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Always looking ahead

Forward thinking RadiatorBarn.com unlocking new customers online

By Wendy Bautista

Randy Amos has always pushed himself to do better and to go above and beyond what anyone else would do, and that drive and determination has paid off for him in his life and career.

Randy was only 9 years old when his father and brother opened the family business in 1958 as Lake Shore Radiator and Welding Works, which primarily consisted of a small welding facility and one repair tank to service automobile radiators.

“I was in elementary school then and would come by the shop after going to school and learned how to weld and then how to do radiator repair,” says Randy, the current company, Lake Shore Radiator & Specialty Auto Parts, president and CEO.

“By age 12, I was one of the better repairmen of radiators in the city. I used to think it was a big deal for a young guy like me learning how to repair radiators and weld at such a young age until I started seeing these young folks today that are 5 and 7 years old that can take a computer and do unbelievable things. I realize now that age was not really a factor, but I was probably better than a lot of older guys because I learned the new way and the right way of repairing radiators.”

Randy continued to work at Lake Shore while graduating from high school and continuing his education at Jacksonville University.

Making changes

After graduating in 1970 with his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration with a concentration in economics and finance, and a minor in political science, he decided to stay in the Jacksonville area.

“I looked at my brother and said, ‘If we are going to stay here, we are going to expand and do more than just repair radiators.’ And that’s when we started dabbling a little bit in selling the product more, as far as a complete radiator,” says Randy.

While still keeping the business going, Randy was elected to the Jacksonville City Council in 1975. At that time, he was the youngest city councilman ever elected. He served through 1979 when he left elected politics to devote full time to Lake Shore, which he had purchased a 50% share.

“I decided to run for tax collector and was unfortunately, or maybe I should say fortunately for the business, defeated by less than 3% of votes. I decided it was time to go to the next step with the business,” says Randy.

Making strides

That was when Lake Shore became a complete, full wholesale division and pulled that away from the repair side. In 1981, it started distributing radiators and condensers in the local region of North Florida and South Georgia.

“Back then, we were what they considered new pioneers in the business,” says Randy. “Traditionally, you would have a three-step process. But when I went out on the road, we did what we called a two step. We bought it directly from the manufacturer and sold it directly to the installer. By doing that, there was a lot more efficiency for us and we could lower the cost point to the garages and who we went to.”

1983 marked the first expansion to Fayetteville, N.C. Knowing the logistics of overnight delivery was 200 miles from a location, he took out a compass and drew a circle 400 miles outside of Jacksonville. “So between Fayetteville and Jacksonville, we covered everything from southern Virginia through Florida, and all the way over to eastern Alabama,” says Randy.

He has since opened up other branches in Macon, Ga.; Dothan, Ala.; Raleigh, N.C.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Charleston, S.C.

In addition to operating in those six physical locations, he also uses 3PL (third party logistics) warehouses, which are a fee-type warehouse, in Austin, Texas, and Sparks, Nev. (just outside of Reno), to help make delivery times shorter for those surrounding areas.

Making the move

Robert Amos, Randy’s nephew, joined Lake Shore in 1999. While he says he was not a computer professional per se, he was always actively interested and knew there were some capabilities out there that could take Lake Shore in a different direction and maybe to a different level.

“Rob was the founder of the Internet division and I am the funder,” says Randy. “I had the money and he had the knowledge, and we paired that together to get RadiatorBarn.com going.” And in 2002, the website launched.

“Randy has always been one to grasp something by the horns and then let our competitors adjust to what we do in a lot of ways,” says Robert, when asked if it was a challenge to get Randy to agree to an Internet site. “Randy has always been on the edge of technology and always embraced it so when I brought the idea to him about going to the Internet, he was willing.”

Robert, who has bachelor of business administration degrees in transportation/logistics and business management and is currently going to school at Florida State to get a masters in management of information systems, says “as far as taking the established company and moving it toward being on the Internet, there really wasn’t much of a transition as many of the procedures were in place with the warehouses.”

Randy says a lot of what Robert did he may be downplaying a bit because the  information and knowledge he has about how you set up these businesses and how the Internet works and how you do things the right way is the key to Lake Shore’s and RadiatorBarn.com’s success.

“Rob and I talked early on that we wanted to do everything professionally right and technologically right, but we still had to remember that we are an existing business and should never forget where we came from and how to treat customers,” says Randy.

“I like to say we are technologically advanced and future thinking of a Buck Rogers but have the customer service, smile, and friendliness of a Will Rogers.”

Making adjustments

Once they were up and running online, they saw an immediate boost in business. Knowing how other companies went from .com to .gone, they decided to take a slower approach and ease into it. And that decision paid off—by the end of the second year of being on the Internet, they were doing over $1 million in online business and have been multimillion ever since.

Of course, success doesn’t come without its growing pains. With Lake Shore being the parent company, they use the same warehouses and staff for both operations and for some branches there was an adjustment period.

“They were taking care of their normal garage and walk-up customers and then in the afternoon all of a sudden they would have four or five orders coming in that they had to rush, pull, write up, and ship out for RadiatorBarn.com,” says Randy. “It did take a little while for the culture to set in and some gentle reminders from me that we are one team, one company, and it’s not RadiatorBarn against Lake Shore,” says Randy.

Robert was able to turn these issues into solutions by developing a system where the orders are more consistent throughout the day instead of at once so these branches can write them up at any time.

“We’ve definitely gotten a lot more efficient,” says Robert. “We’ve gotten to the point where the time from when you order a radiator and send your order through to where we bill it out and get it to the location where it is shipping from is less than a minute.”

Randy jokes with Robert that some of the other changes he made were just things he didn’t like or didn’t want to deal with.

“That’s exactly true!” says Robert, “and some of these changes definitely save time and phone calls—especially in regards to tracking numbers.” Robert says that not having a tracking number was one thing he changed because he himself would want it. “People provide their e-mail address when checking out so why not?” he says. “We just do it as part of our customer service now and it makes them feel good to know exactly where the package is and when it is going to get there.”

“It’s one thing if it’s a book, but it’s another thing when it’s a radiator and your vehicle is down and you have to get it back up and running,” says Robert.

Making advances

And getting that car back up and running is being handled by only 38 employees, and all 38 work for Lake Shore and RadiatorBarn.com. “That’s the advantage with our technology,” says Randy. “A company our size with the volume we do would have somewhere between 60 and 70 employees, but with our high-level telephone system and electronic cataloging, we are able to get by with about half and we’re not sacrificing any level of customer service.”

“We do take care of the customers, number one, but the customer is only going to be taken care of as well as that employee feels like doing it that day,” says Randy, which is why he makes sure his employees stay happy and are kept up-to-date. “In today’s market, I see too many companies that don’t appreciate the employees they have.”

Many of the employees have been with the company for a great number of years, with some reaching more than 20 years. “I have a good strong group of people that have been here quite a while and my biggest equity is in those employees,” says Randy.

“Lake Shore and RadiatorBarn.com are really big marketing companies that sell a product—the difference is we know what the product is we are selling and how it functions,” says Randy. “I think that’s another big key for us versus other distributors in our industry.”

“If and when a customer does have an issue or problem, they are comfortable calling us because all of our guys are trained in keeping up with the mechanics on the car, not just selling the part. Our people are ASE certified, which means they are just a little bit more up on the cutting edge of technology and they know a little bit more about selling parts and taking care of the customer’s needs.”

“We want to make the sale just as much as the next guy,” says Robert, “but if a customer calls up and they describe a problem and they don’t need a radiator, we’re not going to try and sell them a radiator—we’re going to help them fix their problem. And when they need a radiator, they will come to us. Future business to us is just as good as current business.”

Making a prediction

“In 2006, the national average of how long people kept a car was 7.3 years, but now it is predicted at 10.6 years,” says Randy. “Just adding that three to four year increase in the time a car is kept on the road and operating, there will be more need for radiators and parts like we sell, so I know we are definitely in a growing business. We just need to be here and around to service more cars, and all indicators are we are going to be growing and doing really well online.

Currently, 15% of Lake Shore’s total volume is on the Internet. “Probably the most growth is going to come in that area in two to five years because we’ve strategically planned several more branch operations that were going to open up. We actually look at a map and figure out where we can get overnight delivery,” says Randy.

“The key to that, too,” says Robert, “is to get that overnight service at regular ground shipment rates without having to pay for the overnight service.”

Randy says he is looking for more brick and mortar locations across the country so he can provide service in the local area and be able to get parts delivered to a customer overnight and not pay additional fees. “Long term, I would like to see coast-to-coast Lake Shore and RadiatorBarn.com overnight delivery, and maybe even save money for the companies.”

“We may not have been the first one selling radiators on the Internet, but we are probably the best now,” says Robert, with Randy interjecting, “and our testimonials prove that! You can go to the section online and see an unbelievable amount. Continually hearing the good things people have to say makes me so proud.”

“The Internet, the way we do business through RadiatorBarn.com, the way we look at expanding down the line, and taking care of customers has created and keeps the passion and enthusiasm up in me,” says Randy.

“I feel there is a .com boom coming again for the correctly built companies on the Internet—for the good guys who develop good systems—and RadiatorBarn.com is definitely one of those companies.”

Wendy Bautista is editor of Advantage: The Resource for Small Business. She can be reached at Wendy@advantagebizmag.com or 904-536-2234.


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