NEXT LEVEL AUTO

Texas

Southwest / Texas 60 Views

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COVER STORY

Next Level Automotive with Brandon Stewart

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“I like to encourage people and let them know that anything is possible. I ain’t nobody, I’m just a guy from the hood. But, it’s God who has put me in the position to be in the place with certain types of people. Some people may feel like they don’t know how to do x, y and z. I have never had a business loan or nothing like that… It’s all been about hard work and that’s what people are seeing.” Mr. Brandon Stewart, owner of Next Level Automotive expressed these words during a recent interview with African-American News & Issues

From as far back as he can remember, he has maintained a unique talent to look past a vehicle’s current state and envision it at its full potential. Through self-taught measures, trial and error and paying attention to detail, Stewart has developed impeccable skills which have enabled him to emerge as a leader in Houston’s automotive customization industry. His exceptional gift to restore and transform vehicles, coupled with his strong faith in God has made room for him in the presence of celebrities, professional athletes, hip-hop artists and tons of others. He has traveled the nation coast to coast, delivering the latest styles and trends in the automotive culture and is known throughout the local community as a motivational speaker and mentor to area youth.

Brandon Stewart

Stewart is a native Houstonian born and raised in the Hiram Clarke area. His mother, Patricia reared him in a loving, supportive Christian environment. Growing up he attended Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, under the leadership of Dr. Gusta Booker, Jr. There, he was active in the choir and other functions of the church.  Early on, he developed a fascination with “tricked-out”cars. He would often spend time at his grandparent’s home in South Park. During his stay, he remembers excitedly gazing out the window watching the likes of local artists such as, Fat Pat, Lil Keke and others. As he matured, the images of them parading their candy-painted cars and spinning wheels up and down the street, blaring their latest albums remained cemented in his mind.

At the age of 15, he experienced his first bout with entrepreneurship while still in high school. Aware the school sold cookies two for $1, he tactfully engineered an approach to challenge his competition. After preparing a batch of cookies, he took them to school and allowed his peers to sample them; afterwards, he asked them if they would buy them and everyone agreed they would. Recognizing his mother as his first investor he said, “My mom saw what I was doing and asked if I was serious about it; when I told her I was, she went out and purchased all of the ingredients for me.”

A couple days later, Stewart returned to school with a better quality product, which was fresher and cheaper – selling his cookies three for $1. His venture was an instant success, and he showed gratitude to his mother by giving her the money she spent and a return on her investment. Before long, he became known as the “Cookie Man” around campus. Students and teachers alike were in constant demand for his supply, often coming to his classroom to see if he had more. Every morning he would get up an hour and a half early to ensure he could deliver his cookies fresh every day.

the time he was 16, he had begun working at the movie theater while still selling cookies at school. Once he finally saved enough money to buy his first car, he purchased a Honda Accord for $3,500. Later that year, he bought a Honda Civic and customized it with four TV screens and 17-inch tires and rims. Undoubtedly, his creativity sparked an interest in those around him, because eventually people started seeking him and his friends out for advice on how to enhance their cars. “I feel like this part of my life really stamped my future,”he said.

While maintaining his business venture, participating in the band and choir and working Stewart remained dedicated to his studies. In 2000, he graduated in the top of his class from Madison High School. Thereafter, he and three of his lifelong friends established a vehicle customization shop.

Climbing the Ladder to Entrepreneurship

Prior to officially implementing the shop, the crew had already built a strong reputation for themselves in and around the city. They were a vibrant group of young skilled Black entrepreneurs who all shared a common love for custom cars. Their unique “713” branded shirts and chains and over-the-top customer service techniques kept them unrivaled amongst competitors. Frequenting other cities and adapting the latest trends across the country into their builds also provided them with an additional edge over the competition. Together they helped introduce some of the nation’s freshest and most innovative designs into Houston’s automotive industry.

The team effectively operated for years before mutually deciding to part ways. Though each member went their way, they still remain close friends to this day. Stewart expressed, “What we built together can never be taken away from us because the stamp is there. We learned a lot from each other and fed off of each other’s energy. Collectively we were unstoppable. I was hurt when we parted ways because we were friends and all of us came up together. We were poor together so, when you poor and come up with somebody it’s a different type of come up, versus when you already have money and get with someone – then it’s straight business. So, because we struggled together, I feel like our story was different. But, I couldn’t dwell on it because it was swim or sink time.”

The Dawn of New Era: Next Level Automotive

Although Stewart was enthralled in the company, he never neglected furthering his education. Upon completion of high school, he enrolled at Prairie View A & M University for a short period. He then matriculated at the University of Houston-Downtown, where he earned a degree in Business. After the dissolution of his former partnership, he knew it was of necessity that he reinvented himself. He had already begun laying the groundwork to incept his own business and started networking around the country with individuals in the field.

Coincidentally, he met a man named Dave through a mutual acquaintance, who was in California for the BET Awards weekend at the same time he was. As luck would have it, his newly-developed associate was well-connected around Cali.
Hence, the pair went to a party at the home of Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx. While there, Stewart interacted with several celebrities like: Marcus Houston, Omarion, Jamie Foxx himself and scores of other celebrity personalities. Not long afterwards, Dave suggested to Stewart that he bring his skills and talent to the West Coast. With that encouragement, Stewart took a leap of faith, stepped outside of his element and established Next Level Automotive (NLA) in 2015 in Long Beach, California.

Upon returning home, he began looking for spaces to pioneer a location in Houston. Initially, he was hesitant to reintroduce himself because he was known from his prior role and was unsure of how he would be accepted. However, that fear was subsided when he received a call from a former customer who desired to get some work done. By this time, Stewart had officially opened the doors to Next Level Automotive in Houston. After informing his customer that he had his own shop; his customer responded, “I don’t care where you are, as long as you can do the same job you did before.”  That simple inference served as a mountain of motivation for him and almost immediately his confidence level was boosted. Up until that moment, he had been quietly working in his shop and wasn’t promoting the company too much.

He explained, “This was one of the reasons I wanted to jumpstart Next Level in California because I wouldn’t have to have the conversation about why we were no longer together. I wasn’t prepared for the questions… But, I realized I couldn’t be afraid, I had to embrace it. I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to be successful, I have to push it all the way.’ Once I let it all go and dropped my fears, people starting congratulating me and letting me know they had been ready for me to venture out on my own. I couldn’t see past leaving my friends because it was a relationship. Honestly, I never saw myself in this position, because I was always more comfortable working behind the scenes.”

Stewart shared once he alleviated all of his internal reservations it was as if the flood gates opened for NLA. “I was amazed because the struggles I dealt with internally, outside people didn’t care about any of that. The way we view ourselves is internal and when people see us they don’t have any idea. Even though it feels like people can look through you and see the hurt, pain and struggles – they can’t, because they are dealing with their own issues. But, it took me a while to come to that conclusion.”

Services of Next Level Automotive

NLA has become home to one of the most elite vehicle customization shops in the city. As a business owner, Stewart has built an extensive base of high-profile clientele. Yet, he keeps his doors open to accommodate customers from all walks of life and economic statuses and backgrounds. He says, “I treat everybody the same because that’s the way people should be treated. Overall, I am just thankful for having the opportunity to work with so many people.” Whenasked to recall one of his most memorable experiences from a customer, he revealed the following.

“Once, we delivered a car to a Charger’s player right after his game. He was excited and said the whole time during the game, all he could think about was his car. So it makes me feel good to know, we have that type of impact on people. Sometimes people will forget that celebrities are human.” He continued, “But, we are inclusive with everyone and I appreciate regular customers.”This factor is evident from visiting the company’s Facebook profile page, which displays all types of customized vehicles; from battery-operated jeeps to top of the line Mercedes Benz’s

NLA provides car shipping, insurance claims and loaner cars. Furthermore, the premier shop also specializes in custom body work, rims and tires, audio/video design and much more. It is located at 7315 Ashcroft, Suite 110, 77081. For more information or details regarding services contact (281) 888-3423; email NextLevelAutomotiveLLC@gmail.comor visit them on Facebook @ Next Level Automotive.

Challenges as an Entrepreneur

Stewart has always prided himself on being attentive and concerned with the needs of each individual customer. Though he has seen much success in his approach, he admitted achieving this level of customer satisfaction can be challenging at times. “One of my biggest challenges is making everybody feel like they are the only customer; sometimes it can become a burden when everybody is trying to get that attention at the same time. Also, making sure we stay focused on our own path is vital; because, no matter what you are doing if you look at somebody else journey you will think you are losing. So, we have to remember never try to run somebody else’s race because you will lose, it’s not your race to win – you can only win your race.”

The Importance of Giving Back

When asked about advice to the African-American community, Stewart stressed emphasis on the need to support one another. “If we don’t support each other, there’s not going to be a foundation for those coming behind us to build on,”he said. To that regard he has taken a stance to lead by example, through his implementation of the “Father & SonConversation”a frequent gathering which takes place at his shop. In this effort, Next Level discusses real-life situations and applications with youth from the community. In understanding the need to keep them engaged, Next Level also provides various activities for the youth, like bowling

“We want to build a relationship with them. In the children minds’ there is a disconnect between us and them. So, I feel we need to get down on their playing field in order to relate to them. We want to be able to understand what’s going on out there, because if we don’t know, then we won’t be able to come up with a solution. They are our future and the ones who will be taking care of us, so, we need to at least build a foundation with them.”

“I also feel that it is equally important that our youth see positive role models within the community that look like them. When I was growing up, success was presented to us in the form of suits and ties. However, I have learned it’s not always about your attire. Over the years, things have changed and I like to show the youth it’s not about what you wear; your heart and work ethic is what’s most important. If you work hard, have faith and are willing to learn you can achieve success.”

Continuing, Stewart does not just limit his community outreach and activism to the youth. During the holiday season, they feed the homeless, give out clothes and other necessities. Last year, when Hurricane Harvey struck Next Level did not waste time lending a hand to those affected. They opened their doors to house clothing, furniture, household items, food, water other and essential needs and hand-delivered the items to victims of Harvey.

Inspirations and Motivations

Today, Stewart remains grateful for his Christian upbringing and membership at Greater St. Matthew B.C. and says he has been able to incorporate many of the virtues he has learned into operating his own business. He shared, “Church has helped me with patience and guidance. I always like to make my belief known and let people know God is responsible for who I am. I feel that’s important, otherwise people will think I did everything on my own; and the second you do that, it can get snatched away. Church has been my underlying foundation – those people taught and helped mold me.”

He also revealed that his grandfather, Leroy Stewart was instrumental in his life. “My grandfather was a hardworking man across the board and I always wanted to be like him. He worked over 40-years at one job and even though he wasn’t into cars; I try to model myself after his work ethic. He was always laid back and never really talked too loud. That is a trait I have taken from him, always aiming to be the calm person in a conversation and it has really paid off.”Before concluding our interview, Stewart was adamant about acknowledging his partner, Mike who was also a co-owner at their previous venture. “Mike has been my road dog since sixth grade, Even today, he keeps me in check and does sales and performs other duties here.”

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