043: Thriving as a Small Business in a Global Pandemic with Todd Hayes
Mar 31, 2021
2020 has been one of the toughest years in history for small businesses. Many companies have needed to pivot, change their entire operational model, and adopt and adapt to new technologies in order to keep the lights on.
However, a number of businesses didn’t just survive over the last year – they thrived. One of them is Columbus Car Audio. For over 40 years, they have customized and accessorized motorcycles, cars, boats, and buses. In fact, they even once installed a stereo in a canoe.
Today, company president Todd Hays joins the podcast to discuss how he kept going to help fellow small business owners make the most of difficult situations and flourish in the face of big challenges.
Here are just a handful of the things that we'll discuss:
- Why great customer service and creating great employee experiences puts Columbus Car Audio ahead of their competition.
- How Todd created a survival plan for his company and his employees at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis – and why he chose not to stay open as an essential business when he didn’t feel it was safe to do so.
- Why empowering an entire team to make high-level decisions contributes to overall growth.
- How Columbus Car Audio’s marketing director effectively shifted the focus of their operations from radio to online last year.
- What Todd and Danielle learned as they took over the business 10 years ago – and why it was so important to work with mentors and business coaches.
LeAnne Siddell: It’s The Retirement Trainer with Ed Siddell, a podcast about finding ways to help you become financially fit for your future no matter what financial shape you’re in now. Boy, 2020 has been a challenging year and in particular for small business. EGSI believes in giving back to the community that has supported us for over 20 years. This is called our campaign that is giving back to small businesses. As part of that, we’re going to do two small businesses every month that we’re going to highlight here on our podcast, The Retirement Trainer, which obviously you can get on iHeartRadio, Spotify, Apple Play, anywhere you listen to your podcasts but we want to learn about what kept these small businesses going and succeeding during COVID. Our goal is to promote and learn lessons from these small businesses so that other small business owners can draw upon their experiences and lessons to enhance their own situation. Today, we have Todd Hays joining us on our podcast. He’s the President of Columbus Car Audio right here in Columbus, Ohio. I’m LeAnne Siddell and here to help us with all our questions and to give us some guidance to stay in the best financial shape possible, the retirement trainer, Ed Siddell.
LeAnne Siddell: Hi, Todd. Hi, Ed.
Todd Hays: Hello.
Ed Siddell: Todd, what’s going on? How are you?
Todd Hays: I’m doing well. How about you all?
Ed Siddell: All doing good. Doing good. So, are you here in Ohio or are you down in sunny Florida?
Todd Hays: Yeah. We’re in Florida. And, yes, the weather was a little off the last couple of days and I understand it was really nice there but it’s beautiful today. I’m sitting outside working in my office.
LeAnne Siddell: Oh my gosh, a way to make us jealous.
Ed Siddell: Yeah. Now, you’re rubbing it in. Well, I really appreciate you joining us. I mean, this really is a great way to talk about Columbus Car Audio, what you guys do, what you did last year, why you guys were able to be successful last year and what makes you guys successful in general. So, I mean, that’s really what we’re trying to do is kind of put together some lessons so that other people can learn from your mistakes and successes.
Todd Hays: Sure.
Ed Siddell: So, if you don’t mind, just kind of tell us a little about Columbus Car Audio, what you guys do, and we’ll kind of go from there.
Todd Hays: Well, we’ve been in business since 1978. I’ve been a part of the company, I mean, literally started as what we would call a go-for, go for this, go for that in 1986 kind of a summer job and continue to work with the company throughout college and whatnot, and eventually became part of ownership probably 15-ish years ago, maybe a little more. And my wife, Danielle and I, have owned a company wholly for a little over nine years now. And what we do, I like to say what we do is everybody here is Columbus Car Audio so you think car audio but what we really do kind of is anything you can do to a vehicle, whether it’s a motorcycle, car, boat, bus, literally just any sort of transportation, we do pretty much anything to those type of vehicles with the exception of bodywork and engine work. So, we literally do window tint is a big category for us these days, tons of truck accessories, wheels, and tires. Really it’s about accessorizing and making your vehicle yours, your own.
LeAnne Siddell: Absolutely.
Ed Siddell: And you guys have really branched out too. I mean, it’s not just accessories. Lately, you guys have gotten into tires and wheels and you’ve been doing some government trucks, right, I mean, working on…
Todd Hays: Yeah. We do some fleet business. We work on large busses, freight liners, literally, like I said, just about if somebody but, I mean, we put a stereo in a canoe one year.
Ed Siddell: Please tell me you took a picture.
Todd Hays: Oh, yeah, there’s pictures. There’s pictures somewhere but, I mean, if somebody can dream it up, we’re going to give it a shot and try to make it happen for then.
Ed Siddell: That’s awesome. I know you and Danielle have really built this business up since we started working together over the years to where it is now. So, what differentiates you guys from your competition?
Todd Hays: I think our people do. That’s the first thing but we just have a great group of people that work for us. Many of them, as you know, have worked for us for, well, we have some over 20 years now.
Ed Siddell: Yeah.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah. That definitely is one of the things that’s most impressive when we were looking at how long your employees have been with you.
Ed Siddell: Oh, that is close to you, for sure. I mean, you guys have a great work culture, great environment there.
Todd Hays: I think that’s the one thing I remember back and I have tried to instill this throughout the years is when I was an employee of the company in the trenches if you will, I enjoyed coming to work every day because it was fun. So, we try to make a fun environment. Our employees it’s kind of cliche but they definitely are a family. They’re going to come first. Personally, in any sort of circumstance, they’re going to come first. After employees, then I’d say our relationships with our vendors and the products that we sell obviously play a significant role. We want to make sure we’re selling products that they’re going to hold up for the customer and not have issues. So, I think those are our two biggest things but the employee is the most important.
Ed Siddell: Oh, absolutely. And you can tell when you go in there, I mean, it really is a team atmosphere especially during the holidays because that is one of your busy seasons, for sure.
Todd Hays: Oh, yeah. For sure.
LeAnne Siddell: And I love it when people throw new things like putting the radio in a canoe at you and learning how basically to make those wishes come true. So, I think that’s probably what’s unique is you do probably get a lot of very strange requests. I can tell you, our son just recently had a new stereo put in over there and most of these kids now…
Ed Siddell: Jay was awesome. Yeah.
LeAnne Siddell: Dealing with old, old vehicles, you really don’t know what you’re going to get.
Todd Hays: Sure. Yeah. And that’s where having several people that have worked for us for over 20 years that they can help bring the younger crew up to speed and, obviously, jump in where they have to.
Ed Siddell: Well, that’s probably because of the people that you have there. I mean, that’s probably why you get so much repeat business.
Todd Hays: Oh, for sure. For sure. Typically, on a positive review, the first thing that’s mentioned is that they’re naming our employees by name. Jay was great. Tony was awesome. That’s typically what people are going to remember and our people really enjoy seeing a smile in a customer’s face that the end result is what it’s all about.
Ed Siddell: Well, I know you and Danielle had been working there forever. Obviously, you took over fully like you said about 9, 10 years ago. What do you wish you guys had known before you took over the company? Is there anything that could have prepared you more for the ownership of the company? Or was it just the fact that you were learning along the way that helped?
Todd Hays: Yeah. That’s a tough one. That’s a real good question. Well, let me start with this. I remember when I was in upper management, general manager of the stores and I always felt like I treated it like it was my own and I’m an owner. I feel like an owner. I’m not an owner but I feel like an owner. That quickly changed when I did become an owner. You know, the stress level is completely different. Sometimes good and sometimes bad but it’s just kind of a completely different perspective when you’re responsible and currently we have about 40 employees. So, that’s the biggest stress is knowing that their livelihood depends on ultimately you. So, I always thought that was interesting that it just changed completely the dynamics of everything, even though I thought I really owned it. When we got involved in ownership, the company was not doing extremely well. We went through some really, really tough times. And Danielle and I spent many, many countless hours after working 12 hours a day, then countless hours in the evening putting together plans and trying to figure out what we’re going to do, how we’re going to change, and not being afraid of change. I’m always open to suggestions, whether it’s from within or without.
LeAnne Siddell: I definitely think that has to be an attribute of a small business owner. You have to be able to transition and change.
Ed Siddell: Being an entrepreneur. Yeah, absolutely.
Todd Hays: Yeah.
Ed Siddell: Adapt and improvise. Like last year, I still remember having that conversation with Danielle and you. When everything was shut down, the very beginning of April, and the impact that you felt towards everyone there, the whole time all of your employees. You weren’t in panic mode but you guys were already kind of trying to formulate that plan. Okay. What do we do? How do we make sure everyone’s taken care of?
Todd Hays: Right. Yeah. And we did everything we could. I was in constant communication with everyone in the company. I would send an email every single day during our closure. I’d have conversations with Anthony and Jay and some of the guys who’ve been with us for a long time and just kind of talking through things and trying to keep them calm at the same time trying to keep ourselves calm.
Ed Siddell: Unchartered waters, and it really was. They were scary times.
Todd Hays: Yes.
Ed Siddell: So, what did you guys do? I mean, how did you guys overcome and kind of get to where you are today because you turned last year around and wound up having a good year?
Todd Hays: Yeah. Well, I think, I mean, again, not only where we’re trying to help out the employees but part of that was just making sure that we were going to be financially stable. We immediately jumped into the opportunities of the payroll protection plan and EIDL, the economic injury disaster loans. We just instantly were like, “We should do this,” because nobody really knew what was going to happen. So, that was a headache. Anybody that’s gone through that knows that that was just a nightmare really, as far as trying to talk to the SBA or whatever. It was just really tough. But once that finally happened, everything was just so much easier on our side and we were comfortable and ready to get back to business. And then one of the things that was most important to us, we probably could have stayed open as a…
LeAnne Siddell: Essential business.
Todd Hays: Essential business. I mean, in my mind, it was a bit of a stretch but because we sell to car dealers, they were essential and, thereby, technically, we could have been essential. But most important to us was the safety of our people. Again, going back to them, just making sure we knew what we were dealing with. And when we reopened, we had a very detailed plan on how we were going to reopen and what our requirements of the staff would be, what requirements of our customers would be, and the guys just did a phenomenal job with it. We were highlighted in kind of a broader industry magazine about what we were doing as far as that reopening was concerned. And I took a lot of pride in that. Our guys did as well. So, that was kind of cool to be recognized for something like that.
LeAnne Siddell: A lot of brainstorming. Oh, yeah.
Todd Hays: Oh, tons. And it was constantly, “Well, are we doing this right? Can you change this?” And just changing on the fly, one of the benefits of being a small company.
Ed Siddell: Yeah. And you guys have, I mean, you and Danielle and Anthony and Jay, that whole crew, I mean, you guys have really done a good job of putting different processes/procedures in place just on an everyday basis. I mean, do you think that that really helped you last year as well kind of get through and make it a little bit smoother? Because everyone already knew what their job was. Everyone already knew what to do.
Todd Hays: Yeah, I think so. I mean and credit to Danielle on that kind of stuff. She’s the one that’s way more organized than I when it comes to that kind of stuff.
Ed Siddell: I wasn’t going to say that but, yes, you’re right.
Todd Hays: So, yes. I mean, she’s all about procedures and it’s laid out and this is how we do this, and that helps not only during…
LeAnne Siddell: Consistency, yeah.
Ed Siddell: Yeah.
Todd Hays: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It creates that as well. And it helps with training new people. It just makes things much better, much easier.
LeAnne Siddell: So, none of those gaps are exposed for you at any point in time. It follow those…
Ed Siddell: Yeah. It almost gives you the ability to automate, right?
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah.
Ed Siddell: I mean, to a certain degree.
Todd Hays: Yes.
Ed Siddell: And having that foundation, I mean, that’s also what gives you and Danielle and everyone else the ability to make changes because you already know what that foundation is and you can work around that, right?
Todd Hays: Correct. Correct. And so, our upper management, we empower our people. I don’t get a lot of these phone calls that I shouldn’t get but I rarely get a phone call on something. And if I do, I always tell them, “Well, you should have called me after you decided what you’re up to.”
Ed Siddell: Decentralized command, right?
Todd Hays: Yeah. I mean, I never wanted to be a firefighter and that’s what I tell them. I’m not your firefighter. Figure it out. And nine times out of ten, they’re making the decision I would make.
Ed Siddell: So, empowering these guys the whole team, I mean, I think going back to what you were saying before, before you were an owner, branch manager, you felt like you were. So, you’re empowering everyone on the team to kind of act the way that you did.
Todd Hays: Yeah. 100%.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, I feel as though it also contributes to your overall business growing because everybody knows that obviously if they do their job and they do it well, that’s what keeps the people coming back. It grows the business so they get a piece of that pie and just going.
Todd Hays: Correct.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah. That it’s continuing.
Todd Hays: Yep. Exactly.
Ed Siddell: Yeah. I mean, you guys have grown so much over the last ten years, I mean, just leaps and bounds. And so, how do you create that work-life balance? Because with Brooks and Tanner, they’re older now and, obviously, you did a real good job with your boys but how are you able to balance that? Because working 12 hour days, coming home, and putting together the plans. How did you guys do that?
Todd Hays: Well, certainly, it wasn’t easy. Back then a dozen years ago or whatever, that certainly was not easy at all. The two of us had to work together and prioritize, and we always made sure we had time for the boys. And again, Danielle was awesome at that, obviously. That’s probably one of the toughest things, I think. I mean, balance is one of our core values that we preach and to a fault, I think it’s a problem to a certain degree for all of us within the company because we are so dedicated and just wanted to be a great experience for the customer but also for ourselves. So, it is tough. But as the guys that have worked for us have grown older and now they have kids in their experience, some of what we did when we had young boys but, I don’t know, we just made sure that the guys understand that when you go home, it’s time to decompress, it’s time to enjoy your family, your friends, whatever it is you want to do, whether it’s a hobby or whatever, and ensure that you’re getting the time off that you need and you have to enjoy life. If you’re not doing that then you’re not going to enjoy anything.
Ed Siddell: Well, you’re absolutely right. You know, work is not the end. It’s a means to an end.
Todd Hays: Right.
Ed Siddell: And it is, it’s a balancing act for sure.
Todd Hays: Yeah.
Ed Siddell: You know, over the last year marketing, it’s completely changed with virtual appointments online, everything. So, how has that affected you guys? From a marketing standpoint, how did you guys change and adapt to it?
Todd Hays: Well, we have, number one, I want to make sure I mention Holly. Holly is our marketing director. We made a decision a long time ago that the best way to get our marketing advertising efforts done was to hire someone and have them on staff. You know, we tried the route of using a third party or whatever, and it just never was quite right. So, we brought Holly in or ultimately ended up with Holly and she’s just a rock star but actually, the shutdown actually gave us a great chance to kind of reset and really look hard at various things that marketing was a big one. You know, over the years, I mean, we used to do just tons and tons and tons of radio and it has increased for us over the years, typically with a radio station we’re trying to, if we’re going to do something, we want to do around an event or something where we can get in front of people and showcase our products and that sort of thing. But immediately, the first thing we did as soon as we were shut down is just we shut down. We just said, “Okay. We’re turning everything off, and then let’s have some conversations and figure this out.” So, we worked with Holly quite a bit and decided when we were going to open and we’ve really, really changed our focus completely. We are doing very little radio. Our radio reps aren’t happy about that.
But we’ve stuck all of our money and we were already big into social media and Google AdWords SEO but we’ve kind of doubled down on that, if you will, and just really embracing the digital age. Even though we still, for the most part, just cater to the local audience, we’re not looking to sell a bunch of stuff online and that sort of thing but it’s important to have that exposure.
Ed Siddell: Right.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah.
Todd Hays: So, yeah. I mean, really, it just kind of gave us a chance to do a reset that, honestly, we’ve been talking about doing this thing for a couple of years now. Do we really need to be spending this much money on radio? And they gave us a chance to give it a try and it’s been successful.
LeAnne Siddell: I remember here in Columbus Car Audio on the radio constantly but there again, I listen to radio. And I’m just going to say now everything is streamed and everything is Spotify. And so, with those changes, I can easily see. But like I said, Columbus Car Audio is a staple. It really is something that you just got used to listening and hearing them on the radio.
Todd Hays: Right. Yeah, exactly. And in its day, it was the obvious place to be but times change and obviously, the radio stations are making huge efforts to change.
LeAnne Siddell: Absolutely. Yeah.
Todd Hays: Like you mentioned, iHeart, obviously, that comes from radio stations. So, they realize they have to be a part of it.
LeAnne Siddell: And like moving into the podcast world, I really honestly believe people go to these types of things to learn more about companies that are out there. They see them on Facebook. They see you guys posted on Facebook but again, this is something for an organization like yours that’s been around for so long and people are just comfortable with you guys being part of our community.
Ed Siddell: Absolutely.
Todd Hays: Right.
Ed Siddell: So, I’m going to ask you kind of off-the-wall question, just maybe so other people can learn. I mean, over the years, what kind of a hiccup failure that maybe you guys learn from and what did you learn from it? I mean, you don’t have to be specific because we all face challenges. I mean, last year, everybody faced challenges. I mean, you were just talking about choosing your marketing. You took something bad, lemons, and turned into lemonade. So, I mean, was there anything else like that over the last ten years that kind of really got you and Danielle to where you’re at today that really was kind of an aha moment if you will and really took you guys to the next level?
Todd Hays: I mean, there’s been various things. So, as I mentioned before, we went through some really, really tough times in the transition for us taking over the business. And it was a big financial issue for the business. From that, it was nice to be able to come out of it positively because it was a little scary and it was scary for our people. We were completely transparent with the guys that were there and explain to them this is what’s going on and we’re making every effort. You guys are number one but we’re making every effort to make this work. And we have a lot of people do a lot of great things to help us succeed.
Ed Siddell: Well, I think it’s that honesty that you and Danielle have with just in general but obviously to everyone there that that speaks to why they’ve been there 20 years plus for some people because that’s just not common.
Todd Hays: I think the other thing I’d like to just throw out there that we weren’t afraid to seek the help of people that knew things better than we do, but obviously you’re one of those but we had a business coach. We don’t any longer but without him, I don’t know if we would have gotten for it. He was able to introduce us to various different people, I think in a roundabout way to you honestly, and help us establish some new banking relationships. But beyond that, it taught us a lot of things that we were trying to learn on our own. So, not being afraid to ask for help even at a cost, I mean, it is what it is and it’s cheaper to pay somebody that knows what they’re doing to do something for you than to spend God knows how many hours that you have better things to do.
Ed Siddell: Boy, that’s wisdom right there. Yeah. Reinvent the wheel.
Todd Hays: Like go offer something.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
LeAnne Siddell: But I also you had mentioned it earlier talking about honesty, I kind of just want to lay it out there as far as the basis of any plan for business is something that I think you’ve narrowed in on and your customers as well as your employees, that transparency that you are who you are, there is no, for lack of a better word, blowing smoke. There’s just not. It’s genuine because I kind of feel like that’s how we function in the small business realm.
Todd Hays: Yeah. Honesty is key, especially in the customer service world.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah.
Ed Siddell: And you guys do a really good job setting expectations too, which I think really, really helps down in the long run. Short-run too.
Todd Hays: Yeah. Sure.
Ed Siddell: Well, so, Todd, how can people find out more about you? Where can they go?
Todd Hays: I mean, ColumbusCarAudio.com is our website site. There’s links there for Facebook. We’re on Facebook and you caught me by surprise. I’m not on Facebook personally.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, it’s okay.
Todd Hays: I couldn’t tell you what our…
Ed Siddell: I have no idea so don’t feel bad.
LeAnne Siddell: We’re going to have you all linked up to this podcast anyway.
Ed Siddell: Yeah. I’ll refer you to Holly for that. But ColumbusCarAudio.com, we have a location on East Main Street. It’s the old Jack’s building if people remember that in Reynoldsburg and it’s a beautiful new store that we relocated a few years ago. And then we’re on Morse Road. Been on that block of Morse Road since the inception of the company, just moved around a little bit into bigger facilities. And so, I think people see us on that busy road quite a bit. We just put up some nice, beautiful new signs and business is great right now. I mean, our industry has really – I hate to say it but a lot of people are spending stimulus money on stuff they don’t necessarily need to have.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, that’s one thing I was going to go before we ended this. The one thing I was going to say is that we all make mistakes in business. Whether it be customer service or otherwise, things don’t always. So, I guess the big thing that I want to say that I also think is how you handle those problems when they hit you. And I think you guys have definitely it cannot always go smooth in the realm that you function in. There are always going to be little things that don’t go the way that they’re supposed to but it’s how you back that up. Yeah.
Todd Hays: Correct. Yeah. I mean, that’s important to us. We don’t like unhappy customers and we’re going to do everything we can to resolve it if we can. Sometimes you can’t but yeah we will do anything that is reasonably within our power to make a situation better.
LeAnne Siddell: That’s right. Yeah. Well, if you would like to learn more, if you have a small business out there or if there is a way that we can learn more about what you have done different to turn this what is COVID year into a success, we’d love to hear from you. Ed says always when difficult times hit, it’s important that you have a plan and we build those plans for our clients to help them avoid the anxiety of when bad things happen, what do you do next? So, if you are a small business, if you want more information about the small businesses that we forecast on this podcast, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at EGSIFinancial.com or call our office at 614-526-4118. We are looking to help support small business and learn more about what made you successful and what continues to make you successful. So, reach out to us. Our email is email@example.com. Thanks, Todd. Thanks, Ed.
Ed Siddell: Thanks, Todd. I appreciate it.
Todd Hays: Thank you.
Ed Siddell: All right. Take care.
Todd Hays: No problem. Thank you. Bye-bye.