Tuesday , December 11, 2018

Beefed-Up Off-Road Bumpers and More

For most people, turning a hobby into a career is nothing more than a dream, but for one entrepreneur, it has become a reality.


Greg Higgs, founder and owner of Fab Fours, Inc., located in Lancaster, S.C., graduated from Texas A&M in 2003 after studying industrial distribution. Subsequently, he took a job in the oil and gas industry with a desire to live and work in Perth, Australia; however, things took an unlikely turn that ultimately led to Higgs receiving the opportunity of a lifetime.


“Although I thought I was heading for Perth,” says Higgs, “the company actually ended up sending me to Jakarta, Indonesia, which is not where I envisioned living at 22 years old. I was essentially the equivalent of an intern. Given a bit of time, I got over feeling sorry for myself and started pursuing my passion, which is off-roading…I love trucks and Jeeps and the outdoors. As an Eagle Scout, I love camping—that whole element.”


“At the same time, I started writing a business plan for starting a retail off-road shop in the U.S. Providentially, circumstances came together and I met an investor, a fellow Texan—as I am from Houston—in a bar in Jakarta, who was willing to help me act on my dream. In fact, I’ll never forget his famous words…‘If you have the plan, I have the money.’”


After only three months working in Jakarta, Higgs took a chance and quit his job. He moved in with the investor, opened a shop, and Fab Fours was born. Higgs says of the company’s name, “We named it that because I called in another partner from Texas and he called in a partner from Australia, so there were four of us, and it’s a play on the word ‘fabrication.’”


He continues, “We got that shop in Jakarta going in a very challenging environment, and the growth process went on for three years. As my dad has dubbed it, my MBA was in building this business in that environment at that age.”


Higgs readily admits that he’s always had a fascination with bumpers. He decided to begin importing them from a manufacturer he found in Thailand. After several visits to the manufacturer, Higgs realized that the infrastructure was in place that would allow him to create his own brand of products, so he started, but this endeavor was not to last.


“Our supplier eventually fell through,” remarks Higgs, “but the die was already cast in my mind. I realized I could live anywhere and use drop shipping to get my products out.


“So, we moved to Durango, Colorado, where we developed 18 part numbers over the better part of a year in order to reach critical mass. Instead of a traditional slow launch, we switched gears and partnered with job shops in the U.S.


“We wanted to become a nationwide, full-fledged bumper provider from the start. With that, the idea was ‘No constraints.’ If we’re going to use drop-ship manufacturers, we need to have the best manufacturers in the country. This led to having suppliers in Denver and Indiana, all essentially a plane ride away.”


The Old-Fashioned Way


At the same time, Higgs’ role was focused on the sales and marketing side of things. He drove from city to city, hauling a trailer full of products, and each time he would arrive in a new place, he would pull out the Yellow Pages to look for truck and vehicle accessory shops. Door to door, he would bring proprietors out to see the products, and ultimately, convince them to do a buy-in, leading to steady growth.


“We started with a direct-to-retail market,” says Higgs, “but in early 2006, beginning with the SEMA show, the industry standard for our products, everything changed. At that time, we virtually didn’t exist. We had no phone number, no website, nothing. But starting in 2006, you could actually buy something direct from Fab Fours, and our revenue was something like $400,000.


“From ’06, ’07, ’08, we made the Inc. 500 with revenues around the $2.5 million mark,” continues Higgs. “So, selling was not the problem as we were keeping our promises of quality and consistency, which is a concern in this market.”


Higgs explains that many people who go into the after-market vehicle parts industry are enthusiasts, much like himself. Higgs believes that many of these enthusiasts are unprepared to handle the challenges that come along with growing such a business.


“That typical path begins by making parts on the side or tweaking parts until reaching a point where an enthusiast can quit their day job and become a small business owner,” says Higgs. “And then they grow that until they peak where their personal objectives have been met, but the next evolution of the business surpasses their finances, personal ability, and so on. This is why there are many competitors, but few rivals to Fab Fours.”


He continues, “My father started his own business with two other guys with $5,000 apiece in the oil and gas industry. That company now makes over $1 billion annually, so I lived through the right way to grow a company.”


The Path to Success


Fab Fours’ value proposition is “Quality…Delivered On Time,” but challenges at the Colorado location made it difficult to live up to this. The company was outsourcing manufacturing, design, and marketing elements using small job shops and other businesses. As the volume of orders began to pick up, the demand for parts increased, and Fab Fours’ outsourcing partners were not able to keep pace.


As Higgs notes, “It was still small job shops we relied on, and the quality we demanded was greater than the level they were capable of producing. The shops that could make a bumper could also make a riding mower deck or an electrical box housing. Those are parts where no one cares if they have slight defects or scratches.”


Unfortunately, Higgs says, many in the enthusiast community are all too familiar with the grainy, difficult-to-read instruction manuals, missing bolts, and parts that don’t fit that arrive three-to-five weeks later than the customer expected.


“We decided we were going to try to change this expectation. We decided to place a strong emphasis on quality parts delivered on time. Today, if you want a car seat, you can go out right now and buy a car seat from numerous places. In my industry, it’s not like that.


“Our community is small and fragmented. If you want a premium bumper, you have to order from a specialized company. However, getting a quality bumper on time is important, and we weren’t able to produce the quality we wanted in Durango.”


He continues, “We’re like a Louis Vuitton purse for a guy. When we construct a bumper that you’re installing onto your pride and joy, a bumper you’re spending thousands of dollars on, it has to be perfect. So, to get that quality, we had to bring the parts to us, which was unraveling the strategy of having distant manufacturers. Now it was becoming a massive burden. The part that was made in Indiana had to be shipped to Durango, only to then be shipped back out to Indiana or Atlanta or Oregon.”


In order to combat this problem and further expand, Higgs reached out to individuals involved in economic development in Durango, but he found it challenging to get a permit to make space.


Over time, Higgs began feeling as though Durango was not the right choice for Fab Fours’ plans for expansion, so he began to look at potential locations across the country, including Salt Lake City, Denver, and Dallas. However, Charlotte won out in the end due to its ample space and skilled workforce.


“Our initial location in the greater Charlotte area was in Pineville’s industrial park,” says Higgs. “For the first three years we were here, we just had a warehouse, and we were bringing in parts from the job shops we were manufacturing through. In 2010, we hit a point where, in order to continue on the path of growth we were on, we had to stop relying on the outsourcing.”


The decision was then made to move to Lancaster, S.C., due to the affordability of real estate and an ample workforce that was left in the aftermath of the textile industry collapse. In Lancaster, Fab Fours moved into a new building, installed its own equipment, and began manufacturing its own products.


Regarding the Lancaster location, Higgs notes, “Although making this move presents a few challenges in terms of employee commute times, so far, that hasn’t negatively affected the business.


“This facility is 33,000 square feet and all production, from 2010 to present, and what will be all of 2015, was and will be out of this facility. However, we own a building that is about 12 miles from here that is 140,000 square feet.”


Higgs continues, “Right now, we’re using that location for sales and marketing, but it will be used for manufacturing. This location will continue to operate, possibly as an aluminum plant, as we continue to diversify our product line to include both steel and aluminum items.


“Where this building will peak at about 18 to 22 million in capacity, the new building should be good for about 85 to possibly 100 million in capacity. My view is, if the new building can get us to 100 million, and our current location can produce 20 million, that’s probably the limit that we would want to make in this region anyway.


“By the time we hit that, the other building will be our headquarters, but we’d then like to expand outside of the Carolinas to include central and western territories for manufacturing.”


Driving Into the Future


Fab Fours’ front winch bumpers are designed to be the ultimate in functionally stylish front end protection. These direct bolt-on bumpers require no cutting, grinding or welding. An engineered winch mount conceals the winch in the bumper. Fab Fours’ rear bumpers come with a variety of options including integrated receivers, tire carriers, shackle mounts, and more.


Fab Fours insists on quality construction formed and welded precisely—for example bumper tire carriers have Fab Fours’ signature “knife edge” finish. Although they are best known for their quality bumpers, Fab Fours manufactures a wide variety of vehicle accessories for the automotive aftermarket. Products come with a lifetime warranty on structure.


Regarding what the future holds for Fab Fours, Higgs says, “Right now, bumpers are the driving force, they’re what we’re synonymous with. However, starting about 18 months ago, our line did expand to include peripheral steel accessories. When you look at the outside of a vehicle, for example a super-duty truck, there’s the front and back bumpers, side steps, a headache rack, and a roof rack. So, basically anything that you can bolt to the outside to change the look and function, we’ve now hit all of those elements.


“In addition, our flagship bumper is still the most expensive on the market, but we’ve also introduced a less-expensive model that’s well suited to fleets.”


Higgs also notes that the company has turned to wholesale distribution to gain an edge.


“Because we built our brand through organic retail customers, it’s become difficult to travel far to find new customers as well as logistically challenging to ship. This led our company to become a pioneer in wholesale distribution for bumpers.


“While wholesale distribution has been around in the aftermarket industry, it’s mainly been used for small parts. Think about this…one of our steel bumpers, when packaged, weighs about 400 pounds and is about the size of a refrigerator. Through the wholesalers, anywhere in America right now, a truck owner can now get a Fab Fours’ bumper next day, through retail, supported by wholesale.


“In the end, we aim to be the brand in the automotive aftermarket that truck and off-road enthusiasts turn to above all others. As we’re bolting together our plan, we also plan to pursue commercial, military, and international. As long as we stick to delivering quality products on time, I’m confident that we’ll get there.”


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