Brad Cohron has always been into cars, but you could say his business and passion came after his pickup truck’s motor blew up.
He was newly married when he unexpectedly had to replace that truck. His friend had an $800 Jeep for sale. “It was in bad shape,” he says. But Cohron was desperate for a vehicle, and the price was right, so he bought it.
“I was more into import cars and things like that, and mini trucks,” he said. But Cohron fell in love with that Jeep, and off-roading and the community of Jeep enthusiasts.
The Mopar Career Automotive Program graduate worked first as a technician then as the general manager of a Pep Boys store. But in his spare time, he was buying and accessorizing Jeeps. One year he needed to use up some of his paid time off, so he planned a trip to Daytona Beach, Fla., to attend Jeep Beach, one of the largest Jeep-exclusive events in the world. (In 2022 it attracted 25,000 Jeeps and more than 225,000 people.)
“I got down there and saw people making money doing what I liked to do. I got home and said I’m done working on your typical cars.”
He left Pep Boys and took successive sales jobs for Jeep accessories manufacturers — JCR Offroad and Nitro Gear & Axle. All the while, his free time with filled with the world of Jeeps, including other trail and off-road enthusiasts.
Then in 2018, when his wife was pregnant with their first child, the Cohrons moved home to Georgia and in March of that year he opened Black Bear Off-Road in Buford, Ga., about an hour north of Atlanta.
Since day one, tires have been an important part of Cohron’s business. The first piece of equipment he purchased was his tire machine. “No matter what you do on a Jeep, people want a bigger tire. That’s the bread and butter — lift kits and putting those tires on.”
One job at a time
Cohron works alongside his team of three technicians — two full-timers and one part-timer — and they typically all work together on one vehicle at a time. His shop is “small and mighty” as he calls it, with about 1,600 square feet of space and two service bays.
“We’ve found it’s best not to have guys working on two vehicles (at the same time.) We are looking to expand in the next few years so we can fit more guys in the shop,” he says.
And while they specialize and service all kinds of vehicles for the off-road segment, Cohron says, “about 90% of our business is modified Jeeps.”
In the early days Black Bear Off-Road’s mechanical service menu included work on both motors and transmissions, but Cohron says “we’ve dialed that back to maintenance — steering, alignments, brakes.” The motor and transmission work was “taking away time from the time we could be doing the bolt-on accessories. And that’s not the work people think of when they think of us.
“One thing that we do that’s a specialty is we re-gear differentials. Typically you only see that in the hot rod world, or with off-roading with really big tires.”
‘Grin and bear it’ economy
One benefit of serving such a specialized niche of the market in a small shop is that every customer ticket is scheduled on the calendar. That means there’s no rush of customers at the sales counter, and there’s also no need to maintain an inventory of tires or automotive parts for surprise tickets that pop up during the day.
“We’re typically booked out two-to-three weeks at a time,” Cohron says.
And being close to Atlanta provides access to “some really good distributors, so we’re typically able to get tires within a day.”
Even before he opened the doors of Black Bear Off-Road, Cohron says he had go-to tire brands. “I have liked and I still like Nitto and Toyo. I have used those two brands for the last 10 years and been happy with them,” Cohron says. “In the last two years we’ve been doing more Yokohama and a lot more Falken. When I’m quoting (prices for) people, those are the four that I’m almost always mentioning.”
During the pandemic, when tire supplies were limited and inconsistent, Cohron says he thinks some brands were able to capitalize and find new customers. In the off-road world, he puts both Yokohama and Falken in that category. Since then, Cohron says the customers who tried those brands “found they like them and are asking for them” when buying another set of tires.
Unlike a typical tire dealership, Black Bear Off-Road isn’t presenting most customers with good-better-best recommendations, or ranking tires by tiers.
“There’s not very many brands that exist that are in that low tier that are reliable that we recommend. Milestar is usually priced well (and a) more economic price. But we wouldn’t call them low tier.”
Cohron says, “There’s a lot of what I call Amazon tires — brands you’ve never heard of before. People will sometimes bring those in, but the people who are serious about this” want quality tires.
That means his customers come face-to-face with the price hikes of the last few years.
“They grin and bear it,” Cohron says. “It’s an expensive hobby.”
He says the uneasy economy “hasn’t affected our business that much, because (customers) are willing to pay. Tires are one of the most expensive parts of the build.”
Cohron says, “For some of our customers, one tire costs as much as a passenger car’s set of tires.”
Customers continue to opt for larger light truck tires, and Cohron says the most commonly sold tire at his shop is a 35-inch tire. Most customers spend in the range of $1,200 and $1,500 for a set of four tires, and a good number of those customers add a fifth tire for the spare.
But some customers spend even more. “We’ve done 42-inch tires where the customer spends $650 a tire.”
When other tire dealers are worrying about the effects of the economy, Cohron says he’s seen his business, and the off-road industry, sustain any downturn.
He had his first glimpse of that stability when working for aftermarket suppliers. He attended trade shows and events and saw there was a core customer group that was willing to spend even when shoppers in other parts of the economy were pulling back. And in Buford and the greater Atlanta region, “I knew the demographic existed in our area.”
And while Black Bear Off-Road is able to withstand economic downturns, that doesn’t mean it’s totally immune to its effects.
“One thing we’ve seen is when interest rates are down, we work on new Jeeps. And when rates are up, (customers are) revising their existing vehicle. They’re holding onto their used car longer. We see more used vehicles than new vehicles, currently.”
When working on these vehicles, does age matter?
“The prices are the same, but I prefer a new vehicle. No rust. No mud. No one has messed with them before us.”
Cohron says plenty of Jeep drivers and off-road enthusiasts will experiment with do-it-yourself projects.
“Our business is fixing their DIYs,” he says. “That’s how I got started.”
Building a community
Cohron and his team are all authentic off-road enthusiasts, which means they spend their workdays in the shop, and their free time on trails and at events. This prompted the creation of the Black Bear Trail Team, a group of enthusiasts who gather regularly for dinner, trail projects, and just to ride together. The company hosts Jeep nights and volunteers to clean up area trails. With the help of social media, they solicit help from other enthusiasts to assist. “That’s unique. If you’ve got an oil change shop, you’re not normally hanging out with your customers,” he says.
Social media has become an important part of Black Bear Off-Road’s business. YouTube is Cohron’s favorite platform, but he’s found the biggest audience on TikTok. And while the shop has its own social media footprint, Cohron is known as “Jeepin Bubba” on social channels, and on TikTok he’s accumulated 30,000 followers. He also posts on LinkedIn.
“The thing that has worked for us on TikTok is that people are so used to dancing, when you do a Jeep video, it’s something different. I also post a lot on LinkedIn, because people are usually posting there about business, so they see my content and say, ‘I have a Jeep.’ So we try to post where it’s not as saturated.”