|From Performance Racing Industry Magazine
By John Kilroy, Oct 1996
Chip Rollins has a reputation in his community. If a racer needs help deciding what speed part to buy within his budget. Rollins gives him straight advice. If racers can’t quite correctly install a part they purchased from Rollins Automotive, Rollins guides them through it. If the part fails, Rollins is there to fulfill the warranty. With bad advice or poor customer service, Rollins knows that his racing business would end. Fort Myers, Florida, is a small town and word passes quickly among local racers. It is the reputation of RA for the racing parts in stock, the good advice and its long-standing presence in the community that is his core business. “I would hope that the number one reason that they come here is because of our reputation and our experience.” said Rollins. “We’ve been around a long time, going clear back to the days of the flathead. Our reputation is for quality and durability. When we do an engine or a transmission or anything like that, we pride ourselves on it’s durability. “We also pride ourselves on the reputation we have in the community for fairness, and if you have a problem, somebody’s going to take care of it. They know that we’ve been around for 20 years, that we’re not going to move tomorrow, and that service after the sale is here.” Side by side with Rollins in the store is his wife Nancy. In addition, his “number one man” Bob DiBonaventure has been there for 21 years. It’s a formidable team, usually rounded out by another ful timer and a couple of part-time employees. Customers include street performance enthusiasts, drag, oval track, sand and mud bog racers. Marine performance enthusiasts also call upon the merchandise and expertise available to them at RA.
Go-Karts to Drags Rollins’ passion for all things automotive began in 1953, when a grade school friend got him interested in cars. His enthusiasm soon found its outlet in go-karts and, by high school, in drag racing. His skills in retailing were honed in managing a Sears auto center, a job that ended in the 1974 recession, when he was laid off. “I thought that was a good time to do something on my own that i had always wanted to do.” said Rollins. “I had 15 years retailing experience by that time. And I felt that now I had enough experience and maturity to go into busines for myself.” He started a gas station, a decision that was met with concern by others in a time of gas shortages. But, Rollins reasoned there are three things people can’t live without: groceries, medical care and gasoline. Performance, however, was not to be part of the picture. “For the first four years of operation, I would not have anything to do with high performance around the gas station,” said Rollins. If the gas station became a hangout for hot rodders, Rollins worried it might drive away the steady flow of older customers who pay the bills. But local racers knew he had been a serious drag racer, even an NHRA tech inspector for a period in the 1960s, and they sought him out. “They would come up and ask us to do things,” said Rollins. “If they wanted me to build a motor, I said I’d build it at home; I can’t have it there at the station. When it was done, I’d tell them they can come and pick it up.” In just this way, Rollins “backdoored” the performance side of his business, but it continued to grow. “There was more and more demand,” he said. At the same time, the gas station business was evolving from full service to self service, which cut the profit margins. “We had to constantly look at things that might restore some of the profit margin that had gone out of the service station business,” said Rollins. He purchased the gas station and decided to retail speed parts. First, he created a showroom and displayed between $7,000 to $8,000 worth of inventory. “It went along with the shop services that we offered, both in general repair and high performance,” said Rollins. But the business quickly went from general repair to primarily high performance. In 1987, Rollins sold the station and moved to a new, larger location. After a decade of selling high-performance parts from the gas station, RA was a full-on speed shop, with five bays for service and installation. With the addition of a garage last year, the total facility is approximately 3,200 square feet.
Dependability Counts In the world of grassroots racing, Rollins helps his racers reckon with the realities of their budgets. His view is that speed costs, and it’s sound advice to develop a plan that incorporates both speed and durability. “Rather than have some whizbang car that goes real fast and blows up every week – that may be impressive as long as it runs – with our drag race motors we don’t even intend to service them but once every two years, where it would require pulling an oil pan,” said Rollins. “We don’t want the reputation of building fragile equipment that may go very fast, but is expensive to maintain,” said Rollins. “And when it comes to the street guys, they’re building performance automotive for daily driving. Durability should be one of the things upper most in their mind, rather than how fast it can go.” Part of the process at RA is time spend conversing with customers. If a customer enters the store and says he can buy a motor for $795 at a local mass merchandiser outlet, the Rollins team describes how they could also build a motor like that for that price. Then, they describe describe why they wouldn’t build such a motor for performance applications. They show the customers the difference. They advise the customer to check the warranty, and the fact that it may often void the warranty to change parts, such as switching to a performance camshaft. The Rollins sales team explains that a racing retailer knows their motors will be used for a certain amount of “sporting use,” and that’s why Rollins won’t walk away from the warranty simply because a motor was used in a performance application (under reasonable conditions). “When you’re dealing with technical stuff or complicated mechanical things, or anything that might require warranty, we try to point out to customers that we feel it’s important that even if you have to pay a few dollars more, it’s better,” said Rollins, quickly adding, “but, we also point out to the customer that no one should expect you to pay a huge amount more for the same product. “If we can’t be competitive with mail order, if we can’t earn your business, we’re not asking you to support us when we don’t deserve it,” explained Rollins. “What we are asking for is the opportunity that if you see something in your mail-order catalog, for instance and you know what price you’re willing to pay for it, don’t be afraid or shy about bringing your mail order catalog in and plunking it down on the desk. Say, ‘Here’s what I want and here’s what I can buy it for from this place. Can you be competitive with that?” “Many times, I can say, ‘Yes, I can get it for you. As a matter of fact, I can get it for you a little less expensively than that.” Rollins has heard speed shop owners discuss the intense price competition with mail-order companies in some product categories. He mentioned carburetors as an example. However, Rollins said that retailers should also consider getting a trade-in every time they sell a carburetor. They may find that selling the rebuilt carburetor is much more profitable. “These days, it simply requires more creativity – not to look at the strong points that other businesses have, but to look for their weak points,” said Rollins. “Look for your own strong points and try to exploit the weak points of businesses that compete with you, particularly out of town ones.” Every year, it seems like Rollins has more customers call him and say they bought a part from a mail-order company, but they need RA to tell them how to put it on, “You have to understand that you can’t just show your antagonism over the telephone or in person immediately, without an explanation,” said Rollins. “Otherwise, you’ll simply alienate the customer and you won’t see him again.” Talk to him for a few minutes, Rollins continued, then “gently express that you’re in business and you have to make a profit to stay in business and you can’t continue to just give away your time explaining to people how to install the parts they bought from another source.”
Involved Employees At the time of this interview, RA had no part-time employees, although they typically have at least one and sometimes two. Rollins explained the challenge racing retailers have in locating part-time employees. “It’s extremely difficult to find good people, particularly as new hires,” he said. “You’re looing to pay somebody an entry-level wage of $6 to $6.50 per hour, but a lot of people coming in are wanting experienced-type wages of $8 to $10. “It’s hard to find someone who has the interest and the willingness to learn as a part-time employee, and is really interested in the business, rather than somebody who just wants to put in a few hours for a paycheck,” said Rollins. “We’re not really interested in hiring anybody that just needs a place to put in hours for a paycheck. If you don’t love the business or you’re not interested in the business, you have no place here as far as we’re concerned. “We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t love it.” Rollins said he believes the company is extremely fortunate to have Bob DiBonaventure on board for 21 years. “He started when he was 18 years old,” said Rollins. Nancy Rollins, said Chip, does everything at the store that he and Bob do. “She’s not quite as confident technically as Bob and I are, but of course she does all the work that nobody else wantes to do: all the bookwork and the bookkeeping, worrying about the money…she’s the chief worrier. “She spends time at the counter and on the phone, too,” continued Rollins. “When a decision is to be made, everybody gets consulted, Bob DiBonaventure as well. We sit down and have a ‘family meeting’ before we make any decisions or major changes it’s run so that everyone has a say in what goes on.”
Inventory When it comes to adding new products to the merchandise mix, Rollins said, “The first thing I look at is, does it really make sense?” He avoids ‘snake oil’ products, even if they are aggresively marketed by their manufacturers. “The second thing is value,” said Rollins. “Not value necessarily to me, but value to the customer. Is this a product that gives you what I call bang for your buck?” An exotic high-priced racing product that provides limited results will not likely make its way into the inventory of RA. “When the customer spends a few hundred dollars, he wants to feel something in the seat of his pants.” RA also makes inventory decisions according to the number of turns the products generate. For example, in safety equipment, the company sells uniforms, neck collars, window nets and harnesses. But, they don’t keep shoes or underwear in stock. “The faster moving items we do carry in stock,” he said. “The service bays are not quite as busy as we’d like,” he noted. “Having this many service bays and this few employees, I feel that they should be better utilized than they are.” And whether installing parts or advising a customer, Rollins is not slow to summon help from his suppliers. “In many cases, we find that the best money anybody can spend, whether it’s ourselves or the customer, is five bucks on a phone call,” he said. “That’s the cheapest five bucks you’ll probably ever spend.” “From most manufacturers, you’ll get extremely good technical service.”
Advertising RA does print advertising in the local free automotive publication. The circulation is limited, but readers are certain to have automotive interests. Radio, TV and newspapers are too expensive for a business of their size, said Rollins. “The rest of our advertising is done face to face at race tracks, car shows, local events, wherever we can, when ever we can.” RA is also an associate sponsor of the JW Super Comp series that is run through the summer in Florida. And they’ve raced through a lot of local race tracks, too. “Both my sons are in school in Gainesville, and they’ve both done extremely well with their own racing activities,” said Rollins. They were top five finishers in Sportsman E.T. at Gainesville. John, the older son, is a past track champion at Moroso in Sportsman. The other son, Jason, was a 1995 winner of the Citrus Nationals in Sportsman E.T. Chip has a Super Pro/Super Street car Camaro that runs in the low 10 seconds, reaching a speed of 130mph. “We have a lot of fun,” said Rollins. “When it comes to drag racing, you don’t have to have a professional, prepared operation to go out there and have fun. And you don’t have to have anything but a little bit of dedication and skill to be successful.” In the future, Chip and Nancy are considering moving to Gainesville. The plan is to have Bob DiBonaventure take over the Ft. Myers business, while Chip and Nancy open a smaller speed business in Gainesville. It would be oriented primarily to retailing, with some light service capabilities. It may sound like a form of semi-retirement, but the realities of retailing racing products will very likely keep them busy. Chip acknowledges, “We’ll probably end up working twice as hard.” “I would really like to get back to my retail roots,” said Rollins. “My first love is dealing with the customers in the retail end, and my second love is the technical end.” And, as it has been for the past two decades or so, the local reputation of RA in the racing community will be what makes the Gainesville store successful. “The most important part is customer trust,” he said. “The second most important part is getting the customer into your store to see you. There’s no substitute for local face to face, as far as meeting customers.”