The last man standing in a changing L.A. neighborhood

Los Angeles is not the way it always was. I’ve lived here for over 42 years and it has changed a lot. Once thriving main streets are now subject to blight, sometimes separated merely by a single city block from an upscale neighborhood or movie studio. Now, my business struggles to come to grips with changed economic realities.

I began my career as a successful manufacturing engineer, but I was forced to look for different work when manufacturing went overseas. I decided to start my own distributorship and I had the advantage of starting out with capital on-hand. Most guys can’t make it because they’re mortgaging their house to buy inventory and they cannot collect on it all, but I never had that issue.

My business grew to over 1,000 customers with a seven-day work week. I am aware this is triple what most people have, but there are a lot of shops here and not a lot of tool distributors. I owned a house in the neighborhood since my engineering days and my competition generally could not afford to live in the immediate area. They don’t live that far away, but in L.A. traffic, their commute during business hours can be about two hours each way, so, I never had a lot of competition. I have the homefield advantage.

But, it all started to change in the last 10 years. Why? I don’t know, but I have my theories. The rents are so high and the parts stores are selling tools. Sometimes the shops just find ways around not using necessary tools by modifying what they have or borrowing the tool from someone. This all means less money for guys like me.

The city streets are mean, with homeless people at the street corners and stiff competition between repair shops. To the casual observer, Los Angeles either has big-box stores or specialty shops. The general automotive repair shop that needs tools for all makes and models simply appears not to exist.

Competition between the remaining shops is fierce, and because of local zoning laws, they are often situated in plazas where three, four, five or even more shops are literally pitted across and adjacent to one another. This sort of competition steadily decreases shop profit margins. Another challenge it poses for me is that it makes it easy for techs to share tools.

So, I can drive the streets all day without seeing any competition, but still not make the sales I used to. When I was driving with an editor from Professional Distributor magazine earlier this year, he pointed out an old a Snap-on truck. I said, laughing, “They sell fruit out of it, no tools. It’s just parked there.”

I still have my dependable core of customers, but many of the techs I used to work with have grown increasingly undependable. Due to America’s porous border with Mexico, some simply just disappear with all their tools, never paying what was owed. Because some of these men have assumed identities and no legal status, they are essentially invisible.

I refuse to concede defeat. I’m not fed up or jaded and I still work six days a week. I still have customers from when I began 22 years ago. Just, these days, there are a lot less of them.

Nonetheless, I hope for better times ahead. In the meantime, in my territory, I’m the last man left standing.