JC Whitney. There, I said it – Get all the chuckles out of your system now, because this COAL contains the story of how I ended up working for the most beloved and most maligned automotive aftermarket resellers.
It’s been a few COALs since last we checked in on professional life, so lets quickly recap: After working various consulting gigs doing software and web development, I soft landed the dot net crash at Stylin Concepts in 2002. Stylin Concepts was a small but highly successful reseller of aftermarket truck accessories, and I was the main driving force behind their web presence.
And sometimes that literally meant driving. One time I needed to rack some servers at the colo where we hosted the web site, and the owner of the company tossed me the keys to his brand new Lincoln Aviator to transport the equipment. After turning the A/C down to my preferred 68 degrees, I noticed by the heated seat controls this strange blue setting. What is this? I tried it out. Chilled air blowing out through the perforations in the seat? Oh, what bliss! I think I just discovered the single most wonderful automotive feature ever! I vowed right then and there one day to have this feature on my car.
Business was good at Stylin Concepts: We were riding high on the SUV and truck customization craze. Somewhere along the line, we rebranded ourselves Stylin Trucks, which more accurate reflected our business and sounded less like a hair salon. More importantly, in 2003 the business was acquired by The Riverside Company, a private equity firm. At the time, Riverside also owned JC Whitney, and the idea was to make us sibling companies. While we consolidated distribution to Whitney’s enormous LaSalle, Illinois distribution center, we kept the businesses largely separate, at least at first.
That would soon change, and I was soon offered a promotion to the corporate mothership: Director of Infrastructure and Operations for Whitney Automotive Group (WAG), the parent holding company of both JC Whitney and Stylin Trucks, along with a commensurate increase in compensation. While I would remain based out of Cleveland, I would now be managing resources out of Chicago, and travelling back and forth to the Windy City 1-2 days per week.
I decided to reward myself, as always, with an automotive upgrade. No more compromises, as the Jetta and Mazda 3 had been. I wanted it all: a V6, all wheel drive, lots of gadgets, and, most importantly, those delightful cooled seats. In short, I wanted my A4 back. The entry-level luxury sedan market was (and still is) chock-a-block full of excellent cars. BMW 3-series, Mercedes C-class, and of course my old friend the Audi A4 just to name a few. But since you’ve already read the title of this article, you know where I’m going to end up.
For reasons that I can’t quite articulate any more, I was drawn to the Lexus IS over the German triumvirate. I was smitten with the Lexus L-Finesse design language, which I still think is superior to the current spindle grille look that Lexus has. I liked the fact that its bones were built upon a RWD platform, and not a FWD platform like the A4. If you are not sure why that matters if you are getting AWD, compare the amount of front overhang on an IS or BMW with that of a FWD car and get back to me.
The IS had my precious ventilated seats, which at the time were unavailable in the competition. It also still offered a V6 as its entry-level engine, at a time when Audi and Mercedes were offering 4-bangers. The promise of Toyota reliability was reassuring after reading a steady stream of horror stories about BMW, Audi, and Mercedes reliability on the internet.
I had finally clawed my way out of the minors to the big leagues. JC frickin’ Whitney! The company that everyone loves to mock, but that everyone secretly buys from. Chicago is a wonderful city in ways that Cleveland could never be, as Joseph Dennis can surely attest to. And WAG was right in the heart of it, at the corner of Michican Ave. and Wacker Drive, at the doorstep to the Magnificant Mile. I hit all the landmarks: The Billy Goat Tavern, Pizzaria Uno, Millenium Park. I walked or took the train everywhere, and never once did I feel unsafe. It was really a joyous time, and I loved every minute there.
One or two days per week, I would get up early in the morning, head to Cleveland Hopkins airport, and hop on a Southwest Airlines flight to Chicago. A little less than an hour later, I would be touching down at Midway, where I would hop on the Orange Line for a brief 25 minute ride downtown to the State/Lake station. I can still rattle off the Orange Line stops by heart: Pulaski, Kedzie, Western, 35th/Archer, and so on. Then around 4pm I would reverse the process, until I ended up back at home at 8 or 9:00 PM. This would be my routine for several years.
I had amassed so many flights on Southwest that I scored their exclusive companion pass, which allows a passenger to fly free with you anywhere you went. I would sometimes bring my wife Kristen with me to Chicago on overnight trips. But like George Clooney in Up In The Air, I soon found out that it is a trap. When vacation time rolled around, the last thing I wanted to do was get in a plane, since I already spent hundreds of hours a year flying, and the plane had essentially become my office. So when we went of family vacation, more often than not, we drove, and I gave away some of my free flights to relatives. That said, I developed a love for Southwest: To this day, Southwest is still my favorite airline.
I ended up getting the IS 250, mainly because the IS 350 was not available with all wheel drive at the time. While the extra power from the 350 would have been nice, the 250 was plenty quick for me, and the extra traction in the winter more than made up for the extra power in the summer.
One of the first things I noticed about the IS 250 when the weather got warm is that there is a difference between ventilated seats and cooled seats. Ventilated seats just have blowers to blow ambient air through the seat perforations (or draw it through, depending on the direction of airflow). While certainly better than nothing, it was no substitute for air-conditioned seats, which either draw air from the car’s air conditioning system, or sport their own solid state chillers as seen on more recent cars. Blerg! I guess true air-conditioned seats will need to wait for a future ride.
Other nits with the Lexus were extremely minor: The standard 17″ wheels and tire were a bit small for a car of this class, and didn’t really fill out the wheel-wells (18-inchers were standard the IS 350). The all wheel drive hardware intruded greatly into the driver’s footwell, making the accelerator pedal somewhat awkward to engage. Obviously the floor pan was designed with the Japanese market in mind, as there was plenty of space in the passenger footwell (which would be the driver’s side in Japan).
Also, the brakes shed copious amounts of brake dust. As in “the wheels were almost black after a week” kind of brake dust. At the 5K service, the dealer switched out the pads to less dusty ones (free of charge), but warned me that the stopping power may not be as good. I noticed no difference after the change (in stopping power, that is. The brake dust situation was much improved).
Storm clouds were brewing at WAG. Without realizing it, Stylin and JC Whitney were largely chasing the same customers. Truck accessories counted for a significant portion of the sales at JC Whitney, and obviously at Stylin Trucks. While were making good money selling tonneau covers, tube steps, and video systems to truck and SUV owners, the OEMs soon caught wind of all these high-margin dollars being spent outside of their showrooms. Manufacturers soon started upping their game by offering many of the items that we were selling direct to customers as either factory options or as dealer installed accessories. Offering these items with a full factory warranty and rolling them into your monthly payment for a few extra bucks a month was a direct assault at our core business, and one we couldn’t really figure out how to compete with.
There were other headwinds: The one-two punch of gas prices approaching $4.00 per gallon and the economic collapse of 2008 combined to kill new truck sales. The only saving grace was that people were doing more to keep their existing cars and trucks running, which worked to our favor. Once again, I found myself working for a company that was financially on the ropes. What happens? You’ll have to wait and see. However, I will have much more to say about JC Whitney in a future post, so keep your eyes peeled.