by Jeremy Nulik
In early December of last year, Jeff Halbgewachs rolled an old, rust-covered 1950 Ford F-1 pickup into Precision Restorations. The truck did not look like much.
“The pickup was in a pretty rough condition. It was rusted out over much of the body, and the color had faded,” says Dale Oestreich, owner of Precision Restorations, a classic car and truck restoration business in St. Louis. “If the average person had seen this truck out in a field, they would think that this vehicle was a goner … that there is no hope.”
But Halbgewachs had hope. He saw something very different—something he decided to share with Oestreich.
“Jeff showed me a photograph from 1950 of his grandfather leaning against the truck with a bunch of turkeys all over the place,” says Oestreich. “Apparently his grandfather was a farmer. He said, ‘I want to restore it the way it was when Grandpa had it.’”
Oestreich’s shop is a menagerie of memories just like this. Every car has a story. Since he opened the business one year ago, his team has artfully used the raw materials of steel, paint and vinyl to re-create memories for car enthusiasts nationwide.
Much like his customers, Oestreich has an ability to see beyond what the average businessperson sees. And it is this knack for seeking out opportunities and vision that has led to his success as a serial entrepreneur and business owner.
Oestreich’s journey began in 1979 when, after working an appliance delivery gig as a side job, he was hit with the entrepreneurial bug. “I always had that entrepreneurial drive, and delivering those appliances gave me that feeling,” says Oestreich.
He knew he was going to start a delivery company, so he looked in the Yellow Pages to find out whom he would be competing against. “I saw three cab companies that said ‘Will Deliver Your Envelope.’ After I talked to friends in accounting and marketing firms who all said they used cabs all the time, I got the idea to start St. Louis’ first rush courier business,” he says.
With that, American Delivery Service (ADS) was born. Immediately, Oestreich saw an opportunity when it came to pricing. Knowing that cabs charge by the mile, he created a completely different way to charge clients for delivery, ZIP code to ZIP code—a model that is still used by local couriers.
“The Vandeventer overpass was my favorite example of why my pricing was more effective because it was notorious for traffic jams,” says Oestreich. “The cab driver would take the jammed overpass, and his meter would click away. My driver had to find another way to deliver. He was going to get paid the same. This up-front pricing put my customers at ease and helped them with their financial management. It also accelerated the company’s growth.”
ADS’ growth was aggressive. By 1988, Oestreich had 92 drivers, and they were responding to more than 1,000 calls a day. He diversified his company into three divisions: on-call drivers, outsourced drivers and warehousing, called ADS-Logistics. His success garnered ADS recognition in Inc. magazine as one of the country’s fastest-growing companies. However, one year later, Oestreich would face the largest challenge of his career.
After listening to the counsel of his attorney and accountant, he decided to turn all of his independent contract drivers into employees. The decision cost him greatly.
“The drivers saw the move to employees as a pay cut since they would have money taken out for taxes,” says Oestreich. “I went from having 92 to 21 drivers in three weeks. It was a combination of bad advice and a poor decision. It was the biggest mistake I have ever made.”
ADS spent the next year just trying to rebuild, and by the mid-90s the company had stabilized once more. In 2001, Oestreich once again used his knack for good vision. He saw another roadblock to the courier business on the horizon: the Internet. More people would be emailing documents instead of using couriers. So that year, even though the rush courier part of his business was bringing in $1.3 in annual revenue, he decided to sell it and focus on ADS-Logistics.
By 2006, Oestreich had seen it all. He had battled legal issues, fleeing employees, cash flow nightmares and customer service debacles. After 27 years of business ownership, he was ready to move on. He sold ADS-Logistics.
Knowing that his experience would be valuable, he decided to start a consulting business, Franchise Business Services. For a few months, he was an outsourced salesperson for franchisors, helping them market and sell their franchise opportunities. Oestreich liked the idea and wanted it to work, but there was something missing.
“It was not enough challenge for me,” he says. “I was working around my home, and I got tired of watching Dr. Phil at 3. After all those years of the problems that come with a small business, I was starting to miss the headaches. I was not sweating cash flow, payroll or commercial insurance, and I was like, ‘Shoot, I’m bored.’”
On a mission to get back the headaches that he once dreaded, Oestreich began looking for a fixer-upper opportunity that had some franchise possibilities.
In his quest to restore himself as a business owner, Oestreich was drawn to a car restoration business on Forest Park Avenue. Since the existing business had some bad debts, Oestreich formed his own limited liability company, leased the building and hired many of the employees, releasing himself from the former firm’s liabilities. So, after years of experience in warehousing and delivery, why start a car restoration business? Once again, Oestreich sees a big opportunity that most people don’t.
“There is a great opportunity for us, as a Midwest shop, to have a big impact in the way our industry does business,” says Oestreich. “Most people who work in this industry are just one-man garages. And almost all of these one-man shops are good at one particular part of the process, but they don’t want to be businessmen. We are in the process of documenting and packaging parts of our business process. We can then sell the process nationwide in a franchiselike model. We want our shop to make an impact on the car restoration industry nationwide.”
Oestreich says that there is demand for more sophisticated shops and that it’s coming from baby boomers who are fixing up their relatives’ cars. These six-figure professionals have high expectations when it comes to ethical business practices—something a large number of car restoration businesses are not necessarily known for.
One level of sophistication that Oestreich has added to Precision Restorations is something he practiced with ADS: up-front pricing. “It is my job to build trust with a customer, and there is no better way to do that than letting them know what to expect from the very start,” says Oestreich. “Instead of charging time and material, which most smaller shops do, we have everything on an estimate right up front, and we take pictures of the progress along the way. This puts the customer’s mind at ease and builds trust.”
Oestreich’s unique perspective provided his courier clients with better financial management, allowed ADS to survive through employment challenges and has created a unique opportunity in the car restoration industry. His willingness to look at the business landscape a little differently has carried him through a variety of circumstances and industries. As Oestreich puts it, “I have been able to find uniqueness in every business opportunity I have gotten involved in.”