By Anthony Brass

In 2014, it wasn’t common to be an online-only dealer of sheds and other structures. Neil Osborne, co-owner of Express Carport, recalls friends in Asheville trying to recruit him while he was out in Los Angeles. They wanted Neil to help them sell sheds and metal buildings on the net. Even though it was rare selling these products this way, they convinced him. 

“Finally, the time was right time for me to come East,” Osborne recalls.

They started selling with one lot in North Carolina. Osborne was storyboarding the sales process and collecting customer data for future emails. Soon, they were exploring steps for increasing the opportunity to sell sheds and buildings on the internet. They met with many metal manufacturers all over in their quest to sell coast to coast.  

“You have to have many strategic partnerships,” Osborne says, especially for an internet-only business. 

They got their website up and worked with a couple companies to refine their pricing tool. This feature omits the countless pages of paperwork required for shed and metal structure sales — they were pushing the industry to another level. Osborne had an IT and technology background, so he would try to arrange “face-to-face” chats online for meetings with clients through the ether. Many told Osborne that they were still using carbon copies for contracts, intimating they don’t communicate the sales process his way.

Their web development took up a lot of time and money. “We spent almost a year in development of the code,” Osborne says. They had to perfect the site through trial and error so it could take all the algorithms and hundreds of industry rules and produce a price for customers. They completed the site, except for their 3-D rendering feature. But their vast location coverage was problematic.

“We found that it was really hard to sell metal buildings outside of your territory.” They were working with 15 manufacturers throughout the country. He says they’d sell a shed or building to a customer in the middle of the country, in one of their remote selling areas, but that individual might be hundreds of miles from the closest sales lot. Osborne adds the carport companies they worked with needed a full load on their trucks in order to be dispatched. 

“Getting it put on a load to get it installed was a really big challenge to get done,” Osborne says. They were still one of the few businesses operating in this manner. They had plenty of opportunity, but had to pivot and re-examine their depleting marketing budget and decide to who and where to sell.

Eighteen months into the venture, Osborne and the company concluded they had little ROI and needed to localize their base.

“We realized, we’ve gotta come home. At that point we reconsolidated our marketing efforts back into North and South Carolina.” They saw their numbers quadruple. “It was because $5,000-$10,000 goes a lot further in a 100- to 200-mile radius.”

The company continued to grow and word traveled up and down both states about the quality of their work. After sheds, they grew their line to include garages, standard, triple-wide and RV carports, barns, and other metal and wood structures. 

While concentrating on the Carolinas, Osborne and the boys continued to drive their online presence and upgrade the user-experience features for customers. They never forgot how much they wanted to convert the records and stacks of carbon copy paper and antiquated processes to a convenient, faster one. “We’re gonna put an end to this,” Osborne recalls, on keeping the thumb on bringing the streamlined web experience in to replace the cumbersome printed price sheet. With more R&D, they continued to develop an online buildings sales space to end-user clients and strived to advance their industry. 

Express Carport accomplishes this through a wide selection of products and their advanced, easy-to-use online client portal. “Our website is interactive.” Customers don’t have to meet with Neil and their team if they don’t want to. Clients open up the customization tool, search and find options, and specify their garage or other special project. “Our steel tubing buildings — they can’t be beat, with how much customization we can do to it to meet any demand out there on the market,” Osborne says confidently.

Customers follow up on the website using the instant pricing tool. This feature took further refinement. “We’ve been working with IdeaRoom for a long time, talking with them back and forth and building the logic.”

‘Steely’ But Honest

The company is determined to give an enhanced user experience and trustworthy products. “Everything we do is all engineered. Everything is on the books,” Osborne says. He adds their products pass wind- and snow-load requirements. In addition, Express Carport is a pioneer in what they sell. “We were one of the first companies not to sell non-certified structures.” Osborne says they don’t put up anything without the engineer stamp of approval. 

Their “generic plans” include structures up to 40 feet wide. Anything over that or requiring special permits they work with their engineering team to cite specific plans.

Osborne is earnest with how they use the term “carport.” They sell them but refer to the other products they sell as these as well. He says this was the word they were throwing around when choosing a name. Osborne adds all metal buildings essentially start as a “carport” when they are made with the industry-standard 2 1/2” tubing. “It starts as a carport, you close in all four walls, you’ve got a garage. You add two lean-tos, and you’ve got a barn. It all starts with a carport.” To this day, it is their cog, he says. Osborne still uses “carport” as the generic term with his sales team when referring to any metal-structure sale: “How many ‘carports’ did you sell and how many wood buildings did you sell?” he asks fellow co-workers.

Business Model  

Express Carport provides customers a site with online tools that expedites a new structure build and sales process. Some still prefer direct contact for help. When the company interacts with clients, they find what each needs and what’s going inside. Osborne said he has a home theatre sales background, which requires probing for personal-use information, so he’s experienced in extracting clients’ needs with open-ended questions. “I ask  a thousand questions before I’m able to produce a quote for you.” Osborne says they ask a lot of lifestyle questions when assisting customers and remain attentive to their needs. Once they hear preferences, they give recommendations and structure solutions. 

Osborne and the team ensures everyone they only use quality materials, no matter the project. “We don’t offer any type of subgrade, where we’re using less material.” He says their smallest, least- expensive structure consists of the same quality materials as their 40’ x 80’ fully enclosed garage. Each are built to the same codes, he says. They use the engineered plans when called for. “That’s what we expect it [the plans] to be, whether for the smallest or largest building. Everything that’s on that list, you never slack on that,” Osborne stresses. 

Their clients combine many different combinations including roof styles and dimensions. Their site offers a 3D Estimator Tool for tailoring projects and providing instant pricing. The varieties and possibilities are endless.

“Last week, we had a 60’ x 100’ mechanic’s garage that went up.” 

Their customers are into custom work- spaces and storage. A good percentage are DIY clients too, Osborne says. The company is especially popular with these individuals because Express Carport workers and their associates maintain time efficiency. “We get it out there and get it erected.” He says the creative DIY client likes to get into their completed spaces sooner and put in their finishing touches.  

Osborne says their custom-job client base brings in “really good plans” ahead of time. “They come to us with a picture and ask to recreate it.” The online tool allows a close replication, or customers work with them personally. “They don’t want any flaws,” he says.

Carport clients have specific needs and aren’t necessarily interested in a larger structure.

“People looking for a carport, most of the time, don’t have any interest in a garage.” He adds they want the typical open sides, top panels, and something they can park in. These customers tell Osborne they don’t want their carport to look like their garage. Clutter builds up in garages and they don’t want the same thing happening under their new structure. 

Osborne says if customers have the budget and want more than one structure, they’ll solve their unique needs with the variety they offer. They work with the client in mind and want each to feel their company did their job. “We strive to be the best every time.”

Partnering Up

Express Carport roll-forms metal on-site in its new warehouse in Greenwood, South Carolina. “We do all of our own roll forming, trim forming, steel-tubing in-house.” They make their own metal but still have time to foster partnerships with larger manufacturers or installers. “Eagle Carports is the biggest of the nationwide companies we work with,” Osborne says. They don’t forget the smaller companies either. He says they found a group that put up some demos for them who had reached out. “It was just one guy, his dad and a helper.” Elite Carports, out of North Carolina, now includes six crews to install their products.

Osborne’s company doesn’t make doors, yet, but is collecting feedback from clients and working with their engineers to find out more information on this type of component. They work with Asta for roll-up doors; for regular doors, they send clients to Overhead Door. “If somebody wants a custom or motorized door, we suggest you get your quote first,” Osborne says. “Let us know what dimensions you need that opening to be and we’ll do a framed opening for you. You can then have your garage door guys come back and put those in anytime.”

Osborne also recommends people look around, talk to, and support their local installation and components business owners in their community to keep them working. 

Express Service 

Their company has 10 locations. Osborne plans to stay in the Carolinas and expand into Georgia and Virginia. They aren’t only regional; they have sold a metal structure or building in 30 different states, an accomplishment they envisioned when first starting out and Neil was creating those storyboards. Express Carport continues delivering structures to all. Osborne says they like to work with anybody.

“We like finding solutions for unique needs, for the regular needs. Hopefully, five years from now, we’ll be a recognizable name across the country.” GSCB