Turning an avocation into a vocation
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Thirty years ago, some friends at the University of New Hampshire were facing graduation and . . . gulp! . . . they needed to find gainful employment.
The story of how they parlayed their mutual love of cars into the world's largest BMW parts and accessories catalog company, Bavarian Autosport of Portsmouth, is a mirror of how the auto industry evolved over those three decades.
One of the group, Mark Ruddy, had bought a secondhand Porsche 911. He was discussing repairs with his brother Mike, the family mechanic, who was back home in Fairfield, Calif., lamenting how expensive it had been to buy.
The response: ''It would cost you twice what you paid to buy that same car out here."
From that conversation came the brainstorm that kept the Ruddys, David Wason, and Peter Robart from having to get ''real jobs." They'd buy used Porsches, drive them out to California, clean them up, sell them, and make a few bucks. And bring back some rust-free California cars to sell locally.
The idea worked, but the cross-country drives and adventures were enough to convince the group (save for Mike, who still runs the shop they opened in Fairfield) that New England was where they wanted to be.
On one trip, the group found a BMW Bavaria, a car one of their fathers had requested. They fell in love with both the car and the brand and started fixing them.
''Back then, BMWs didn't cost much more than a VW Beetle," said Mark Ruddy. ''They were rare enough that owners would blink their headlights every time they saw another one."
Their first garage was in the ramshackle former SPCA building on the Stratham traffic circle. ''The circle was our test track," said Ruddy. Then came an old Mobil station in Newmarket. Meanwhile, and remember this was another era, they had old BMWs stashed everywhere for parts.
''We learned a lot. And we like to think we helped spread the word on BMWs by making them run well and keeping owners' enthusiasm. Back then, dealerships were small operations, often in gas stations," said Ruddy. ''And BMW has done its part by building good cars. People stay with them."
As word spread, people called for parts.
Finally, on an IBM Selectric typewriter, they produced their first catalog, which was 30 pages. It went for $3 a copy to customers culled from a list they'd compiled on 3x5 cards.
As their business grew, so did their parts stock. ''We were getting hooked on selling new stuff. You didn't have to use a body saw to cut out parts, and you didn't have to worry about returns," said Ruddy.
Meanwhile, the town fathers didn't know what to make of an operation, working on, of all things, still-rare foreign cars.
On one of the trips west, the group had been introduced to a hippie crew that was selling rudimentary redwood tubs. They brought one home and it became a sideline, Great Bay Spa & Sauna, that's still in operation, along with a high-end lumber spinoff, Selectwood.
''We set that tub up in front of the Mobil station," said Ruddy, ''and at first a lot of people thought it was a huge parts-dipping tank." Until the group would hop in, sans bathing suits. ''I think the town fathers were figuring, make that praying, that we'd just fade out of business," he said. ''Instead, we wound up outlasting them and hiring a lot of them as we kept expanding."
In the mid-1990s, the company set up an informational website, www.bavauto.com., and became a fully functioning online company.
''It was great timing on our part," said Ruddy, ''and it would be nice to say it was a deliberate business plan. But it was more luck than planning."
The website is visited by 100,000 users each month, and Bavarian will send out more than 2 million catalogs and newsletters this year.
Business falls into two categories: traditional replacement parts for older vehicles and performance and customizing accessories for newer models.
''We buy a lot of our parts from the suppliers who make them for BMW," said Ruddy. ''We can't put the BMW logo on our products, but we've built our own trademark and feel that stands alone in the BMW world as a symbol of quality."
In addition, Bavarian has become one of the biggest customers of BMW North America, business the manufacturer wouldn't want to lose.
Rather than salesmen or parts experts, Bavarian looks for employees who love BMWs. On its website, it makes this pitch: ''Whether you have an in-depth working knowledge of BMW automobiles or are just an enthusiast, we'd love to hear from you. It doesn't matter if you are currently branch manager for Accountants-R-Us. We're more interested in who you are, what you know and what kind of skills and work habits you have."
The company, now with 65 employees, sends out 500 to 600 packages per day to customers all over the world. ''Given our group knowledge, it's hard to stump us with a parts problem or request," said Ruddy.
Company marketing director Jay MacNamee has created ''Ask Otto," an information tech-tip idea exchange that the company has archived and some of which goes out in newsletters. ''We're still trying to decide how to use all the material we've got archived," Ruddy said. ''Some of the customers' tips and answers have proven invaluable."
A few years back, Bavarian decided to host a barbecue to thank its customers.
Instead, the customers thanked Bavarian by showing up by the hundreds, creating a wide-ranging impromptu show of all sorts of BMWs.
''We've got room for 300 cars on display," MacNamee said, ''but the streets all around are lined with BMWs, too. You see everything from the classics, to the restored, to the high-performance, the customized, and the meticulously kept stock vehicles."
Not bad for a group of guys who didn't want to get real jobs and, as Ruddy says, ''never felt like we were really working."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.