David Johnson started Northridge 4×4, a Jeep parts and accessories business, in his father’s garage and eventually hired his father and brother to help in the business. The company only grew from there and David has several great stories in his 20 years growing the business. Northridge also does most business online and so a good portion of our conversation revolves around running an e-commerce business model.
In the episode we talk about the hires he made to grow the company, why he still answers most emails from customers, how he hires skilled mechanics, and new ways and technologies to better serve and market to his customers.
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Thanks, David, for joining. Justin was very complimentary in recommending me to you, and I’m really excited to hear about the E-commerce side too, because it’s not something I’ve really explored on the podcast with too many guests. So I’m curious from that perspective, but if you can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to Northridge and some of that growth story of your company.
Thanks for having me. So I started Northridge in 2001, basically with $300, bought a tool, built some bumpers for my Jeep and as I’m driving around town, people kept asking me for them and so I started building them. It kind of evolved from there, and what happened was, I would sell a bumper to a customer, and then they’d want a winch, and I wouldn’t know how to procure that winch for them. So I’d try and figured that out, go find a dealer to sell a winch to them, and then it just snowballed from there. It was suspension, tires, wheels, everything.
I said no many times because I didn’t know how to do it, and I just learned along the way and pretty soon, we were basically able to sell anything for the Jeep vehicle. In 2001, we started in a 1,200 square foot garage on my dad’s property. No heater, no desk, no bathroom. It was a interesting place to start a business, and I think when I started I didn’t really look at it as starting a business. It was more of a hobby that I was selling items to take care of that hobby, and the more I’d sell, the bigger my hobby could get.
It quickly became really apparent to me that I might have a business here that I could possibly quit my job where I was working and do this full time and at that point, business to me wasn’t even … It’s not what it is to me today, obviously. It was just a function to make a few dollars. It’s been a wild ride. January will be 20 years.
Was there any particular moment when it switched from being a hobby to a business? Any customer you interacted with, or something you made, or what do you think happened?
I think, really it started happening when I started selling other items. When I was just making something for myself and selling it, because somebody wanted it, it was more like, he wants it, I’m going to build it and sell it to him. Now it was … It quickly became, I have so many people wanting to put a winch on that bumper. I need to buy winches ahead of time, so that when they buy a bumper from me, I have the winch there for them in stock. So that’s when it really started turning in my head like, okay, the more I have in stock, the more I can sell and that’s kind of been what’s been unique to Northridge over the years is, we have inventory. A lot of shops and online places, they don’t have inventory. So we’ve kind of evolved over the past 20 years into a few things to having everything.
How did you initially start getting that inventory? So was it … Did you just have enough cash from customers that you’re able to just start buying inventory, or did you have to put more money into it? How did you start making that leap to a business?
So really, I was working full time for Nextel Communications, if anybody even remembers that name. So I was paying the bills with that, and everything I made from customers, I’d just put right back into business. So I wasn’t paying myself, wasn’t paying anything for the garage that my dad allowed me to use. So all that profit went to expanding our product line, tools for the shop and then inventory. I had a credit card, I started putting everything on the credit card, just paid it off like every three days, because the amount of the credit card wasn’t as high as the purchases. It was a wild ride. Looking back, if somebody asked me what my P&L look like, I’d be like, “I don’t know, let me look at my credit card statement,” because everything went through that.
Man, that’s wild. So how did you eventually expand beyond the garage?
My father was a career police officer, and he was about two years until he wanted to retire and I made him an offer. I said, “Hey, how much more Are you going to make every year, if you wait two more years and retire,” and he told me and I said, “Cool, retire now and I’ll pay the difference. We need you.” He was really where my mechanical background came from. Then we hired my brother. So my brother has been with me for, I’m going to say 17, 18 years. The three of us are in a 1,200 square foot garage and the inventory was literally six inches from the ceiling.
We couldn’t move, and we had to relocate. Once I think you make that big jump to a bigger facility, at first, we purchased a plot of land to build a 5,000 square foot shop on it, thinking, okay, this is going to be … We’re going to have a shop, we’re going to work on everybody’s [rigs 00:08:04], we’re going to do the same thing we’re doing now just at a larger scale. Well, it took two years of planning from the county to get approval to build the shop, and in that two years, we purchased another 5,000 square foot spot to build a showroom, offices and kind of how it evolved into more of the E-commerce world in that two years.
Once we were there … A funny story about that is the developer says, “How many parking spots do you need?” I was like, “There’s three of us. Like five, six, it’ll be fine.” I look back at that, and it’s quite comical from where we are at now. So as we built the building, and now we have customers driving by and they walk in and I can’t help each and every one of them. I can’t do both. So we have to hire somebody, and then we have to hire another shipping guy and then we just have to keep hiring, hiring, hiring.
Today, I believe we’re almost at 50 employees but really, I think the leap was just a bunch of things that fell into place. The new vehicles that came out. We moved in 2010. In 2007, the new Jeep came out, which really helped us. So yeah, I think it’s just a bunch of luck, to be honest.
Who was that first hire you made beyond your father and brother?
So my first hire we made was our warehouse worker, employee and he’s still with us today. So he actually worked at the old garage for about a month or two, because we hired him prior to moving to get him trained up and he’s still is my rock star in the warehouse today.
So I guess how did your role evolve as you went beyond your immediate family, had a few employees, new facilities, you said you can’t talk to the customers the same way you did anymore. So what were the stages of your role in the company over time?
Obviously to start out with, I was the sales guy, the accounting guy, the accounts payable, accounts receivable, everything. I was the mechanic, shipping and receiving. It evolved as I hired more people, I had to train them up. I like being able to do that because they were doing it my way. So we evolved, hire sales guy, train him up, hire another sales guy, train him up. Then recently, this is kind of crazy, but I believe I’ve only been off the phones for about a year. So I have been managing the business, selling items still just a year ago.
Now today, it’s more high level more. With 50 employees, I have quite a bit of responsibility, especially with COVID, having all of the processes and plans to make sure we’re all safe, but also future planning. In the beginning, I don’t look towards more than 20 minutes in the future because it’s like, okay, the phone’s going to ring, I can’t leave, this is what I’m going to do. Now we’re looking one to two years in the future and trying to plan and be prepared for whatever’s coming next. So that’s really what my role is now.
Also, I believe it’s a lot to do with employees career pathing. So really trying to help our employees expand beyond what they’re doing right now. So we have people that start in the warehouse that end up in the shop, or marketing or wherever. We just got to try and make the best of our employees internally, because that’s a whole nother conversation we can have is how hard it is to find employees right now.
I’d be curious to hear a little bit about it. So far, a little bit of that conversation.
Sometimes I watch the news, I don’t watch it too often, but when they’re talking about recessions and unemployment rates at the highest they’ve ever been, we have positions open and we can’t fill them. It’s not that 100 people are applying and we just didn’t like any of them. It’s that nobody’s applying. So I believe part of it is we probably don’t do a great job explaining to people what we do and who we are. People drive by and they see Northridge 4×4, it’s an off-road shop, but I don’t think they understand the scale and how many opportunities are available to them.
So do you think there’s a certain element where marketing your business, not just as a place to work, but just generally might help you attract more employees?
Absolutely. Another problem that we have is that we’ve built the business and started it in Silverdale, Washington, which is, it’s not a huge hub for employees. When we do have an opening, we get a lot of resumes from around the country, and maybe now more than ever, the remote work environment is more feasible. But prior to that, I really wanted the people to be part of our family, part of our culture and understand how we did business because I believe we do it a little differently than most people, and that remote aspect of it is tough.
As remote work becomes more possible, and how many of these open roles were you looking previously, for people to be in the office that now you’re thinking, oh, well, maybe this person could actually work from anywhere, and we can open things up a little more?
Our hardest position to fill is our mechanics. It really seems like we can’t find young people that are enthusiasts and I shouldn’t even say young people, but we can’t find people that really want to work and want to get their hands dirty. It seems like the generations of now, they want to be on the computer, they want to do the sales and everything, and we have that. What we really need is help from the blue collar side of the fence, and it’s really hard. So what we’re doing is we’re finding people right out of high school and saying, “Hey, is this the career path you want to use?” Prior to them establishing what their future looks like. Let’s get you in here and see if you like it. If you do, let’s set up a career path for you for a really long time.
So how are you going about implementing that? Are you finding just the local high schools or how do you expand beyond that? Do you go to individual classrooms and talk about your business? How do you go about doing that?
Really, we contact the skills, part of the shop classes that aren’t even in school anymore that I’m aware of but we have a contact at the skill center, kind of put the bug in their ear. I have some customers that run some skills-based colleges, but the problem is they’re not in Silverdale. So you find somebody that’s really good and they’re like, “Well, I don’t want to commute two hours every day.” So the mechanic part of the job or the warehouse part of the job, we don’t have robots yet we need people to physically come into the office every day.
I think that’s kind of a cool thing. It’s a great job. I am a mechanic. That’s what I started off doing, and when you get to build something, and then see the customers face on how much he appreciates it, it’s pretty gratifying and really, our mechanics are spoiled. I think the average age of the vehicle that we’re working on is like six months old.
Very nice. It probably makes a little bit easier to maintain and work on.
They’re all brand new, there’s no rust, there’s hardly any mud on them. Yeah, it’s pretty nice.
Do you think you’ll eventually have to build a new facility closer to Seattle to attract more mechanics?
I hope not. No, I don’t think so. I think that the way the business is going, we’re a destination, our customers are coming from Seattle, and I think we can find some employees. Again, start them early, career path them up to, I don’t need master mechanics, I need people that are willing to learn and get their hands dirty. Then we can train them and get them to a point where they’re going to be making 25 to $30 an hour. You don’t need to go to college. We can get you down that career path.
Certainly. So switching gears briefly to E-commerce, as that portion of your business started to grow, what sorts of lessons did you have to learn the hard way in that growth?
I’m still learning those lessons. I think the biggest thing for E-commerce is how to handle the customer. You’re not in person, you’re over the phone, you’re over email. We all know how a text message goes. When you text somebody, there’s no real emotion in it and you don’t know if the customer’s or the person’s mad or happy. You don’t want to fill it up with a bunch of emojis because that doesn’t work. I think our approach has always been, and I’m hoping that, and I actually feel that we are, is as we continue to grow, nobody calls us a big-box store.
We don’t want that persona, we want to be the same people that we were when we were three guys in a shop, in a garage on the dirt road. So putting the customer first and really having some empathy and trying to understand what they’re going through and help them as much as we can. But I do feel that there’s a … The more we can educate the customer prior to purchase makes our job so much easier after the purchase, and we’re still dealing with those issues today.
I feel like sometimes when … As soon as you hit that checkout button, Star Wars is supposed to beam your product right to your living room, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. There’s so many things that are in our control and there’s so many things out of our control. With COVID and the increase of E-commerce, UPS and FedEx are like 120% capacity. So there may be a day where we ship a product, and it’s for you and you check the tracking and it hasn’t been scanned yet. It’s not lost. It’s just, they haven’t got to it yet but it creates customer interaction and delays and things like that. So it’s really … To answer your question and not ramble on too much, the E-commerce world is all about technology, inventory, and communication with your customer and education to your customer.
Certainly the technology piece has changed a lot in 20 years. How did you even start your E-commerce in the early days, and how did that look from a technology standpoint, compared to today?
I had no technology. I was on internet forums, and just posting my phone number. I think I had a website with a landing page that had my phone number on it and some really wacky logo, but that was 2002, 2003, probably 2003. So in 20 years, I believe I’m on website number 10 and it’s like every year we’re like, oh, we need a new one. We need to do this different. We need to do this differently. It’s a constant change. If you’re not able to adapt, you’re going to die, and building a new website is probably the most painful thing you could do in the E-commerce world, but it’s something you have to do.
We want to stay ahead of the competition. I think that … I hope nobody from my IT department hears this, but they always talk about best practices and things like that. Well, I don’t want to follow best practices, I want to be the best practice. So that creates some turmoil within the technology team and myself where it’s like, this is what we want to do for the customer. This is what they’re saying to me on a daily basis because I still get every single email that comes into the business.
I’m interacting with customers every single day. So I have a unique look on things, and when I hear best practice it kind of … I’m like, “No, I don’t care what Best Buy’s doing or whoever. They’re doing, but I want to do it our way,” and I think that in the off-road industry, some people are going to laugh at me at this one, but I do feel like we are a leader and we get copied a lot, which is fine. We’ll just keep innovating.
Exactly. What are some best practices you’ve seen that you tend to disagree with?
That’s a good one. Well, I think that there’s some certain E-commerce websites out there that show in-stock on products that are not in stock. So when you’re sitting in front of your screen, and you want to order this part, and it says it’s in stock, and then you order it, and 24 hours later, you get an email from the site that you’re from and it says, “This really wasn’t in stock.” I think that is a practice that a lot of companies use, where if you look at our website, we have an API feed that goes directly to our warehouse.
It is maybe once every three or four months, we’ll have something that’s in stock that maybe we have one of that we can’t find, but it’s very accurate and I think it tells the customers … They have a lot of respect that we can show that, hey, it’s not here, and this is how long it’s going to take. Because like I said, when I hit Checkout, I want that part on my doorstep. A little experience that I had with the customers, and this is the same thing that we see all the time.
We order something, I had … This was five, six years ago or more. Customer orders something and he’s bugging me every day for tracking number. I want the tracking number, I want the tracking number. I’m like, “I know, bud. I’m trying to get it to you as soon as the manufacturer ships.” It’s something we didn’t have in stock. I remember talking to him, because it was like five or six times over a week period. That same customer called me six months later, asking me an install question on that product that he was so antsy to get.
My employees and other people in the industry are going to get frustrated by that. They’re like holy smokes, that guy was so antsy to get it but then he didn’t touch it for six months. I think we all just need to realize that instant gratification is, I paid for it. I deserve it to sit on my bedroom floor if I want it to sit there, but I want it. I hate to use the word Amazon, because they’re going to be the death of so many E-commerce companies in the future and already, but it’s kind of that mentality. They have same day delivery to some places, and we’re dealing with items that are … I think we have items that are four or 500 pounds. Very large, oversized items and things that you can’t buy on Amazon and you shouldn’t buy on Amazon. Because when you have that problem, you can’t call somebody and ask them for help.
To that point about you being on the phone and emailing with customers all day long, do you think that’s ever something that you’re going to hand off to somebody else or do you think that’s been really crucial to growing your companies, always constantly being talking to customers?
I think the biggest thing that I have, by viewing the emails at least, is I can relate to the customer. I think too many executives get too far removed from the customer, and they start making decisions based on only data. These large corporations are going to look at data sets and make decisions. I’m going to look at data, but I’m also going to look at what the customer is telling me. I think if you can really relate to what the customer says, and I put more weight in that than I do data, we can make a better decision.
I never want to be sitting up in the ivory castle to say and just make decisions based on what data is flowing through. I also call report snowflakes because I never get two that look alike. So it’s really hard to justify that and for me, there’ll be some people that look at it and go, a few service 1,000 customers a week, and five of them complain about one thing, it’s not enough. I don’t look at it like that. If five customers are complaining about something, we need to fix it, and then five more are going to complain about a different thing, we fix that. We just keep adapting and keep moving on. You cannot lose sight of the customer.
How do you think you maintain that as you grow? Because as you grow, of course, you’re going to have more and more customers and you only have so much time. Are you on email virtually all day long to handle that? How does that work?
I really feel that this Apple has … It’s a leash. I get off the computer and like other people, I have a phone and it comes straight to my phone and then I just decipher … Some of my best work, I think is done between 10PM and midnight, laying in bed, answering emails, reviewing customer complaints, calls, customer accolades, trying to make sure that I’m understanding everything that’s going on in the company. I will tell you that it’s a gift and a curse that I have, where being a founder of a company is a lot different than hiring a CEO or a president that didn’t start the company. My passion after 20 years for this business is … It’s probably brighter than it was when it started. We all have those naysayers in life and things to prove. I have a big desire to win, and not fail. I think that if it’s worked for me this long, why should I change?
Was there ever feedback you got from a customer that was hard to hear, and you were maybe even a little offended, but deep down, and eventually you found out that they were right, and you should make an adjustment?
Last month I did it. Returns to me, it’s one of those things that just hurts. I don’t know why we’re doing millions of dollars a year. Somebody wants to return $1,000 item and I’m just like, oh, man, that just hurts so bad to take that because I look at it from a business standpoint and say okay, I probably spent … One of my guys spent 10 minutes on the phone selling that item. Warehouse spent time putting it away, shipping it. Now customer service is doing the return, the warehouse has to put it back on the shelf and now we have to sell it again.
We paid freight to get it to the customer originally. So it’s just a lot of things that go into it. So our freight policy was seven days. So you had seven days from the time you got a product to call us and return it, and we’ll go back to that best practice. Everybody was 30 days or unlimited days. Finally, I just said, “Enough people are complaining about a return policy. I think we should change it.” So we changed it to 30 days. I think it was about 60 days ago, 30, 60 days ago that we did that, and it seems like a pretty easy thing to do, but when you’re doing the volume that we’re doing, and the products that we’re shipping, we are not shipping shoes.
You buy something on Zappos and it comes with a return label. Also, our profit margin isn’t 70, 80%. So when I’m shipping something that costs us $100 to ship, and then $100 for return shipping, and the damage rate is 50% and when you ship it, you have to put all those things into account and understand that a lot of times when we take returns, we scrap the product, because the packaging that we’re getting from these manufacturers barely holds up for one shipment. It’s really hard to hold up for two shipments, and then to put it back on the shelf for a third shipment to go back out, it doesn’t happen.
Just because the item is really heavy and the cardboard falls apart?
Yes. Like I said, I think our average product probably weighs 30 to 35 pounds as an average. Like worn winches, for example. As soon as you take a warm winch out of a box, you will never get that winch put back in that box the way the manufacture did. It’s like this jigsaw puzzle. So if you want to return that, it’s going to get damaged every single time. That goes back to educating the customer as much as you can to try and alleviate the returns because the returns for us as is a bottleneck. You have accounting that has to do a refund.
A return has more people involved than a purchase. So we’re really trying to limit returns, but it’s a necessary evil. We’re having returns from Black Friday already from customers, which is fine. It’s part of the business and we have to work through it. We just want to minimize it.
Is that the main reason that customers return something? Is it, it wasn’t the item they thought it was going to be, or is there some other reason returns happen for you?
There’s quite a few reasons. The excuses that we get or the reasons we get as my wife found out, that’s always a fun one. We just got one today where the customer ordered it and got laid off from the time that he ordered it and bought it. Now that’s a pretty common one right now during this pandemic, is their financial situation changed. We get quite a few where customer gets in an accident, totals their vehicle. Now they don’t have that vehicle anymore to put the product on. We get some that are, I didn’t really understand what I was ordering.
I ordered at midnight because I was drunk, things like that. We get all … I should write a book about all the reasons why, but most of the time, a return happens because they didn’t understand what they’re ordering prior to ordering it, or they found out later that it fits. I’m on a bunch of message boards and things and one thing that I’d really love for customers to stop doing but it never will is, “Hey, I just ordered this product. Does anybody have any feedback?” I would like it to switch to, “Hey, I’m thinking about ordering this product. What do you guys think?” But it doesn’t work like that.
So we have chat. We have email, we got phone. We have countless ways for our customers to get ahold of us, and that’s where I think we separate ourselves from everybody else, is our technical know how, with our sales team. The new Jeep comes out, we go buy four or five of them. The Diesel comes out, we have one of those. We do training on them with all of our people. We really want to be able to say, “Alex, this is what you need for your Jeep. 100% guaranteed it’ll fit. Have confidence in buying it and once you get it, if you have any questions, call us.”
So beyond the chat, email, being able to actually talk to customers, is there other things you do to help educate them on what parts fit where?
So one thing that we’ve done more recently in the last two years is YouTube videos. If we can take a YouTube video, and show you the step by step of what is involved in installing a part, I think it goes a long ways, and I think YouTube’s a very good resource for customers. I think it’s being utilized a lot. I actually was sitting with somebody many years ago, and he was on YouTube and I’m like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “I’m just looking at YouTube for the next part I want for my jeep.” It dawned on me, I’m like, “I am sitting right here. Why don’t you ask me what fits on your Jeep. I know everything about these vehicles,” but he went to YouTube and that was the light bulb that went off in my head going, wow, we need YouTube.
We started doing it and this is another lesson I think that everybody could use. We assigned an employee to have it as kind of, when you have time do this YouTube thing. We’ve found over the years that when you add another responsibility that’s outside the core responsibility for an employee, it really never gets the focus and attention that it needs. Now that might sound obvious, but it’s, if you want to go into YouTube, you got to go hire a staff that is going to go into YouTube. If you want to do an AdWords, you got to go hire an AdWords guy that’s going to go focus on that. It’s really hard to do multiple things, especially if you have a sales guy. Because that’s how I started. I was like, “Hey, sales guy, go do YouTube, when you have time.” Well, really never have time. So YouTube’s never getting done. So we are, admittedly way behind the curve on YouTube.
It always functions as, marketing for your products. If your customers are searching for the part on YouTube, they’re going to find it and also the how-to once a customer already has your product, which in a sense might even reduce some of the time you spend explaining to customers. So you could service more customers, because more of the guides are on YouTube, that you’ve already made that the marginal customer can just access without using any more of your time.
I think that there’s a lesson to be learned here is customers really don’t like to read, they’d rather watch a video and be entertained at the same time, in a sense. Edu-tained as we call it, but we could write a book or instructions on how this is done but YouTube just blows everything else away.
Have you been able to attribute any additional growth to YouTube in terms of just revenue and sales?
Absolutely, and we’ve also attributed relationships with manufacturers. So not only are we getting more sales, more views, more street cred, you would say, on YouTube, but we’re also getting the manufacturers to say, “Hey, I don’t have the YouTube capability, but I have a great product. Would you mind doing the video for me?” “Well, sure, but it’ll cost you but we’ll do it for you.” So we’re trying to really join forces, I would say with as many manufacturers as we can and then do it in a collaborative way where they can use the content, we can use the content, and we both are going to get the sales from it. They look at us as kind of an influencer per se, but not in the terms that I think most people would say an influencer.
It’s really interesting sales tactic too. So are these videos … Are they all Northridge branded, and you’re just using this manufacturer as part in the video, or is this something that’s branded by the manufacturer and you’re more of a consultant helping them make the video?
No, so we actually brand it Northridge but then let’s say we’ll go back to using warm winch again. It’ll be a Northridge 4×4 worm winch installation. So we’ll have the worn product there, show step by step instructions on how to install it, or step by step, basically video, how to install it, and then a link to buy it. That’s the key. You got the confidence to install it yourself now. Here’s the link to buy it. Enjoy.
Have you been able to measure any, not just sales, but perhaps time spent per customer going down by your sales team or customer service? Now that YouTube videos are available to help with some perhaps basic questions, there’s fewer customers by your revenue reaching out to your team?
That’s a great point, but I will tell you that revenue and time have not gone down at all. So it’s hard to track that. We are on a scale that is unbelievable to me and anybody around us where we are doing those things that are helping, but it’s just allowing us to answer more calls. So our growth this year alone, our phone volume is up 300%. I think we have one more full-time employee answering the phones. So it’s really hard to look at these analytics and go, did this thing decrease anything? Because I don’t think it did. I think it just increased everything.
You talked about the labor portion earlier, but as your company has grown, and a 300% increase in call volume is a lot of growth, what has over time not gotten easier, and it’s continued to be difficult and challenging?
I think starting new employees off. It’s training, it’s … A lot of the stuff that we know is, my top four sales guys have been Jeepers for 20 years. You can’t replace that, you can’t find somebody off the street and hand them a training manual and in six months, they know what they know. It just, it’s impossible. So we’re an enthusiast-driven market. We’re an enthusiast company, and it’s really important to keep hiring enthusiasts. So I think the hardest thing to do is when you have to hire somebody who’s non enthusiast, and turn them into an enthusiast as quickly as possible, so that they can have the confidence to answer the questions on the phones, and emails and chats and things.
So that’s where the training comes in. That’s where the vehicle programs come in. We’re trying to change these employees who they may show up on the day of the interview in a Honda Civic. In a year, they’re going to be driving a Jeep, or they’re not going to be there. That’s kind of the … Everybody who works there, and it’s not me saying that. It’s not me saying, hey, if you don’t drive a Jeep, you can’t work there. It’s just kind of what happens. You live, eat and breathe it every day. You want to be a Jeeper.
Have there been points of stress in that enthusiast culture as you’ve grown and added new employees, or has it been pretty smooth sailing with … Everyone who’s already there is enthusiastic. So people who join just become enthusiasts, by definition or is there … Have there been a few challenging points?
Well, I think everything’s challenging every day. There’s always challenges. We probably should have a separate topic on COVID, but that’s been a challenge itself, just keeping everybody safe and healthy and employed and able to answer the phones. But from an enthusiast … I think the challenge with enthusiasts is they may not be the best sales guy, they may not be the best customer service person, but you can train that, but you can’t train the enthusiast. That is something that they have to go and live and create on their own. With our help.
Have you ever hired a customer of yours?
Yeah, my best sales guy is a customer of ours. That’s a funny story. If he listens to this, he’s going to be laughing because I say it all the time. But back in the old shop, this kid kept coming around asking us if we had any take off or free parts for years, because he was just trying to build stuff on a budget. In the back of my mind I’m like, here he is, again. He’s here. Here, just take this stuff and leave. I think he’s seven years as an employee, now, maybe eight. One of the best sales guys we have, and I think it just goes to show, when customers walk in the door, you just can’t judge them.
You just got to smile and treat everybody the same. I’ll just call him out. His name’s Max, and he’s one of my best sales guys and if you would have asked me when he was 17, if I ever envisioned him working for me, I’d be like, “Hell no, there’s no way,” but it’s been good.
That’s fantastic. I want to get through a few closing questions so we can get you back to Hawaii here. What class would you teach in college if it could be that any subject you wanted?
So I think I have two. One’s kind of a smart-ass reply, but it’d be [exit 00:38:45] 101 and to me I just … I didn’t go to college. I don’t know that it’s absolutely needed. There’s some people that need it, some people that don’t and you’re going to gain from it, but I really appreciate on-the-job training and really just grinding and just work as hard as you can. To be honest, I think if I was to have the ability to teach a class, I would bring back shop class. So I would want to be a tech school. Really just, hey, first day of school, here’s a bunch of wrenches. Let’s figure out how to use them. I think that would be fun.
That does sound like a lot of fun. You could even have it in your office or your warehouse.
We absolutely could. I think that if you talk to other employers that hire the blue collar side, I’ll call it, there’s a need for it. Mike Rowe is a guy that I follow a lot and he’s doing tremendous things for that side of the industries and everything he says is true. We need more people who want to get their hands dirty.
I remember growing up watching Dirty Jobs, and that was such a fun TV show to watch not only because you get to see all these dirty things happening and when you’re 10 years old, you just love digging in dirt of course, but it’s also exposing all these industries and businesses that, similar to the podcast I’ve been doing now, it’s exposing you to things you just never knew existed and businesses that you’re like, oh yeah, of course, I guess someone does that, but you never really knew that there was an entire industry around it.
I think that’s the key of Dirty Jobs is, oh, somebody has to do that every day. Okay. Quite frankly, they’re getting paid pretty good to do it. So you can make a lot of money doing that stuff.
Like, why didn’t someone tell me about that job in high school? That’s really fun. What’s a belief you used to hold strongly that you’ve changed your mind on over the years?
I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, but I think the belief that I used to have is the customer’s always right. I still … Again, the customers the most near and dear to my heart, but there’s customers that are not right. We’re going to work through the pain, but I have a saying, and it’s pretty easy. If we make a mistake, we’re going to pay for it. If the customer makes a mistake, they have to have some fiscally responsible things to do as well. So basically, they have to pay it for themselves. I think that if you can understand that customers do make mistakes, and if we can help them minimize that mistake, we’re all going to be better off.
When do you think you made that switch in mindset?
Probably 10 years ago, I would think. Look, customers call you and say, “Hey, this doesn’t fit.” I think if you have a group of individuals that really are just selling a product and don’t know the product, you’re immediately going to go, “Okay, let me get your return label for that, and we’ll get it sent back.” What I want my people to say, “Okay, this customer is saying this doesn’t fit, but why doesn’t it fit? We know it fits, we sell a ton of these, we install them in our shop. Let’s stop for a second and really analyze what’s going on and try to understand some of the hurdles the customer is going through.” Nine times out of 10, the customer isn’t installing it correctly. It’s sometimes very obvious to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them and they really appreciate that we can fix it for them and help them instead of the fiasco of sending the new one and returning it.
Are you able to have a video chat with customers?
That’s a very great question that I am pursuing right now. I think that it’s the next wave of customer service and tech support. Because right now we do pictures, and there’s a delay. Customers want to take a picture, send it to us. I think it’s going to be absolutely amazing to be able to be on a Zoom call or something and have it in front of your vehicle and say, “This does not fit,” and we go, “You’re right, that thing’s wrong. We need to get you a new one,” or, “Hey, just do this, this and this differently, and it’ll fit,” and then they go, “Oh, that’s perfect.” I don’t know that we’re going to be the first and I’m sure it’s already happening, but I absolutely am working on that and I think it would be really cool. I do think that there’s going to be some challenges in it, where customers are going to probably want to stay on it forever. So we got to figure out how to manage that resource.
So what’s involved in setting that up? Is that just a matter of getting, I don’t know, iPads or software set up? What else is involved in that process?
Well, I think it goes back to what I said earlier, where you cannot just add on to somebody’s normal position. So once we launch something like this, it’s going to be their job. So the challenge is, is hiring somebody to do it, or hiring somebody for a different department and promoting somebody within the company to take over that. So that’s their full-time job, full-time focus and then the technology. I think that most customers or most employees have iPhones, and they probably don’t want to have the customer have their personal iPhone number, phone number. So there’s going to be some technology thing there, whether we do FaceTime or Teams or Zoom. I don’t know, but I think that does go right into the next question pretty easily.
So what’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
I think the best business I’ve ever seen is Apple. I’m a very … I don’t know if I’m a Apple geek, but I just … It’s the way it’s transformed our lives. If you and I are sitting here trying to invent something, and we could go back in time, I’d want to invents Apple, because on any given day, there’s probably 10 Apple devices in my house. There’s probably 10 in every house. So, name another product that has transformed the way we do business, the way we live our daily lives, and how many touches it has in one household.
Think about this. Everybody walks around with a calculator now, everybody walks around with a camera, everybody walks around with a phone. So it’s transformed many industries and this is not new to anybody. I think if you are alive, you know about Apple. That’s the other thing. Everybody knows about it. If Northridge probably touches .0001% of the population, Apple probably touches, I don’t even know. 80, 90%? I’m just throwing that out there, but it’s a great company.
Is there a few things from Apple you’re trying to apply to Northridge?
That’s a great question and I don’t know that I know enough about the inner workings of Apple. I do feel that sometimes I want to look at Northridge as a tech company, or a marketing company, and not an off-road shop. Because I think if you just say, “Hey, I’m an off-road shop,” you’ve your sights a little low, but if you look at yourself as a tech company, and you always want to evolve, and you always want to be leading, maybe in our industry. It’s not important for me to have the best website in all of E-commerce, but it’s important for me to have the best website, in the off-road industry and I’m not there. I’m not going to fool anybody. We’re not there yet. We’re striving to get there. So I think if we can call ourselves and strive to be that tech company, I think we’re going to be better off.
So what additional tech are you referring to then?
Well, one is the video conference or video tech support. I don’t know of anybody that’s doing that now. We have a program on our website right now, the Interactive Garage where you can add items to your Jeep and see what it looks like, prior to ordering. We’d like to have the ability to have an app where you can get deals of the day, or you can track your packages and know exactly where they are instead of going to ups and just really streamline the business and make the user experience easier and better. So I got a dog and I went on to chewy.com. I don’t know, do you use Chewy?
I haven’t before.
Oh, you got to check it out for your dog, but it’s like the easiest website to use. I can set a schedule to … Dog food will show up on my doorstep every month without me even ordering. They’ve made the user experience so good that I’m trying to understand how to do that in the off-road industry. Obviously, you’re not going to get a lift kit delivered every 30 days. It just, that doesn’t happen but we’re trying to build on some things, but then, on that comment. In the last 24 months, we’ve been so busy, that my focus has been a lot more narrow than it has been wide because I just have to focus on today instead of two years from now, like I said earlier, but it all depends on the scale of the company and how busy we are at that moment. It’s all hands on deck right now. COVID has created an animal, like it’s nuts.
Certainly. What have been the biggest changes you’ve had, or biggest adaptations you’ve had to go through with COVID?
I think work from home. You mentioned I was in Hawaii. It gives me the ability to work from anywhere. I’m not going in the office, but it also gives my employees that ability. My employees, I think we have 10 working in the office right now out of 50, and that includes warehouse shop, customer service sales, and I’m pretty proud of my team where it was … We were able to transition from working at the office to working from home in about four days. Microsoft Teams has been incredible. That was a great technology that we got that enabled that. We went to a voice over IP phone system, just a lot of things happened in a short amount of time. I don’t think 10 years ago I could have implemented that, but now we can or now we did.
Do you feel like there’s a lot of things like those types of technology changes, because of COVID that even once COVID is over and work from home isn’t as absolutely necessary as it is today, do you think you’re going to keep a lot of those changes?
Yeah, I think that I also invest in commercial real estate and I feel that that industry is going to suffer. Let’s talk about Apple, does Apple need to have a multi-billion dollar facility anymore? My employees have proven that I’m actually getting more out of them working from home than I was working in the office. So we’ve really challenged them to stay focused and make the best out of this, and they have. I have one employee that had an hour-long commute every day. Well, we’re getting like an hour and a half more from him every single day because he doesn’t have to commute and he loves it, because he’s still saving time. I think that in a sales role, it’s easy to track productivity. You’re either selling stuff or you’re not selling stuff. In a creative role, it might be a little tougher for people to work from home because it’s hard to track how they’re doing.
So then sales roles, sounds like it’s a little easier to move that towards work from home, but on the other hand, if you want to do virtual appointments with customers, it’s going to be helpful for them to be in the warehouse. So what kind of balance are you going to have to strike to get that right?
Because I think everybody’s going to start wanting to work from home. It seems like it’s so much better. We actually have employees that don’t want to work from home because there’s too many distractions. So there’s a balance there, but I think from a moving forward standpoint, we have a list of who’s been very efficient at home and who probably needs to come back to the office. So those people will come back and the others will … When the time comes, and the other people will stay at home. I also think that there’s a bit of a separation anxiety in a sense for people that work from home. We have a really good team, and when you don’t see each other every day, they start to miss that. They’ve created this family, I’ll keep using that word, and when you don’t get to see them, it’s not as enjoyable anymore if you’re just logging in, doing your job and logging off and going about your day.
Yeah, absolutely. Have you noticed that as folks are able to come back, that people are happier and perhaps a little more productive, and it’s more fun going to work at that point?
I think they might be less productive, because they’ve missed a social aspect for so long that there may be socializing a little bit too much at first, but I think that it actually is. I was in the office for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and I was like, man, I’m ready. I’m amped up, ready to go. This is fun. We’re all together, but it’s been rough. We canceled our holiday party for this year. That was always a good time. So we need to understand how to really keep that culture alive, and still be safe. We’ve done some Zoom … I don’t remember exactly what it was called, but like, play games on Zoom, where you hire this guy to have this interactive game with all your teammates. That was fun, but we did that once. So it’s up to me and my team to really keep everybody engaged, and really we do that, because my team is so driven by results. They’re always trying to hit that next number, and that’s … I’m fortunate for that.
That is pretty fortunate. That’s fantastic. Thank you, David, so much for sharing your time with us. I’ll let you get back to your time and your company and Hawaii and all that. So thank you so much for sharing. This was really fun. I enjoyed this a lot.
Thanks for the opportunity.
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David Johnson started Northridge 4×4, a Jeep parts and accessories business, in his father’s garage and eventually hired his father and brother to help in the business.