In 45 years, Custom Chrome has evolved from a small chrome plating and polishing shop in San Jose, Calif., to an international manufacturer and distributor of aftermarket Harley-Davidson parts and accessories serving more than 6,000 dealers throughout the U.S., Europe and beyond.
While the company’s growth may have been exponential, one thing hasn’t changed – its focus on servicing the V-Twin industry, according to Jeremy Yearton, business development manager.
“One of the biggest things we have always tried to strive for is to be unique and have a product offering that is proprietary to Custom Chrome – and then being able to manufacture and distribute it at a very competitive price,” he says. “As more than just a distributor, we’re able to pass on a lot of the savings for things that we manufacture.”
It all started in 1970, when Nace Panzica and Ty Cruze, along with two other friends, began noticing that a growing number of motorcycle owners wanted to personalize their bikes. The group of friends opened Coast Motorcycle Accessories in San Jose.
Within a year, the shop’s name was changed to Custom Chrome and the company’s founders began to seek out manufacturers of custom parts and accessories, collaborating with them on unique new items built to the company’s specifications.
“Basically, they started growing manufacturing and distribution to meet the ever-expanding needs of customers who were trying to run other motorcycle shops or customize their own motorcycles,” Yearton notes.
In 1973, the first catalog was released, serving as an advertising tool to aid in further growth of the business.
As distribution started to grow, the owners of Custom Chrome leased the company’s first warehouse – a 5,000-sq. ft. facility – in 1975 in San Jose. Business expanded quickly from there. In 1978, they opened a 10,000-sq. ft. warehouse, followed by a 20,000-sq. ft. facility in 1980.
In 1982, the first facility in nearby Morgan Hill, Calif., was opened. That warehouse was around the corner from the location that would become the site of Custom Chrome’s main headquarters, which was built in 1987.
“1987 was a big year,” Yearton says, adding, “That was when we built the first big main headquarters, R&D and manufacturing facility; it was a 110,000-sq. ft. building. That really took Custom Chrome to the next level.”
He adds that 1987 also was the year Custom Chrome held the industry-first Harley-Davidson-only dealer show, which became a regular occurrence up until about the mid-2000s.
As the two main founders, Panzica and Cruze remained active in the company for quite some time, even after Custom Chrome was taken public in 1990.
Though purchased by equity firms, the company “still maintained its grassroots, blue-collar type atmosphere,” Yearton recalls. “It was still a T-shirt and jeans place to work – that’s really what kept employee retention. It never got to the point where it was pinstripes and ties.”
In 1997, the company saw two milestones: acquiring Custom Chrome Europe, which allowed for direct distribution to European countries, and merging with Texas-based Chrome Specialties, which helped Custom Chrome continue to expand in the central U.S.
The company eventually returned to being privately held after hitting a rough patch. “That was a hard time for Custom Chrome because we had private equity firms trying to buy each other out,” Yearton says. “There was a time period up until six years ago that we were going through different investors’ hands and it was damaging the company and the brand.”
He explains at that time, Custom Chrome went through a restructuring “to get back to what it is we do as a company.” Today, the company is owned by DAE-IL USA, which does business as Custom Chrome, Santee, Jammer, Custom Chrome Europe and Custom Chrome Asia. DAE-IL USA was one of the largest manufacturers that Custom Chrome had worked with for more than 20 years.
“We don’t have any heavy investors that are watching over us anymore, so it’s really about being smart and running our own business. We’ve gotten back to the roots of what this company does: manufacture and produce proprietary parts for Harley-Davidsons.”
Economic Ups and Downs
With the economic boom of the mid-2000s paired with the popularity of various custom bike builder TV shows, business was at a high before the recession entered the picture.
“We were producing such large numbers, and then the economy took a hit and people couldn’t afford to build these expensive motorcycles,” Yearton says. “We had to adapt and get back to what it is that’s kept this company going: providing service parts and taking care of the needs of the everyday rider.”
Coming out of the recession, 2012 brought a challenging year for Custom Chrome.
“That was one of the low points in Custom Chrome’s history,” Yearton recalls. “Due to cash flow issues, our fill rates fell to a minimal level and we took a big hit because of that. Over the last couple years we’ve been working on building up our inventory levels – which are significantly better today than they were just a few years ago – so that’s an immediate goal that we strive to obtain.” He adds the company will continue to push service items – for example, Custom Chrome recently added a complete, all-in-one-box, three-hole oil change kit – while also focusing on the development of new and innovative proprietary products.
Present and Future Goals
Today, Custom Chrome distributes to about 4,000 dealers in the U.S. from its Morgan Hill corporate office, which also services Canada, Mexico, Australia, the Pacific Rim, Japan and parts of Africa. The Custom Chrome Europe headquarters, located in Germany, services some 2,000 dealers throughout Europe.
Brands exclusive to Custom Chrome include Motor Factory, RevTech, Santee and Jammer. The company also offers a lineup of exclusively designed parts, for which it has teamed up with well-known designers like John Reed, Donnie Smith, Rick Doss, Dave Perewitz, Kirk Taylor, Paul Yaffee, Jessie James and Cole Foster.
Looking ahead to the company’s 45th anniversary and beyond, Custom Chrome continues to be a strong presence in the market and a familiar sight at industry events, including the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
“We’ve done some downsizing as far as our show circuit over the last few years,” Yearton notes. “It’s a lot more grassroots focused, with smaller and more regional events where we don’t have the huge travel expenses. This has allowed us to be in front of people who have never seen Custom Chrome before.”
155 East Main Ave., Suite 150
Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Phone: (408) 778-0500
Year founded: 1970
Dealers: 6,000 worldwide