Smart Moves: An Interview with Apple Door on Growing a Large Dealership
© 2000 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Spring 2000
Author: Tom Wadsworth
An Interview with Apple Door on Growing a Large Dealership
By Tom Wadsworth
In 1973, Hubert Apple quit his job as a door installer and started his own door business with $400. Sound familiar?
Hubert’s new business, Door Trouble Inc., specialized in what he knew best: commercial door service and repair for the Richmond, Virginia, area.
By 1978, Apple’s annual sales reached a respectable $250,000. That’s when his son, Dan Apple, joined the company after serving a five-year stint in the U.S. Navy. Dan took charge of all sales, marketing, and accounting functions, and the company began to redefine itself and grow.
Today, the business has emerged as the largest garage door dealer in Virginia and as one of the largest door dealers in the nation. With four locations, 65 employees, and annual sales approaching $7,000,000, Apple Door Systems is doing a lot of things right.
How do you grow such a business? What mistakes did the Apples make along the way? What were their smartest moves?
To find some answers and glean some insight into growing a large dealership, I interviewed Dan Apple in January.
Dan, what part of your personal history provided you the best background to grow a major door company?
It was the Navy. I was ship serviceman, responsible for all service functions to the crew … barbershops, laundry, vending, and all retail services. That’s where I learned how to make money, how to make pals, and how to head people in the right direction.
I value the leadership skills I developed in the military. It’s not the stereotypical military approach; it’s a team approach where you learn to get things done through people and make them feel good about it.
What about the benefits of your college degree in business management?
For me, college was mostly an endurance test.
What are the top three mistakes you’ve made in your business?
I did not start an in-house training program soon enough. We started it around 1996, but we should’ve started it 10 years earlier. It sounds cliché, but you really need to have a training program.
I have made some mistakes by jumping on to a new unproven product before the bugs were worked out. I am a sucker for the newest appealing thing on the market. I need to wait for these things to go through the debugging process.
Hiring family and friends can be a mistake. When you hire family, you create an expectation in your mind for their performance, and you set up yourself, and them, to be disappointed.
It can create a double standard in your organization. A lot of dealers hire family, and most regret it at some point.
What are the top three smartest moves you’ve made in your business?
One smart move was changing the name of our company. Our first name was Door Trouble Inc., and it just sounded too negative. We changed it to Apple Door Systems. The name is friendly and easy to remember. We used “Systems” in the name because we didn’t want to get hung up on just doors.
Another good move was embracing mass marketing, advertising through television and other mass media.
The best move may have been diversifying our business and not falling into the trap of being a specialist. We didn’t put all our eggs into any one basket. We now do residential and commercial business. On the residential side, we handle garage doors, storm doors, entry doors, service, openers, retractable awnings, etc. In the commercial market, we sell and service storefront doors, hollow metal, traffic doors, dock systems, and a lot more.
Many dealers get caught up in selling residential garage doors only, but it’s a big wide world out there. We’re a total door store. That diversity helps us when times get hard.
I also think it was smart to join our industry association. We joined DODA in 1979. It’s been great for us because of the interaction with other dealers, the opportunity to talk to people who do the exact same thing you do. Any time I have a problem, I can pick up the phone and talk to people who have handled it before.
What’s the biggest myth about growing a garage door business?
It’s a myth that you have to grow your business with sales volume. Or that if you don’t get all the big tract jobs, you won’t be successful. You’ve got to think in terms of profit dollars, not sales volume.
If you were to give three pieces of advice to a new dealer starting up in a community the same size as yours, what would you say?
I’d tell him to forget whatever he learned about customer service. It’s usually wrong. Concentrate on creating outrageous service. Be on time, be early, do little extra things for the customer, and communicate, never leave your customers in the dark. Clean up. Send a thank you note. Follow up; call them back a year later. Be in the people business first. That will put you in the top 10% of the garage door dealers in the country.
Don’t de-value what we do for a living by selling cheap. Respect what we do for a living and charge accordingly. After all, we sell a product that can kill you. When you sell cheap, you make your product a commodity; and what’s that worth? Sell on the basis of satisfying needs, instead of just selling stuff. Don’t compete on the basis of price; if you do, you’re going to lose.
Sell the good stuff first. When a customer calls, dealers often quote the lowest priced item. Why do we wait for the customer to ask for the good stuff? Don’t assume they want the cheapest stuff; they seldom do.
You’ve purchased a lot of product from several large door and operator companies. If you could plant one clear message directly into the ear of every manufacturer’s CEO, what would you say?
When you make a mistake, just say so.
Your dealers are your customers; treat them like one. Never assume that the customer is an extension of your plant.
Listen to your dealers. Pick up the phone and call them. And go see at least a dozen every year. See what they’re up against. I admit that I need to do the same thing with my customers.
Dan Apple is presenting a workshop on Creating a Company Training Program at the upcoming IDA Expo in Las Vegas, currently scheduled for Thursday, April 27, 2000, 1:00 – 2:30 P.M.
Apple Door Profile
Beginnings: Richmond, Va., 1973, by Hubert Apple, former door installer
First Market: Commercial door service and repair
Current Market: Sales, service, and installation of residential garage doors, storm doors, entry doors, openers, retractable awnings, and commercial storefront, hollow metal, traffic doors, operators, and dock systems.
Current Locations: Richmond, Waynesboro, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg
Service Vehicles: 32
Employees: 65 full time
1978 Annual Sales: $250,000
1983 Annual Sales: $500,000
1988 Annual Sales: $2,500,000
1999 Annual Sales: $6,800,000
Manufacturers Carried: More than 10
Dan Apple Profile
Family: Wife Sandy, daughter Jenifer, age 25
U.S. Navy: 1973-78
Education: B.A., Virginia Commonwealth University, 1982
Industry Involvement: IDA Board of Directors (1994-98), First President of IDEA (1995-98)