Car accessory customizer flourishes in PlainwellAuto Image will be at the Michigan International Auto Show

Heated seats, tinted windows, a blind-spot camera— even a special paint job — whatever the upgrade, a thriving custom auto shop in a small town in southwest Michigan can get the job done.
Auto Image of Plainwell will show off those and other possibilities at this week's Michigan International Auto Show in Grand Rapids, and every one of the 15 vehicles the company is taking to the show will be available for purchase.

The little business that grew: Auto Image launched back in 1991 when high school buddies Mike Gherardi and Craig Marsh started a two-car garage shop in Kalamazoo. Over the years their auto accessory customizing work outgrew its location and the men moved to Plainwell’s industrial park, and then added a second location in Mishawaka, Indiana.  These days the company employs 30 people, picks up and delivers cars and trucks from dealerships all over west Michigan and Indiana, and even makes installation house calls from its rural headquarters. 

Auto Image is located in Plainwell. In addition to the two owners, the Auto Image staff includes three full-time salesmen who handle sales at all locations. The Plainwell site staffs 15 workers; another five or six are at the Indiana location. The company also employs 15-20 drivers to shuttle vehicles to and from dealerships, and three road installers to make installation house calls. ‘“That's helped us out considerably because I think we're the only company that does that,” says Ben Kirby, Auto Image automotive restyling expert.

Today’s specialties: Kirby explains that the auto accessory market, a multibillion industry, continues to grow and that Auto Image is a leader in the restyling industry. Dealers and individual customers alike can order features for new and used cars and trucks that include leather upholstery, heated seats, sunroofs, paint protection, electronics, bed liners, truck running boards and step bars, roof racks and hitches, and an array of safety accessories.

Kirby says some customers come to him knowing exactly what they want, but others seek his design expertise for ideas about making a vehicle special. That might include raising a vehicle for off-road adventures or lowering it for a classic hot rod look. Custom paint jobs and graphic packages are available as well.

And while many accessories may be available for order on the internet, they are aimed at do-it-yourself level projects. Auto Image provides professional, warrantied installation.

The future: Events such as the Grand Rapids auto show offer a chance to show consumers the possibilities, Kirby says, a step toward building the company’s retail business. If there are specific things a consumer is looking for in a new or used car, they can save money by getting a lower-equipped vehicle and then adding features, he says. Those features include a leather interior, remote start or heated seats.

Working with Auto Image, a dealership has an opportunity to make money by getting exactly what the customer wants, and the customer saves money by not paying for features they don’t care about. “So, everyone wins,” Kirby says. “We win because we pick up the business, the consumers win because they save money, and the dealerships win because they can offer products or services that would not be available from the manufacturer.”

“We're definitely focused on growing our retail,” he adds.

Obstacles? They call them opportunities: During the COVID pandemic, there were many shifts in automotive markets, Kirby says, ranging from hard-to-find vehicle inventory due to a shortage of computer chips. Those issues “just presented us with just another opportunity. You have to take the inventory that you currently have and make it fit the consumer that's wanting to buy it. So, let's say if a dealer only has base units, then obviously it gives us an opportunity … to kind of update those vehicles to cater to more of what the buyers are looking for," he says.

During that period, the company also took that opportunity to add spray-on bedliner booths “to kind of expand some of the options that we had to capture more of the market,” Kirby says. “I mean, any obstacle that's thrown in your way, it's just a matter of finding a way to make an opportunity out of it instead of something that's going to hold you back.”

Auto show: How that’s worked for Auto Image will be on full display at the 2024 Grand Rapids auto show, which runs Thursday, February 1 through Sunday, February 4. “We get to flex our muscles on our capabilities,” Kirby says. “This is an opportunity for us to literally build from the ground up a completely customized vehicle that can go right to a dealership for them to buy.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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