Opportunity knocks; O.C. entrepreneur answerson July 08, 2011 in News
The Orange County Register
July, 8 2011
By Jan Norman
Tim Miller didn't want to start another business.
For 33 years he has owned a successful construction company, Miller Construction in Huntington Beach, which has built many of the grocery stores in Southern California.
But sometimes, opportunities are so obvious that an entrepreneur can't resist.
Miller's construction success financed his passion: collecting and restoring cars, especially from the 1950s to 1970s. He now owns 125 vehicles and displays about 50 of them at any one time at corporate headquarters. He had his own crew of vehicle restorers who kept asking him for better products to maintain their carefully restored handiwork.
Separately, Miller was financing a start-up venture of a couple of chemist friends. So he asked them to create some cleaners and waxes specifically for cars as a favor.
"It took a year back and forth," Miller recalled. "They kept asking for a price point and I said, 'I'm not going to sell it.' I just wanted products for my own cars. "Those products were so good that Miller gave samples away to car enthusiast friends. Packaging was merely a bottle with the word "wax" taped on it. Friends told other friends until Miller had given away thousands of samples. These friends insisted there was nothing as good on the market. Miller didn't believe them. The car care product market is so crowded that he thought someone surely was addressing the segment of car lovers for whom price was not the primary object. Some big competitors are right here in Orange County. Meguiar's in Irvine was bought by 3M in 2008, and Mothers is in Huntington Beach.
This segment is not insignificant. SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) had done a member survey and found that price ranked 13th in concerns about car care products. Quality was number one, Miller said. Surf City Garage was born.
Miller decided the only way to break into the market dominated by some of the biggest consumer product companies in America was to surround himself with smart, young and aggressive people "who didn't know it couldn't be done."
Miller's daughter, Carrie, now 28, then architecture major at Arizona State University, developed some graphics for the fledgling venture. When she graduated in 2008, there were no jobs so she took over operations of Surf City Garage.
Kenneth King, now 23, had started working for the car restoration crew when he was a freshman at Marina High School. He now works on new products. Brandon Daguio, now 27, who had worked in insurance and car rentals, became vice president of national accounts. And Matt Rigdon, 29, who had been in the mortgage industry, became vice president of business development.
The Millers decided everything had to be first class if they were to persuade people that their cleaners were worth a 40 percent premium over the prices charged by competitors. They spend millions of dollars on formulations, packaging and advertising. Product quality was paramount, King said. For example, the company's Barrier Reef Carnauba Wax uses the highest, pure white grade that sells for $1,500 rather than the yellow that sells for $10.
The Surf City Garage team decided to move aggressively to sell to all the major automotive chains at once, rather than start with mom-and-pop shops and work their way up to major chains, Miller said.
Advanced Auto Parts was the first to stock Surf City Garage and soon Pep Boys, AutoZone and Napa stores also carried at least some of the brand's more than 20 car care products.
"I think we're filling a need the retailers were already thinking about," Carrie Miller said.
Steve Oren at Elite Car Care in Newport Beach says "As a professional car detailer, I am always looking for the one product that gives me an edge on the competition."
He said when he tried Surf City Garage's Speed Demon Wax Detailer on a black Mercedes "I knew we had something very different here. There simply is no other product like this anywhere."
More recently, Surf City Garage has even targeted discount chains. Rigdon approached Walmart and initially was rejected. He "continued to knock on the door" and showed the buyers a four-foot-wide display of dozens of different products that Surf City had developed for another national chain. Four months later, he had the order.
But will a premium product sell at Walmart? Here's an email Carrie Miller received this week from a customer in Nashville, Tenn.:
"I headed to the super Wal-Mart store for my normal 'glaze' product only to run into a Surf City Display instead. After much debate I decided to purchase a bottle of Nano Glaze and bottle of Voodoo Leather Rejuvenator. Finally! Instant gratification to find truly superior products, I couldn't believe the results. A wet shine a foot deep on the exterior and extra body, extra rich and supple leather product for the interior that as a bonus leaves my car with that new car smell again."
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