A Bootstrap Startup Becomes a Phoenix Blockbuster
Specializing in high-end builds of every type, Apex Customs has seen rapid growth as a one-stop custom shop in Phoenix, Arizona. Its various facilities cover nearly an entire city block.
Founding Apex Customs in 2014, Copenhaver teamed with lifelong friend Elliot Hutchens to build a highly reputable, four-building operation covering nearly an entire city block and housing every service a project-vehicle owner could want. This interview with Copenhaver and Hutchens highlights how they did it.
SEMA News: How has Apex Customs evolved since you first started?
Tyler Copenhaver: The original plan was to build “drivable classics,” as we coined the term—basically not making sure you had every absolute authentic part, but making the car look really cool and making it drive like a brand-new car and enjoying it as opposed to just sitting it in the garage. Now Apex doesn’t focus on any one brand, model or decade of vehicle. We’ll do any cool projects that come our way—parts swaps, performance upgrades, lighting, suspension systems, audio, films and wraps, paint and powdercoating, and we have an excellent upholstery department. We’ve done trailers for the Rolling Stones and campers for Facebook and CNN.
Elliot Hutchens, Apex Customs vice
Tyler Copenhaver, Apex Customs president.
SN: What’s your unique selling proposition at Apex? What sets you apart?
TC: We strive for a high degree of work ethic and business morality. Our sales approach is very consultative. The reason we’ve had a lot of traction is that we know and have tested the products, so we’re able to talk about them quite a bit. So when somebody calls in and it’s new technology, like an LED lighting system or even wraps or films or anything for that matter, we are great at giving information. Some clients take time comparing and deciding. They get the information from us and, sure enough, after they’ve thought about it, they eventually come back to us ready to go.
Elliot Hutchens: We’re not pushy salespeople. Our second selling point is giving clients everything from A to Z within our shop. It cuts costs, maintains quality and makes it a lot easier for clients when they can bring their cars to us for everything rather than run to the tire shop, then the wheel shop, the upholstery shop, the car audio place, etc. We’ve got technicians in multiple departments collaborating with each other. They end up with a better, much more unified product in the end. The last selling point, as Tyler said, is that customer service and ethics are really the cornerstones of our business.
SN: Who is your typical client?
TC: Our general client is probably a male in his 40s to 50s, but I can’t even say we have a specific type of client. We get men, we get women. We get old, we get young. We get trucks and Jeeps, supercars and American muscle. Just like our services are broad, our clientele is super broad, too.
I would also say they’re super knowledgeable. They’ve done their research, and that’s why they end up here.
EH: Our clients are willing to spend the extra money to buy products and services from us because of our knowledge. If there’s something that we believe is not a good fit, we’re really upfront and honest with our clients. We’re also very transparent throughout our entire build process. As car guys ourselves, we know how people love their cars—especially clients spending the money to customize them.
SN: How have you found the right personnel?
TC: First off, personnel is interesting, because a guy who wraps cars and a guy who does suspensions are completely different personalities. One is more artistic; one is quieter. The suspension guy is a little bit more involved with pulling things apart and is also on a clock. It’s less art and more mechanical. So you have some interesting dynamics. Finding key personnel in different areas can take work. A lot of guys are already set in their ways. Upholstery, for instance, seems like a dying art, so finding personnel who want to innovate instead of doing the same old thing is often difficult.
EH: The way that we’ve dealt with it is to always be recruiting. We have several postings up at all times on our website. We put word out constantly on Craigslist and social media. By sifting through a continuous flow of applicants, we’ve been able to build an effective team.
SN: What about tooling or equipment challenges?
1945 E. Jefferson St.
EH: For controlling equipment costs, Tyler is really good at scouring, finding and rehabilitating used equipment. That has really helped us expand the business. However, managing project logistics is still a challenge. My background is business management, accounting and IT. I’ve worked in software for the last eight years. I know there’s software, but unfortunately we’ve tried about 20 different shop-management solutions. None of them have come close to fitting our business model. They’re designed for single-focus shops. I’m now building our own technician-friendly system geared toward a custom shop like ours that flows customers from first contact through the end of their projects.
SN: With a business so large, what other challenges have you faced?
TC: Regulations and compliance. A tire shop, for example, only has to worry about compliance and disposal fees for tires. But we face a challenge as far as following the rules for all our different services, be it paintwork, waste disposal or air quality. There is another set of hurdles when you deal with large-format printers and wastewater. There can be a lot of confusing paperwork to get approvals and ensure compliance.
EH: On the regulation side, Tyler has gotten very involved with the city, and that has helped us immensely with staying in compliance across the board with our services. That’s been another crucial piece to our success.
SN: Product information is central to your business model. How do you stay on top of parts and trends?
TC: It comes down to adamant research. We have multiple suppliers, and keeping that data in check can be a logistical nightmare. If we don’t know something yet, we get it in here and start playing with it. With powdercoating, for instance, there was a lot of research involved before we even started testing large equipment. Same with the films—it’s been extensive research and a lot of technical data sheets. I love seminars, and Elliot and I really take advantage of every SEMA seminar we can. The SEMA Show is also big source for product ideas and equipment.
EH: The SEMA Data Co-op (SDC) is also fantastic. We get most of our product data through it. I only wish more suppliers would push their best data through it. The way that the SDC is built, I can automate pulling data down and pushing it into our database and transforming it the way we need it. It makes our lives so much easier, especially with changing pricing and finding new products coming out.