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President Rick Snelson, left, and Vice President George Hillman are two of three owners of Car-Fi, which recently picked up Retailer of the Year honors from Mobile Electronics magazine.
President Rick Snelson, left, and Vice President George Hillman are two of three owners of Car-Fi, which recently picked up Retailer of the Year honors from Mobile Electronics magazine.

Business Spotlight: Car-Fi

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Car-Fi

Owners: Rick Snelson, Jim Cohen and George Hillman

Founded: 1986

Address: 1600 S. Glenstone Ave.

Phone: (417) 882-5511

Web: www.car-fi.com

Services: Sales and installation of mobile electronics, including car stereos, navigation and video systems; custom fabrication and window tinting

Employees: 34

When Car-Fi co-founder and President Rick Snelson headed to Louisville, Ky., for the Mobile Enhancement Retailers Association KnowledgeFest and presentation of Mobile Electronics magazine’s industry awards in March, he knew his Springfield-based company was in the running for Mobile Retailer of the Year honors. And he knew that Jay Enge, custom installation manager, was a finalist for the magazine’s Installer of the Year honors.

What he didn’t know was that Car-Fi and Enge would both come home winners in a competition largely driven by industry peers.

“We weren’t expecting to walk away with either (award),” Snelson says. “It was the best-kept secret on the planet.”

Mobile Electronics Managing Editor Paul Clinton notes that industry affiliates – including manufacturers and distributors – are asked for nominations, which are used to create lists of the Top 50 retailers and Top 100 installers.

Online voting whittles the field down to 12 finalists per category, and the magazine’s in-house editors then review finalists’ submissions to choose the honorees.

Clinton said retailers are judged on business practices, marketing, customer service, training, and community and industry involvement. Installers are judged on installation jobs and community involvement.

A moving target market

Car-Fi’s original store, 1600 S. Glenstone Ave., opened in 1986, and a Nixa location opened last year, says Snelson, who shares ownership with Jim Cohen and George Hillman. Hillman is a vice president, overseeing Car-Fi’s wholesale arm, and Cohen serves as chief financial officer.

Staying ahead of industry trends has been adventurous.

“Our demographics, when we first opened, were very focused (on) 16- to 20-year olds,” Snelson notes. “All we did was car stereo systems, with emphasis on bass.”

In the last five years, the target market has expanded to include teens and those older than 60, largely because mobile electronics now are about more than sound.

“Mobile video is big for us, and navigation (systems are) huge,” he says. “Of course, car stereos are still our core business.”

Under the banner of Car-Fi Pro Tint, the company added tinting for auto, home and commercial windows about 10 years ago. Car-Fi also sells and installs security and remote-start systems as well as mobile satellite.

Right now, Snelson says there’s a lot of industry and customer emphasis on original equipment manufacturer, or OEM, integration, which connects external devices such as iPods to vehicle systems.

Brett Phelps, owner of St. Louis-based River City Sales, a Car-Fi vendor for brands including Boston Acoustics and Kenwood, credits Snelson for keeping mobile electronics on consumers’ minds.

That’s partly accomplished by special promotions, including “manager-on-the-roof” sales and giveaways, including the current Wild Thing Project, through which a specially outfitted 1974 Volkswagen Thing will be awarded.

Experience at work

The job of meeting customers’ needs falls to Car-Fi’s 34 employees.

Installer of the Year Enge has worked at Car-Fi for 14 years, though his foray into mobile electronics began as a personal hobby.

“I started doing some freelance work here and there for friends, and (got) referrals, and just kept learning and growing,” says Enge.

Dixon Smart, who represents Alpine in 16 states including Missouri, has worked with Snelson and crew since the late 1980s. He’s hired Enge through the years to outfit his show cars.

“I do business with 250 other Alpine dealers, but it’s still worth the 800-mile drive to have Jay (Enge) do the work,” Smart says, noting that he also enlisted Enge’s help on a personal job, the recent installation of a video system in his Lexus.

While Snelson declined to disclose Car-Fi’s revenues, he says year-to-date retail sales are essentially a “carbon copy” of last year’s numbers – no small feat given current economic pressures upon consumers. Wholesale numbers are down, he says, but that’s likely because the bulk of wholesale business comes from car dealerships, which also are dealing with the economic downturn.

Online expansion is next for Car-Fi, Snelson says. While the company offers a private Web site for wholesalers, retail shopping cart capabilities should roll out later this year at www.car-fi.com.

That doesn’t mean additional storefronts are out of the question, though.

“We’re always looking for opportunities,” Snelson says. “Do we have a dart in the map yet? No.” [[In-content Ad]]

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