A rocket scientist and an MIS professional run the auto parts store of your dreams
by Will Lindner
In 2006, Cathe and Ryan McDevitt bought ADD-ON Accessory Outlet, the retail operation of ADD-On Distributing Inc., founded by Cathe’s parents, David and Victoria Ross. The South Burlington auto- and truck-accessory store is thriving and has recently added audio systems for boats.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that in today’s economy — especially in the microcosm of Vermont — a business must combine traditional virtues like integrity and dependability with creativity, technological acuity, and even a little daring, if it’s going to succeed.
All the same, it doesn’t hurt to have a rocket scientist on the team. And Cathe and Ryan McDevitt, proprietors of ADD-ON Accessory Outlet in South Burlington, do.
Ryan, 28, holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, with a concentration in aerospace technologies. He is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Vermont, hoping someday to work in commercial applications for tomorrow’s miniaturized satellites.
That leaves Cathe (pronounced “Cathy”) to handle the down-to-earth business of running the auto- and truck-accessory store that has become one of the largest of its kind in the Northeast. ADD-ON sells utilitarian accessories like toolboxes, trailer hitches, snowplows, and roof racks, and is the region’s only dealer for the coveted LEER truck caps. Yet ADD-ON also appeals to people who want to pamper themselves with high-end sound systems, tinted windows, remote starters, and more. It’s a little like an auto-parts store — but it’s the auto-parts store of your dreams.
“People will call after they’ve been in an accident, or something has worn out, and they’re looking for replacement parts,” says Cathe. “I’ll tell them we don’t replace stuff; we upgrade stuff. If they just want replacements I’ll refer them to a parts store.”
Customers really have to want what ADD-ON sells, because it doesn’t ship. That hasn’t hurt the business, Cathe says, noting that people travel from throughout the region — including Quebec, Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom — to outfit their fleets or personal vehicles.
Still in the bloom of youth and sorting out their lives, Cathe and Ryan have developed a tag-team approach for running their store, which derived from a larger company — ADD-ON Distributing Inc. — that Cathe’s parents, David and Victoria Ross, founded in the 1970s. They took over the management of ADD-ON Accessories in a whirlwind of activity in the spring of 2004.
“I did everything at once,” Cathe, 27, explains, enjoying the memory. “I graduated from college, got married the next weekend, moved back to Vermont, and started running the business.”
At first Cathe and Ryan — graduates of South Burlington High School who began dating when Cathe was 14 — shared a single desk at ADD-ON. Then they got two desks but continued to share the office. “We were together, like, 23 and a half hours a day — all except for time to take a shower,” Cathe jokes.
They developed a separate office space so each could work more independently. In 2007, Cathe gave birth to their daughter, Morgan. That kept her home for a couple of years and left Ryan in charge of the business. Now, with Ryan in graduate school, it’s Cathe’s turn.
“I was glad to come back,” she says. “I like it here. I like that there’s always something that can be improved. I can look at any part of this business and there’s always a way it could be better.”
Fact is, she’s been in the business virtually her entire life. The company’s website, www.addonoutlet.com, features a picture of Cathe at age 9, wearing an ADD-ON cap and T-shirt and carrying a brief case. But her involvement goes back even further than that.
“I started sticking labels when I was 4 years old,” she recalls. “My mother used to tell me, ‘Make it look like a grown-up did it.’ Sometimes I still want to tell my employees that!”
That last remark is a joke.
“She’s got a well-developed sense of humor,” says Nancy Hawley, fondly. Hawley, of N. Hawley Business Solutions in Milton, has worked with the McDevitts since 2004–2005, when she helped create an entirely new computer and software system, one of their priorities after taking control of the company. (They formally purchased ADD-ON from Cathe’s dad on January 3, 2006.)
“They were a delight to work with,” Hawley continues. “For Cathe, the whole auto-accessory business is internalized, because she started at so young an age.”
In 2005, their youth was still a factor. Says Hawley, “They couldn’t even rent a car when they went out of town; but they are both so technologically savvy. They’ve done a fabulous job with the business.”
Like Ryan, Cathe is a WPI graduate; her degree is in information management systems. She was in her senior year when her father decided to sell off the mini-empire he had created — a wholesale distribution company, also in vehicle accessories, that had reached national proportions.
ADD-ON Accessory Outlet was its only retail operation, created to sell seconds, extras, and damaged goods gleaned from Ross’ wholesale product stream. Cathe believes her father developed a fondness for the accessory store and had trouble letting go of it when he prepared to put his company on the market. So in 2004 he drove down to see them in Connecticut, where Ryan worked, and offered to sell the store to his daughter and future son-in-law (they had become engaged in 2003).
It didn’t take much arm-twisting.
“I had already decided, after a couple internships, that I wasn’t going to spend my life in a cubicle,” Cathe says. “I hadn’t been planning on coming back to Vermont, but this was an opportunity for us.”
Ryan was on board, too, despite his engineering and aerospace interests. A year out of college, he was with a consulting company doing work for Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Conn., analyzing problems with jet engines. He had worked summer jobs with ADD-ON, even shipping out one year to Pennsylvania to work in one of David Ross’ warehouses.
“When Cathe’s dad presented us with this opportunity I did have some idea what I was getting myself into,” says Ryan. “It’s been exciting. One of the big things is that we felt like we could apply some of the technical skills we had developed. The new computer system — that’s something we wouldn’t have been able to do as well without the schooling we got.”
People skills are no less important to their operation. Since taking over in 2004, they’ve not had to hire anyone new. They employ six people. The sales staff and installation specialists come from automotive and mechanical backgrounds, but it’s no small matter to develop the specialized knowledge the accessory industry demands — knowing, for just one example, the wiring systems for myriad makes and models of trucks and cars in order to correctly and efficiently install audio systems, fog lights, car alarms, remote starters, and other electronic systems that ADD-ON sells. Cathe and Ryan don’t want to lose people like that.
“We invest in our people,” Cathe asserts. “We want them to think they’ve got a career here, not a place you come to until another job comes along. Everyone has four weeks of vacation, and good benefits including a profit-sharing plan. We have two employees who have purchased houses off their profit-sharing plans.”
That’s a sign that the profits have been there for ADD-ON. One reason is an interesting change in the automotive market: To keep new-vehicle prices low, many come from the manufacturer with fewer features. “There are even new cars coming without stereo systems,” Cathe says.
Purchasers then beat their way to ADD-ON to equip the vehicles with the features they desire, or have the dealers purchase and install the ADD-ON accessories and roll the cost into their auto loans. Another recent market for the company is used cars and trucks — which are new to their owners, however, so they are eager to personalize them with GPS systems, Bluetooth mobile phone installations, tonneau covers, and other accessories.
“Truck sales are down, but our sales are up,” says Cathe. “For us, that’s a big deal. We must be doing something right.”
One of their strategies is to add a new product every year. Their ideas don’t always pan out, but they keep their customers interested. In 2010 the new product line will take ADD-ON into new territory. Come spring they’ll be visiting marinas to display Alpine audio systems for boats. Neither water nor salty air harms these systems — “You can hose them down and they’ll still play your iPod,” Cathe says — and the sound can be controlled independently within the cabin, out on the deck, and even on the swimming platform down by the water.
“This is brand new for us,” Cathe explains. “But Alpine is the biggest name in stereo applications. We’ve had Alpine products since 2007, and we’re excited about this.”
According to Colette Beaudoin, the company’s senior sales representative for the Northeastern market, Alpine is excited, too.
“They’re a solid, family-owned business,” she says. “They’re very service-oriented and follow through with their customers after their sales. As a major brand, we have to look at the market to see who’s going to be the best ones to represent us. We chose Cathe and Ryan. That says a lot for them.”
It was probably a smart choice for Alpine. But given Cathe and Ryan McDevitt’s vigor, imagination, and track record, it wasn’t really rocket science. •