If you aren’t passionate about your business, then you will never be able to put up with the hell you have to go through to make it a success.
The founders of East Coast Defender grew up in England, the Midlands, some 40 miles from the famous Lode Lane factory where these vehicles were produced, and they were surrounded by Defenders from an early age. Mostly working on trucks on friends’ farms, they were often thrown in the back of these trucks with bails of hay, a dog and sometimes the odd farm animal.
They quickly developed an interest in vehicles, specifically classic English vehicles. Elliot’s first vehicle being a 1987 Austin Mini, Tom’s a 1967 MGB Roadster. When Tom and his wife, Emily, moved to the USA in 2012, they decided to open a dealership and import some of the vehicles they had been passionate about over the years.
In 2013, East Coast Defender opened its workshop/showroom for its first few staff and a couple of trucks. Tom, his brother Elliot and their first employee, Brandon, would work 18 hour days, stripping these trucks down and rebuilding them to the clients’ taste. ECD outsourced some of the major works locally, and quickly learned this wasn’t ideal. An extreme decision about the work had to be made at that point.
Enter Scott, also English but Scottish when it suits him, a private investor with a Blue Chip corporate background and a passion for cars that started with a Porsche mug at 10 years old. It was his drive, along with the all too necessary drive to the local Wawa, that started a pivotal moment for East Coast Defender. In a meeting between gas pumps, it was there that our founders determined that if East Coast wanted to do this right and become the best Defender builders on the planet, they had to have complete control.
Now, in 2016, East Coast Defender has more than quadrupled in every aspect; size, staff, sales, and vehicles being built. That being said, East Coast Defender has defined their core values as being quality, luxury, and custom work in everything they do, from custom building their own paint shop to hand-stitching all of their upholstery. ECD thrives on challenges and is driven by its need for perfection, and it is seen every day in their facility. East Coast Defender has a great blend of English owners and American staff, they have different views on how the perfect Defender should be, but that truly is what makes their vehicles so special, they challenge perfection on a daily basis.
Where did the idea for East Coast Defender come from?
Tom: I was working in the industry as a re-seller for other so called builders. Seeing what they were doing and ultimately what I was passing on to people made me realize there was a market for someone to set up in the U.S. using the American workforce and having everything open door and absolutely transparent for our clients. Having history in the auto restoration business within our family made it even easier to recognize this. Through a family connection I met with Scott (1.5 years before he invested in us), I turned up at his house in a Defender 110, he loved it. We got talking and he said to me if I ever wanted to make a real go of the business I had to lose my safety net, which was at the time my job as a Project Director for another Automotive brand. It was the best job I had ever had. Two weeks later I had served my notice and was full time on my own in a little 900sqf shop, thinking, “what the **** do I do now”
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Elliot: The day starts with a full morning of calls to our different UK suppliers, chasing orders, clearing deliveries through customs, and planning parts for the next phases of the builds. I try to stick to some sort of plan and structure for my day, but when the entire workshop is full of Land Rover Defenders, that is far easier said than done. After lunch I spend my time working with my parts manager, working through our daily parts needed orders from the technicians. The real key to us being successful and productive in our roles is making sure we service our technicians with the best possible parts out there, it is the only way that we know we are building the best Defenders in the USA.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Elliot: We go through lots of different ideas before we all agree on one. Most of my ideas are shot down and dismissed initially, because I don’t always apply logic or common sense. But my ideas are the best. We have a seasoned Land Rover technician with over 20 years of pure Land Rover goodness in his brain, and a highly educated engineer, I like to argue and disagree with both of them. Through arguing, disagreement and lots of research, we go ahead and normally end up with a pretty fantastic outcome.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Elliot: LS3. V8. Any engine that isn’t stock in a Defender and really has no place being there. The Corvette motor install into our Defenders is to date the most exciting thing that I have done in my working career. Going from an idea and seeing a few images on google to actually building trucks with these monsters in is incredible. Back in the UK it was all about remapping the diesel ECU’s to get more BHP and torque, but out here it is something else. V8 all the way! We started with a crate motor Chevy 350, it was a good start, but no where near the perfect engine that we were looking for.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Tom: Grind. Simple, no special formula or corporate bullshit bingo. I don’t stop working, life goes out the window. There is no down time, time off, holidays etc. Our customers are all over the USA so I’m receiving emails at 6am from our East Coast customers and talking specifications at 11pm to our West Coast clients. In 2014 I was talking through an order on Christmas day. 2015 I was on the phone to a client in NC when I was supposed to be celebrating New Years Eve in the UK. You have to absolutely love what you do, be prepared to sacrifice everything and just go at it. If you aren’t passionate about your business, then you will never be able to put up with the hell you have to go through to make it a success.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Tom: Two jobs jump out. When I was 19 whilst at University I worked for a local council in sports development. The red tape was horrendous; I couldn’t deal with it. Decisions were never made without being passed through a chain of command and over analyzed, people were afraid to speak with their bosses or their bosses boss. I remember one day vividly, I left my desk to nip to the loo, my co-worked told me not to go yet as the Director of sports development had just gone in there and nobody goes in when he does. I laughed, walked in and talked to him about a Soccer project I wanted to start. Result…he liked the idea and we started the project immediately. It taught me that even though there has to be a chain of command, fear of leadership or an us and them culture was ridiculous and inhibited success. This is the exact reason we have an open door policy here at East Coast Defender and all staff have our personal cell numbers and emails. The second was whilst I was at high school, I worked on a chicken farm cleaning shit off eggs that were being sold. I didn’t mind the hard graft and 10 hour days, but I quickly realized I didn’t want to be cleaning up someone else’s shit for the rest of my life.
Scott: As kids we were poor. The worst job I had was when I was 14 & needed to buy some shoes. I picked cucumbers after school for 50 pence per night. It took me 28 nights to buy some shoes. I figured out quickly that that hourly work was not a good return on investment & that hourly wage was never going to be relevant to me again. I realized a true earning opportunity came from seeing the long term reward & not the short term. So it was the worst job but the best lesson. I never understand why people get hung up on a hourly rate. Focus on the long term reward.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Tom: I would over invest in staff from day one. I would surround myself with the best team to make it happen, we call it aces in places. I would encourage them to treat their role as their own business, to moan (constructively) at me if they think things aren’t right, to text me at midnight if they have a great idea. Where we are now, with our current team all absolutely owning and nailing what they do, and being motivated to do it, is where I would definitely look to start on day one next time around.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Scott: Prod & peel the onion. Too many problems in business are ignored. So they actually just get worse. When an employee or anyone in the business moans or says can’t be done the management don’t explore or challenge. Doing what is easy today makes tomorrow harder. Ask why, prod them with questions like you would a finger in the chest & they soon start to open up. When they open up keep peeling the layers like an onion to get to the route of the problem. Then you can apply solution. Most people don’t like to prod.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Scott: By keeping it clear, simple & highly visible. We create a live working culture. We call it sheep dipping. We put you so close & absorbed in our strategy that you have to breathe it to succeed here. By focusing on one word “Quality” we can visually inspect all elements of the business. Do we employ quality people, do we have quality branding, do we build the highest quality trucks. As long as you remove emotion & don’t get an ego you often answer “No” then we push harder. We don’t have a business plan on a management file gathering dust. We put the key business decisions on our walls in 3ft letters!
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Scott: At 24 I owned a restaurant. Never lost money but certainly never made me any. But I learnt a few key lessons. Resilience is key in any entrepreneur, don’t get lost in the day job – you have to see the bigger picture & solve the big shit list as I call it. And most of all have a clear vision for your product – what does it stand for, how do I delivery it & is there a demand & can it be profitable!
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Scott: Solve online support, getting assistance for an issue should mean talking to an actual person. Solve how support is offered online or via social media. Bloody talk to me. Take it off forums & chat rooms. I really do not understand why service based companies make it so difficult to talk to them. I hate most of the big companies) Google, Apple, Banks because you can’t talk to a bloody human. If you offer a human based service support you will clean up in any industry.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.