The automotive industry is filled with companies that began with an idea mixed with a “wing and a prayer”. However, what is even more important is the talent that those companies have and how they have built their businesses up over the years to become the thriving successes they are today.
There is no truer example out there, than Eric Eldreth. He is the owner and master programmer at Innovative Diesel Performance. We sat down with Eldreth and asked him about the lessons he has learned over the years. Why, you ask? Because we know a lot of you out there aspire to do just what Eldreth did; tell “the man” to shove it and go out on your own.
A little history
Profile: Eric Eldreth
- Hometown: Elkton, Md
- Occupation: Owner/Tuner
- Years Tuning: 25 years
- Website: Innovative Diesel
While going to college, Eldreth started tuning cars on the side. This was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when tuning wasn’t very advanced. “I was really into using the tweaker software,” said Eldreth. Later, he got tied into a company called Fordchips.com. “They offered chips for Mustangs, Thunderbirds and things like that,” explained Eldreth.
He migrated over to diesel around 2003 and started Innovative Diesel Performance in 2004. Shortly after, “Fordchips.com partnered up with Superchips and they called it Superchips Custom Tuning (SCT), but it was still Superchips. Then right around 2005/2006 that’s when SCT branched off and became SCT which was an acronym for Superchips Custom Tuning,” continued Eldreth.
Eldreth was the first official SCT dealer and has been working closely with them ever sense. Not only does he do custom tuning for customers, but he trains other tuners how to tune and use the software. With all that he has learned over the years, we had a hard time breaking down his story into 5 key lessons.
- Lesson 1: Making the transition is hard…and scary
- Lesson 2: Learning how to work with your family
- Lesson 3: Understand what your customers want
- Lesson 4: Choosing the right equipment
- Lesson 5: Life and business, they are all about relationships
Lesson 1-Making the transition is hard and scary
Like many Americans who start their own business, Eldreth worked during the day at his full time job, and then worked for Innovative Diesel Performance at night. Eldreth did this for seven years before finally leaving his full time job, to work for Innovative Diesel Performance full time.
“It is especially hard with kids and family to work all day and night. I got used to it, but I was missing out on time with them. I really needed to spend more time with my family, but the business needed to grow. I think all businesses can end up with a better product and support when you are able to give it 100%. It was just that I had worked for another company for 15 years and I had trouble letting go of what I knew. So, I finally made the leap to being my own boss. That enabled me to spend time with friends and family; once I figured out how to manage everything on a daily basis,” said Eldreth.
Even though Eldreth wasn’t working at Innovative Diesel Performance during the standard 8 to 5, don’t think he wasn’t working full time. Eldreth was putting in well over 40 hours a week between nights and weekends. So, he knew what was going on and how the business was functioning. “I was able to jump straight in and really tackle many of the projects that I had wanted to do for years,” mentioned Eldreth.
Lesson 2- Learning how to work with your family
In the early years of Innovative Diesel; Eldreth hired Ted, his father, to run the day-to-day operations while Eldreth worked his other job. Then, Eldreth would do the custom tuning and everything else at night. As the business grew over the years, Eldreth has continually looked to his family when he was ready to hire more people.
“Working with family can be a double edged sword. It’s good, in that you can trust your family, and you know that your family has your best interest in mind. But, it also adds a level of complexity when you realize you have to insert the fact they are family into how you deal with them. There are times when one of them may say something to you that they normally wouldn’t if they were just your employee. So, we have to work through the family drama or the fact that people are very familiar with you; which makes how they talk to you or how you talk to them at a different level then a standard employee or employer. Overall, it’s a good thing because you do have that trust and your family looking out for you, but it’s not to say that you can’t have other employees that feel the same way, but when it’s family it’s just a little more difficult,” Eldreth explained.
Being around the same person all day and all night can ruin a relationship. So, there has to be a line between work and personal. Eldreth went on to say, “It’s really not that hard when you make an effort. We keep everything at a business level when we are at work. We don’t really talk about home or our personal lives, our family stuff or things like that. We pretty much keep it at a professional level all the time. We have always done that and it helps.”
“We were careful to set up the company so that we have separate tasks that each of us work on. For example, my dad and I have separate tasks. I do the tuning and he does the sales support. So, basically our communication stays at the sales community level and there’s not a lot of downtime. We don’t spend a lot of time just hanging out and talking,” stated Eldreth.
“When you think about it, our nation’s history and foundation has been all about mom and pop shops. When you get to the corporation level, they try to keep families out of it, but when it comes to small business, a lot of small businesses are family owned and it really can work. Sure, we have our difficulties, but it really works well in the long run,” Eldreth continued.
Lesson 3-Understand what your customers want
An important part of any business is identifying your customers and understanding their needs and wants. Eldreth was quick to point out this is a major element in what has helped his business take off and become successful.
“We do everything we can to make sure that our customers are satisfied in a way that I personally would want to be satisfied. If I was making the purchase, spending my money, what would I want? What would I expect? By doing this, it puts the correct perspective on everything. Otherwise you get caught up in your own business, because you know your product, you know what you do and it becomes kind of old hat,” explains Eldreth.
“For us to spend $400 or $500 on a tuner it’s just normal, but if you look at it from our customer’s perspective, it is a lot of money. So focusing on the customer perspective is the kind of the operation I try to run,” Eldreth continued.
One thing Eldreth was quick to point out was each customer is different and has to be treated as such. “A lot of times our customers don’t actually know what they are looking for. They are coming into it new just like we were at one point. So, they may not understand how a diesel or gas truck’s power band works. So, basically, we step back to whatever level they are at and look at it from their perspective and deal with them that way. We cater not only to the customer whether this is the first truck and they are setting up to tow a big camper, but all the way to the guys who are hooking up a big sled or going down the drag strip trying to run the best time.”
Understanding what your customer wants is important. “We try and stay conservative in our tuning. In the long run your customer will be happier and the truck will be happier. That’s the main thing,” said Eldreth about his tuning.
Lesson 4-Choosing the right equipment
Anytime you have a product, testing is extremely important. You have to know if what you are selling does what you say it does. So, having the right equipment in house is critical for most companies. Innovative Diesel is a company built on tuning (although they do install and sell other parts), so for them, a Dyno is a crucial to their business.
“As a tuner if you don’t have a dyno, you will spend a whole lot of money renting dynos and that’s what I did. In 2004-2005 before I had my dyno, I rented and rented. I would find various shops in my area and I would have to find a way to get the vehicle to the dyno at different locations and then rent the dyno for a day or half a day. I built relationships with a good amount of companies and would rent their dyno and then spend as much time as we could troubleshooting or trying to learn what we could about a vehicle,” mentioned Eldreth.
Eldreth went on to point out, “A lot of times when you are renting a dyno, you may figure something out when you step away and it can really sink in. The problem is that then you don’t have access to that dyno again, until the next time you rent it. So that’s when I realized that having our own dyno is a necessity. So many times when troubleshooting you can walk away and your mind continues to think about it. Later, the answer comes to you. If you have your own dyno, you can go back to it and make the changes needed. I have always found that being able to walk away and revisit things is extremely valuable. We need that time to think about it and then come back and start over again.”
We asked Eldreth how they allocate the time spent on the dyno between customer vehicles and future prototyping. “Right now, 75-80% of the dyno time is tuning development. It’s just me putting a vehicle on the dyno and figuring out what is and isn’t working. Customers can make appointments for the dyno and we do that as well. Right now, we custom tune trucks about once a week,” replied Eldreth.
Lesson 5-Life and business, they are all about relationships
“It isn’t what you know, it is who you know”, is a pretty well known statement. It is all about relationships and Eldreth truly believes that relationships are extremely important, both in business and personal life.
In business, “It’s important is to have a good relationship with your warehouse distributor or manufacturer if you buy direct. It’s all about the relationship with the warehouse because that relationship can make or break you in the business. Customers will sometimes have returns, exchanges, or missing parts. So, not only is pricing important, because with the internet our profits have diminished through the years but so is service. I look at pricing and service equally. You may not get the best price at a particular warehouse, but if you have one place that carries everything you need and takes care of you 100 percent, that’s probably more important than an extra couple of bucks in the long run,” explained Eldreth.
Many people claim to be “experts online” and that can be very dangerous. Eldreth noted, “You can spend all day putting fires out and handling things because a lot of the information out there isn’t correct. Often you find people read something and just believe it. They really should double check the information. A lot of times it might not be factual or possible,” continued Eldreth.
One of the biggest factors on determining if something is true online is the level of knowledge that the person has. Eldreth continued to say, “It’s customers that are intelligent and understand what they are talking about that can be the most dangerous. Often they don’t actually understand what is going on in a particular instance, but they consider themselves an expert. There can be so many variables involved and the biggest thing is for customers and sales to communicate. This ensures the correct things are being said. Also, we have found the importance of going out and monitoring the sites where your customers are talking, to try to put out fires if there are any.”
Completing our time with Eldreth, we asked him what he saw next for Innovative and his future. “Our main objective and goal is to offer tuning; custom and/or preprogrammed for every year, make, and model of vehicle on the market. That’s what we are working on, an option for each car. This growth plan allows us to grow with the customer and allows the customer to grow with us. Then they can purchase parts through us and/or tuning as they increase power.”
“Because we tune vehicles from all over the country with a wide range of parts, we have really learned what works and what doesn’t. So, we are hoping that our customers will come to us when they are looking to add more power. We carry and can put together power packages to achieve just about any goal,” finished Eldreth.
Eldreth has really learned a lot over the years and has made the transition from working for someone to having people work for him. While the transition can be rough, having the right support system can really and truly make all the difference in the world. Eldreth’s father answered the phones and was the face of the company for years before Eldreth was able to work during the day. Even today, if you call Innovative Diesel, you are still likely to speak with Ted (Eric’s Father). To find out more about Innovative Diesel’s tuning check out their website or visit their Facebook page.