Online dealer delivers for mail carriers

on May27

U.S. Drive Right scours Japan for used Jeep Cherokees to sell from its Michigan location. Photo credit: JOHN IRWIN

MICHIGAN CENTER, Mich. — An online used-vehicle retailer here, 77 miles west of Detroit, specializes in selling just one model: right-hand-drive Jeep Cherokees reimported from Japan.

The success of U.S. Drive Right illustrates an enduring truth in the used-vehicle market: Money can be made by identifying a unique market and serving its needs when others don’t.

There’s a surprisingly large market for those vehicles thanks to rural postal drivers, said Dan Machnik, co-owner of U.S. Drive Right. That’s because those postal carriers can drive 60 miles or more every day, often on unpaved roads, so they need to look for something safe and reliable when their current vehicle begins to break down.

“It’s a huge market that we’ve not fully penetrated yet. There are a lot of rural postal carriers out there.”
Dan Machnik, co-owner, U.S. Drive Right

‘Beat up’

“Once you get on these rural routes, they get beat up,” Machnik said. “We’ve heard from our customers that if they do order a new vehicle, they regret it just because of how much of a pounding they take. So we’re here for them.”

The retailer was founded in 2007 and was able to weather the Great Recession before outgrowing its first warehouse in nearby Spring Arbor. It moved to its current location in Michigan Center in 2013.

U.S. Drive Right’s original owners decided to move on from the business in 2015, selling their assets to Machnik, an investment adviser by trade, his mother, also an investment adviser, and his father, who had worked as U.S. Drive Right’s certified public accountant.

“I looked at it a little bit and I said to my dad, ‘Why don’t we consider [buying] it?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’ ” Machnik recalled. “But I wore him down over a period of time.”

The new owners turned over most of the staff to improve efficiency and quality. But the company’s reputation as the go-to place for right-hand-drive Cherokees remained.

“It’s a huge market that we’ve not fully penetrated yet,” Machnik said. “There are a lot of rural postal carriers out there.”

Getting those Cherokees available for purchase is a process that can take up to six months, and it begins by identifying Jeep Cherokees with low mileage throughout Japan. Machnik said Cherokees are seen as status symbols by many urban drivers in Japan and are driven limited miles before the owner moves on to another vehicle. Once the Jeep enters the used market it is bought and shipped stateside.

“They come to us with very low miles on them,” Machnik said. “Our broker in Japan knows exactly what we need. The Jeep Cherokee happens to be a vehicle that just lasts a long time.”

Once the Cherokees arrive, they are subject to tests from the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which determine whether they are up to U.S. regulatory standards. Newer Cherokees are also subject to emissions testing from the EPA.

U.S. Drive Right can have dozens of Cherokees at its facility at a time, but it is typical for only a handful to be on sale because of how long testing can take. Waiting for weeks or months on testing can be “a killer,” Machnik said.

“If we were relying on vehicles for just-in-time inventory, there’s no way this would work.”

When the Jeeps are back at the U.S. Drive Right facility, a team of mechanics works on them, tearing them down as necessary to make the vehicles meet regulatory standards and to make them “look and smell” like new.

The company says it has sold more than 2,100 vehicles. That’s thanks in large part to postal carriers who search for right-hand-drive Cherokees on the Web, Machnik said. The company’s website proclaims: “No Carrier ‘Left’ Behind.”

Once the vehicles arrive in the U.S., a team of mechanics makes sure they meet U.S. regulatory standards and “look and smell” like new to potential customers.

Firsthand look

Machnik said prospective buyers are often encouraged to come to Michigan to look at their vehicles before purchasing them because prices tend to be significantly higher than those of a typical used right-hand-drive Jeep.

“Let’s face it: The price points are a little bit higher. This is a very niche thing,” Machnik said.

“By the time they get the vehicle, it’s almost brand-new. We put a lot into it. A lot of people, by the time they look at the prices, we say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come out and take a look?’ “

Machnik said one customer flew to the store from California and was so impressed by the quality of his right-hand-drive Jeep, he drove it back to California.

“The Internet is such an essential tool when you’re talking about something like this,” he said. “We just couldn’t do it otherwise.”

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