Next year, California Custom Trailers and Powersports is going to celebrate a milestone anniversary: 40 years in business. But where this dealership began is a far cry from where it is today.
In 1984, Todd and Carol Messersmith started the company as a horse trailer dealership. However, a decade later, they realized that because they were only selling trailers, they had an empty showroom and needed to fill it with something. So they applied to several different OEMs, and in the end, Polaris chose to partner with them and has ever since. Over time, the dealership partnered with even more OEMs, and today, this family-owned venture now has six stores.
Of course, the trailer business is still going strong, and the dealership now sells almost any type of trailer out there: horse trailers, dump trailers, cargo trailers, enclosed race trailers and stackers. In fact, Trevor Messersmith, son of Todd and Carol and general manager of California Custom Trailers and Powersports, notes that selling trailers and powersports goes hand-in-hand.
“Most of the people who are in the powersports industry typically are blue collar and probably in that realm of they need a trailer for their business as well. We always call it the one-stop-shop, where a guy can come get his stuff for his construction company but also get his toys for the weekend all from us,” he says.
Of course, while all the stores fall under one name, each one has a different inventory focus. For instance, at the Paso Robles location, California Custom sells/rents Bobcat equipment in addition to trailers and powersports, whereas the Lodi and Elk Grove locations go heavy on the trailers, while the Merced store also specializes in personal watercraft (PWC).
On the powersports side, side-by-sides are California Custom’s best sellers. And while 90% of the machines the dealership sells are still gas-powered, Messersmith has seen an uptick in electric vehicle (EV) sales due to California’s government subsidies and incentives. For instance, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has a voucher program in place where customers with gas quads over 100ccs can apply to have 75% of the cost of a new EV replacement purchase rebated, as long as they provide quotes for the EVs and proof that their gas quads are later dismantled.
“The EV program has really taken off because of the voucher system,” Messersmith affirms. “I don’t think consumers were really wanting to take the risk, [because there weren’t] a lot of knowns about EVs. But California’s program has taken a lot of the financial risk away from it. So they’re willing to try it, and now people see them and use them every day and like them.”
Of course, Messersmith notes that these EVs are primarily for the utility market and not the sport market. While they’re quality units, he admits that they’re still not as “cool” as gas-powered ones, lacking the suspension and horsepower that today’s gas-powered units have. But, he notes, once viable alternatives for the sport side come out, he’s confident there will be an evolution in this space.
The Popularity of Customization
California Customs has noticed the trend among side-by-side purchases: Buyers want enclosures. Messersmith states, for instance, that the Polaris Ranger North Star and the Can-Am Defender Limited are great sellers because they are fully enclosed with heating and air. Of course, not everyone is willing to shell out the money for a full HVAC system, but many will pay extra for doors, roofs, windshields, rear panels and more. On the sport side, many customers prioritize wheels and tires, bumpers, coolers, doors, storage compartments and audio systems.
Thus, as its name implies, California Custom derives a significant portion of its business from the fact that it can accessorize and install everything on a unit, so the service department has become the backbone of the company.
“We pride ourself in accessorizing your unit, having the roofs, the windshields, the roll cages, the tires, the winches, all the cool stuff that comes along with a side-by-side. And we have big service teams and install teams to be able to get all that stuff on those units for those customers,” Messersmith says.
Of course, the service department takes care of maintenance too, and each store’s techs have a well-rounded skill set that allows them to do everything from routine maintenance to full motor swaps, transmissions repairs and front differentials to crash estimates.
California Customs looks at its income like a cake: the core (or cake) comes from the service department and parts department (in terms of profit), so that it can absorb most of the costs of the dealership. “Now the sales — they move the … top line numbers the quickest. And we kind of try to plan our … sales to be the icing on the cake.”
Service and Sales Efficiency
While the pandemic proved to be the greatest challenge for every business in recent history, the powersports industry faced a double-edged sword: record sales and profits but not enough inventory. And, of course, a new issue is just beginning.
“The influx of new customers and sales happening means you’re going to have a huge influx in your service department,” Messersmith says. “So trying to scale that to reflect how much you’re selling, how much stuff you’re going to work on in the following two years because you were already at a certain number of sales, and then you double or triple — that means you’re going to double or triple your service department, and maybe you didn’t have enough room for that or you didn’t have enough staff.”
But California Customs saw this coming and tried to prepare. Recently for many of its stores, the dealership has invested in building bigger service departments, renting more space, hiring more technicians and getting better tooling. And while Messersmith admits they still have too long of leads times, they are consistently trying to get those down and get the customers’ units back to them in a timely manner.
“I’d say one of the best things that we’ve done in the last probably 18 months is we’ve revamped our service scheduling. Not so much … drop off appointments but just organizing the time farther in advance than we used to. We used to do a lot of first-come-first-served, and there’s just too much volume for that. You can’t really do that anymore,” Messersmith says. To that end, the dealership has established a schedule, and everyone has a specific job, from getting diagnostics done to tracking and pulling parts. By following the process, the shop grows more efficient.
Of course, it’s not easy to find help nowadays, and the dealership still doesn’t have nearly as many techs as it could use. But California Customs is trying to tackle that problem as well.
“We’ve been able to find some great added pieces in technicians, but there’s still room for more. I could hire 10 technicians in the company right now if people were out there, and we’d have work and pay for them to come work for us. So trying to find those knowledgeable technicians is tough. So you kind of have to grow our own, which isn’t a fast process, but that’s the route that we’ve taken, since there’s not a bunch of powersports techs just hanging out without a job that need something to do.”
California Custom has also been working to make the sales process more efficient. In terms of getting potential customers in the door, Messersmith says that the company relies primarily on word-of-mouth, since the dealership has been around since 1984 and has a large grassroots following, but it also utilizes social media.
However, the biggest shift he’s seen in the last five years is utilizing digital retailing, i.e. having customers input information online, which puts those leads in front of salespeople, who track them through the process. Of course, Messersmith says that getting salespeople to actually track those leads is a never-ending battle, but he’s tried to implement a standard operating procedure to hold them accountable with the amount of sales they’re producing. For instance, if someone isn’t hitting the same numbers as another team member at that or a different store, then as part of the evaluation, Messersmith can go back and see what that person is doing on his or her traffic log to see how it compares to those of other sales staff.
All in all, despite current economic concerns, Messersmith sees a bright future for California Custom Trailers and Powersports.
“I think as a whole that most powersports dealerships are in a good space,” he concludes. “Everyone’s trying to adjust a little bit to the last four months to see where this market’s going to stabilize at. And we’re just going to stay aggressive and keep going and stay on the path that we’ve been on for 30 years.”
California Custom Trailers and Powersports
10391 East Stockton Blvd.
Elk Grove, CA 95624
Number of locations: Six
OEM: Polaris, Honda, KTM, Landmaster, Can-Am/BRP, Yamaha, Kayo, SSR Motorsports
Aftermarket: Parts Unlimited, Western Power Sports, Tucker Powersports
Number of employees: 120