A common strategy preached by motivational gurus and business advisors is that, to find success, a person should compete foremost with oneself. It sounds fine in theory, but it’s not very meaningful out in the day-to-day world. Unless, however, you are Nate Robinson. His ongoing quest to grow two competing trailer dealerships—formerly fierce rivals, within a half-mile of each other in a town of less 10,000—should be a case study for business students, or maybe psychologists.
Simply, for the last year and a half Nate has devoted himself to rebuilding a business he had spent the previous four or five years attempting to drive into the ground—with some success.
The story begins routinely enough. Robinson’s family (his wife Ashley, a sister and brother-in-law, his parents and grandparents) owned several businesses in the Denver area, and they were looking for additional opportunities when they discovered, in 2000, Western Slope Trailer Sales and RV in Rifle CO, on I-70 west of Denver.
“We found that this area severely needed a place to service these travel trailers, so we started with the servicing end of it and then saw the benefits to selling new ones as well,” Nate said. “Western Slope was the only RV dealership, sales and service between Denver and Grand Junction, a huge territory. So we were able to get that going for us, and really focused in on that.”
The deal to buy Western Slope included a five-year non-compete agreement with the owner, and the impression was the man just wanted out of the business. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he’s back in town and settled in just up the street, starting Rifle Truck & Trailer in 2006.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Nate said, recalling his reaction at the time. “We just bought Western Slope Trailers from the guy and he sold us on the fact that he was not ever going to come into this town again. So I own this market, and now suddenly it’s split in half. It was a total slap in the face.”
Making matters worse, the man was calling his former customers telling them he was back in business, and contacting vendors saying he wanted his product lines back, Nate adds.
“From that day forward, it was on,” he said, referring to fierce competition. “It was really unfortunate. We battled them for a number of years.”
By 2017, the owner approached the Robinsons, saying he was done. “So we decided, by all means, we’ll buy them out.”
The non-compete was much more strict the second time. “I wanted to make sure that not only am I protecting myself, but also my kids if they decide to get into this business,” Nate said.
Said Ashley, “You can tell there was a lot of animosity between the two stores.”
And Nate suggests he’s still paying a price for the feud.
“I feel like I’m my own worst enemy because of what we have built in order to take down this business,” he said. “I’m having to basically unravel everything I’ve done in order to restart this store. It was tough when I realized that. Every day is a test and educational as far as how we can make this thing work.”
So now what?
The RTT purchase was never intended to be just a way to close out a competitor. While some products overlapped, most of the lines and the customer bases were substantially different, Nate explains.
“It was a little confusing. How are we going to work this?” he said. “Where RTT really stands out is we sell horse and livestock trailers, and we’ve got the advantage of being the only horse and livestock trailer dealership between Grand Junction and Denver as well. This store has got a large following, just as Western Slope has had for the last 25 years. So we figured, let’s keep them separate.
“The benefit to the customer is if they come to Rifle Truck & Trailer looking for a particular trailer, and I don’t have one, I’ve got access to over 150 trailers at Western Slope,” he continued. “So if I don’t have an 8 and 1/2 by 16 with a ramp here, I’ve got three of them sitting at the other store. I can get them into that store as well, which is really nice.”
Between the two locations, the stores stock over 300 trailers together. “So customers can come to [the town of] Rifle and they can pick up anywhere from a 5-by-8 open flatbed to a 40-foot toy hauler fifth-wheel,” Nate said. “We’ve got everything, all aspects.
“But this store really shines in the fact that we do a lot of truck upfitting: the truck beds, utility bodies, the grill guards, the hitches—lots of stuff where Western Slope doesn’t offer any of that. That store really focuses on travel trailers and repairs.”
Truck upfitting was nothing new for Robinson; it had been a big part of the business at Western Slope.
“When we moved over here, it was like being at home again,” he said.
Among the transition surprises, one “really pushy” representative of a product line carried at both stores wanted a second franchise fee, and insisted that the installers be retrained—just because the store had changed hands. Nate decided the franchise was no longer as valuable as it once was—and he replaced it with a competing brand.
“It was an easy transition,” he said. “The customers really don’t care. Half of them would come in here and not even know a name brand.”
On the other hand, there are instances of the stores offering competing brands. An interesting case in point: Wells Cargo and Haulmark trailers, which as of last summer are owned by the same company even though the dealer networks remain separate.
“So when I get a call from a rep who says he has three Haulmarks and four Wells Cargos, they’ll combine my loads. They love it. They can drop off the whole load here and I’ll take them down to the other store.”
Similarly, RTT carries Big Tex and Load Trail, while Western Slope carries PJ Trailers and Diamond C.
Having the two stores also has helped Nate grow his relationship with Trails West Trailers. Western Slope has carried the best-selling Trails West RPM snowmobile trailer, and Nate is a big fan of the brand. Now RTT has become a Trails West horse and livestock trailer dealer.
“It’s a win-win for most of these companies, really,” he said. “It is difficult in some cases, but we haven’t had any resistance, mainly because we’re still maintaining our numbers. Unfortunately, I can’t go to Haulmark, for example, and say, ‘listen, I’m selling Wells Cargo and Haulmark together, so sharpen your pencils and get me a better deal.’ That just doesn’t happen.”
Nate reports the stores sell a combined average of around 800 trailers annually, and he’s “shooting for a thousand.”
“Both of these stores are so well-branded around this area, and the fact that we are not trying to hold customers to one store or the other is going to help both,” Nate said. “Rifle Truck & Trailer has been in business since 2006, and they’ve got a very loyal following. The same with Western Slope Trailer Sales. My Rifle Truck customers now feel that they’ve got full access to Western Slope’s inventory, and that’s pretty huge for them.”
For example, RTT sells “a ton” of aluminum trailers. “The brand Aluma has just been amazing. Western Slope carried another brand, and could not give them away,” Nate said. “If a rep came in and tried to sell me aluminum, not interested. But this store sells Alumas almost daily, and I have no clue what it is. I sell more Aluma trailers than I do steel. I don’t understand it; it’s out of my comfort zone, but it sells.”
Western Slope Manager Dustin Smith confirms that the competition is friendly, but serious. And he suggests that the product differentiation might not be as clean cut as Nate contends.
“We’re talking about two companies within a mile of each other with the same goals, but different products,” Smith said. “Of course, he sees what I’m doing with campers, and he wants a piece of that. So what can I find that would direct them more toward the truck side? He does so well on truck upfitting that I want a piece of that.
“We want to be able to offer everything we can to everybody here, but we need to be smart. We have no contention on parts, but on major items he wants the product and I want the product. Separate but similar.”
Among the first improvements at RTT, the new owners installed a new computer system, redesigned the website and set employees up with company emails—none of which was in place, Nate explains.
“They didn’t even have an inventory system here; it was very odd,” he said. “So, if you called looking for parts for your truck, we would literally have to put you on hold, walk into the warehouse and go put our hands on it. Now you type in a computer and it’ll tell you.”
The next step will be visibility between the inventory systems of the two stores, he adds.
Personnel-wise, joining forces with the former competition was “very, very weird.”
“We were all trained that Rifle Truck & Trailer was the enemy, and they were trained the same way,” Nate said. “Literally, the owner of this place didn’t tell anybody [about the sale]. Everything’s business as usual when they see him loading up his truck. He told everybody on a Thursday afternoon, and 45 minutes later here come the new owners walking into the store.”
Nate and Ashley were greeted with “death stares,” he recalls.
“Most of them were so blindsided they thought they were all out of jobs, they’re going to close this place down,” he said. “I knew I was going to come in here and talk with our staff, but nothing was prepared. The speech that I gave them was 100% ad lib that came right from the heart, and I basically told them what our plans were, and of course they all had questions. My worst fear was coming here on that next Monday and not a soul was going to show up.”
But everyone came in, and soon learned that the new owners were not the sort of people they had been led to believe. The Robinsons did have to make some adjustments to a culture that was “carefree,” especially with regard to working hours.
“Customers are here for their appointments, but I don’t have shop guys because they haven’t even shown up yet. It was very, very embarrassing from that aspect,” Nate said.
So for an 8 am open, Nate wanted the shop crew at the store by 7:45 to get the shop and work orders ready, and to be prepared for the day. The new policy did not go over well with everyone.
“Some of these guys had been here for so long, they just felt like ‘I don’t like the way this is rolling, I don’t feel I can do this for you,’” Nate said. “It was mutual, and that’s great. Go ahead and go. We’re professionals, we need to act like professionals here. We’ve gotten a lot of really super good feedback from customers.”
Indeed, customer reaction to the change in ownership also was an early concern.
“Most people really don’t care, and most were very pleased with the changes,” he said. “They walk in the store where everything is clean, organized, labeled. They noticed that we did lower margins on pricing here, as well. I shoot for more volume—I’d rather sell them cheap and sell a bunch of them, because then there’s a lot of customers out there telling their friends they bought their trailers.”
Nate emphasizes that he still very much considers the business to be in a “rebuilding” phase.
“For me to come in here and think that I’m going to throw up a website, come up with a new logo and it’s going to take me to the next level—there’s just no way. This is going to take some time to really rebuild this place.”
Growing the business
While at Western Slope, Nate would get surveys to track RTT’s sales.
“We were really neck and neck, I mean 50-50 in this town,” he said. “But over the course of the last three years, we noticed that the sales were slowly declining. We knew something was going on because of the lack of inventory. I made a priority every day when I’d come in to open up his website. I knew every trailer that was on the lot; I knew when he got it; I knew when it was sold. I knew this store better than he probably did.
“And I think that the store lost a lot of business, a lot of customers, so it’s going to take me a couple of years to really get this place up to where I want it. The first year, year and a half is really going to be an education for us, learning the store and learning what works and what doesn’t.”
The Robinsons’ two stores may have locked down the trailer business of Rifle, but Nate is still competing against dealers in the wider area.
“With Western Slope, what took us to the next level was our advertising. We invested heavily in internet marketing,” Nate said. “We use Dealer Spike; they’re a premier Google partner so they’re powerful and I can advertise specifically to a particular market. It’s been really, really astonishing to be able to see those results.”
He specifically cited the sale of horse trailer.
“Horse-trailer people will drive halfway across the country to get what they want. We had a customer call us from Salt Lake City and we had the exact trailer and they loved the price,” he said. “They drove from Salt Lake City all the way here to Colorado to buy that trailer. We wouldn’t have gotten that sale if we hadn’t had this internet marketing going for us.”
Of course, he’s constantly online doing price comparisons.
“The best that we can do is just offer a very good fair price of our trailers,” he said. “There are a lot of dealers in the Grand Junction market, and they’re all willing to do whatever they can to sell a trailer. So, for instance, I bring all my trailers in with everything you could possibly need: from stabilizer jacks, a spare tire, I add extra height to my trailers.
“And I don’t bring in loss leaders to get the guy in on the door on the cheap price, and then trick him into buying something else. We’re right up front from our pricing on our website, and we give the customer our absolute best price right off the bat. I don’t raise my price up and then have them haggle me down. We’re very honest right from the get-go.”
Nate has had some success competing for local government bids, but competing for larger state and federal contracts, with their small margins, typically isn’t worth his effort. He does benefit, however, from the tendency of government agencies to hold on to trailers until “the wheels fall off.” The stores benefit from the resulting maintenance and upfit opportunities. He estimates that 25% of his business is government related.
The area economy also expands and contracts with the oil and gas business. Typically, the big companies are buying base trucks through national fleet purchasing accounts. But those trucks then have to be equipped for the work at hand. And that’s where Robinson’s stores, as preferred vendors, come in.
“We’re in the heart of it. Right now, it’s kind of a slow time for oil and gas exploration, but when that’s going they can come in here and we generally have everything they could need: fuel pumps, transfer tanks, toolboxes and all that stuff,” he said. “They’re very particular about the way they want these things done, especially the guys in the field. They can’t just run to town to grab a tool when they’re 10,000 feet up in the mountains working on the rig. They have to have absolutely everything.”
Looking forward rather than back, in four or five years Nate envisions a “state-of-the-art facility” for RTT, with a big trailer yard and stocking levels comparable to what Western Slope currently carries. And he doesn’t anticipate merging the two businesses.
“They’re going to continue to be huge competitors,” he said. “This store needs to survive just as much as Western Slope Trailers does. It’s just different.”
“We just thought we already knew what we’re doing, that we’re going to come right in here and it’s going to be the same,” she said. “It’s really a completely different business, with truck parts and accessories. And the clientele that comes in here is completely different from what we get in Western Slope.”
Nate would like to see a day when store volumes become about equal again, but the distinct character of each will remain.
“There’s no way I would ever put RVs on this lot, and there’s no way I would ever put horse trailers on that lot,” he said.