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July Issue Feature: Real World Retail - Tip Top Customs

Mobile Electronics, 7-12-2017 -- Colonel Hannibal Smith, leader of the fictional commando squad, The A-team, once said, "I love it when a plan comes together!" But plans don't come together by accident—neither does a crack unit of the best in any field. Whether it's with television shows, military operations or business, the top minds in any field know that being the best relies on two main things: remaining competitive while staying cooperative to execute a plan. 

Since the start of his 12-volt journey, Sean Davis, owner of Tip Top Customs in Morris, Ill., has kept those two traits at the forefront of his business mindset. As the son of a business owner, Davis learned a great deal about best practices as a youth, especially when it comes to working on vehicles.

"I've been into cars my whole life. My dad owned a body shop when I was younger. He did a lot of racing, mostly drag racing," Davis said. "Once I was old enough to drive, I went to a couple sound-off shows. I remember clearly the Rockford Fosgate van being there. I sat in the back with  the four 18's. It triggered something in my brain. Then I started hanging out in a couple car audio shops pestering guys. Once I got a little bit older I started out detailing and doing accessories in cars."

The business, which Davis started at age 21, began as mobile detailing for car dealerships and individual clients. It changed course when a client asked Davis to install a deck and speakers for him. Not one to turn down work, Davis took the job and with it, his true calling. "I made more money doing that than in two days of detailing. That's when I started getting into car audio and began looking for distributors and parts."

Today, the Top 50 company sits atop a mountain of offerings that span the 12-volt spectrum, including radios, speakers, remote starts, marine, off-road, LED lighting and wiring. Much of the store's business has been generated out of necessity, thanks to a local river, a lack of competitors and the frigid cold of winter.

"Remote start business grew the fastest because it's cold around here and no other guys were doing them," Davis said. "In the last 18 years I think there's been three other people who have tried to open a shop in Morris. I haven't seen anybody last more than two to three months."

Finding the A-Team

With the store located an hour and a half away from the major metropolitan area of Chicago, it's been a challenge for Davis to maintain a regular staff over the years. It was also out of necessity in some ways, due to a lack of experience as a store owner.

"For the first eight to 10 years I had part-time guys who helped me out. I kept things kind of small on purpose. I didn't know any better—never worked in a shop. I was teaching myself everything," Davis said. "I opened my business because I didn't work for anybody else. When my daughter was a couple years old, I ran the business however I wanted. If she had something going on, I locked the doors and I went. That's not the way I run things now."

After learning proper business methods, Davis now makes sure the store is fully covered by other staff before leaving for any reason. With three store moves under his belt and plenty of turnover, Davis has finally locked in a strong staff of four, including two installation technicians, one part-time window tint specialist and a part-time bookkeeper. Lead technician Rob Colesby was found through a method that Davis considers his bread and butter considering the difficulty in finding experienced technicians these days.

"I got my current staff with the 12-volt careers Facebook group. I was by myself. Rob posted on there and wasn't expecting anything. I messaged him off of there," Davis said. "Finding experienced staff is the struggle. You can run 'Help Wanted' ads on Facebook. I got 30 inquiries off that, but no one with actual experience. There were a bunch of different guys with mechanical experience, working in the automotive field. That's how we got the guy we did.  A lot of it is talking with friends in the industry, using the 12-volt insider page. Craigslist doesn't work."

Training employees from scratch is one of the biggest ways Davis was able to move his business forward, but that comes with its own set of challenges. "You need to train on your own or you'll never get to the next level. A lot of people who come through have no idea what we do. It's a lot harder than I would have thought," Davis said. "A lot of people assume all we do is plug something in and it works. Finding the easy way to run a wire, that's not how we do things. We do things a certain way here. It's a little bit of a shock to people. They assume they put a radio in a car once for their buddy, so that's how things are done. It doesn't take them long to figure out that it's not going to work for the customer."

Employees at Tip Top Customs stay for an average tenure of about two years due to the remote location of the shop, according to Davis. "I had a guy not too long ago, drove for an hour and 20 minutes, was in next town over and said it was too far to drive. There's no one who lives here that's experienced with car audio." 

Read the rest of the story in this months issue HERE.

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