SEMA News—December 2018
One Stop Automotive
How Trust, Commitment to Quality and $5,000 Led to Business Success
One Stop Automotive is a family operation. Darren (center), his wife (and general manager) Dianna (left), and his brother-in-law operate their shop in Crossville, Tennessee.
Many entrepreneurs will tell you that they started from the ground up. In the case of Darren Robinson, that means everything you might hope it would. Born in England, he traveled across the ocean and got married in the United States, but he hit a bad patch in the late ’00s when his wife left him and he became homeless. His only possession of value was a decade-old Pontiac Firebird. He was stuck in a foreign country with no home and nor job. The year was 2010, and the American heartland was in deep recession. This is the story of how he persevered to build a successful retail operation.
Now in its seventh year of operation, One Stop Automotive is an all-inclusive customization shop specializing in towing systems, tonneau covers, nerf bars, bedliners and many other accessories for SUVs, trucks and RVs. It has become one of the most popular shops in its area, drawing customers from big cities such as Nashville to the smaller town of Crossville. It serves new- and used-car dealerships, does custom work and supplies parts.
SEMA News: Tell us how One Stop Automotive got started. What did you do after you became homeless?
Darren Robinson: Well, I saw the shop for rent. Obviously, I wasn’t working at the time, so I sold my car and got $5,000 for it. I called the landlord, and I made a $600 down payment with a deposit for the first month’s rent. Then I actually made the back room into kind of a living quarters. I didn’t have any stock or money. By the time I got all the utilities turned on, the business wire, etc., I was pretty much out of money. I didn’t know where the next month’s rent was coming from. It was a “wing and a prayer” kind of thing,
For the first year, it would be the last couple of days [of the month] when a customer would walk in. They would want a set of running boards and a camper shell, and that would save me for that month. It was just me for that first year.
A key break came when I got in with a supplier, P&E Distributors. I didn’t know anything about truck accessories, to be honest. P&E helped me out a lot, and in the early days, they were my only supplier. They introduced me to SEMA and sent me display products for my shop. They backed me, and after two years, we started to make a real profit. Now, seven years later, we’ve turned $5,000 into a million-
The shop is almost too full of hand-tested inventory that Darren and his crew know won’t break on customers. He has plans to expand into another storefront in 2019.
SN: In the age of Amazon and online shopping, why is your brick-and-mortar shop so popular?
DR: Customers don’t really know. They rely on what you know. If you want to get a tonneau cover for a ’18 F-150, there’s a million companies out there—eBay, Amazon, all that stuff. So we test everything we sell. For example, one company makes receiver hitches and gooseneck hitches. We carry their receiver hitches, but in our tests, a different company’s gooseneck hitches outperformed theirs. So, we carry receiver hitches from one company and gooseneck hitches from another. Ironically, most of our products happen to be American made because they pass our tests.
I never did want to sway the customer from one manufacturer to another. I say: “What do you wanna do with your truck? What do you have in mind?” I’ll let them make their own decisions. You’ve got these products; they’re all going to be good. It’s all a matter of preference.
I should also mention that we do have an online store now, and it accounts for a quarter of our business. I figured, if you can’t beat them, join them! The online people—not the ones that have got brick-and-mortar stores, but Amazon sellers, for instance—don’t know what they’re selling. They don’t know what a hitch looks like; they don’t know what it goes on; they’ve never sold a hitch. All they’ve got is what’s written down in front of them. We only sell the products we trust online.
SN: You specialize in several vehicle categories. Do you get a lot of crossover customers, repeat customers?
DR: Yes, we do. A lot of my customers come from the dealers and fleets. But if we get a customer and we don’t lie to them and we do what we say we’re going to do for a fair price, they’re happy with it. Three years down the line, they will only come back to you. Once you do their daughter’s vehicle, and their RV, etc., they don’t shop around anymore. They come straight here.
Our eBay store has a 100% positive feedback rating, and our warranty rate is less than 1%. All our hard work in getting them the right product pays off because we’re not doing the same work for free. We have old-school morals. People enjoy coming in and chatting over a cup of coffee. Online sellers don’t have to see your face, and they don’t care if you’re happy. We do. Basically: Do what you say you’re going to do, and do it right, or you’ll be short lived. There were four other people in town when I first started; now I’m the only one. People come all the way from Knoxville and Huntsville, big places!
SN: You said you do a lot of business with dealerships. How did you get your foot in the door?
DR: I went and talked to them [laughs]. They’ve always got the option of using factory OE parts. The thing is, those parts are usually made by the lowest bidder. So you get a high-cost product at a low level of quality. I say, “Hey, I’ll do factory-style equipment at a lower cost, better quality, with a better warranty.” That helps salespeople sell vehicles, because when a customer asks for something, they know they can trust me to do it right. The salespeople actually spread our reputation to other dealerships as they change jobs from one to another. We even do work for used-car dealerships. They’re selling ’14–’16 vehicles now, and they want all the same stuff on them, too.
SN: How do you hire the right people?
One Stop Automotive
1173 Genesis Rd.
Crossville, TN 38555
Keys to Success:
DR: That’s a nightmare [laughs]. It’s complicated because we started small. It was just me, and this business is my baby. We just kind of keep it in the family. I know they say that you should never work with your family—I disagree. The only people you can trust is your people, in your little circle to begin with. My brother-in-law, he does the installations. I am also part of the installs because I’m a little particular. My now-wife Dianna, she’s the general manager. She does the front of house—the one who probably answered the phone. I have got another install guy that is actually a friend of the family; we know him and his wife real well. We really have not had to hire outside of our little group. Makes me happy.
SN: Is there anything else you’d like to tell a fellow entrepreneur who is looking for advice?
DR: I mean, if you love what you do and you’ve got interest in it, for a minimal amount of money (I mean, from $5,000 and not another dime in the world), through perseverance and hard work and not giving up, you can build something. The American dream is still alive. You’ve just got to go get it. No one is going to give you a handout. There are people that kind of steer you, but you’re on your own. Now I own the building that I was renting. I own a house—I never thought I’d own a house! I drive a ’18 Chevrolet Camaro. It sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet [laughs].
Just remember the people who did help you out in the beginning. Don’t get too big for your boots. There’s more to life than making a dollar. That’ll come later, you know? Don’t sell out your principles.