Where customer is king

For a manufacturer that places great emphasis on its retail stores, Ranch Hand Truck Accessories knew it needed a boost in Houston.

Ranch Hand was operating out of an inadequate facility in a low-traffic area about 10 miles northwest of downtown. In 2005, the company found a gold-mine, one-acre spread in a retail-heavy area 11 miles northwest of the old store. On the vacant lot, Ranch Hand built a 9,000-square-foot facility with an old-school barn appearance and an installation bay that allows technicians to work on up to three vehicles at one time — with the potential for an expansion that would allow room for six vehicles.

It was the truck-parts equivalent of the famous Field of Dreams mantra: If you build it, they will come.

They came in droves. In 2006, the first full year of operation there, the Houston outlet increased its sales 54%.

“It's all attributable to the move,” store manager Carl Sawyer says. “The foot traffic in the old store was a few people a day. Here, we're getting 50 to 60. The move has treated us well, to say the least.”

The Houston retail outlet is the key location in a network that also includes three other outlets in Texas (Irving, San Antonio, Boerne) and one in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City). It has by far the largest volume — 30% above the average of the other stores.

Ranch Hand's products also are sold through distributors, new-truck dealerships, and truck/SUV accessory dealers. Ranch Hand's wholesale distribution goes to 43 states and Canada.

Ranch Hand, which bills itself as the largest manufacturer of heavy-duty truck accessories in the United States, has two manufacturing plants in Texas: Shiner and Beeville.

In addition to the standard Ranch Hand parts and accessories (grille guards, back bumpers, front-bumper replacements, headache racks, toolboxes, and steps), the stores offer a full line of truck accessories for full-size?Ford, Chevy, GMC, and Dodge pickups and sport utility vehicles from half ton and up, including winch-attachment systems, gooseneck hitches, spray-in bedliners, window tinting, lift kits, and nerf bars.? In addition,?the Toyota Tundra and Sequoia grille guards are now available, as well as the Jeep Bullnose and back bumper.

“We offer pretty much anything for a truck or SUV,” regional sales manager Scott McClaugherty says. “We work with several distributors and have access to anything you may want for your truck or SUV.”

Says Sawyer, “We can accommodate the average consumer who doesn't have the aptitude, ability, or desire to put on a product, and also the do-it-yourselfers. We offer many different product lines, and at the same time we recently tapped into the diesel and gas performance side of the market as far as exhaust systems, and programmers. It truly has turned into a one-stop shopping affair. I can take care of your van, your truck, your Jeep, your SUV, even the larger commercial series trucks. We handle a lot of oil-field accounts, putting product on trucks to facilitate their needs out in the field: winches, lighting, toolboxes, emergency-type accessories.

“You can walk into any Auto Zone, Pep Boys, or O'Reilly and buy a grille guard or bumper. But most of those offerings are typically the same unit — just a multitude of different bracket kits and hardware kits to install them. One grille guard might fit a half-dozen different vehicles. But with the Ranch Hand line — and this always has been appealing to me, coming from a fabrication background — all of our units are vehicle year-, make-, and model-specific. There's no drilling, no welding, very little bracketry. Everything is built as a one-piece welded unit. All come with hardware instruction sheets that are very user-friendly, so your average do-it-yourselfer can do it in his driveway with the aid of a friend.

“But that being said, the pieces are vehicle-specific. There are no modifications that have to be done and no warranty issues to be concerned with on a new vehicle. For example, if you buy a grille guard and decide to sell the vehicle two years later, and your buddy wants your grille guard for his same-model truck, you can take it off your truck and put it on his.”

Plenty of parts

Sawyer says his outlet has almost $500,000 in inventory at any time. He says that given the outlet's size and the amount of dress-up items it buys from outside manufacturers, if there is a product it doesn't have on its shelves, it can obtain it in one or two days.

In the warehouse, Sawyer takes the visitor to the upstairs balcony where Ranch Hand stores most of the buyout components it obtains from other manufacturers. He says the corporate office tracks the highly sought performance-related items so that they are usually in stock — items such as bedliners, suspension kits, shocks, winches, goosenecks, fifth-wheel hitches, toolboxes, and nerf bars.

“I think what sets us apart is that not only do we carry those product lines, but we are actually a legitimate, authorized vendor of that product, so you're not paying a middleman,” he says. “We can squash any issues within days, not weeks.”

Down below, he strolls past a large area of grille guards and points to one of the part numbers: GGF07HBL1. It's a grille guard for a 2007 Ford half-ton.

“We literally have hundreds of parts numbers of pre-existing parts we manufacture,” he says. “Each year, we add about 10 to 15 new offerings. Ford Super Duty is one of the stronger trucks we see a lot of. For instance, all of the products may have stayed the same between '99 and '04, and they may have stayed the same from '05 to '07. Now, from '08, we don't know how long that's going to stay the same. So any time the variance comes into play — even the smallest details of different-style headlights — our product is going to be revamped for that particular vehicle because every part is unique to that vehicle. There's no one-product-fits-all by any means.”

He says all of Ranch Hand's retail outlets have a set day when they receive deliveries from the Shiner manufacturing facility.

“We have 6-18 wheeler tractor rigs, 15-18 wheeler trailers, and 6 truck and trailer combinations in our fleet — that's how much we deliver,” he says. “Shipping is an issue just because of the given size of our products and the fact that they are irregularly shaped. They don't fit on a traditional palletized system very well. It has necessitated having our own fleet of vehicles to get it to the vendors. We distribute through big vendors that distribute other product lines just like we get. They keep our product on the shelves. Some of them have a greater quantity than I do at any given time.

“We have a route driver who fives days a week — all day, every day — delivers to preset stops as far away as Orange, Texas (two hours east of Houston on the Louisiana border). Not only do we deliver to them to fulfill spur-of-the-moment orders, but they also stock our product in huge volumes.”

Sawyer says Ranch Hand doesn't just pay lip service to customer service. He says if someone calls the toll-free number, the call goes directly to the corporate office. If the customer is geographically closer to one of the retail outlets, the call is forwarded directly to that store while the customer is still on the line.

“It's not one of those we'll-call-you-back-later things,” he says. “We have conference calls where they can visit with the actual technician. If we have to go and pull our foreman from the shop, we do it. That's a regular occurrence.

“Being that we are based in Texas and a majority of stores are here, when there are warranty concerns, typically in a very minimal amount of time, the customer's situation is resolved very easily.”

Close to customers

Sawyer previously worked in the San Antonio and Boerne outlets and freely admits he wasn't sure he'd be a fan of Houston and its urban congestion, but he fell in love with the store. He says that's because of the clientele he sees and deals with on a daily basis.

“It's nice to develop a rapport,” he says. “Any time somebody comes in, they know you by name. Just today, Scott and I had lunch with a customer we met two months back and worked on his vehicle. He'll be back later this week for a third time. Any time we can develop a rapport like that, we did something right on a personal level.

“It's like that favorite mechanic we all have. When you find that person, you keep coming back. That's what we're here for. Our business is based on the fact that we go above and beyond to make sure the customer has a pleasurable experience — not just an OK one. One of our most basic desires is for the customer to have that experience and tell his friends over a couple of beers at a barbecue in the backyard, ‘Oh yeah, those guys at Ranch Hand, they took care of my truck. I don't have their card, but here's the Web site.’ While we do advertising just like every large corporation, a huge percentage of our business comes from word of mouth.

“This is a store where somebody's wife or daughter could come in and be comfortable. We are very much a family-oriented business.”

McClaugherty says that the company's 19.3% growth amid the downturn of the past year is due to loyal customers who, regardless of what it's going to cost to buy a new fleet of trucks, are going to outfit them with Ranch Hand products because they've used them for so many years.

“It's a product that's built and designed in such a way that it's going to protect the vehicle, which saves the customer time and money,” he says. “It's an aesthetic and functional product.”

He says the product is high end. People know it and want to pay for it.

“We don't carry something you'd typically buy at a Pep Boys, Auto Zone or O'Reilly's,” he says. “We are catering to people who have your new, higher-end vehicles. We don't claim to be an inexpensive place. Our products coincide with vehicles that come in. A majority of our vehicles are $25,000-plus, and many are $35,000-plus. Your average three-quarter or 1-ton truck is $35,000 plus. Those customers are outfitting those trucks from front to rear.”

Manufacturing facilities

The quality starts at the manufacturing facilities in Shiner and Beeville. Shiner, with 127,000 square feet, manufactures front-end replacements, headache racks, steps, rails, and 30% of the back bumpers. Beeville, with 20,000 square feet, manufactures grille guards and the rest of the back bumpers. All products are powder-coated at Shiner.

After the flat steel, tubing, and pipe are bought in truckload quantities and brought in, work orders are made to start fabricating the raw materials through plasma cutting, press braking, and forming operations on tubes and pipes in the fabrication department.

The fabricated parts are moved to the welding department and work orders are generated to pull all parts to bring to the welding booth. The welding process' normal run size is 50 to 200 pieces of one make and model for a vehicle.

The parts are sandblasted to a white finish to take out all the impurities. Then they go through a manual cleaning process in quality control to guard against weld splatters on the product.

In the powder-coating department, the parts are placed on a conveyer through an automated and manual powder booth, then go into an oven at 460 degrees. They finish in quality control to be inspected for any paint flaws or blemishes.

“We design the products not only to be cosmetically eye-appealing but also to be very functional,” general manager Greg Chumchal says. “When we design a new product, the quality starts at design. From the material we use to the welding process to the powder we use to coat the product, quality is always of the foremost importance.”

For example, he says the Legend Series front-bumper replacement is the toughest product on the market and has been field-tested in extreme conditions. The standard front end and the 8-9.5K winch option come with a 4” schedule 40 pipe bumper, and the 15K winch option comes standard with a ¼” formed channel bumper. A 2” receiver hitch is standard on all Legend front-bumper replacements.

“Our company is always looking at new designs of products we currently manufacture,” Chumchal says. “We have a new body style of Jeep Wrangler. We're expanding our new Toyota line. We started two years ago manufacturing grille guards for Tundras, and this year we're coming out with front-end replacements and back bumpers. We have a full line of heavy-duty truck accessories for the Tundra.”

In August, manufacturing in Shiner is going to be stepped up with a 63,000-square-foot addition that will become the new finished-goods warehouse for product that's ready to be shipped out the door. That will free up virtually the same amount of space in the main facility so that production can be increased by 18-20%.

Ranch Hand recently bought a turret-punching machine that added more capacity. And it's also looking at adding more plasma cutting units to increase the capacity of manufacturing on the fabrication side, in addition to more welding booths.

“We'll produce more of what we currently produce,” Chumchal says. “We want to better satisfy our current customers by supplying them products on a very timely basis. Our goal is that when a customer calls in, we want to have it sitting on the shelf for him. Adding this new building and adding additional manufacturing allows us to do that.”

The plan also is to aggressively tap into new markets — particularly the Midwest.

“Our first goal is to go in and find a master distributor, where we can sell it to them, and they can take and distribute it to their area,” he says. “Our product is not very freight-conducive. It costs a lot of money to ship it all over the US. We try to ship it in bulk to one central location and have them ship it out.

“We're starting to see more inquiries to our main manufacturing facility, asking about our product. We monitor the calls coming in. You don't see our product everywhere throughout the US, but it's growing. I call it the ‘bleed-out effect.’ It started in Texas and is slowly growing, bleeding out to other states. They see it, they're interested and want to purchase it. So it keeps us growing from Texas outward throughout the US.”

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