Calculated Risk – The Incremental Success of Chris Holstrom Concepts
There’s probably no best time to start a business. But Chris Holstrom chose probably the worst to launch his Puyallup, Washington-based shop, Chris Holstrom Concepts. “December 2009,” he says, laughing. “We started a hot rod shop in the middle of the worst recession.”
“In like ‘07, Alyssa [Chris’ wife and business partner] and I took off to a church thing, a three-day seminar,” he continues. “Saturday, this guy’s talking about marketplace work. Alyssa looks at me and says, ‘You’re supposed to have a hot rod shop.’” Complete left field.
“Well, that’s cool but I’ve been out of the scene for so long that nobody knows me,” Chris responds. He lists a succession of vehicles he owned in a previous life: the go-kart that he pieced together from parts then sold at the swap when he was 13. The pile of ’55 Chevy parts he bought with those funds – “totally because of American Graffiti,” he proclaims. When the cool kids made F-bodies the hot item, he sold the ’55 for a ’73 Camaro.
That led to a ’67 Nova that Chris tore down and built from the ground up. “I drove it to the Street Machine Expo in Sacramento,” he remembers. Then he took it to the Pacific Northwest Nationals in Puyallup, “…the only year it was open to all years,” he points out. “I met Gary Meadors and got the Goodguys Pick.” Chris was 21.
“That was a long time ago, even in 2007,” he continues. “My only real connection in the hot rod world was Jason” [artist and wheel maker Jason Rushforth]. “We met when I had that Nova. He lived on his dad’s boat and we’d sit on the back of that boat pawing through car magazines.”
“We knew we needed to build that car to show people what we could do and to sell it to fund the business. So, in ’07 I decided to build this ’68 Camaro that I had. Through Jason opening doors and me cranking on that car, it sat on the front row at the 2009 SEMA Show. This was a car that I built in my home garage after hours.” (He managed a general-repair shop at the time.) “But here it is in 2009 and I’m $40,000 in debt from building this car. I put it on eBay and a guy from Nebraska named Brian Frank bought it.” Chris was officially in business.
“Actually, Brian gave me my start,” Chris explains. “We ended up doing a partial trade – another ’68 and the money I needed to get out of debt. I rented a 28×30 rat-infested shop next to a trailer. This is the part that people who want to start a shop need to hear: I did my day gig, went home and ate, then did my side hustle in my own shop. It was only after I built up my side hustle that I quit my day job and went full time.”
“We freshened up that second ’68 and Brian bought it back. I delivered it to him and used the trip as an opportunity to discuss another build, a ’68 Z28 that was a bad eBay purchase.”
“Then, on April Fools 2011, I unlocked the door at a 2,000-square-foot shop. A year later we were busting at the seams thanks to [Sunset Chevrolet owner] Phil Mitchell. So, we moved into the 4,500-foot shop next door. We had three employees, but within a year or two we had five.”
It was a prolific time: the Chris Holstrom Concepts crew knocked out no less than three full builds for Mitchell, all of which went to SEMA. One, a black ’67 Nova, won Sony’s coveted Gran Turismo award.
By 2016 Chris Holstrom Concepts was busting out of the seams again. This time, Chris signed a lease on a 12,000-foot stand-alone shop with a dedicated fabrication room. When a tenant vacated a paint shop across the street, Chris brought yet another system in-house…and took on another 2,500 feet. “I was up to 17 employees at one point,” he says. “I always thought more employees would make you more money. Boy was I wrong!”
“So, we hired a consultant, probably the biggest thing besides the right people,” he explains. They worked up a set of systems that cut redundancies and costs and improved the builder-client experience. “We go through a process to determine if we can offer what a customer really wants,” Chris says. “Don’t get me wrong; you always want the job. But after a while you realize that not all jobs are good for business. Customers have to be picky to choose the right person to do what they want. At the same time, a shop has to be picky too. It’s all part of communication, and good communication is where it’s at.”
Now that Chris has the staff back down to 10 employees, “…it’s like butter,” he brags, explaining that the systems let the shop operate with very little input, leaving him to do the things he prefers – like playing with cars.
Chris calls his newfound liberation key to respond to market conditions, as he describes the shop as two businesses under one roof. “Some shops refuse to do anything but full builds, but we get a lot of work with repairs and small jobs. There are so many people out there who have a car that isn’t quite what they want, but for whatever reason they can’t do the work themselves. Where do you take a car like that? On our board up here, we have about 12 cars in queue, and only one of those is a full build.”
He describes the two-part model as a type of future proofing. “Yeah, full builds are great and get your name out there, but you can’t count on them if the market goes upside-down. People will always need to have something done to a car, even if they just have to fix it to sell it.”
Some maintain that we develop our worst habits in the best of times. Translated: a strong market can make nearly anyone successful despite their best efforts. But there’s something to say about someone who can survive the worst. It takes education and discipline and probably a hundred other things.
Chris Holstrom Concepts didn’t just survive the Great Recession; it thrived. Though relatively new by industry standards, we have little doubt that Chris, Alyssa, and their crew will remain one of the leaders in their market.
Photos by Chris Shelton