Tire dealer finds riches in niches: Oostdyk discovers happiness off the beaten path

Oct. 1, 2001

Apathy is not a Jim Oostdyk characteristic. Nineteen weekends a year, the owner of OK Auto 4WD & Tire in Stewartsville, N.J., finds himself immersed in promoting his tire dealership. He admits his on- and off-site promotional extravaganzas can test anyone's physical and emotional resolve; however, the 40-year-old continues to press on with a strategy that's making his dealership a household name in the off-roading community.

OK Auto 4WD & Tire was originally set up to be the Northeast's number one shopping destination for off-road tires, brush bars, lift kits, driving lights, winches and everything else that goes with the off-roading lifestyle. But it now does business in all 50 states via a very active Web site and a 36-page catalog he mailed annually to 4,000 customers.

"Yes, my promotions are a ton of work," says Oostdyk (he pronounces the "O" like the one in "go"). "But when I talk with customers out on a trail ride, I get a different perspective about what works and what doesn't, what they are willing to pay and what they want me to stock."

One of his many store promotions, the "Fall Krawl," is a weekend of four-wheeling in the Catskill Mountains in New York.

"We charge $85 for this event," he says. "You can sign up on our Web site and go trail riding both Saturday and Sunday. We'll have 60 vehicles with us this fall, about 120 people, all of whom will enjoy a great Saturday evening barbecue, plus door prizes, T-shirts, dash plaques and plenty of camaraderie."

Oostdyk takes his family with him on as many promotions as possible. "For me, family comes first, business second. It's the way my customers live, it's the way I live."

Ties that bind

Oostdyk knows how to attract participants, spectators and media attention to his events. "BFGoodrich Tires is always a willing participant at our promotions, as are companies like ARB, which markets lift kits, shocks, suspension parts, bull bars and safari snorkels," says Mara Clarke, OK Auto 4WD & Tire's director of marketing.

Rancho Suspension also has put in an appearance at a show. So has Interco, (makers of the Super Swamper), Eagle Wheels and Lund (manufacturers of deflector shields and running boards).

"The enthusiasm is contagious," she says. "These events are well attended, they are family-oriented and they are growing." The total number of spectators attending events this year will exceed 5,000.

"Everybody in the community ties into our events. The Franklin Township Fire Department counts our OKtober Truckfest as their biggest fund raiser of the year. They serve hamburgers, hot dogs, soda and chips to our 3,500 spectators and 200-plus participants.

"Live radio is also part of this event," she says. "We'll have WZZO, a local rock station, and CAT Country 96 on hand, and we will advertise on both prior to the event. Ads will also appear in the Easton Express in Easton, Pa. Additionally, everyone in attendance gets a free raffle ticket for door prizes that are provided by the many vendors in attendance."

Another huge event for OK Auto 4WD & Tire is its annual Rock Krawl, held on Memorial Day weekend. "We get 200 to 300 vehicles for this one," she says, "and at least 1,000 spectators."

For the Rock Krawl, Oostdyk sets up a 100-foot-long rock course. Then he turns contestants loose on the course. "We finish the day with a barbecue before heading out to the Catskills for a trail ride the next day," says Clarke. "We were joined this year by 150 trail riders to make this one of our biggest weekends ever."

Oostdyk hosts a Sundown Krawl every weekend from June through August. "We take 10 vehicles every Saturday on two- to three-hour trail rides in Belvedere, N.J., and Martins Creek, Pa.," says Oostdyk. "Cost is $20 per registrant and people come from all over New Jersey to participate."

OK Auto 4WD & Tire also helps sponsor the Warren County Fair. "Our sign is a big backdrop for the truck tug of war, the 4x4 truck pull and the 4x4 mud bog events," says Oostdyk. "Typically, the stands are full and there are 120 vehicles entered in competition. It's good exposure for us."

The off-road specialist also spends time on weekends at Camp Jeep events, at which he and a staff member show up to answer questions. "In fact, that's a big part of what we do at every event," he says. "We answer questions, talk shop and get a feel for what customers are doing with what we sell them."

Humble beginnings

Oostdyk was the only employee when he opened a two-bay service station in 1979. He now employs 29 and occupies an 11,000-square-foot, eight-bay facility with a 3,000-square-foot showroom. He has 400 suppliers, including Michelin North America Inc., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Hoosier Performance Tire, Interco Tire Corp. and Mickey Thompson Performance Tire and Wheels, plus a host of wheel makers and accessory suppliers.

Oostdyk was doing $1.1 million a year 11 years ago when he had just seven employees. "Since then, I've learned not to tell my competition any more about my operation than I have to," he says. "I'd prefer to keep them in the dark."

He will say that his business is growing, both on the tire side -- which represents 33% of his business -- and the non-tire side. His margins also have grown.

Contrary to the average tire dealer, December is Oostdyk's busiest month. October, aided by the store's month-long OKtober Truckfest promotion, also greatly pads the bottom line.

"Everything we do translates directly to sales because we are meeting and talking with so many people face-to-face," says Oostdyk. "We are making friends for life, customers for life... at least that is what we are trying to accomplish."

He's already preparing for the Christmas rush. He will sell snowplows, off-road-oriented toys for the kids, car safety kits, off-road apparel, and off-road watches in addition to 4WD tires and accessories.

"This is no longer a guy thing," he says. "It's a family-type of business. Mom buys for dad, dad buys for mom and they both buy for the kids."

At the end of the day, you'd have to say Jim Oostdyk understands as much about his customers as they do themselves.