The Stevens Trifecta:
They started out like any young and ambitious newly married couple. On the wall in the den, Dennis Stevens framed his hard-sought MBA. He landed himself a well-paying corporate job that under most circumstances would have been comfortable, except it required constant travel up and down the eastern seaboard, complicating his desire to spend time with his wife and new baby. He was an adviser and consultant doing appraisal work for a client who was considering buying property for a large car dealership.
There, standing on the showroom floor of his client, Stevens saw Bernie, a tattooed biker riding a Harley, open up his saddlebag, and pull out a set of tools he used to repair interior leather, vinyl, and carpeting. “I was curious, so I walked out to see what he was doing,” Stevens recalls. “I started watching him work and after just a few minutes, I said, ‘I have got to learn how to do that!”
Today, having never worked a full day in the forestry engineering industry, Dennis Stevens owns three affiliated companies including Original Interiors, Auto Cosmetics Mobile Tech Products, and Big Rig Restoration in Lilburn, Georgia, just outside Atlanta.
“It turned out Bernie was planning to retire to Florida in the coming months, so I started working side by side with him, practically living on that car lot over the next couple of months,” Stevens says. “After six months, I began taking over his accounts, and in nine months, my father-in-law and I bought the business from him for $20,000, or as I like to remember it, I paid him twenty grand to teach me the business. Not once since then have I ever looked back because in those days, if you hustled, you could make a lot of money!”
And so it was that in 1981 Stevens started Original Interiors specializing in interior restoration, both repair and color dying automotive carpet, leather, velour, and vinyl. He would later add plastic and rubber repair, plastic protection, deodorizing, and blackout headlights, to his repertoire.
Things have changed since then. There were only a few people in the mobile interior repair business and few products to support it either. “In 1981, I could make a living just repairing and re-dying interior vinyl and vinyl tops. I was buying from the only interior repair supply specialist I knew, a lady named Lucille Massey of Massey’s Vinyl Repair. Lucille was a pioneer in the business and she and I, along with a vinyl specialist at Fitzgerald’s, would meet once a year in Las Vegas where we held classes to teach each other new tricks. We started the International Professional Vinyl Repair Association (IPVRA) with a membership of about 40 to 50 people. We would spent all day, every day, sharing knowledge and talking about how we could improve the industry. Lucille was our titular leader. She seemed to know everything there was to know about interior repair.”
Slowly over the next four to five years, Stevens started bringing on people to train in the exciting and lucrative new business. “It was easy to get people interested. Remember, back then, no one else was doing interior repair. You looked like a miracle worker when people watched you work,” he says. “We are able to get our techs up and going quickly and easily, but quality and consistency is of utmost importance, so they have to be willing to put some elbow grease into every job. We don’t do classroom, so trainees spent three days a week training in real-world environments with me, getting hands-on experience. Then I have work lined up for them when they finished training. I want them to be independent and successful. That’s my goal.”
One of those trainees was a hardworking general manager of a local steak house who was only partly interested when he started training, until Stevens announced that he had to cut out early to attend a kindergarten Thanksgiving play for one of his kids. “I invited him to go with me and he couldn’t believe it. He said he had two little boys, but worked all the time and never had time to spend with them. He had always wanted to coach their Little League team, but couldn’t see any way he would be able to do that in the restaurant business. He saw an opportunity to make a great living and still spend time with his family. He went on to become an independent contractor, coached a Little League, and never missed his sons’ games.”
By the 1990s, Stevens had 15 mature and responsible middle management types all hitting six figures. “We were all successful, and I never lost anyone to a competitor. Auto parts stores saw what we were doing and started recommending us to their customers. By the 1990s, I had 20 trucks running and I was still buying supplies from Lucille’s company.”
Around mid-2000, Lucille retired and sold her business. “I had always received excellent service from her but now things were sloppy, so I approached the person who bought her out, and I bought him out. Now I am in the wholesale end of the business ― that is Auto Cosmetics Mobile Tech Products.”
By then, Stevens says mobile interior repair was an up and coming industry and they had a great reputation for quality and customer support. “Pat Hall is our greeter, our customer service expert, and runs our entire mobile tech products division so our customers are always in good hands.”
Stevens began adding new product offerings. “Headlight repair is huge with big outfits so I decided to develop my own line called Safe Lights, which we sell nationally. For the technician interested in offering them, I can teach you how to do it in five minutes with no mess and long lasting, excellent results.”
Odor removal is another huge business. “We have several products in that area,” he says. “We sell Naturally Green packages to car dealerships. We use a fog machine for smoke odors, and an effective spray for pre-owned vehicles that leaves a pleasant smell. By far our biggest hit is Chlorine Dioxide Deodorizing Kits.”
They consist of a chlorine dioxide tablet placed in water and set it inside the vehicle to start a gas-off process. The fumes are similar to those of treating your swimming pool. Stevens says they use ‘Danger’ stickers on the window with the date and time of the gas-off, followed by an airing out period. “The system isn’t actually toxic, but in the same way you get that strong chlorine odor from a freshly treated swimming pool, it can irritate people with asthma. As it dissipates, it completely removes odors caused by food, smoke, vomit, and nasty pet smells.” He says they also provide private label products for four or five companies.
He also tries to attend SEMA and the Mobile Tech Expo when he can, taking new guys with him to keep on top of new trends. “I always see a couple of competitors and people I know from Fitzgerald’s and Superior Interiors,” he says. “In spite of the growing popularity of the industry, there have not been a lot of changes in our business. Everybody says they are making a new this or proprietary that, but they are all buying from the same manufacturer.”
Stevens’ son Andrew runs Big Rig Restoration with a staff of 12 employees. “Andrew has done a lot of semi restoration work and they call him to travel to locations all over. After only about a year, we are going nuts with work! We had some tractor-trailer companies requesting interior work and it is tremendously lucrative because there is a big turnover in trucks and their drivers, plus, a driver practically lives in that truck. Most drivers install their own electronic equipment and when they change trucks, they take it with them, leaving holes in the dash we have to repair. Also around the Atlanta area, we have a lot of TV and movie production crews with support vehicles on site. They expect them to be spotless so Big Rig details them and takes care of any interior needs as well.”
For info contact:
Auto Cosmetics / Mobile Tech Products
3050 Five Forks Trickum Rd SW Ste D
Lilburn, GA 30047-1877
To be successful, you have to have your heart in your business, and your business in your heart. ~Thomas Watson, Sr.
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