Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden & Courtesy of U-Joint Off Road
A square wooden table displays neatly arranged copies of Overland Journal, while the adjacent wall bears large, high definition, photos of jacked-up four-wheel-drive vans surmounting impossibly steep terrain… wheels clambering over boulders, axles tilting in opposing directions, giving the appearance that the trucks are made of rubber.
They are all the creation of the man who is giving us a tour. A tour of the headquarters of U-Joint Off Road, a company that specializes in the conversion of ordinary vans into aggressive four-wheel-drive rock climbers.
“We manufacture a complete conversion kit that allows anyone with mechanical ability to convert their van at home,” says U-Joint’s founder, Chris Steuber. “We’ve shipped them to customers worldwide. We also do full turn-key conversions here, for owners that don’t want to get their hands dirty.”
We walk into a cavernous shop space. A long van chassis has been laid bare, while the van’s body hovers eight feet off the floor. One technician is loosening immense bolts to remove the front axle, while another grinds some corrosion from the frame. New, heavy duty axle, steering, and suspension components are standing by awaiting installation, and the engine can be seen undergoing overhaul in an adjacent bay.
To our surprise, the van’s owner wanders in to visit his project, and his Christmas-morning, starry, gaze is met with a warm greeting by the U-Joint Off Road staff.
He’s a local plumber who has owned it since new, racking up close to a quarter of a million miles while plying his trade. He had become so attached to this vehicle, that, when he bought a replacement, he decided to do a complete frame-up restoration to convert his retired van to a deluxe, go-anywhere retirement van.
“When I was a kid I thought vans were cool,” says Chris. “I think it was the freedom that drew me to them. I daydreamed of building one and would sketch interior layouts all the time. I also read a comic book called The Punisher and he drove a van that was all tricked out with guns ‘n’ stuff.
“I was drawn to 4×4’s in general after the blizzard of ’92 when my family was stuck at home for five days. I wanted to be prepared when I grew up, so when I saw my first 4×4 van, it was a game changer! Also, as a musician, I was always hauling gear and friends, so I wanted a vehicle that would do it all.”
Handy with tools, and undaunted by such a large task, the 19-year-old Chris began to overhaul a very beat up four-wheel- drive van he had purchased used. Working out of his mother’s garage, he taught himself about vans and four-wheel-drive. Three years, and thousands of dollars later, his dream vehicle was complete. It didn’t have comic-book capabilities, but it worked.
The Grand Experiment
This vehicular obsession was no fleeting infatuation; with his van completed, Chris continued to read about four-wheel -drive products and projects. One day in 2001, he pointed the van west, and drove all the way to Los Angeles. He didn’t know a soul there, but that didn’t matter. Chris was determined to gain employment with the leading four-wheel-drive shop, Off Road Unlimited (ORU).
If enthusiasm could stand in for job experience, Chris should have been hired to run the company. His eager request for employment, however, was met with a simple ‘No.’
Poor and new in town is not a recipe for relaxation. Chris threw himself into finding employment. An accomplished classical and rock bassist, he secured some music gigs. Within months, he scored a job working in television. The pay was lousy, but he took every shift offered.
Coworkers wanted to move up the TV ladder, but not Chris, this was just another job—his dream lie in working on trucks at Off Road Unlimited. A year after being refused, his moment arrived: Chris was called to interview at ORU.
He aced the interview, but the position offered was answering the company emails. Chris didn’t like it, but it was a foot in the door. This was to be fortuitous, as he didn’t really know much about 4×4 conversions; his own van project gave him just enough knowledge to pass the interview.
Serious man that he was, Chris knew he had to get up to speed quickly for his new employer. What he lacked in experience, Steuber made up for in dedication. Each email question was researched thoroughly. What he couldn’t find in ORU’s catalog, he’d look for online, or ask questions of the mechanics on the floor.
Chris amassed a large body of technical knowledge, as well as experience in dealing with customers email. The company noticed his progress and, within six months, he was asked if he wanted to do something more.
‘At last,’ he thought, ‘I’ll be twisting wrenches on the shop floor.’ Instead, he was asked to man the parts sales counter as well as answer emails. Steuber stumbles into the serendipity stream once again.
The Grand Experiment
Months spent answering emails were the perfect training for selling Off Road Unlimited’s parts, and professionals will tell you that sales are made or lost on the salesman’s product experience and communication skills.
Chris quickly became the top grossing salesman at ORU and traveled extensively to trade shows, which was another opportunity to learn. Life was good; he was living his dream, was learning about how to run a business, and he was making good money…which began to burn a hole in his pocket.
A gear head to the core, Chris was plotting his next four-wheel-drive van conversion. He would do it by himself, working after hours in his employer’s shop. This project would be on a brand new, two-wheel-drive Ford E-series van, which he would convert to a four-wheel-drive, and it would be lifted 8” to allow the use of very large tires.
This was a lot different than rebuilding his old van; it was more like designing a new one. Four-wheel-drive conversions require that the front suspension be removed and replaced with a solid axle that can drive the front wheels.
The transmission has to be modified to drive that new axle in addition to driving the rear. Because his 4×4 van had to be raised, the suspension and steering mechanism needed to be relocated and replaced with heavy-duty components.
During his tenure with Off Road Unlimited, Steuber had developed a short list of vendors whose four-wheel-drive parts he wanted to mount in his newest project. This also gave him the time to think about how he wanted to mount everything and create a project workflow plan.
He took copious notes during the build, including pictures and drawings of the numerous brackets, hangers, and specialized tooling that had to be fabricated…just in case he wanted to convert another future van or maybe build one for a customer.
When his project rolled out of the shop, its stance was so aggressive that a friend dubbed it ‘Vanaconda.’ It was an amazing vehicle to look it, but driving the tall, muscular van was even more surprising. Despite having been raised 8” to cruise over obstacles, on the pavement Vanaconda could corner better than most two-wheel-drive vans, whose bodies roll sideways in aggressive maneuvering.
Steuber had altered the position of the van’s axle to optimize the finished vehicle’s suspension and steering geometry, thus eliminating the body roll so prevalent in high profile vehicles.
Chris was encouraged to showcase Vanaconda during the annual automotive aftermarket show, SEMA, in 2006. The custom van generated quite a buzz, the first of many glimmers from the 4×4 van market.
Off Road Unlimited’s owner decided to take his company another direction and compete for parts sales with the large online retailers. This was 2007; Chris had been selling for the company five years and he thought it was a bad move. He quickly secured employment as director of sales and marketing for Kilby Enterprises and gave his notice at ORU.
Kilby was another 4×4 after-marketer, and Chris stepped into the position with authority. 2007 was a different year for him. He was running sales in a successful company, and he started to use online forums as a marketing tool.
“I didn’t start using the four-by-four forums until late ’06, early ’07,” says Chris. “A friend of mine had a shop in Nor[thern] Cal[ifornia] and he was very successful using the forums to build his business. So, I began to contribute to some during my final year at ORU and kept it going at Kilby.”
These forums are websites, which serve as bulletin boards for specific topics. A visitor can post a note containing a question on the board and expect responses from other users. The posts and answers form what’s called a ‘thread,’ and some threads on popular forums can run into hundreds of pages, with thousands of posts, and tens of thousands of views.
Given that his career in sales began with answering customer email, participating in forums was easy for Chris. Posting on a 4×4 forum, as a representative of a leading equipment vendor, he was performing a public service to enthusiasts, as well as gaining their confidence as potential customers.
Over an 18-month period, Chris became a household name on some off-road forums, and his opinion was sought regularly. When he began to post photos of his Vanaconda project, his credibility and internet popularity soared. He was flooded with requests for plans and parts from forum users who wanted to create their own aggressive, haul-it-all vehicle.
Chris wasn’t interested, as he’d launched a four-wheel-drive-themed clothing line, ‘U-Joint Off Road,’ which garnered a bunch of customers thanks to the forums, but it didn’t pay the bills. Steuber told his forum followers he’d always offer them advice but wasn’t interested in selling kits…but, months later, bowing to pressure, Chris made 15 sets of the brackets he had designed for Vanaconda to sell.
“I said, guys, this is a one-time offer, first come, first served,” says Chris. “They immediately sold out. I was shocked. I’d priced them fairly, and the profit margin was attractive, so I started to think differently about starting my own business.”
Southern California was a very expensive place to start a business, especially one that requires a large industrial building. Clearly a move was in order were he to launch his own van conversion company.
In the fall of 2008, Vanaconda carried him back to Western North Carolina to open his own four-wheel-drive van conversion company. Chris would keep the name of his clothing company, U-Joint Off Road (UJOR), because in the minds of his internet following, Chris Steuber and U-Joint Off Road were one in the same.
Home is the last place most people think of when relocating a business, but the reasoning was sound. He knew commercial real estate rates were lower, he had a network of mechanics from his youth, and, most importantly, marketing via the internet could be done from anywhere.
He didn’t have enough money to purchase the equipment necessary to make the business viable, so he got busy. Chris worked as a landscaper for a friend with the understanding that if he got any van calls, he’d have to answer. A steady income reduced the stress of the business launch. Birthing U-Joint Off Road was to be a conservative, methodical process. The first step was to develop a website.
His experience in Los Angles had shown him that paying someone to do web design and all the required updates is expensive, and quick responding web techs are usual. So, he did his own website.
Next, he looked into web optimization companies. The $300-$400 per month fee they charged was way too steep, but he’d taken copious notes on the optimizers’ proposals. A web-geek friend taught Chris what all the words meant, so he set to the optimizing task.
Before these efforts, a Google search for ‘4X4 Van Conversions’ put his new company, on the 4th result page. Afterwards, his U-Joint Off Road appeared at the top of the first page. While getting the site up and running, Chris continued to contribute to 4×4 van forums because he knew that was crucial for success.
A year and a half landscaping and Chris got his first turnkey van conversation; someone was sending him a vehicle to rebuild. By 2010, he moved into his first shop, and U-Joint Off Road became a full-time business.
In the ten years that U-Joint Off Road has been operating, a great deal has happened. Their sales have grown 30-40% annually. They operate out of a 3,600-square-foot facility at 195C Cane Creek Road in Fletcher, North Carolina. In 2014 they sold 70 conversion kits, half of which U-Joint Off Road installed themselves.
Content is Crucial
The 2015 production schedule will be the ninth run of UJOR customized kits, adding to the approximately 350 units presently on the road.
Chris doesn’t spend any capital on traditional advertising. The best customer response has been generated by word of mouth and by involvement in online 4×4 forums. To that end, UJOR sponsors a forum on ExpeditionPortal.com, where he has meticulously entered over 4,000 posts to date.
Responsiveness to customer requests via the Web and phone has been a distinguishing feature between UJOR and competitors. Chris rarely sees his competitors participating online, much to their detriment.
“Online involvement is key for my business, so I check the forums three times a day,” say Chris. “And it’s not just answering technical questions, every day I also photograph something that’s going on here and post it to my Instagram followers. This automatically goes to my Facebook page too.”
There’s a term for Chris’ online involvement: Content Marketing. Put simply, it is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of information (content) in order to acquire and retain customers.
This content can be presented in a variety of formats, including forum posting, video, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc. For a basic tutorial on content marketing, see the February issue of Capital at Play.
Content marketing has been around for centuries; Michelin’s Travel Guide, which first appeared in 1900, gave drivers information on auto maintenance, accommodations, and other travel tips. Seth Godin, an American author and marketer, stated in 2008 that ‘content marketing was the only marketing left.’
Customer feedback glows with praise for Chris Steuber’s hand holding. Well before they actually become customers, Steuber has helped used van buyers evaluate market offerings. When asked why he gets so deeply involved he says, “I’d hate for someone to buy a van that will be problematic to convert, or that won’t fulfill the role intended.” It is this bullish dedication to contact marketing that drives U-Joint Off Road.
Answering emails and forum posts doesn’t end when the sun goes down either, so Chris is working during a large percentage of the life he shares with his wife, Jennifer, and their three children.
“Jennifer and I have three children under the age of three, two of which are twin boys,” says Chris. “I could not be in this business without her support and understanding. Having a strong marriage is a large part of our success.”
The Kit that Fits
U-Joint’s kits will fit any 1992 to 2014 (last production year) Ford E-series van and cab-chassis. The discontinuation of the E-series van is not a concern for the company because the majority of the vehicles they have converted have been purchased used and the market is deep. Since 1980, E-Series has been the best selling American full-sized van and held 79.6% of the full-size van market in the United States in 2007.
[quote float=”right”]To augment the current parts flow, U-Joint is expanding into an adjacent, 2,100-square-foot shop space. $50,000 in machinery will be purchased to bring a small portion of production in-house [/quote]
Chris learned a great deal during his Los Angeles years. For instance, many four-wheel-drive conversion kits contained wearing parts that could only be purchased from the manufacturer. For parts that tend to wear, U-Joint Off Road uses standard automotive items available worldwide, in assemblies like axles, brakes, shocks, springs, and steering actuators.
One of the key contributors to a U-Joint van’s over the road behavior are their custom leaf springs. Overly stiff springs will reduce body roll in cornering, but they also create a bumpy ride. Knowing that truck spring manufacturers over build their springs, UJOR has them custom assembled from stock.
All of the fabricated parts of the kits are manufactured in the United States from high quality materials, with a high degree of fit and finish. You can pick out the quality of a U-Joint Off Road van from ten feet away. The high stance of these vans allows a detailed look at the undercarriage, so Chris makes sure that every part is beautiful to behold, completed with shiny cadmium plated hardware.
Not a do-it-yourself person?
So what happens to your Ford van after you drop it off at U-Joint Off Road? That depends on you. Customers who plan on keeping their vehicle forever, usually want the crew to remove the body from the chassis and, while the entire frame is exposed, repair any rust or damage evident. Additionally, engine and transmission overhauls are most easily accomplished at this time.
U-Joint has not found any local engine shops that are willing to overhaul a diesel to the level of quality they expect. Since they know which parts are prone to failure as mileage and years increase, a UJOR-overhauled power plant will contain parts replaced proactively, particularly ones that are difficult to access (read: costly) when the engine is covered up.
While the engine undergoes overhaul, the existing front suspension is completely removed. New leaf springs and a solid drive axle are installed, but moved forward from the original position, which is key for road handling. Springs, shock absorbers, and steering components are attached using U-Joint’s proprietary hangers and brackets.
Once everything has been double and triple checked, the body is lowered and reattached to the chassis.
“My favorite moment in the shop is the day a van comes down off the lift.” Chris smiles. “That never gets old; it’s immediate gratification.”
Rolling into the Future
What plans are there for the future? U-Joint Off Road will continue to improve their product offerings in response to customer requirements, but they’ve barely scratched the surface of the van conversion market. Chris has a long list of other products he wants to offer, from bumpers to roof ladders, roof racks to underbody storage compartments.
Currently, U-Joint Off Road subcontracts their parts manufacturing to a network of smaller job-shops, one of which is working almost full-time for them. The quality is stellar, as are lead times, but the situation does not allow the company flexibility to manufacture much more in the way of new products.
To augment the current parts flow, UJOR is expanding into an adjacent, 2,100-square-foot shop space. $50,000 in machinery will be purchased to bring a small portion of production in-house. The tools needed include: a CNC-cutting machine, a metal bender, a welding station, and small powder coating capabilities.
The staff of four full-time technicians will suffice until the manufacturing demand begins to take away from conversion shop production. Chris has always been conservative before adding full-time employees because he takes the responsibility very seriously. We’ve seen this repeated on just about every Capital at Play story; successful small businesses only expand facilities and staff when demand consistently outstrips the company’s capacity.
Ford stopped making the E-series van in 2014, how will that impact UJOR? A very small percentage of their annual conversions are on brand new vehicles. Chris believes that U-Joint Off Road could prosper for decades on the surviving worldwide rolling stock.
However, Nissan’s new commercial van is also a body on frame design, which has caught Chris’ eye. If the vehicle proves to be as successful a seller as the Ford E-series, his company could design a new conversion kit to suit the Nissan van.
Chris Steuber is a dynamic man who’s serious about his business, which he guides with wisdom, mixed with the innocence of a youth tending to his paper route. Twenty plus years into his automotive career still finds him having fun and approaching every customer and project with imagination, enthusiasm, and reverence.
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