High Lord of Alternatives
Steve Bimson’s Ability to Look at Things Differently Has Earned Him Many Titles
teve Bimson has five business cards , one for each of his five jobs. Like Gilbert & Sullivan’s famed Lord High Everything Else, Bimson has to keep on top of all his different responsibilities.
“I have five shirts with logos; this one’s for the environmental foundation. So every day I have to decide which shirt I’m going to wear, and which business card I’m going to take and which hat I’m going to wear. I’ve got my whole wardrobe set up that way,” he quips.
On a typical day, Bimson is usually the marketing manager for Pearson Ford. But he might also be the co-chair of the Binational Air Quality Alliance or the managing director of the San Diego Environmental Foundation.
Bimson also has another business card as the managing director and creator of the Regional Transportation Center, a project he’d sketched out on a napkin three years ago. The center will be a showroom for alternative-fuel automobiles, fueling stations for these vehicles, and an educational center for school groups when it opens in February 2001.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the center will be held May 7, during the national conference of the Clean Cities Coalition, held here in San Diego. Bimson, as the chairman of the local chapter, was instrumental in bringing the conference to San Diego.
Clean air is a high priority for Bimson, who grew up in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles. He still remembers the smog alerts of the late 1950s and early ’60s, when he couldn’t go outside and school sports were canceled.
Bimson was born in Los Angeles in 1944, the son of a policeman and a housewife. While he was in high school, he developed an interest in electronics, which paid off when he entered the Army after graduating from Eagle Rock High School in 1962.
After boot camp, Bimson went on to Army electronics school in Alabama. Achieving the highest score in the class, Bimson was given his choice of assignments. He chose to stay at the electronics school as an instructor.
After he got out of the military, he spent a few years doing quality control for a company that made soft drink vending machines.
Then came a few “hippie” years traveling around the country on a motorcycle in the early ’70s. After that, Bimson settled down in Los Angeles and became a motorcycle mechanic. But Bimson found a way to trump his store’s competitors and turn repairing choppers into a six-figure-a-year enterprise.
The real money in the motorcycle industry doesn’t come from selling bikes, but from fixing them. The slightest accident can turn a gleaming chrome bike into a road pretzel very quickly, Bimson says.
“The best way to increase our revenue was to do more ‘wreck work,'” he says. “So the question was, how do you get these wrecked motorcycles into your shop?”
Bimson noticed 99 percent of the motorcycle wrecks were caused by a car, not the motorcycle. So 99 percent of the time, the car insurer had to pay for the repair.
Bimson also learned insurance companies tend to work out of three-ring binders. Each page deals with a specific calamity and provides detailed instructions on how to handle the claim, he says.
Bimson was determined to get his store listed on that page. So he called a claims manager and said his store would give the insurer preferential treatment and a discount on parts.
“The next thing I know, they printed out a new page for that book on motorcycles, distributed it out to the claims people, and starting that day, the phones started ringing off the hook,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”
If the motorcycle could be repaired, they’d fix it, and that was a high-dollar job. If the insurance company wrote off the motorcycle as a total loss, then they’d turn around and sell the biker a new Hog. They’d also buy the wreck from the satisfied customer, refurbish it and put it on the sales floor, Bimson said.
“The owner was making a ton of money, the sales guy was selling more bikes than he ever sold, the parts department had a special guy assigned to my program,” he says. “So the whole thing just took on a life of its own.”
It was a win-win situation because the insurance company saved a bundle, while the store did very well. And it all worked by itself, he says.
“My intellectual friends would come by and say, ‘Why are you still working in this place?’ And I said, “Well, because I make $200,000 a year doing nothing. I can’t leave,” he says.
Still, after eight years, Bimson moved on. Next, he dabbled in publishing, where once again he created a business opportunity for himself. This time, he went to a nonprofit organization that published a photocopied monthly newsletter for 500 members.
Bimson promised that he could turn it into a slick-looking magazine with advertising, and he’d charge them only $2 per person per month, which would pay for everything, including production and distribution.
The group agreed, realizing it would cost them less to have him do a professional job than it would to do it themselves, he said. The result was a four-color magazine which attracted advertisers because it was being mailed directly to their target audience.
“I’m firmly convinced that anyone with reasonable intelligence can go to work as a janitor in a company and before long, move right up the line and be president,” he says of his successes.
But publishing led to his only business failure to date. He was printing up real estate brochures, and doing fairly well , up until the real estate market crashed in the late ’80s.
Bimson took a job in Phoenix as a service writer for a Ford dealership, but he didn’t stay a service writer for long. Once again, he noticed an area of the business which could use a little growth.
This time, he saw that for each large company or municipality with a fleet of vehicles, there was always one person in charge of the fleet. And if a car had a mechanical problem, it was his headache.
Bimson sought out these people and got them interested in contracting the repair work out to his dealership. For a monthly service fee, the company could have all its vehicle maintenance taken care of, with no hassles.
“I was able to put together a whole fleet service program in Phoenix, with everybody from the FBI, to the state government, to the utility company,” he said. “I just did some simple research and found out who had a large number of vehicles, and I just walked in and said, ‘Let’s make a deal.'”
Within a few months of being hired, Bimson was promoted to fleet service manager.
Pearson Ford heard about what he was doing in Phoenix and hired him to work here. Bimson started in July 1996.
“The weather convinced me that I was living in the wrong place,” he said.
But after he came here, Bimson became intrigued by a different challenge. The Ford Motor Co. made 12 alternative-fuel cars and trucks. But there wasn’t much effort put into selling them, he said.
Bimson was already sold on alternatively powered vehicles , remembering both the smog alerts of his youth and the energy crises of the 1970s, when foreign oil producers severely curtailed exports, leading to long lines at gas stations.
He reasoned that another such oil shock could happen in the future, leading to a demand for cars which didn’t require gasoline. That meant the sales force would have to be trained to be knowledgeable about these vehicles.
It also meant educating today’s children, so in the future they might make a decision to buy an alternatively powered vehicle. So Bimson’s solution was the Regional Transportation Center.
Bimson was also able to organize a large coalition to support the center. The Ford Motor Co. ponied up $1.4 million. The federal government contributed seed money, and the California Air Resources Board also signed on, Bimson said. Bimson also joined three local environmental groups, and each of them put him on the board, he said.
Bimson has big plans for the center. Bimson imagines bringing three classes through the center each day, reaching about 25,000 school children a year.
“This thing will become a global epicenter,” he says. “What I intend to do with the Regional Transportation Center is set the tone for the 21st century.
“People (will be) coming in from all parts of the globe to see how we did it, so they can go back to their community and do the same thing.”