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A Shop Built for Speed

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Steve Ali built his dream, 14-bay shop six years ago at the height of the Great Recession. A lifelong Corvette aficionado, he was undeterred by the frightening economic reports of the time and, to his accountant’s surprise, pushed forward with plans to create a shop with an atmosphere that resembles a rotating car show. 

Since the grand opening of Xtreme Performance in the summer of 2008, Ali has used his passion to run a shop that caters to like-minded customers with in-store car shows, courtesy pick-up and delivery of specialty vehicles, and grassroots marketing efforts to promote the business throughout the region.

I used to run a three-bay Sunoco gas station in North Olmsted, Ohio, about 10 miles away. I was there for about five years, and got tired of paying the $8,150 a month in rent for three bays. 

I wanted to get rid of the gas, candy, lottery and alcohol sales, because I had more issues with the business when I was at home than I did during the whole workday. We weren’t making any money on the gas, so I wondered why we were paying Sunoco so much money for their name when I was well established and had a great reputation. I told my wife, “Let’s buy some land, build a building and do mechanical only,” and that’s exactly what we did. 

The Xtreme Performance name came to me in a dream 11 years ago. There was previously a dilapidated old building here with a pair of tow trucks for sale. I didn’t want the trucks, but was very interested in the three and a half acres of land on a main street. My architect looked at the building and said, “Steve, just go to the bank and tear this down. I know your taste, and you’re not going to be happy with this.” So, I went to the bank and got a big loan. 

After three years of researching different shops all over Ohio, I settled on how I wanted to lay the bays out and how I wanted the lifts arranged. It also had to have tall ceilings, and be an open-air layout that was energy efficient, because I didn’t want to waste money on utilities. At Sunoco, I was paying $1,000 a month just for electricity.

I wanted a showroom up front with comfortable couches for customers to sit, have a cup of coffee, eat a bag of popcorn and watch a big-screen TV. I also wanted a 500-gallon fish tank that’s see-through from my office to the front counter. It’s the customers’ way to experience the Xtreme, what we’re about. 

I’m a Corvette junkie, and have been since I was 5 years old. My oldest brother had several hot rods, so I grew up as a gearhead. I love Corvettes, because they’re fast, they handle well, brake well and, bang for the buck, you really can’t beat them. I have a few, including a 2007 Z06 with 780 horses. I’m addicted, and am probably going to order the new Z06 when it comes out. 

We get a lot of Corvette work from other shops that don’t have all the latest diagnostic equipment that we do. There’s Corvette stuff all over my shop. I’ve got a rear fascia painted the same as my 2000 Corvette. I wired it like a regular car, and it’s got working taillights that are controlled on a switch behind the counter. 

OLD AND NEW: Because of its performance niche, Xtreme Performance’s staff needs to be able to repair old-school parts, such as carburetors, alongside modern components. The shop’s Corvette diagnostic equipment is top-notch and has prompted other area shops to send the cars to Ali. Photos by Cameron Dunbar

I take my cars to different club events and car shows, including ones that I host here. I pass out flyers and business cards, and shake some hands. They see what I have, and this way I can use my cars as selling pieces. I call them my mule cars. 

I sponsor eight to 10 shows a year, and set up a table and talk to as many people as I can. You never know, somebody might be a manager at a local repair shop that’s looking to make a move.

We’ve got a couple of old-school mechanics besides myself who know carburetors, distributors and drum brakes. Our business is approximately 70 percent everyday cars and 30 percent high-performance vehicles, and it seems like every year we’re getting to be more and more performance vehicles. Every day is a car show in here, and we get some pretty cool old cars. 

To increase our performance business in the winter, I got an enclosed trailer and began offering courtesy pick-up and delivery service. Being in Ohio, most collector cars are tucked away in nice, heated garages all winter. Now we can help owners get their cars ready for springtime. It’s been very successful, and opens the avenue to do more hot rods year round. 

I have a lot of customers that stop in the shop day to day for a cup of coffee, and to see what cars are here—both men and women. They want to shoot the breeze with me, walk around the shop and look at cars they had in high school. It’s pretty cool for me, because not only do I enjoy the cars, but the customers do, too. 

I start my day around 8:30 or 9 o’clock with a cup of juice or tea. I start by asking what my service director needs, and if there are any fires to put out or if we need to locate any specialty parts we weren’t able to find the day before. Within the first hour, I have a 5- to 10-minute meeting with my director and foreman to discuss what we need to do, what projects we need to finish and what customers need to get their vehicles done and out the door. 

I’m also a certified tech, so if there’s something the younger techs have a question about—as far as old-school or even the new stuff—I give them a hand. Just because I’m the owner doesn’t mean I can’t get my hands dirty, too. 

I try to balance my time between the front and back of the house, that way I know what’s going on at all times throughout my shop. Not that I’m a control freak, but I’ve got to know. This is my business, and my livelihood. 

I set everything up at Xtreme Performance for a second phase. I want to put up a building behind us, and that’s going to exclusively be a hot rod shop. This way, I’ll have my manager run the existing day-to-day operations, and I can step away from the business and tinker on hot rods for my retirement. I’d like to pull the trigger on the second phase some time within the next five years. I’m 46 years old now, so that’s my next dream for when I’m 50. 

Our old-school hot rod business is growing more and more every year. Soon, I probably won’t even have to advertise for those customers because of my reputation. 

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