Dealer Success Story: From $0 to $8 Million in 8 Years

© 2002 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Winter 2002
Author: Desiree Hunter
Page 32-33

Dealer Success Story
From $0 to $8 Million in 8 Years

By Desiree Hunter

This story originally appeared in the San Bernardino (Calif.) County Sun in 2002. It has been updated and edited for use in Door & Access Systems. Reprinted with permission.

Losing a job was a blessing in disguise for Chuck Colton.

The International Door Association (IDA) recently ranked his San Bernardino-based door business, OnTrac Overhead Door Company Inc., as the 11th-largest door dealer in the world.

The ranking was based on the company's 2001 revenues of $7.9 million – a number that seems to keep growing every year.

Colton might have never made the switch to business owner if he hadn't lost his job. He started out in the door business as an $8-an-hour garage-door installer.

His last day with his former employer was a Friday in 1994. That Saturday, he installed a utility rack on his truck and by Monday was back "on track" installing doors -- this time for himself.

"I didn't come out and say in eight years I want this business to be making $8 million," said Colton, 44. "We just started advertising, and we were on time, we were honest, we had a fair price, and we grew."

The Unique California Market

Such a fast pace of growth is not common in the door industry, but Colton took the right approach early on, said Pat Kelly, a board member of the California Operator & Door Association.

"You have to be good," he said. "Chuck was forward thinking and he got in with some contractors. If you do that, then you start to get a lot of doors, so you have to grow."

California's door industry has grown too, with a major change in the market occurring about 10 years ago, said Kelly. One-piece wooden garage doors were the norm until sectional steel doors began taking precedence with builders and homeowners.

A dramatic increase in lumber price, coupled with an almost simultaneous decrease in steel price, largely accounted for the shift, he said.

Prices for wooden doors had been substantially lower than steel, but when the prices became more equal, steel's advantages -- like easier maintenance -- had people crossing over.

Now there are two distinct markets: new construction and retrofitting -- exchanging old one-piece doors with steel ones.

"It's a stable market -- sometimes the new construction market is slow, but the retrofit market is always there to be had," said Kelly.

When looking to expand from their initial 3,000-square-foot office in Yucaipa, Colton spotted a 17,000-square-foot building in San Bernardino, but it was too big for the business -- at the time.

He later bought the building with help from a Small Business Administration loan. He now has locations in four cities.

OnTrac's Sales Strategy

Doors at OnTrac start around $500, $600 and $800 -- a sort of "good, better, best" scenario, said Colton. Customers should be wary of just going for the cheapest doors out there, he said.

"Don't just buy the least expensive door. Most expensive doesn't mean you get the best, but cheap just means it's cheap."

An Unlikely Success

Colton's career path is not typical of many successful entrepreneurs.

"I went to college for four years, but to be honest, I went to play baseball," said Colton, a catcher. He attended Cal State Los Angeles as a business major, but never graduated.

While there he took a job driving an armored truck and kept it up for nine years. He traveled the country for a while, playing semi-professional baseball and softball, before taking a job installing garage doors. He did that for five years until his position was eliminated in 1994.

The rest is history.

He started working from his garage at his Yucaipa home. His wife Terri, who was a stay-at-home mom with three children, went back to work to help supplement their income. Three months into it, they hired Ched Martindale, the company's first of 55 employees and moved into the Yucaipa office.

One year later, Terri was able to quit her job and help Chuck with the business. The business grew steadily each year, going from $180,000 in revenue the first year to $500,000 in 1998.

Advertising Pays

Advertising played a large role in the growth with ads on the radio, cable television, in 20 different telephone books and seven newspapers. There are logos on all company trucks, all the installers wear uniforms, and there's a Web site:

OnTrac sponsors several youth sports programs and BMX racing teams and is big on recycling.

Colton donates old garage doors to make homes for people in Mexico. He also recycles the scrap metal and cardboard, donating the proceeds to local churches and youth groups.

"Right now we're sponsoring youth sports and a BMX team of about 25-30 kids. Our motto is Keeping Kids On Track," said Colton. "That's what kept me off the streets and that's what's important -- giving back to the community."

Good Employees are Key

But the employees are far more important than advertising, said Colton.

He recently took a 17-day family vacation and didn't have to call the office once -- a tribute to the employees' ability to run the business without him, he said.

To show appreciation, there are activities like company picnics, fishing trips, and Christmas parties. Colton recently obtained two charter buses for an all-expenses-paid two-night stay in Laughlin for employees and their spouses.

"We just do things to keep it fun. I think, more than money, that's what people want. They want to feel appreciated and that they belong. This company's not necessarily just about garage doors -- it's about people."

And though turnover is extremely low, "we're always looking for good employees," he said. "It's hard to find good, experienced installers who want to work."

Ignoring the Economy

Looking back, Colton said he really didn't have any hurdles to jump since starting his business -- not even during the mid-1990s recession.

"The economy was supposedly bad when I started in 1994," he said. "I said if this is bad, I can't wait until it gets good."

Others weren't as fortunate. Pat Kelly, a 31-year veteran of the industry, recalls 1997 as being particularly bad.

"We'd been working two shifts producing hardware and within 45 days it was like someone had turned the spigot off," he said. "That recession cost a lot of these contracting firms big money -- it was a tough one."

But now home sales are booming, as seen with the area's record-breaking number of sales in March of 2002.

OnTrac started out doing 150 to 200 door installations a month. Now they're up to more than 1,000 monthly installations, split fairly evenly between retrofits and tract home installations, Colton said.

The Real Key

In 1996 they became one of the nation's first accredited door dealers -- a title issued by the Institute of Door Dealer Education & Accreditation (IDEA). Now they're trying to become a forerunner again by getting all 22 installers certified by IDEA.

Colton says he can't stress the value of employees enough. That's where the heart of any company really lies, he said. "Give them some goals, teach them how to reach them, then sit back and watch them grow. This has got to be one of the greatest rewards as a business owner -- watching others succeed."

"I think that's the real key of the whole thing in any business -- people who are more interested in the person working beside them than themselves."