Thinking big and working smart has helped the business to grow and evolve, Bard explained, but at the beginning he and his partner were learning on the fly. “When we first started, we found a niche painting school buses for a handful of school districts in the area. We were in La Puente, CA back then with two employees and we thought we’d get rich painting buses yellow all day long. But, we realized that it’s seasonal work, because the school districts stop painting their buses when school starts again every September.”
Many companies that survive and succeed over the long term usually have to re-invent their business plans over time and Fleet Refinishing and Collision Center was no exception.
“We were too dependent on those buses, so we started looking around for another market that wouldn’t be so seasonal,” Bard said. “So, we began painting moving and storage trucks for companies like North American Van Lines, Mayflower and Allied. Then, we found out that at the end of the year when the weather in southern California gets rainy, that market also disappeared. But when the moving companies started slowing down, we found out that painting construction vehicles was another good niche for us, because their work loses momentum when it rained and we could get those jobs in October, November and December. So between the buses, the moving vans and the construction equipment, we were busy year round.”
Thinking big can be profitable, but being realistic is also important. To keep his quality high, Bard will only take on projects that are a good match for him and he won’t ever let one client take up too much of his total revenues.
“We were looking for several markets so that we would never be too dependent on one. We agreed that one customer could never make up more than 10% of our total production. If it’s a big job and it will eat up 90% of our production, for example, we won’t pursue it.”
Well, things sure have changed from those early years, because today Fleet Refinishing and Collision Center operates in a 21,000 square-foot facility on a 4-acre lot, employs 30 people and has 50-60 vehicles in its shop all the time. With 10 drive-by bays that can hold two big rigs each and a huge parking lot filled with more awaiting paint and repairs, the shop also does a handful of vehicle restorations every year. The shop’s sister company, SoCal Wraps, has also grown quickly, due to its exceptional work and rave reviews for its vinyl digital designs and amazing artwork.
Unusual items painted and repaired at the shop include medical MRI units, amusement park rides and tour buses for musical groups, according to Bard.
“We started doing the amusement rides about five years ago and it’s a nice source of business. These are children’s rides and fun houses and they’re all on 50-ft. trailers that completely unfold with staircases and railings, walls and pathways—it’s mostly tubular steel. We’re also starting to do the graphics for these rides. In the past, it was all hand painted but now they’re going to the digital vinyl graphics, for a better look.”
SoCal Wraps has become a big part of the big picture at Fleet Refinishing and Collision Center, Bard said. “We do a lot of graphics for movie studios, advertising agencies and a lot of major companies’ delivery trucks and other vehicles, including Arrowhead Water and Nestle, for example.”
In addition to painting new vehicles and equipment, the shop does a fair amount of repairs as well, with two body techs who are kept busy all the time.
“Most of what we get in here is new, but many of it is damaged to some degree. It fluctuates, based on the economy. During tough times, we need to make more repairs, but when things are going better, we get more new vehicles here in the shop. Right now, companies are building more new equipment, so our repair side will see less action for awhile.”
The wear and tear on rock music tour buses depends on the length of the tour and the band using it, Bard explained.
“We’ve done tour buses for Janet Jackson, Vince Vaughn (who had a comedy tour) and the Jonas Brothers. The bus for the Jonas Brothers came back here after their tour and it needed a lot of help. We created a wrap for them that their fans could sign, but they also ended up signing parts of the bus that weren’t covered by the wrap. So, that was quite a repair job on that one.”
What has been the biggest change for Fleet Refinishing and Collision Center since it opened its doors more than a quarter century ago?
“We used to hand paint a lot of our graphics at the beginning, but now the technology has allowed us to create some insane designs. The 5-6 color designs that we’re doing now on vehicles and equipment was unimaginable 26 years ago, so that would definitely have to be the biggest change in our business.”