It’s been said a million times that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Fair enough. But what if what happens in Vegas is the spark of an idea to create a beloved, successful business that gives customers exactly what they want and serves the community? Because for NFI Empire, what happened in Vegas, didn’t stay in Vegas.
Justin Fried is the owner of NFI Empire in Erie, Pennsylvania. His business has quickly built a reputation for itself as the place in Northwestern Pennsylvania to customize a vehicle. Whether a Jeep, truck, or performance automobile, the NFI team has spent the last two and a half years giving customers exactly what they envision, at prices that everyday people can afford. And it all started with an idea in the Nevada desert.
The Start of Something New
Fried would annually attend the SEMA show in Las Vegas, to take in the latest jaw-dropping industry developments. A few years ago, while looking over the innovative (and pricey) custom builds from all over the globe, and seeing the massive crowds of fans they drew, he had a realization: He could provide this kind of automotive excitement. And what’s more, it could be done at a cost that the everyday person can afford.
Fried, a Marine turned technology businessman turned NFI founder, knew that the market was ready for what he had in mind. “All these trucks and things that are [at SEMA] are all over six figures. I’ve built all my own vehicles, I know you can do this for less. And I know there’s a market for it, because look at all the people gawking at these things.”
Hitting the Ground Running
Less than 8 months after that initial spark of an idea, NFI Empire found a 20,000 square-foot building to call home, and was open for business. Vehicle sales, customization, and consignment are the three pillars of the NFI model, making for an end-to-end solution for anyone interested in customized vehicles.
NFI Empire operates from two locations. Their build shop is located on 12th Street in Erie, and the dealership arm of the business is in the nearby suburb of North East.
A Different Kind of Shop
NFI Empire is a far cry from the typical shop. They don’t do oil changes. They don’t do alignments. The business is run more like a Silicon Valley tech company than a garage, based off Fried’s background. NFI’s aim is more to provide a “white glove” service to its clientele.
“We specialize in what we do,” Fried says, “and that’s putting passion into vehicles.”
There are plenty of lifts, wheels, and tires, of course. But NFI makes sure to get a feel for exactly what their customers want. Fried will ask, “In a perfect scenario, what do you really want out of your Jeep or your truck?” After understanding how they’re going to use it, and what type of investment they can make, NFI can offer customers multiple options based on their budget.
A Committed Staff
NFI Empire is a team of 18 people. Fried says their staff skews young, and their personalities differ, as well as their skill sets. They’ve got import gurus, and diesel truck guys, tech savvy team members, and others who know all about audio. But he’s sure to mention one thing they all have in common. “They’re passionate about what they do, and they really want to be here. They’re not here just for a paycheck.”
Apart from the usual truck and Jeep upgrades, the team at NFI are very into restoring older vehicles. Browse their website, and the vehicular diversity is astonishing (check out the 1950 Ford Tudor, the ‘57 Thunderbird, or the 1987 Austin-Healey.) Also, they’ve been busy lately fitting Jeeps with turbo kits (Edelbrock or Prodigy Performance), as well as doing some LS engine work. These guys really have a broad range of talents.
Offering financing is something that sets NFI apart from many similar businesses. Fried understands that it isn’t always feasible for owners to afford everything they want to do with their vehicle up-front, and works with customers to ensure that the ride they’ve always imagined is within their reach. As he perfectly summed it up, “Why wouldn’t you want to help the customer get what they want?”
Being so busy, and working with such a wide array of vehicles, Fried and NFI have become very familiar with the automotive aftermarket very quickly. Fried notes how the integral relationships between his company and suppliers like Keystone Automotive are critical to his customers’ satisfaction. Their ease of parts delivery, and returns when a customer opts for something different, keep their business running smoothly and on time.
There are a great many aftermarket brands that NFI has come to rely on for consistent quality. Pro Comp wheels, Fabtech lift kits, as well as kits from Rubicon Express are frequently installed. Metalcloak, Smittybilt, and Fab Fours are some other name brands that frequent the shop. And Fried mentions that brands like Trailmaster are great for meeting different budgets and still delivering a top-notch product.
Lots Left to Do
So what’s next for this wildfire NFI team? Fried isn’t entirely sure, but he’s got some ideas, and he’s excited about them. Of course, franchising has crossed his mind, and it’s something he’ll be looking into in the near future. Talks of a TV show are in the works, but he remains modest about that as well. But one thing that’s certainly in the cards for years to come is NFI’s charitable causes. The Thin Blue Line Foundation, which provides valuable resources to law enforcement and their families, has always been important to Fried. As former military, he respects their work and understands some of the difficulties their job entails. And as a business proud to be located in Erie, raising money for the local Presque Isle State Park is another constant for NFI. Last year, they raffled off a fully-restored CJ, with all proceeds going towards the park.
A lot has happened for NFI in such a short time. And yet, it feels as though they’re only getting started. By breaking the rules of what a shop like theirs can be, they are forging a new path that is reshaping Erie’s aftermarket industry. It sure is a good thing that Fried’s brainchild didn’t stay in Vegas.