By Mike Imlay
Solar Shade Truck & Car Paradise Is Built on Brick-and-Mortar Basics
Ken Steele, owner of Solar Shade Truck & Car Paradise, relies on top-notch customer service to keep clientele coming back to his remotely located brick-and-mortar store. Trike conversions are one of the shop’s specialties.
Founded in 1979 and remotely located in Waynesville, Ohio, Ken Steele’s Solar Shade Truck & Car Paradise remains steadfastly brick-and-mortar in a day when online retailers are increasingly pressuring such business models. Yet after laboring through some admittedly tough early days, Steele has built a profitable three-bay, 6,000-sq.-ft. retail operation that sells and installs an impressively wide range of aftermarket accessories, including window tinting and trike conversions. In the process, he’s attracted a loyal customer following throughout his far-flung region.
Forged on business basics, Steele’s shop is a reminder that diversified product and service offerings, qualified staff and excellent customer service and follow-up can keep a traditional retailer viable amid Internet competition. Read on as SEMA News gets a look at how Steele’s simple retail philosophy plays out at what he bills as “Ohio’s largest car and truck accessories store.”
SEMA News: Can you tell us something about the scope of offerings at Truck & Car Paradise?
Ken Steele: Our popular items are lift kits, wheel-and-tire combos, bumpers and grille guards, and nerf bars. Floor liners, we sell a boatload—also hood shields and vent visors. As for brands, we carry everything available to the aftermarket. Not everything is hot at the same time, but everything has a turn.
Window-tint installation takes up 50% of the shop area. In fact, we won 2014 Elite Formula One Window Tinting Company of the Midwest, a 12-state region. Not bad for a shop five miles from the nearest town.
Formula One window tinting is always great, although it slows some in the winter. We’re also a Llumar dealer for commercial and residential tinting, another big part of the business model. We also do motorcycle trike conversions—taking two-wheel motorcycles and transforming them into three-wheelers for Baby Boomers. The older we get, the harder it is to hold the big iron up. I say we start out on tricycles, and we end up on trikes. Our business is extremely diversified, and that is how we beat the Internet.
SN: Your business had a rocky start and some tough early years. How did you turn it into a success?
KS: Needless to say, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing when I started as a tinter, so I starved to death for three years. I had no business plan, no one to ask anything about business. I had no idea what I was supposed to charge; it was all guesswork. In 1986, they changed the window-tinting law, and I thought I was going to go out of business, so I got into truck and car accessories, and that took right off.
Located in Waynesville, Ohio, the shop features three double-deep bays for expert installations. For an added touch, each completed vehicle is returned to the customer meticulously cleaned, inside and out.
Eventually, I discovered the International Profit Company (IPC). They go through a company’s operations and dig deep to find weak points. They were here for three weeks, and it cost me $50,000. They put checks and balances in place while I went to the bank for a $200,000 credit line to stay in business. I had to bust my butt to pay it back, but IPC helped turn my business around.
Truthfully, this is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I now use SCORE, a company funded by the Small Business Administration. It’s free to all small businesses and comprised of retired business executives who volunteer their time to help businesses grow. I consult them on budget, pay increases and many other business needs. I’ve been utilizing them for four years, and they’re great. The moral of the story is to ask for help to make your business strong.
SN: You’ve also made a deliberate decision to stay brick-and-mortar when so many others are selling online. Why is that?
KS: We’re not set up to do Internet sales. In my opinion, that’s a whole other business model. We’re so diversified. We are involved in all aspects of the truck, car and motorcycle accessories business and trike conversions. Also, we are southern Ohio’s only Elite Formula One Window Tinting company.
People come here from a long way to get their windows tinted and to have custom work done. We just had a customer from Columbus, 70 miles away. He researched every custom shop in the entire area and picked us. He said that he could tell we knew what we were talking about, and our shop was clean and our website shows our work.
SN: Today’s Internet competition has created a difficult climate for brick-and-mortar retailers. How do you meet this challenge?
KS: If you’re not going to be involved with Internet sales, then you have to have a lot of other things going on. You also have to be the best in your area at everything you do [and] give the customer a lot more than what they pay for. One thing we do is wash and vacuum every truck, car or motorcycle we touch. The reason is to say, “Thank you for coming here to do business with Solar Shade Truck and Car Paradise.”
Steele believes that a clean, well-organized shop is essential for repeat business. That, combined with a friendly, attentive staff providing excellent customer assistance and follow-up, helps build the word-of-mouth advertising that his retail outlet relies on.
Following each sale, we also send our customers thank-you cards and call each customer to thank them for their business, because the customers are the business. Without them, we’re nothing. When we call, people say, “You just called to say thank you? That’s awesome!” It also lets us find out if they have any issues with what we did on their [vehicles]. We rarely have any problems, but if there is one, we can get them back to the shop and take care of it before they start dogging us out on social media.
I’ve been in business for 36 years, and I still have the same customers. That’s because we love them, and they love us back. That’s why we haven’t had to go to Internet sales. If you treat your customers like gold and give them more than what they pay for, they’ll always be there for you, through good and bad times. The Internet has no heart. A retail shop has a heartbeat with every customer who comes through the door. It’s a great feeling.
My customers are extremely loyal because we don’t lie. We treat them with respect. Rich or poor, everyone gets treated the same, everyone gets treated special. We make their experience awesome. No stress, no pressure. We will spend as much time as needed for them to make a decision on what they’re buying. It’s not called Paradise for nothing.
When we wash and vacuum a customer’s vehicle, it does two things. It gives us a clean vehicle to work on and, of course, the customers love it. We have clean windows to tint, and when doing lift kits, some of the trucks have a lot of mud, so we spray off the mud outside before starting. When customers get their vehicles back, they’re customized and clean inside and out. This sets us apart from other shops.
SN: You also extend that “clean factor” to the shop itself. In fact, you’ve made it a business cornerstone.
|Solar Shade Truck & Car Paradise
1673 East OH-73
Waynesville, OH 45068
KS: That’s how we attract customers. Our shop and showroom are spotless. We clean both areas every day; it’s in the employees’ job descriptions. Everything in the showroom is dusted and the floor vacuumed, and the restroom is cleaned daily. Women thank us for keeping it clean. The shop is completely blown out, the floor wet down and squeegeed off. You could eat off the floor. We don’t work in a dirty environment.
The shop is also air-conditioned to keep the elements out. You have to keep everything clean to do perfection window tinting, and when it’s cool in the shop, productivity is higher. When customers see a shop that’s this clean and they get perfection work done, they come back and bring the entire family and all their friends. It’s called “word of mouth,” and that’s what keeps a non-Internet company in business. It’s 90% word of mouth, 10% from radio, search-engine ads and ad-word campaigns.
SN: Are there any other details that set your business apart?
KS: My team of employees. Let me tell you about them. Marcia Glancey, who has been with the company for 14 years, watches and makes sure everything is on the money. Eric Leopold, our store manager and technician, has been with the company for 11 years. He’s extremely smart and stays on top of everything in front and the back shop to ensure perfection. Kyle Seekings, our sales associate and technician, is a selling machine and also does anything he’s asked to do, from lift kits to motor work, to perfection.
Dennis Dean, is a tremendous artist when it comes to laying window film and a great tech on anything we need. When you’ve been in the industry for as long as Dennis has, you know it all. Lead technician Ron Winchek is a young, extremely smart and valued employee who has been with us for two years now. Chris Worthing, another great employee, has been with the company for nine years and does all the excellent washing, vacuuming and detailing of every truck, car and motorcycle. They all set us apart from other businesses.
I love this industry and I love what I do. You have to choose what you want to be known for, and I chose to be the best. My employees feel the same way.