AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY OF RUSTY NUTZ & RODZ
As any businessman knows, it’s no small feat to take an idea that starts in your garage and turn it into a full scale company that generates enough sales every year to allow for more than 100% growth annually. That’s exactly what Tracy Bowes of Rusty Nutz & Rodz did in 2010 when he launched RN&R. He started with literally six shelves and today sells a wide array of products to customers across the country and internationally as well.
It’s the kind of American success story that a lot of us dream of. Clearly it took a lot of hard work, determination, and understanding of the automotive aftermarket as it relates to e-commerce.
I had a chance to talk with Tracy during the SEMA Show and got his take on car culture and what he did to create (and what he’s doing to sustain) his brand. —Ben Oh, Editor
Drive!: What directions do you see the automotive aftermarket going in the near future? From business point of view as well as changes you see in general car culture.
Tracy Bowes: The automotive aftermarket is a dynamic environment marked by constant change. To preserve brand integrity many manufacturers have implemented MAP (minimum advertised price) policies. Increased competition has caused margins to erode, and the only way companies can now differentiate themselves is through selection, availability, and service. The competitive landscape is going to force more consolidation. We’ve been seeing this for a few years, although more on the manufacturing side. Inevitably this will cascade down to distributors and retailers.
We’re seeing a dramatic shift in how consumers shop for automotive and restoration parts. Many of our competitors are proud to offer a dozen different full color model-specific catalogs every year. The production and mailing costs aside, we add new products to our line daily. The dinosaurs don’t seem to see the asteroid coming, and that’s okay. We’ve invested heavily in the digital space and we’re prepared to satisfy the evolving needs of buyers who prefer to shop online. In the next few years you’re likely to see the market shift heavily toward companies that have evolved with the times and consumer preferences.
As for the car culture, we continue to see a heavy and growing emphasis on making classic cars more enjoyable to drive. A significant portion of our business satisfies the needs of enthusiasts who want LS powerplants, overdrive transmissions, modern suspension systems, comfortable seats, reliable instrumentation, and upgraded braking systems. We expect this trend to continue.
The market has also fallen in love with trucks, and we’re prepared to meet that demand. In 2017 you will find a considerable emphasis on growing our presence in the classic, late model, and off-road truck markets.
Drive!: What type of products did you start off selling when you first launched your company in 2010?
TB: When the company was launched in 2010, our focus was exclusively on restoration parts for classic GM vehicles. Our primary focus was on 1964-1972 GM A-body and 1967-1969 GM F-body. The company was born with a website, an eBay store, two Costco shelves in my garage, and one supplier relationship. With very low overhead I was able to enter the market with a distinct pricing advantage compared to our competitors who were saddled with higher expenses. Remember, this was in the middle of the Great Recession. Although enthusiasts’ desire continued to burn, the primary objection when trying to convert that desire into purchases was product pricing. We combined our pricing advantage with superior service, and consumers responded to the total value we offered when compared to the other guys.
At the time of our launch everyone was hurting; manufacturers, distributors, landlords, financial institutions, and nearly every person in America. We were able to leverage the situation to negotiate better product pricing, payment processing terms, and property lease agreements. Manufacturers who previously demanded large initial purchases were willing to provide their lowest pricing tier to us, as we were investing in sales and marketing activities when everyone else was making major budget cuts. As we continued to grow we began hiring. It was highly rewarding not only to be working in an industry that has been my life long passion, but to provide jobs and play a role in getting Americans back to work.
D!: What has been the key to your incredible growth and continued success?
TB: Our initial success was driven by our value proposition. We were offered a pricing advantage and superior service during economic conditions that required our competitors to hold the line on pricing and cut support staff. We strive to build relationships. We don’t use customer numbers; our customers have names. They have stories about how they got into the hobby, what their build aspirations are, and what car they want to own and build next. We employ a team of car guys and girls. They’re hobbyists themselves with real world experience on the race track and the show field.
We share that experience by helping our customers with technical support. We don’t measure success by limiting the time our staff spends on the phone with a customer or how much we sell to him or her. If we take care of our customers and we satisfy their needs for quality parts and expert advice, then success will come.
The automotive aftermarket and the restoration parts market have evolved considerably in the past 20 years. Many enthusiasts are unaware that there may be several different manufacturers for any given part, and the quality and fit vary significantly. Having more than 20 years of restoration and car building experience, I know the frustration of trying to install a part that doesn’t fit well or doesn’t meet your expectations.
It is for that reason we carefully select the products we offer based on our own experience. In the rare case of a quality or fitment concern, we stand behind our customers with the best satisfaction guarantee in the industry. We’re all part of the same extended family and bound by a common passion. I want our customers to be 100% satisfied with their purchase.
D!: What role, if any, did your father have in the business or you as a businessman.
TB: Although my father is not involved in the ongoing operation of my business, he has had an impact in many ways. When I was 14 years old I suggested getting a project car and brought home every AutoTrader and Recycler I could get my hands on. It didn’t take my convincing, and a few days later we were looking at a 1967 Pontiac GTO that was deteriorating behind a commercial building in Pomona. Initially I questioned his sanity, but thankfully the shop had another GTO inside they had recently completed, and I fell in love. We bought our first project car later that month (August 1989).
Over the following 8 years we completed a highly detailed frame off restoration on that car. We completed the car just in time for the GTOAA Western Regional Meet in 1997, and we were honored to win “Best of Show”. We brought the car back and received the same honor again in 1999.
My father has always encouraged a strong sense of family. Regardless of how much success you find in life, it’s meaningless without the people you surround yourself with, and you can’t ever buy back time. My father encouraged me to pursue a career path in the automotive industry, and for several years we both worked at American Honda Motor Company.
I later accepted a promotion at Hyundai Motor America, and as I continued to find higher levels of success, there were greater demands placed on my time. My overall quality of life and work-life balance suffered. My father was encouraging and supportive of my decision to pursue my own company believing it would allow me more flexibility and time with family.
My father continues to be my #1 technical resource when restoration-related questions arise during our normal course of business.
D!: Can you give us a brief overview of the company and your philosophy that drives RN&R?
TB: We are a company founded and owned by (and that employs) car people who serve car people. We are racers and restorers for racers and restorers. Our goal is simply to do right by our customers. We strive to provide quality products at competitive prices with superior service. Although we began exclusively catering to the GM restoration parts market, today we have evolved into a highly diversified distributor of premium quality restoration and performance parts to satisfy nearly any automotive need.
We have products ranging from early 1930s hot rods to late-model performance. We have something for nearly every automotive nameplate in the market. Even if you don’t see it on our website yet—if it’s being manufactured, we either have it or can get it for you.
Our product range has expanded significantly since our inception. I’ve never understood companies that offer consumers only a limited range of products: only restoration parts, performance parts, accessories, or maintenance items. Our product line now includes all of these items. We strive to develop relationships with our customers and provide them with a one-stop shop to satisfy all of their needs.
D!: When we talked you mentioned the international side of your business. What is the enthusiast scene like around the world from your vantage point as a distributor?
TB: We have shipped products to 63 countries on five continents. There are pockets around the world with enthusiasts who share the same passion for American muscle that we have at home. It’s not uncommon for visitors from other countries to stop by our showroom while visiting the area on holiday to meet our staff, look at our cars, and buy products to take back home for their own project.
D!: Can you tell us about the automotive background of your family? I believe you had a relative featured in Motor Trend back in 1963?!
TB: I was born into a car family. My grandfather’s uncle had a collection of vehicles that was featured in a 1963 issue of Motor Trend. There were many rare and one of a kind vehicles in his collection. My grandmother worked for a Buick dealership for more than 30 years.
My father was a general manager for Goodyear and worked with them for 18 years. He then went into third-party automotive service contracts and finished his career with American Honda Motor Company. My uncle raced drag boats (blown gas hydro) professionally in the 1970s and 1980s.
I spent 15 years of my career working for the automotive OEMs. In 2007 I was tasked by Hyundai Motor America to relaunch their Certified Pre-Owned Program and their entire suite of F&I products. I resigned from that post in April 2012 to pursue my own business on a full-time basis. I continued to provide Hyundai with consulting services for the remainder of 2012.
D!: I know this is but one of several cars you’ve put together. Tell us about your El Camino.
TB: It’s a 1970 SS396. My father and I had seen the car sitting in front of a house near our local post office for many years. Coincidentally, we both approached the owner on the same day about selling the car (my father got there first). The car was used as an occasional daily driver for a few years before being torn down for a comprehensive frame-off restoration.
The car has been painstakingly restored to factory specifications with a tremendous focus on detail. Every nut, bolt, screw, and clip has been cleaned with a wire wheel and plated back to the factory finish. Most of the parts used in the restoration are NOS (new old stock) GM parts. That includes the entire air conditioning system, all of the trim (including the bumpers), body panels, etc.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2017 print issue of the Drive Magazine.