Originally published in the Minneapolis Tribune 3-6-77

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Gary Courneya, left, and David Bradley Fuller with a prototype of the Bradley GTII, foreground, and production GT bodies.

Auto-body firm: From preposterous to profit 

By Robert J. Hagen
Staff Writer

There they were, speculators long on courage and verve but short on management experience and collateral, trying to sell a big-ticket item over the telephone for cash.

They didn't even have showrooms; the customer was expected to lay out about $3.000 after looking at a magazine ad. And, if that wasn't enough, it looked as though they were going up against General Motors and everybody else in the car business

Preposterous, said most bankers, some vendors and a few friends of Gary Courneya and Dave Fuller when they founded Bradley Automotive. It was indeed, but that was about seven years ago. Success has since transformed the outrageous into the enviable.

Last year the company turned its second consecutive net profit, one "comfortably into six figures" on sales of about $6 million, by offering a fiberglass auto body that lets you turn your Volkswagen Beetle into a racy little sports car.

The company's relatively new prosperity means it could sink something close to $1 million into developing the Bradley GT II, compared with the back-of-the-napkin brainstorming and $2000 in materials that went into their first car, the Bradley GT.

It means that Courneya, an ebullient salesman from Detroit Lakes, Minn., has been able to find the time for skiing and that Fuller, the methodical designer-engineer, has been able to contemplate other projects.

It means that Bradley Automotive can afford to repay loyalty and productivity by setting up a profit-sharing plan for its 100 employees, and to carry a few vendors who don't always offer the lowest quote, but who were patient at the beginning.

And, finally for Courneya and Fuller it means being able to think back to that beginning and smile at the warm feelings they have now for experiences that were unpleasant at the time.


It was the late 1960s when Courneya and Fuller, brought together by a mutual friend, set up shop at 26th St. and Nicollet Av. as Gary's Bug House to get in on the dune-buggy mania of that period. Fuller, who had been running his own small fiberglass design business, developed the dune-buggy bodies, which bolted onto a Volkswagen chassis. They added some components and Courneya sold them in kits for about $400 each.

In the summer, that is. The dune-buggy market froze solid in the winter. And, to make matters worse, the bodies were so easy to make that competitors sprouted overnight in nearly every big city, relegating what was a somewhat faddish product to a small, local market.

Lacking an alternative, however, Courneya and Fuller stuck with it. They began buying and selling used Volkswagens, selling them during the day and repairing them at night, to sustain themselves while they worked out their new product: the GT.

As they were nearing the final development stage, the dune-buggy craze began to die out. The formed Bradley Automotive, using Fuller's middle name, and ran some ads showing the GT and offering to send a brochure in exchange for $1. The dollar bills came in a steady stream, leading them to believe that at its headwaters was a rich and unexplored market.

The trouble was, they didn't have any brochures, the car wasn't quite ready and, like most small companies with growth potential, Bradley Automotive suffered from a chronic capital shortage.

Courneya and Fuller set out to sell 80.000 shares at a dollar apiece and soon found the vice president of a St. Paul construction firm, who plunked down $40,000 after one look at the car.

"We thought that was it," said Courneya "There's nothing hard about this money-raising stuff, we thought. We've got it made."


It took them about six months- until Easter of the following year- to sell the other half to a couple of dozen individuals. By then the money was spent, but the car was in limited production and the brochures and been mailed out. People had become concerned about the dollar bills they had mailed in.

"As I recall," said Fuller, "we ate a lot of breakfasts with those dollars."

By 1972 they put out a few more ads and were getting a few more leads, but no sales. Courneya, annoyed by the lack of response, called a few people who had sent for brochures and discovered that the product needed a bit more selling.

Supremely confident of his ability to sell a car to a prospect who had never even kicked its tires, Courneya began working the telephones heavily and got results. Sales went up and the money came in, but sometimes the sum at the end of the month wasn't sufficient.

"In those early, starving days," said Fuller, "Gary began using the name Gary Bradley when he followed up leads on the phone. It let the prospective buyer think he was talking to 'the man,' which he was, but it also was a little like, oh, getting a call from Henry Ford.

"And, not only did it sound nice, but whenever we got return calls for Gary Bradley we knew they were potential sales. When we got calls for Gary Courneya or Dave Fuller we could be reasonably certain that they were creditors and we responded accordingly."

By late 1973, however, they needed another infusion of cash. An original investor agreed to loan them $90,000 if Bradley would devote full time to sales and let a professional manager come in from the outside as president.

"We were pretty desperate by then," said Fuller. "We'd have taken just about anybody at that point. We needed the money."

The company was given some structure and was able to get a $250,000 commitment from Community Investment Enterprises, Inc. (CIE), a St. Louis Park venture capital firm.


"Convincing my board to make that commitment was the most difficult selling job I've had in nine years in this business," said Don Soukup, vice president of CIE. "Bradley lost about $100,000 that year, had a very poor cash flow and the creditors were concerned.

"I'd turned them down two or three times previously, and others were doing so when I decided we ought to do it. They'd made progress, their volume was up and they had this unique marketing approach. In venture capital, you look for something different, and they had it."

Bradley took only $150,000 of the money and paid it back in the fall of 1975.

Meanwhile, Courneya and Fuller, dissatisfied with what they felt was the company's increasing top-heaviness, bought out the smaller shareholders, reinstalled Courneya as president and cut overhead.

Strict controls were installed calling for them to scrutinize nearly every spending request as if they were gimlet-eyed bankers making a loan on a hayfield.

They still do, but not out of desperation.

Today the company has executive offices in Shelard Plaza, a long way from the lawn chairs and card-table furniture and the office in the condemned building that got them started.

It has a sales curve that goes from $250.000 in 1972 straight up though the recession to $6 million last year and a projected $8 million this year.

And it has no debt.

High rollers who know a good thing when they see it drop in frequently and write out fat checks in unsuccessful attempts to buy the exclusive franchise for Texas, California and half the world.

Courneya and Fuller also know a good thing when they see it.

They smile and say thanks, but no thanks.

Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. Republished with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written consent of Star Tribune.



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