One-stop custom shop is worthwhile venture

Jan. 1, 2020
Necessity is the mother of invention, so when Susan Gregory discovered that customizing a car would carry her all over the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee, she felt there had to be a better way.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so when Susan Gregory discovered that customizing a car would carry her all over the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee, she felt there had to be a better way.

“I’ve always wanted to work on cars,” she explains. “(But) you had to go to one place for wheels and tires, another for the audio, a third for any performance enhancements...Why would I want to go to all those places if I could create something where you only had to go to one?”

The result was Ride Revolution. At 38,000 sq. feet, it’s one of the largest custom shops in the state, the region and possibly the Eastern U.S. — and it’s made all the more remarkable for two reasons: it’s not located near any major urban center, but in Johnson City, Tenn., the heart of the Appalachian Mountains; and Gregory was only 23 years old when she founded it in 2002.

With the ink still drying on her bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Gregory also applied tips from her father, the head of a local pharmaceuticals firm — like knowing where and when to take risks.

“Obviously there was some concern that this was the right place to do this,” she says. “But I lived here and I liked the idea of creating new business in the area. And anytime you do something like this, it’s a big risk; location wasn’t really an issue, the goal here was to open a chain of Ride Revolutions. I don’t plan on this being my only shop.”

The showroom is the jewel in the crown: 20,000 sq. feet of architectural wonder behind a two-story octagon of buttressed glass. “(The construction company) had an in-house architect,” says Gregory, “and he really came up with the exterior design aspects. Then we went to some consultants, Wintech out of Kansas City, for the showroom’s interior.”

Ride Revolution carries product lines from AEM to Zex, covering 23 separate categories. For the engine compartment they stock styling kits, nitrous kits, turbos, performance internals, even whole engines; for the interior they carry gauges and meters, aftermarket seats, and mobile electronics; and for a vehicle’s exterior they have neon kits, graphics, carbon fiber hoods and ground effects.

And while they had commissioned such a firm to design the layout of the store, there were certain basic guidelines in place. “Before I opened the store,” explains Gregory, “I used to go into other shops and things were always jumbled, mismatched. We’ve made sure everything is grouped together like a regular retail store, like a Best Buy. For example, when you come in the door, Mobile Electronics is all off to one side; lifestyle, like CDs and DVDs, are in the middle behind the main counter.”

Practical matters, such as sheer size, also are a major factor in the layout. “Wheels alone takes up half of the main floor,” she comments, “while performance takes up the whole mezzanine.”

The remaining 18,000 feet out back encompasses inventory and the service garages, the latter featuring four lifts in the performance bay, space to work on two cars in the audio bay, two in the wheel and tire bay, two in the temp bay, as well as a paint booth and wheel alignment. They also have one of the few all-wheel dynos in the country, perfect for tuning performance vehicles. But as Gregory points out, their market isn’t confined to sport compacts, but includes all domestic cars and trucks.

“Import people come in thinking we’re just a domestic car shop, and (visa-versa),” Gregory explains. “We’re still trying to overcome this, but that’s to be expected since we’re such a new concept. Other than Autobacs in California, there really isn’t any place like this. And after checking Autobacs out, it is geared more toward the import side.”

Out by the road is their beacon — a state-of-the-art animated sign, surmounted by their logo, a flaming horse’s head with a glowing eye. As Gregory explains, “We wanted something that would catch everybody’s eye and pull them in, and the sign is really doing that for us.”

Originally located in nearby Bristol, Tenn., Gregory quickly found that a 5,000-sq.-foot facility was simply too small for their needs. Commissioning a new building, they moved to their new digs last October, simultaneously purchasing Bowtie Performance Headquarters, a local machine shop that also sold Chevy parts.

“We bought their customer list, their inventory, their machine shop, even their machinist,” says Gregory. The latter augments a staff of nine in the garage: three technicians dedicated to performance installs, two to paint and body, one person for general repairs like oil changes and alignments, a window tinter and “one crazy audio installer who just does amazing work.”

Upfront, Gregory currently has 12 people on her sales staff and, while they’re 100-percent retail right now, Ride Revolution is trying to get into the wholesale side.

“You’ve got Keystone, Nickels Performance to a certain extent,” Gregory outlines, “but from my experience there aren’t that many companies involved in wholesale (for this market). We’re starting to create different relationships with certain vendors that would enable us to compete with those people.”

Their target market is other retailers, small mom-and-pop shops and dealerships. “If we could set them up on a wholesale account, then we can start selling neon bars to the Dodge dealers for example.”

Getting into catalog sales on a national level is another goal. “When we bought Bowtie Performance back in October they had a strong catalog following,” Gregory continues. “We’re still getting some of that business in, but we really want to refine what we’re doing and get people calling from all over for any of our products. So we’re putting together an information piece about the shop and what we have. And we’re really focused on getting our website to the point where we can count on that (for sales).”

Radio and cable TV advertising have had a lot of impact and locally they have a high profile due to their summer sponsorship of “Street Fights,” drag races held every Tuesday and Thursday at Bristol’s Thunder Valley.

But Gregory’s main target is to expand outward to bigger cities like Atlanta, Tampa or Charlotte. “Nobody has really dedicated themselves to the aftermarket parts that can enhance your vehicle,” she muses. “In five years I want to be at the point where I’m opening up my next stores. Right now I think I’ve got two to three years before I’m ready.”

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 3 years

Growth plans: Expanding into major metropolitan markets within the next five years.

Number of employees: 21

Wholesale/retail ratio: Currently 100-percent retail, with plans to move into some wholesale in the near future.

Snapshot of Ride Revolution: Originally founded under the name “Motor Mavericks,” first store was a 5,000-sq.-foot facility located in Bristol, Tenn. Changing the name to “Ride Revolution” in 2004, the store was moved 20 miles south to Johnson City, Tenn.

Affiliation: None

Competition: Regional audio shops, muffler shops, wheel & tire stores, graphics/tinting shops, speed shops — but really nothing on this one-stop-shop scale.

Location/facility size: One 38,000-sq.-foot location.