Business

Devlin turns passion for Hot Wheels into real life hot rods

From left, Tim Devlin, Ryan James and Kevin Carr stand in their new facility at Douglas and Hydraulic. Devlin said that Carr and James have been with him since he started the shop in December 2004. “Because we’ve been together so long, I’ve seen them get married, have kids. … The three of us, we’re very much a family,” Devlin said.
From left, Tim Devlin, Ryan James and Kevin Carr stand in their new facility at Douglas and Hydraulic. Devlin said that Carr and James have been with him since he started the shop in December 2004. “Because we’ve been together so long, I’ve seen them get married, have kids. … The three of us, we’re very much a family,” Devlin said. The Wichita Eagle

In Tim Devlin’s office at Devlin Rod and Customs sits a white, plastic lawn chair.

The chair is a stark contrast to the other furnishings in Devlin’s new, 12,000-square-foot building at Douglas and Hydraulic, where the business moved a few weeks ago.

The chair will remain as a reminder of where the company has come in the 10 years since Devlin opened it.

Some of his first customers sat in the chair, he said, and had enough belief in his shop to commit tens of thousands of dollars – in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars – on car projects, even though the shop was only beginning to establish its reputation.

“We’re never losing sight of that, and that’s why we’re going to keep the chair,” Devlin said. “That’s our reminder.”

Devlin grew up around cars. His father, Rent-a-Center and Flint Hills National Golf Club founder Tom Devlin, had an interest in cars, as did his uncles and grandfather.

“Hot Wheels was the No. 1 toy for me,” he said. “Anything automotive, anything with an engine was of interest to me.”

But it’s not the career path he set out on.

Devlin went to Kansas State University and earned a degree in business management. And then in 1999 he went to work as a financial analyst for a Colorado-based real estate investment trust.

Four years into the job, Devlin was walking into a coffee shop near his office when he overheard two men talking in a parking lot about a classic car one of them was driving. He said the passion that both men exuded in their conversation struck him – and got him to thinking about his future.

It was pretty close to an epiphany.

“That was kind of it,” Devlin said. The “it” was chucking his business career and learning how to customize cars and make hot rods. “It was always in the back of my mind.”

The decision led him to WyoTech in Laramie, Wyo., where he spent a year learning how to work on car bodies and paint them, as well as how to fabricate street rods and chassis.

During a break in his training at WyoTech, Devlin traveled to Wichita to see family and scope out jobs in his newfound trade. One job possibility was at RK Restorations, where he had a two-hour interview with the owner, Rex Knepp. “We’re wrapping up, and he said, ‘You know, Tim, I really don’t want to hire anybody, but I think you ought to buy this place from me,’” Devlin said.

“We made the deal while I was still living in Wyoming,” he said. Devlin finished up his training at WyoTech, moved back to Wichita in the fall of 2004, and opened Devlin Customs in December 2004 at 1811 E. Douglas. That’s the same 6,000-square-foot building RK Restorations occupied.

One thing Devlin wants to make clear is that he financed the deal on his own. Over the years he said a lot of people assumed that his father, Tom, provided the means to buy the business. To this day, he added, he still gets people coming into the shop wanting to talk to his dad.

The only financial support he’s received from his dad and other family members is that they brought him car projects, Devlin said. As for the acquisition of RK Restorations, “it was just me,” he said. “I got a traditional loan, the old-fashioned way.”

Devlin bought RK because of its reputation for the auto restorations that it did, he said. But he had no intention of doing just that work. First and foremost, the company customizes cars and makes hot rods.

A hot rod is basically any car or truck that’s modified to be lightweight and fast. “Technically, that’s a hot rod,” he said.

True to Devlin’s training, the business focuses on paint and body and chassis fabrication. It mostly leaves other areas such as engines and interiors to companies that have the experience and expertise for that work.

“We’re akin to a general contractor on a building,” he said, managing a car project, doing the work it’s capable of doing and parsing the rest to deliver “the best product.”

Jeff Breault is a repeat customer since 2008. He’s had Devlin’s shop finish a hot rod for him as well as a “nuts and bolts” restoration of a 1954 Cadillac – a project Breault said took three years.

“They’ve done lots of different work for me,” Breault said. “It’s not to say there aren’t other good shops in the city or even in the state, but Tim and his crew have never overpromised. They’ve always done more than they said they were going to do.”

Devlin works for those repeat customers such as Breault. He also wants to have a variety of projects. He likes the big projects, but small jobs are important, too.

The last recession “made me realize how important smaller builds are,” he said. The margins are better on small jobs – installing air ride systems, repairing rust, lowering vehicles, performing general maintenance – Devlin said.

The shop’s new building should help growth of the company in several ways. At twice the size, the shop can handle more projects simultaneously. Plus it allows the work flow to happen in three areas separated by walls: tear-down and fabrication in one room, paint in another, and detailing and delivery in a third room. The building also includes a separate showroom, offices and conference area.

Devlin said he hopes the new building reflects the quality of cars it is building and makes new customers think, “They must be doing something right.”

Even if the boss has a plastic lawn chair in his office.

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jsiebenmark.

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