John’s Trim Shop
Successfully Navigating the Changing Times
Photography Courtesy: Lawrence Knox for Main Street Hub
Originally established as an automotive upholstery business in 1953, John’s Trim Shop now primarily serves a 50/50 mix of retail and commercial truck owners with parts, accessories and installations. The 14,000-sq.-ft. shop boasts 15 employees and continues to grow.
The year was 1953 when John Fehring opened his namesake 2,400-sq.-ft. automotive upholstery shop in Bayton, Texas. There at John’s Trim Shop, Fehrin’s son Ron learned the family trade. But as times changed and the van craze hit in the ’70s and ‘80s, Ron grew interested in more than car and truck interiors. His dad let him expand the business (provided, of course, that Ron invest his own money).
In 1981, Ron went a step further, buying the shop outright and eventually expanding it to a new and larger location. The business now serves a 50/50 mix of retail and commercial customers, most representing the region’s oil and pipeline concerns. Ron’s daughter Brenda Hutchinson joined the business in 2003, and together they have managed to grow and retain a solid, inter-generational customer base.
Marketing experts might call it a lesson in flexibility amid changing consumer demographics and seizing emerging business opportunities. Ron simply calls it “listening to your customers”—even when they lead you in unplanned directions.
SEMA News: How has John’s Trim Shop evolved over time?
Ron Fehring: My dad started in 1953 with an upholstery shop, and I started bringing in van accessories in about the mid-’70s. Upholstery still remained strong while we branched out, but it diminished as time went on. Now we do predominantly truck accessories and a little bit of upholstery. At the peak, we probably had four or five people doing nothing but upholstery work, but that was a number of years ago. Now we have one fulltime employee doing it and another employee who does truck accessories and upholstery work, so it’s become a very small part of our business.
Of course, everyone has trucks in Texas, and commercial and industrial trucks are a good part of our business, too. That just phased in as time went on. We’ve been more aggressive in pursuing that [market] these past five to 10 years, and it’s become a stronger part of our business. The retail business is still good, but there’s more money in the commercial end.
Shop installations tend toward performance, convenience and recreational parts needs for retail truck owners as well as heavier-duty components, fuel tanks, compressors and related gear for oil and pipeline truck fleets and workers.
SN: What does that commercial side consist of?
RF: It depends on what our customers want. We listen to them. So we’ve put on some truck beds and, of course, gooseneck and fixed-wheel hitches, and seat protection products are very strong. There’s also fuel tanks and transfer tanks, GPS tracking systems, LED lights, compressors and lifts. The bigger fleets are the pipeline and industrial oil companies. We also might also get fire trucks or oddball things from time to time.
Brenda Hutchinson: We’re in a suburb of Houston, and the industry out here is industrial support to all the chemical plants and oil refining. Everybody who comes in here has some connection to that—if not themselves, then a family member.
SN: Has branching out into commercial projects helped support the retail side of your business?
BH: Absolutely. The more diverse we are, the more stable we can be.
RF: It helps to have good suppliers, stay in touch with them, and get some decent pricing and good service. We get probably four to five deliveries a day from warehouses that are within a day’s drive from us. That’s helped us by not having to stock so deeply in product and [still] having whatever we need the next day.
SN: Who is your typical customer on the retail side?
Attracting and retaining skilled employees is among the key best practices behind the retailer’s success. John’s Trim Shop employees are entrusted with a good deal of responsibility and a high level of autonomy, which leads to engagement and pride in their work.
RF: We get second- and third-generation customers who have been coming here with pickups forever. A lot of them come in and get a pair of power steps, a bed cover, a spray-in bedliner, and of course floor mats, tinting and maybe a brush shield. And then you have the guy with the Super Duty or ¾-ton truck who wants a gooseneck or fifth wheel, a bed, a spray-in liner, an auxiliary tank, running boards, tinted windows. He’s a part-time RV’er who takes it vacationing, sometimes with a boat or Jeep.
SN: It seems that a key part of your story is successfully changing and adapting over time to grow your business. Did you follow a strategy? Face any particular challenges?
RF: There are always challenges. I’ve had people ask me if we ever have a slow season, and I’ve said, sure, you never know when it’s going to happen. You can’t plan for it. Right now we’re looking at some growth. We’ve done a few things like bringing in a financial guy to help us strategize. You have to go out, knock on doors, talk to customers, see what direction they’re going and fill their needs.
I can remember about 17 years ago when the truck shows started airing strong on The Discovery Channel, and I enjoyed watching them. My wife would watch and say, “There’s a product they’ll be calling us for on Monday.” When people ask for something, you find a way to supply it.
We’ve been in business 65 years. We were in another building for 40 years. That was a nervous time for us, moving to a larger location. We made a commitment 26 years ago and built a new facility, and we’ve outgrown and added onto that building three times so far. Fortunately, we bought an adjoining property and will do some expansion there now.
BH: The customers [followed] us because the old building was in an older section of town, and the customers were practically begging us to move. The financial part was intimidating, but it turned out to be absolutely fine. It was a mental hurdle we had to get over. You have to listen to your customers. They’re talking to you and giving you information.
John’s Trim Shop prefers reliable suppliers and warehouses within a day’s drive, cutting the need to deep stock inventory but maintaining the ability to quickly fill customer orders.
SN: How about the challenges you face today?
RF: The internet is an issue. People are more informed, and that helps. But price checking against Amazon is killing a lot of businesses. It’s not necessarily hurting our industry, though. The majority of our customers want product installed.
As I say, you can buy a hamburger at McDonald’s or you can go to a high-end place. They’re both hamburgers, but they’re not the same product. You pay for the service. We try to offer the best deals we can so that we can make a fair margin and pass it on to our customers and take care of them. But you’ve got to do it in a timely fashion and show them that you appreciate their patronage.
Your products are absolute, and numbers are numbers. The variable is in your people—both your employees and your customers. Take care of them. Employ and treat skilled employees well so you can get some loyalty. There are only so many good employees to go around, and we’ve got the best ones. That’s the key to any business: employees.
BH: It’s getting harder to find good, skilled installers.
John’s Trim Shop
4722 N. Main
SN: Many retailers nowadays express similar concerns about finding and retaining skilled employees. What’s your approach?
RF: We live in an environment that’s a double-edged sword. In the chemical industry, you can make a very good living with nothing but a high-school education and maybe a technical degree. [So] we have a customer base that makes nice money, but we have to compete against that environment for employees at the same time. Most of ours come from a recommendation by an existing employee. People who work for us understand what we demand and the standards we have. That works out pretty well for us most of the time.
BH: It’s also more than salary. A lot of it has to do with respect for the employees—giving them enough ownership over their jobs that they remain engaged and want to show up and continue doing them. Our employees have a lot of responsibility and autonomy in what they do, and that keeps them engaged. They have pride in their work. Half of our sales guys started as installers and worked their way up. We keep things professional, but everybody has been here so long and we work so closely with each other that we end up being like family.
SN: Summing everything up, what’s the most unique aspect of your business?
RF: Longevity makes a big difference.
BH: Keeping customers coming back generation after generation is what we’re the most proud of.