Don Racine is never far from the roots of his business, which started with his Mini racing hobby. His home garage is still where he goes to relax.
Customer contact has always been a critical ingredient in Mini Mania’s growth. Every summer, Don hosts a picnic at the Grass Valley, California, headquarters for all Mini owners within driving distance, and customers come from all over the West to visit one of the international bases of this old and growing hobby.
The classic Mini business, and the traditions it established continue to remain literally at the center of everything, as Jemal Ketat works to fulfill the years’-long waiting list of customers who have ordered Mini Mania rebuilt engines for their classic Minis.
Ideas for new products and opportunities to improve established lines often start with chats across the partition with Ken Suzuki, who stays in touch with the Mini Mania customer base.
At the Grass Valley headquarters, several large rooms are filled with shelving, neatly stacked with the broad line of Mini Mania’s own Ultrik products as well as the parts from other manufacturers that Mini Mania stocks.
From the shipping order, staff members such as Travis Schaffner on the left, and Dylan Greenhaw on the right, pull the parts from the shelves, package them and set them out for the daily UPS pick-up. Mini Mania processes over 100 orders in this fashion every day.
Don Racine and Mini Mania
by Gary Anderson
Don and his company started serving Mini owners when the Mini was just another almost-forgotten old classic car, abandoned in North America by its manufacturer. Now, he is finding new opportunities for growth as the world rediscovers the fun of Motoring.
Gather around, children, and I’ll tell you a story that starts when the world was new, soon after the first Mini Coopers were produced by British Motor Corporation. Yes, that long ago, before more than half of you reading this magazine had even been born.
Mini Mania – The Early Years
At the time, a young man named Don Racine was taken by the idea of racing these little buzz-bombs in Sports Car Club of America road races, and did so with some good luck for many years while he ran another car-related business. In the course of time, Don collected a large stable of cars, ranging from pristine to parts cars behind the garage.
However, by 1974, with Minis no longer available from dealers in the United States, parts were becoming pretty scarce on this side of the Atlantic. There were two suppliers on the East Coast, Mini City and Seven Enterprises, but nothing west of the Mississippi, so Don decided to make some contacts in England, where Minis were still being made and sold, and buy the parts he needed directly from the source.
Finding that the local Mini clubs, and his racer buddies were looking for a supply of parts, Don decided to set up a small part-time business in his garage in San Jose, California. Within two years, Don’s business had outgrown the garage and he moved to a building in south San Jose.
With the growing demand for parts, Don needed a solid connection on the other end, so he established a relationship with Keith Dodd, of Mini Spares in London that lasts to this day.
The inventory tracking system was kept on index cards in one file box, and the customer records on index cards in another file box. Though customers originally were local owners who made the trek to south San Jose on Saturdays, word of the business spread, and soon mail order had taken over from walk-ins as the major source of Don’s business.
Orders mostly came in by mail, accompanied by checks or cash, and were bundled up and shipped back out with labels written by hand or punched out on an old manual typewriter.
New Technologies and Expanding Operations
The same typewriter was used to generate flyers and rudimentary catalogs that Don mailed out to the growing mailing list of customers in the index card box. However, Don has always been an early adopter of new technologies, so when in the early 1980s, a little company up the road in Cupertino started making a rudimentary computer called an “Apple II” that could keep track of orders, invoicing, inventories, and customer lists, Don was one of the first purchasers.
About the same time, Don expanded the business to include other marques that were built around the same basic engine, including the Austin-Healey Sprite, MG Midget, and Morris Minor.
As the business continued to grow, Don took steps to stay ahead of it and improve customer services. In 1990, the company moved out of its rented building in San Jose and moved across the San Francisco Bay to Milpitas, where Don purchased the company’s first dedicated warehouse. Not long after, with the help of his son, Dennis, Don ventured into the new world wide web, becoming the first Mini supplier to have his own website where customers could search online catalogs, order parts, consult technical information, keep up to date on Mini activities, and participate in an ongoing exchange of information with one another. Now the internet has become by far the largest source of Mini Mania orders, though telephone orders are still handled.
Incidentally, the web design business became a family spin-off when his son established Racine Web Design, which is now a separate business in its own right, designing web sites and providing web-based services to a variety of clients.
By 1993, Don was recognizing that there were still a number of unmet needs in the Mini world, so he expanded his business by adding an engineering staff to begin developing Mini Mania exclusive products. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Don continued to actively pursue his own interests in vintage racing, so that he would have a personal test-bed on which to test new products and identify new needs.
Don is an active participant in events such as the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, where he may be found racing his prized Mini Cooper S, the same one that Paddy Hopkirk raced in the 1967 Monte Carlo Rallye, or his mechanical nemesis, a front-engined racing special called the Aardvark. Reflecting his own roots, Don maintains his own cars, and his idea of a relaxing evening after working with cars all day is to go out into his well-equipped garage and spend a few more hours tinkering with one of his race cars. On Wednesdays he can always be found in the backroom of the Railroad Restaurant in Grass Valley, where a tight group of racing enthusiasts gathers for lunch.
With ready access to parts, knowledge, and experience, it’s not surprising that many of Don’s customers asked him if he could establish a department where they could bring their Minis for service. From 1998, until just recently this was a small but active part of the Mini Mania business. However, as the business evolved, Don decided to focus his attention solely on the parts business, so the only part of the service business that still continues is a classic Mini engine rebuilding service that has enough back orders to keep Jemal Ketat, the engine builder busy into retirement.
The New Millennium and the New MINI
Two momentous events accompanied the New Millenium for Mini Mania. First, Don decided that the changing economy of Silicon Valley was making it less and less cost-effective to run a warehouse mail-order business out of Milpitas. By contrast, the area around Nevada City in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains 45 minutes east of Sacramento was developing the kinds of business services he needed, like telephone and internet access, to run his now-internet-dependent business. For similar costs, he could have a warehouse and offices in that area with twice the floor space of the Milpitas operation. Making the area even more attractive, wage rates were much lower and hiring was much easier.
The move to Nevada City also set the stage for the second, and more significant development. Rumors had begun to circulate in the auto industry before Y2K that the on-again, off-again introduction of a new MINI was really going to happen under BMW ownership. Don recognized that the introduction of this new car, with its heritage ties to the established Minis, could raise the curtain on broad new business opportunities.
Rather than simply waiting around to see what happened, Don made the strategic decision that Mini Mania would be the pre-eminent aftermarket parts supplier for the new MINI, capitalizing on its already established product development, warehousing, shipping, and information systems structure.
But that meant that he had to be the first to start developing the kinds of aftermarket parts that he was sure would be in demand, so Don managed to find a way in 2001 to buy and import for development purposes one of the first MINI Coopers to be produced. Within a matter of only a few months, he had developed, tested and installed a variety of handling and performance parts on his test mule MINI and had it out on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for a small group of motoring journalists (including this writer) to test-drive, even before most of us had been given the opportunity to drive the standard production version in the U.S. When sales of the production MINIs did begin in earnest in the United States, Don and Mini Mania were ready with a new catalog, a new area on their website, and a broad and growing line of products to see to owners who would want to modify, customize, or accessorize their new MINI.
As Don began to get more comfortable with the new MINI business and the first-time customers it was bringing to his website, he realized that there were many more opportunities for product development than were being taken advantage of by the multi-marque suppliers of tuning products. However, Don realized that it didn’t make sense to try to expand into manufacturing himself since the strategic strengths of Mini Mania were in marketing and sales, identifying needs in the marketplace and using their experience to define product opportunities. Instead, he expanded his own product development business, with his staff designing and developing products that other companies could manufacture for them, and taking product possibilities offered by smaller companies and helping to develop them into commercially-viable products that Mini Mania could sell.
Recognizing the value of a brand name, in 2003 Mini Mania introduced their “Ultrik” range of exclusive products for the new MINIs. Don also realized that aftermarket opportunities for new MINI parts weren’t limited to just the United States and Canada. With a well-known company name, and a growing line of branded products, and with two-thirds of new MINI sales taking place overseas, in 2004 Don helped establish Mini Mania U.K., with operations in Cardiff, Wales, an independent company using Mini Mania’s systems, with Don as a member of the board of directors. At about the same time, he franchised his operations knowledge and brand names to a group in Japan, helping them establish Mini Mania Japan in Tokyo.
Even with this extension of business in new MINIs, Don has still kept his base in the classic Mini business that he helped sustain in its early days. Simply put, he says that his business has doubled since the introduction of the new MINI, but there has been no decline in the absolute level of classic Mini parts sales, so the division is now about 50/50, and new MINI growth continues at a healthy rate.
Looking out into the future, Don is optimistic. Just as classic Minis sustained him for many years, the growing base of used new MINIs, he is certain will provide a ready market for hobbyists for decades to come. And, of course, there is a new turbocharged engine to start developing power accessories for, a new Traveller line that will generate demand for custom interior and trim pieces, and a broadening motorsports interest. With the enthusiasm of the owners, Don’s presence in the hobby, and a worldwide base of both supply and demand, he sees no end in sight.
In the meantime, the Hopkirk Monte Carlo Mini has to be prepared for the August Historics, so in the off hours, you’ll find Don in his garage but you can be sure his mind is never far from his business.