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Posted: June 26, 2014

How Quality In The Industry Has Changed — Or Not…

Dave Herrmeyer looks back at changes that have occurred in the truck accessory industry

By Dave Herrmeyer

Since the purpose of my article series is to reflect on — and recognize — significant events in our industry, let’s look in the rear-view mirror for a better understanding of quality issues. It all goes back to the time when Japan began sending us cheap cars that didn’t hold up. Japanese automakers learned their lesson, retooled, and taught us what quality really means.

Consumers loved their products. The U.S. automakers lost a great deal of market share and have been trying to close the quality gap ever since. But even as they make major strides, the imports make minor improvements that have kept them ahead — until very recently. Toyota, among others, has been experiencing more recalls, so their wax-polished reputation is showing need for some care. And while GM is now dealing with some pre-bankruptcy quality issues of its own, the quality gap overall with imports is narrower now than ever before. The U.S. automakers caught up by implementing quality processes and controls, such as ISO9000, Six Sigma, etc., and instituting a Customer Satisfaction Index rating system.

CSI ratings are a compilation of consumer surveys that rank customers’ new-vehicle purchase and service experiences. The Big Three also created dealership quality programs, such as the Dodge Five Star and Ford’s Blue Oval Certified, linked to dealerships’ CSI. In some instances, an auto dealer’s ability to secure an additional vehicle franchise is tied directly to that existing dealership’s CSI. Clearly, quality has become king.

The best way to see the effect this has had on the aftermarket is by looking first at what happened to the van conversion industry. At its peak in 1994, the National Vehicle Conversion Association estimated that as many as 2,500 companies were converting vans. By 2001, according to the last estimate I saw, only 30 remained. NVCA’s number-one problem was always workmanship. It’s pretty basic to expect that when you drill through the floor of a vehicle to fasten something, that you do not drill holes in the gas tank, gas lines, filler hose or brake lines. At the last NVCA show, I saw a Ford slide presentation. We were shown conversion vans with compromised fuel systems that were potential disasters waiting to happen.

Why did Ford get involved in this? I’m sure they would rather not have been involved, but workmanship problems caused by converters created liability issues for Ford. So, here’s what we learned:

• Suppliers failed to properly communicate installation requirements and procedures for their product.
• The seats looked good, but got the most complaints. Installers used small bolts that could pull out on impact.
• Many recalls were needed to bring units up to safety standards.
• Convertors went out of business, and the selling dealership got stuck with the problem.
• Running boards had been fastened to the body and the frame, creating noise and vibration issues.
• Customers complained to the dealer, or worse, and Ford suffered from the fallout.
• CSI surveys showed “double” the average number of complaints for conversion vans.

Two things happened as a result. Ford and other OEMs got involved by certifying “pool or bailment” convertors who had (and still have) to meet rigid financial requirements, work inspections, and safety engineering guidelines to limit large windows, the cutting of roofs, and so forth. Consequently, many converters were forced to close their business. NVCA closed soon thereafter.

I recall seeing a van converter at the annual NADA Convention for car dealers, which was rumored to have spent more than a one-million dollars on its display. I saw the fancy paintwork up close. The company should’ve spend money on quality improvements. It’s been out of business for many years now. I still drive by the empty factory periodically. Stretch limousine manufacturers faced similar problems. Their numbers have been cut by about 75 percent. The National Limousine Association, which at first resisted OEM pressure to improve quality, worked directly with Ford in the early ’90s, and also with GM, to develop stringent quality and manufacturing guidelines, and to certify qualified stretch-limo builders. Many manufacturers in our industry are now paying very close attention to quality.

But, there are still issues. I’ll share a few. More than 25 years ago, I exhibited a Stow-A-Way carpet kit at the Minnesota State Fair, sharing space with a Brahma representative, his truck and cap. The rep used a bat to hit the cap corners to show the strength. That brought attention from passersby. This young rep thought jumping on the top would be even better. We got the windows back in and taped a homemade sign inside to cover the crack that ran front to back. There were still nine days left of the busy fair.

Brahma did for plastics what seats did for the van industry. Its failures and bankruptcy left many dealers answering for warranty issues. Fortunately, other suppliers, particularly tonneau manufacturers, have made great quality strides in the use of plastics.
Not so successful is the story of cap tape, the material used on truck caps to protect the truck bed from being scratched. When Hank Giesler made the first truck cap, he knew it would scratch his truck, so I’m sure he bought some foam tape for protection. It didn’t work, but over 60 years later, many caps still use it. The story is similar for cap door locks. The cheapest ones are still being used. Their life expectancy is short. The replacement business has been good. Fortunately, there are some better-made locks nowadays, and quality-focused cap makers have begun integrating them into their caps.

In 1990, we closed our retail store when my son Aaron, the manager, said he just couldn’t face coming to work anymore knowing he’d be answering complaint calls for problems over which he had no control. His list of grievances was long and serious. His only choice was to get better at handling complaints. Our industry lost a really good man to the airline industry. The message automakers sent to the conversion and limo industries was short and simple: build products of uniform quality, fit, finish, durability and performance. Subject them to testing procedures that comply with industry standards and back products with uniform, nationwide warranties, and standardized installation procedures.

Over the years, SEMA and its PRO council have tried to address these issues. While I served on the PRO Select Committee, we developed voluntary codes of ethical business practices for manufacturers, as well as restylers, retailers and installers. PRO also inspired the SEMA Installer Certification Program, which ran for nearly a decade. Responding to ongoing OEM concerns over aftermarket quality issues, SEMA, with input from PRO and others in the industry, later developed ProPledge, a warranty assurance program for accessory manufacturers and installers. SEMA invested substantial financial resources to subsidize and keep these two programs going. Unfortunately, neither ever generated a high level of industry support. So SEMA pulled the plug in 2009.

My conclusion is that the message from the OEMs applies to everyone in the restyling and light-truck accessory industry. We have made great strides in quality improvement in the past 25 years, but the automakers have made more as well, so the quality gap still exists. Just as we have to take control of our own marketing needs, we need to take control of our own quality issues and demand the best from all levels of our industry. Rather than ignoring the warnings and hoping for the best, we need to respect the warnings and work to be the best that we can be. If anyone can do it, we can.

Readers Respond

Dave: Great article. It realy brought back memories of my 40 years in the business including my Van Conversion & Stretching. In this shory story you hit on everything. Best regards, Neil By Neil Rosenberg on 2014 07 02

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