Tomberlin to expand powersports network

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Mike Tomberlin began developing electric vehicles in 2005, and soon offered them to powersports dealers. But the move didn’t go well. “We quickly found out that powersports dealers were reluctant to get involved with electrics,” Tomberlin told me recently. “We may have been too early, and there wasn’t much demand in that channel outside of a few early adopters.”

But the situation may be different today, and Tomberlin says he is again preparing to sell electric vehicles through powersports dealers. The move could provide another revenue stream for selected dealers.

Tomberlin has about 100 powersports dealers selling his electric products, and he expects to add another 85 powersports dealers by next March. There are several hundred dealers selling his electric products outside of the powersports channel.

“Remember that traditional units were flying out the door at that time, inventories were high, floor plans were full and here we come selling electrics,” Tomberlin says. “Clearly, we were just too early.”

That analysis makes a certain amount of sense, but I wonder if Tomberlin’s products were right for the market at that time. For example, his first product was the E-Merge E-2, a pumped up golf cart that was classified as a street-legal, low-speed vehicle (LSV) with a top speed of about 25 mph — not the typical machine you expect to see on the showroom floor of a powersports dealer.

There may have been other problems, too. Electric vehicles didn’t have a very high profile with consumers at that time. And the target market for Tomberlin’s electrics was substantially different from the normal powersports customer — an older, “green” person, who often was disabled to some degree. Not your typical gas-and-oil rider. Not someone the sales staff could easily relate to.

How many prospects in a powersports dealership were looking for an on-road vehicle that puttered along at 25 mph and had a range of only about 30 miles? You see the problem.

Today, electrics and hybrids are much more front and center — from motorcycles and SxS units to BRP’s popular Spyder roadster and a number of neighborhood LSVs.

Tomberlin’s products successfully sold elsewhere, they just didn’t sell through powersports dealers. Based on sales of its electrics, Tomberlin was one of the leading sellers of LSVs in the U.S. by 2009.

Tomberlin adjusted his approach and today his 4x4 Vanish electric UTV is a popular performer that has a number of world firsts, he says. Perhaps the most important is that it’s the first crossover UTV that’s also a street legal LSV. You can find more information on the Vanish by clicking this link. There are several other electric platforms in various stages of development, Tomberlin says.

Tomberlin is better equipped today to provide a profitable electric lineup to powersports dealers for two reasons: More and better products (more than a dozen electric models) and better organization. MSRPs range from $6,999 to $17,000 for the special Carroll Shelby Edition.

“This is our third major product effort,” Tomberlin says. “We became leaders in the first two, but we lacked the talent to stay on top. I think we learned from those two efforts, and now we own the intellectual property, own the tooling, supplier base and we have a very sustainable business model.

“Why might dealers be more receptive today? The whole world is receptive today. We do business in about 45 states and 16 countries and our fastest-growing business segment is international.”

The widespread acceptance of electric vehicles today might be the most important reason why dealers could be more receptive to Tomberlin’s new program. As companies like Polaris move into the electric segment, they give it more credibility. Polaris is putting substantial resources behind electric machines. It now offers the Breeze LSV in several models, it purchased the GEM (Global Electric Motorcars LLC) company in April, and its Ranger EV electric UTV gets big play.

Two other companies, Bad Boy and Ruff & Tuff, also offer electric SxS units, and BRP recently showed an electric concept Commander and said it is working on a hybrid model of its very popular Spyder three-wheel roadster.

Aside from offering a broader product lineup and having more electric awareness this time around, Tomberlin has a few other wrinkles up his sleeve to entice powersports dealers, he says. Each product has its own dealer agreement for example, and Tomberlin offers both consumer financing and flooring from GE.

Participating dealers also can sell Tomberlin’s gas powered ATVs and Schwinn scooters.

And dealers can earn nice margins on electrics: about 21 percent.

Without adequate support, nothing else really matters, and Tomberlin says there are about 9,000 SKUs available in his two U.S. warehouses — a 105,000 sq. ft., facility in Augusta, Ga., and a 30,000 sq. ft. building in Palm Springs, Calif. More than one-third of the Vanish SxS assembly is done in Augusta. The 45,000 sq. ft. parts footprint has more than doubled in the last three years, Tomberlin states. “Parts and service is the lifeblood of our business, as far as sustainability is concerned,” he says.

On the marketing side, he’s lined up several nationally recognized hunters and appearances on television shows such as “Spiritual Outdoor Adventures with Jimmy Sites,” an outdoor show that claims distribution into 95 million households nationally and internationally.

Tomberlin says he makes it easy for dealers who carry his products by providing training through Tomberlin University, as well as online warranty processing.

“I believe our credibility in the market has been validated,” Tomberlin says. “Some questioned our efforts in 2005, but today we really fight some giants in this space. Electric is 90 percent of our revenues, and our future depends on assuring an experience second to none.

“We’ve gone head-to-head with the big brands and it appears, based upon market response, that we have carved out a niche we can continue to win.”

Tomberlin is a closely held company, so he doesn’t have to release sales figures. But he did say that he’s moved “well over 10,000 units” in the market and expects to sell more than 5,000 units next year.

You can see some of Tomberlin’s products in action by clicking on this link.