In the Driver's Seat
Three alumni in the auto industry discuss problems they’ve tackled, from integrating new tech solutions to taking expansion risks to maintaining a people-first approach across time zones.
- June 10, 2022
Tim Trampedach, ’08
Founder and CEO of Torqued Distribution
The Challenge: Given its association with horsepower and rpms, it’s natural to assume the automotive industry is synonymous with speed. But Tim Trampedach quickly learned that isn’t always the case—especially when it comes to value-chain interaction.
Trampedach is the founder and CEO of Torqued Distribution, a South San Francisco–based wholesale distributor of motorsport and automotive performance brands. On entering the automotive aftermarket industry, Trampedach found himself surrounded by and forced to reckon with an inordinate number of archaic processes that tended to fuel miscommunication between buyers and sellers and lead to confusion around pricing and availability.
With over 75 brands and 25,000 items to choose from, Torqued Distribution knew it could not update inventory and pricing or process orders manually, thereby exposing the company to human error and promoting an unenjoyable customer experience.
The Solution: Trampedach had to disrupt practices seemingly grandfathered into the industry. Primarily, Torqued Distribution had to automate.
“At that scale,” Trampedach says, “you have to have self-service and you have to have real-time push systems—systems that send the data automatically based on an event trigger as opposed to us getting inbound requests.”
“I see way too many companies operating with a fuzzy source of truth.”
Torqued worked to abstract away the complexity of similar yet very different ways to interface with manufacturers (“upstream”) and sales channels (“downstream”). The company now has a system that can integrate with any manufacturer, take the data in the manufacturer’s format, and then normalize it to Torqued Distribution’s internal structure, making it more efficient, unified, and user friendly. Torqued also built its own stack, so it wouldn’t be reliant on third-party systems.
“I see way too many companies operating with a fuzzy source of truth,” Trampedach says. “Some companies will say, ‘We have stock data over here, inventory data over there, and then product data somewhere else,’ right?” That means that all parties, including consumers, are not getting the most up-to-date product and pricing data. “That’s going to inevitably lead to failure,” he says.
Now when data from the Torqued Distribution system is displayed or exported, it appears on the company retail site, a dealer portal, exports effortlessly to its dealers, and can even be pushed to Amazon, where Torqued does some B2C business, as well as to the three biggest e-commerce platforms, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, and Shopify—all keyed off by a single source of truth in real time.
The Takeaway: The company’s automated system has drastically reduced the number of order defects—including wrong orders, wrong prices on orders, or generally lousy customer experiences. With only six full-time employees, Torqued remains a small upstart, but by making it more efficient to work with the data they have, those employees now have the bandwidth to focus on setting up processes to drive long-term value. The company is also able to provide a number of free value-added services that its competitors can’t, such as offering apps for e-commerce stores and helping with getting intial products loaded on dealers’ stores.
“When you prepare by having the right product data, pushing pricing out when needed, keeping inventory in sync in real time for dealers, and enabling one-click order processing without any manual labor except to pack the order, mistakes are rare,” Trampedach says. “But it takes the up-front effort to build automated systems to get there.”
Mia Panzer, ’15
GM of North America, Automated Mapping at Woven Planet Holdings
The Challenge: When New York–based CARMERA was acquired by Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet in July 2021, Mia Panzer, then CARMERA’s senior vice president of finance and operations, was excited, if a little exhausted. The months she had spent helping lead the company—which uses spatial A.I. to develop next-generation mapping solutions for automated mobility—through the acquisition process were about to pay-off: the company not only shared CARMERA’s philosophy, it had the financial support and resources of one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers.
But with the added resources would come added complexity. Woven Planet’s mapping team—and soon, CARMERA CEO and cofounder Ro Gupta—would be based largely in Japan. The question became: How do you integrate the two teams while still maintaining a flexible, balanced working environment?
The Solution: Gupta had a thought: What if Panzer took on a new, expanded role as general manager of North American operations? Not only could she make sure the soul of CARMERA stayed intact, but it would ensure that someone experienced would be stateside and able to weigh in on important issues in real time.
For Panzer, it felt like a full-circle moment. She had joined the company when she was pregnant with her first child, spending the next two years making CARMERA a people-centric employer that prided itself on ensuring work-life balance and creating a flexible, supportive working environment. Now she was being asked to take on this new role while expecting her second.
“We’re so used to being inclusive that this may seem counterintuitive. But sometimes less is more.”
Panzer accepted the job. After outlining her new remit and determining how her responsibilities would be distributed among the operations teams during her maternity leave, she turned to the issue at hand: how to define the Japan-US working model, especially given the time difference, which Panzer thought might prove taxing for the teams.
Simply asking people to work late nights was not an option. Being pregnant was a not-so-subtle reminder of the importance of personal time. “I had to take my stress levels and health into account for the baby’s sake,” she says. “I had to know when to close my computer and call it a day.” And Panzer knew that this was true for people across the board—pregnant or not.
“The first step was really empowering local decision-making so that you don’t have bottlenecks,” she says. Her team has mandated fewer meetings, encouraging asynchronous discussions when possible. If meetings are required, organizers are encouraged to be mindful of how many people they’re inviting, and who actually needs to be present. “We’re so used to being inclusive that this may seem counterintuitive. But sometimes less is more,” says Panzer.
Finally, Panzer is empowering employees to take ownership of their schedule, allowing them to balance work and personal life on their own terms. “If you work late in the evening because you have a Japan call, the next morning, I hope you are sleeping in. I hope you are not responsive. I hope you’re going to your favorite coffee shop, going for a run—whatever you need to do.”
The Takeaway: Panzer and Woven will use key performance indicators over the next several quarters to ensure the team is tracking toward success. Engagement surveys will be important for getting an honest read on employee satisfaction—and the team’s first survey after rollout showed high levels of enthusiasm for the new direction.
Panzer is confident in the team. “In the end, you can’t predict everything, so you need to build a culture of trust and ensure you’re hiring folks with, above all else, good judgment. I think that’s what we’ve done, so I’m excited to see what the future holds,” she says.
Federico Ranero, ’12
COO of Kavak
The Challenge: The message from Federico Ranero’s inner circle was crystal clear: it was not the right time to expand. It was March 2020. The world was in lockdown. If that wasn’t bad enough, Kavak catered to a consumer base that suddenly had much less use for the one product it provides: automobiles.
A Mexico City–based online platform that facilitates the buying and selling of used cars, Kavak was only four years old. Few would blame Ranero, the company’s COO, if he decided to take a wait-and-see approach before setting his sights on expanding into Brazil and Argentina. But he had confidence in the company’s business model, and knew it was worth a shot.
“We kept saying to ourselves, ‘We see opportunities where others see risk,’” Ranero recalls.
The Solution: Kavak found that amid the economic downturn, many consumers wanted to sell their automobiles to find a new source of income, while others wanted to access a vehicle for gig economy opportunities or safe transportation, among other reasons. Convinced Kavak’s business model was robust enough to thrive during this inclement period, Ranero found new ways to optimize data in an increasingly remote-work world and be more efficient with processes to save both the company and consumers money while pushing into new markets.
Kavak developed technology that enabled it to inspect and diagnose vehicles not only in Mexico City but also thousands of miles away in São Paulo or Buenos Aires. Next, the company put a twist on crowdsourcing, reimagining how it could transport vehicles around cities in Latin America.
Because a used automobile typically travels at least three times before it’s sold—from a customer’s home to the reconditioning facility to the showroom and finally to another customer—Kavak determined the smartest way to transport its vehicles was to have its employee drivers perform tech-enabled “test drives” between caretakers by adding inputs to the vehicle’s diagnostic or validating that the vehicle was ready to be delivered after reconditioning.
“We kept saying to ourselves, ‘We see opportunities where others see risk.’”
Ranero recognized that there was an enormous ownership gap between developed and emerging countries, and that it was largely the result of financing, or simply being able to provide people with options that enable them to make an investment in an automobile. During a time when capital markets were shutting down and risk aversion was high, Kavak made the decision to finance directly to consumers, as opposed to through intermediaries, and to do so across new markets. It offers its own financing through its fintech arm, Kavak Capital.
“What we’re looking to do is remove all these prohibitive barriers,” Ranero says, “because we consider it unacceptable that there are so many people that are excluded from the world of asset ownership.”
The Takeaway: Kavak’s move paid off. In October 2020, Kavak became Mexico’s first tech unicorn when it reported a valuation of more than $1 billion. It is currently the most valuable private startup in Latin America, run by a global team of more than 8,000 employees. In addition to operating dozens of branches in eight cities across Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, Kavak is preparing to launch in Colombia, Chile, and Peru, with plans to cross the Atlantic soon after.
Today, Kavak has 36,000 vehicles in its inventory and is selling 40 percent of its automobiles to first-time owners, most of whom are also first-time financial product owners.
“This opens up so many opportunities for them,” Ranero says, “because now they’re part of the formal economy. And we’re just getting started.”