Folks needing that hard-to-find tire for their four-wheel drive vehicle know they have a friend to do the work at Hardcore 4x4—thanks to SBA financing.
What customers get there is service from somebody who turned his obsession into a successful business.
Cory and Heather Schmidt (above) started the St. Paul, Neb., company in 2008, building a garage to specialize in four-wheel drive work, lift kits and modifications. The business was a natural fit for Cory, who, at age 17, owned four-wheelers and spent his spare time "lifting them, customizing them," he said. "So when we had the opportunity to turn my hobby into a career, we did it. If you don't love your job, your job probably isn't right for you."
And this job is a perfect fit for him. Schmidt loves "taking a customer's car that's average and turning it into something extraordinary, and making it stand out in a crowd."
Would even take vacation time to work on his Blazer
After Cory graduated high school, he joined the Air Force as a firefighter. At times, the schedule was grueling, exchanging 24 long hours on duty with 24 hours of free time.
Free time to tinker with a '74 Chevy Blazer he picked up while stationed there.
"On my off days, I worked at an auto parts store to supplement buying auto parts for my Blazer," Schmidt said. "I got an employee discount."
The base enjoyed an auto hobby shop where a young airman could rent a shop stall and tools and lose himself in customizing work.
"Some guys took vacation to travel and see the sights," Schmidt said. "I took vacation just to work on my Blazer."
Getting help from NBDC and a Patriot Express loan
Four years of Air Force duty behind him, Schmidt returned to Nebraska, eventually able to open his own shop. Schmidt’s father-in-law helped him start by renting out part of his tire business building for an auto repair shop, in due course, Schmidt and his wife sought to expand the company beyond repair work to take over the tire business.
To do this, he needed financing for equipment, including $30,000 for an alignment rack, plus lifts and jacks, some fixture purchases and shop supplies–and some working capital. The Schmidts got help to put their expansion plan on paper from Cliff Mosteller at the Nebraska Business Development Center in Omaha, and sat down with Dave Richardson at Equitable Bank in nearby Grand Island for the loan. Richardson accepted a second lien on the small business’ building and used equipment as collateral; thanks to Cory’s service in the Air Force as a firefighter, Hardcore 4x4 was approved Oct. 21, 2010, for a $80,000 Patriot Express loan.
“The loan made our business possible,” Cory added. “Without the SBA we could not have done it.”
Last year, Hardcore 4x4 made just under $400,000 in sales. And with two full-time shop guys, plus Schmidt doing the work and two front office people keeping it all straight,
"We're on track to top that this year," he added.
Keeping the customers happy and back on the road
That line of credit was crucial to serve their friends and neighbors in this farm community. Often, Schmidt will hop in his truck and head off down a dusty country road to meet a customer on a farm with a blown tire.
"Farmers like to charge things, it's the way they do business," he said. "But there were times when we'd have $30-40,000 on the books that people owed us. And it might be a month or two before we get paid"
And Hardcore 4x4's vendors needed to be paid right away.
"There are other businesses in a farm community who say 'we're not going to let you charge' and they've lost business because of that," Schmidt said. "So we let our customers charge to keep them happy."
Hardcore 4x4 has built a network with other retailers in the area who sometimes refer customers to their garage. One customer referred to the shop by another dealer posted on an internet forum how within a couple of hours of a quick call, Heather had scoured her suppliers and found discontinued tires for his 4x4—even at a slight discount from the manufacturer’s price, with no shipping charge.
One customer, who happened to be an Army veteran, posted on the company's Facebook page how he was grateful for the "amazing price" Hardcore 4x4 offered for his Chevy Blazer work
"A lot of our business doesn't just involve the four-wheel drive stuff," Schmidt said. Over the Memorial Day weekend, he wasn't out grilling. Because other shops in town were closed, he was responding to calls from people broke down on the highway.
"You know, I enjoy doing that work because I can picture myself broken down on the road and I know I'd want it to get fixed and get back on the road myself. I figure I owe it to them. You have to sacrifice some personal things to do that, but with my wife working here, I can do that because she understands."
Taking out the four-wheelers for a ride
Don't think it's all work for the Schmidts at Hardcore 4x4. What's the point in lifting and customizing a four-wheeler if you don't have some fun with it?
There's an annual rally event in the shallow Platte River in nearby Central City -- yes, that's in the river -- but the summer floods which plagued Nebraska in 2011 made the stream too deep to take Jeeps out for a spin.
There's no denying 4x4 folks their fun, so soon enough the Schmidts started getting calls from their friends who knew they had a place on the Middle Loup River outside of town.
"They asked me, 'do you mind if we tell other people?' So we got phone call after phone call, and by word of mouth it turned out to be quite the big deal," he said. "It's just for people to have a good time. It's neat to see kids, families, wives and husbands out at a big family event. They like to use their four-wheel drive to go around and have a good time. It's an opportunity for people with the same interest to enjoy same hobby or sport."
Serving customers like that is what keeps him in business.
“In a nutshell,” he said, “we go out of our way to make customer feel they're our only concern at that time," Schmidt said. "We greet them at the door, we treat them as long lost friend, we take that extra time to give them our personal time. You know, it’s nice to grow, but our priority is to keep that relationship going with our customers.”
Since the deal with Hardcore 4x4, Equitable Bank has been approved for 10 more Express loans for a total volume of $628,200. That includes a subsequent Patriot Express loan to Hardcore 4x4 for a line of credit approved Jan. 12, 2012.