GREENVILLE, S.C. — Whether they be individual vehicle display ramps for dealerships or colossal customized multi-car inspection ramps for auctions and manufacturers, Doumis Chapman said he enjoys creating with steel. But, Chapman is quick to add that he knows his “art” will not attract any glowing accolades from big-city museums, nor will his creations capture any beauty contest awards.
In fact, chuckling at his own expense, Chapman said his ramps are not overly pleasing to the eye. “I can’t believe I’m having so much fun making something that’s so ugly,” the 72-year-old Chapman said, breaking out into extended laughter. “I mean, they really are ugly, but people want them.”
Without hesitating, Chapman said his ramps do help dealers sell more cars and trucks. And he added that they do enable auctions and automakers to inspect engines or the under bodies of numerous vehicles at a time on an ongoing basis.
“They’re strong, they meet your needs and they work,” Chapman said matter-of-factly.
While demand for his car display ramps has waned a bit of late, though he expects orders to once again improve, Chapman said he has more than compensated by stepping up construction of multi-car inspection ramps for Ford Motor Co. and for various Manheim and independent auctions.
Business is so good in that arena, Chapman Enterprise outgrew its current building, the company president said. A suitable location to place a larger manufacturing facility was purchased a half-mile up the road and construction began. Chapman said that he and his 12-person crew and office personnel will soon be moving into their new plant.
“We’re about 90 percent finishing everything,” Chapman said. “The facility will be four times bigger than what we’ve got now and will have a 10,000-square-foot office, and we’ll be able to use a crane in there, so things will be a lot more efficient.”
Chapman hasn’t always been in the ramp business. He got his start with fasteners, selling nuts, bolts and screws. His company was small but he said he was doing well.
A downturn occurred in the mid-1970s, forcing Chapman to consider a job transition. That’s when he said he had an entrepreneurial vision — and his career path would forever be altered. “I saw something that resembled a ramp that a car dealer could put on his lot, and I took a hunch that might be something in the future,” Chapman noted. “I sold my fastener business and cold turkey started partnering with a guy who would build these things for me off of my own design.”
For the next 18 months or so, the partner would build 10 units and Chapman would load them on his truck and then hit the road, sometimes not deciding his destination until the morning he departed.
“I would literally sometimes go eenie, meenie, minee, mo, OK, Indianapolis,” Chapman said. “But I was able to sell them pretty quick and by the time I’d get back, there would be 10 more waiting for me.”
Chapman eventually decided to open up his own place in South Carolina, which he said was nothing more than a hole in the wall. He hired three men to weld the units and for 14 years he repeated the weekly process of hauling and selling.
“I got to visit all of the car dealers East of the Mississippi, from franchise dealers to independents,” Chapman noted. “Some of them had no idea what these things were, while others immediately saw the potential of displaying their vehicles in a unique way out on their lots.”
Chapman explained that those dealers who would display units up on the ramp so drive-by customers could “see the cars and not just all hoods” and who would also change vehicles every couple of days saw car sales spike as a result.
“Dealers told me that they’d average anywhere from 3 to 6 additional car sales a month by displaying them on our ramps,” he noted. “Their good word confirmed to me that we had a great product that worked.”
But loading and unloading 5,000 pounds of steel each week eventually took its toll on Chapman’s body. He had weathered bad backs and ailing shoulders, but one day, he said he woke up and decided that he couldn’t keep up that physically grueling pace.
Another vision. Ah, the beauty of advertising. Chapman said he began placing ads in appropriate trade publications and was amazed with the immediate results. “One Monday morning early on, I got to the office and the first call was from California and a guy wanted 4 ramps, 30 inches high and 13-feet-4-inches long,” Chapman recalled. “So we shipped them out to him. Wow, selling that way was a whole lot easier and less taxing on my body. The first year we averaged selling 40 to 50 sets a month.
“But to be honest, it was scary selling only in those magazines and that was it,” he added. “But things took off really good and today we’re a lot more sophisticated, making nine different types of ramps.”
Chapman went on to say, “I’ve only been slow in my car-ramp business just for the last year. I think it’s the high gas prices, but that part of the business has slowed down at least 20 percent. But I believe business will eventually pick back up.”
On the other hand, Chapman said he’s seen a surge in orders of the huge inspection units. A little while back, Ford’s Louisville Truck division approached Chapman to build an “industrial strength” customized ramp that could accommodate five trucks at a time so they could inspect and change out their transmissions in a much more cost-effective manner.
“We worked with five of their engineers and came up with a ramp manufactured to their specifications that’s fit for the record books,” Chapman said. “It is 172 feet long, and we believe it holds the record in length,” he said.
Then came a call from a Manheim auction in Florida. That triggered a chain of events that’s led to a new line of specialty ramps that can be used for post-sale inspections or for arbitration and warranty inspections, as well as for oil changes during reconditioning. These units can come equipped with a full-length aluminum cover so that inspections can continue in inclement weather.
Not only have other Manheim auctions purchased these units, Chapman said, but independent sales are hearing about them and are getting on the band wagon.
“Word of mouth is doing its magic,” he noted. “But we’re also getting the word out through our Internet site, though to be honest I’m not all that technologically inclined.”
With business on the rise, Chapman said he might have to add a second shift once the company moves into the new facility.
“You know, I took this business 30 years ago and ran with it and have stuck with it all this time,” Chapman said. “And I’ve made a little something out of it.
“Though I’m 72, I haven’t had time to think about retiring,” he added. “Besides, I don’t know what I’d do if I retired. I like hunting elk, mule deer and pheasant. But I’d rather be working with steel making these ugly ramps.”