challenge. We need to keep on top of what’s appearing in magazines, and we need to keep our employees interested in what they are doing. That’s why we have them learn all different facets of the business—installations, front counter, working with different products and different vehicles. We’re always trying to keep things fresh.
SN: What have been your most rewarding successes?
KW: We’re very proud of our second location and the fact that we’re working on a third. We enjoy seeing our employees do well and move up in the company, taking on new challenges and accepting management responsibilities. Some of our guys have gone on to other things and are doing really well, and it’s cool to watch everybody grow up together and have success on their own. But we’re also proud of small things.
We had an older gentleman come into the store and tell us that his son had gone to a dealership with a problem on his truck. The dealership had given him what seemed to be a high estimate to fix the problem, so the son came to us for advice. We looked at the truck, decided that it was really a quickly fixable item, so we did the repair and didn’t charge him anything for it. The father had come in to thank us, and that made us feel very good.