ASI Wins Big by Narrowing Its Focus
You could call ASI Distributors Inc. a small player in a big distribution market. You could also correctly call it a big player in a small specialty market. In either case, it fills a role like no other company in the RV industry.
Started in 1983 by owner Steve Sturgeon and two employees, ASI was initially a small regional wholesale distributor.
“We started very small, and I did that for a calculated reason; I didn’t want to incur a lot of debt,” Sturgeon says. “We had to incur some, of course, but you have to start small or you’re going to be in debt for a while, and I wasn’t interested in that.”
As the years passed, ASI grew in size and added several product lines. However, the company today still isn’t a giant among RV distributors – and that’s exactly the way Sturgeon wants it. Instead of attempting to build the business into a nationwide, full-line distributor, Sturgeon took another tact: He decided to narrow the company’s focus to RV repair parts and appliances.
ASI’s software, which it developed in-house, gives users easy access to parts inventory, pricing and ordering. Once distributed to customers in DVD format, the software is now entirely based on ASI’s servers.
Today, ASI – doing business out of a 9,000-square-foot office and warehouse in the small community of Tonganoxie, Kan. – stocks about 10,000 SKUs from companies including A & E, Atwood, Coleman, Dometic, Duo-Therm, Hydroflame, Hydrolife, Kwikee, Magic-Chef, Norcold, Powergear, Sealand, Suburban, Thetford, U-line, Wedgewood and Winegard. The specialty distributor primarily serves the Midwest, but it does ship nationwide and to Canada.
Sturgeon describes ASI’s transition to specialty distributor as a natural progression for his business.
“With some of the major appliance manufacturers we were able to pick up we were kind of in the right place at the right time back then,” he says. “And because of that we were able to grow our inventory reasonably slowly and not get carried away with it, and lose track of what we had, or what it did, or how to find it. We didn’t jump right in; we didn’t add everything at one time. We transitioned into things.”
While fortuitous timing played a part in the company’s success, an even bigger factor was simply recognizing a need existed within the market, according to Sturgeon.
“At the time that we made that decision, it was a need unfulfilled in this area,” he says. “We saw the need so we just went after it. The rest is history. Hard repair parts are not the focus of most distributors. It’s a specialized field, and the reason for that is it’s so detailed and requires quite a bit of knowledge to do it correctly; quite a bit of training. If somebody is not willing to put the time, effort and inventory into it, it could be a cumbersome process for them. We made that our primary focus, and because of that we achieved some success with it.”
The success ASI has enjoyed has resulted not simply from stocking specialty parts, Sturgeon says, but also from becoming an expert in their application.
“What happens is when you add a new parts line – let’s say you’re adding a water heater parts line – you have to know something about the operation of that appliance, and so we tried to train ourselves or get training so that we were knowledgeable,” he says. “When customers call we can answer questions quickly, get them the right part at the right time and help solve their problem.”
Replacement Parts Business Remains Strong
Despite the roller coaster economy of the past two years, Sturgeon says business for ASI has remained fairly steady. Unlike mainstay RV accessories – such as hitches or awnings – repair parts are more of a necessity, and therefore less dependent on the economy, he notes.
“We are somewhat insulated from the ups and downs of the market because of the nature of our business,” Sturgeon says. “We don’t see the vast swings in demand because we’re in the repair parts side of things, and if the RV owner uses the RV, it’s going to fail at some point and they’re going to have to get it fixed.”
In Sturgeon’s experience, the product most likely in need of replacement is circuit boards.
“Circuit boards are an item that seems to fail in the industry quite frequently, but that’s just the nature of the beast,” he says. “Circuit boards by their nature are less robust than other parts, like motors or that sort of thing, but circuit boards are a high-demand item because of the frequency of failures.”
ASI also does a good amount of business selling Dometic appliances and replacement parts, simply because of the company’s large presence in the marketplace.
“Dometic is our largest vendor,” Sturgeon says. “In the RV industry, it has the lion’s share of the market, and since we are one of the few in the country that has Dometic parts, obviously that’s going to create a demand for that product line.”
Thus far, 2011 is proving to be a pretty good year for ASI. But even if the economy worsens, Sturgeon believes both ASI and the larger RV industry will persevere given RVers deep commitment to the lifestyle.
“The fact that the RV industry – given the number of strikes against it – didn’t go away is a pretty good indication that … it’s not going to go away,” he says.
ASI General Manager John Adams started with the company in 1990 to develop its specialized software and has since expanded his duties with the company. Photos courtesy of ASI Distributors.
Tracy Sturgeon, co-owner of ASI Distributors, talks with a customer. Mrs. Sturgeon and her husband, Steve, founded the business in 1983 as regional wholesale distributor but later narrowed the company’s focus to RV repair parts and appliances.
Sales Manager Charleen Koschke takes a customer’s call. ASI takes pride in its strong customer service and in its detailed knowledge of repair parts and their applications.
Going the Extra Mile
Another claim to fame for ASI is its specialized software, developed in-house, to streamline inventory, pricing and ordering. It’s something no other distributor offered when ASI began development and remains unique to the company. While there are other programs available now, Sturgeon maintains none are as specialized as ASI’s.
Sturgeon saw the need for a system to organize in-house inventory, and in 1990 hired current General Manager John Adams to develop the software.
“We did that out of a need to help ourselves and help our customers find the parts they need, and it’s proven to be very successful,” Sturgeon says. “In the RV industry at the time, there were no computerized parts information systems of any kind for any part of an RV. We were the first company, as small as we were, to develop a computerized parts information system for the RV industry.
“It’s transitioned into a bigger, better and more expensive program – we update it about every month. But it would be impossible to do business without something like this,” he says. “There’s just too much out there.
“Say somebody calls and says ‘I have an RM2852 refrigerator, I need a circuit board for it.’ Well, there are a lot of variations on the theme; there are probably 50 different RM2852s that require different circuit boards, or something in addition to the circuit board. Without a system like ours, it would be impossible to find it in a catalog of any kind.”
Adams was a DOS-based programmer who joined the company solely to develop the ASI Parts System program, although since then he has remained and expanded his duties to include general management.
By 1991, the program was ready for release, but met with a lukewarm response. Sturgeon says that when he showed the program at the RVIA show in Louisville the interest was amazing – but actual adoption was much slower.
“We were ahead of our time. Had we waited, or been more aggressive at marketing, things might be different, but we’re still pleased with the way things have gone,” he said. “They were all for it, but didn’t want to go out and buy a computer. If we had supplied them all with computers they would have jumped in with both feet, but obviously we weren’t going to do that. Most small companies in 1990 didn’t have desktop computers.
“It’s been a slow build. I think that computerization has transitioned into the mainstream pretty much at an even rise since 1990, but it just didn’t happen overnight. There was some reluctance to spend the money to do it, but eventually they realized they had to.”
Parts System Evolves
Initially, ASI provided a CD with the program on it. As the program grew, that changed to a DVD, and then a download direct from ASI’s site. In 2010, the program became entirely based on ASI servers, no longer running on the client’s own computer.
“It’s seamless they don’t have to wait for something to be installed. We can set them up online, give them access to it almost immediately,” Sturgeon says.
Adams stresses that the ASI Parts System isn’t the company’s main focus.
“We’re not software developers. We just use it to sell parts,” he says. “It’s a very good program. Through the years we’ve made many modifications and upgraded the online interactive system. Twenty-four-seven, our customers can log onto the website look up parts, wiring diagrams, inventory and place an order.”
The Parts System allows ASI to easily update inventory and pricing – and Adams says he always uses the manufacturers’ own part numbers, keeping ordering and inventory streamlined and effortless. The program allows the company to download data directly from manufacturers, turning updates into a 10-minute project instead of a two-week-long data entry ordeal.
Adams designed the program to make it easy for the customer, too. After logging in to the system, customers can look up items by manufacturer or part number. When they click on a particular part number, related parts are displayed, as well as old part numbers and other models that part number will fit, making the ASI Parts System a powerful cross-referencing tool as well.
“We maintain the program’s ease of use by not trying to do too much. That’s where you get in trouble,” Adams says. “We never intended our system to be anything other than a reference system. There is no accounting; its only function is parts reference. We do offer online ordering, but there is no accounting. We spend our time to make sure the data is in there, current, correct and up to date.”