When Atlanta born and raised Robert Bowden III was in high school looking around the country for a college with a major in entrepreneurship, the only one he found was Western Kentucky University. An image of the pretty campus on Instagram caught his eye, and an in-person visit sealed the deal. He started his freshman year in 2017 in the entrepreneurship program in the Gordon Ford College of Business at WKU.
“I fell in love with the town,” he said of Bowling Green.
Bowden is supposed to graduate in 2021, but it might take him an extra year to earn that bachelor of science in entrepreneurship as he juggles credit hours and business hours.
Not many people would turn buying a Jeep at age 17 into a financial opportunity, but Bowden managed it.
“I wanted to modify it but didn’t have enough money,” he said. Instead, he started an Instagram page named Overkill Off-Road to promote vehicle aftermarket products, and merchants across the country gave him free parts in return so he could customize his Jeep.
In the fall of 2015, while still a high school junior, Bowden incorporated and began putting other companies’ products online as a reseller. By November 2017, during his first year at WKU, he had scaled his own business, Spartan 4×4, to an online store reselling 10,000 products from 30 companies. And his education began in earnest.
“After doing research, I found that (resellers) market was saturated,” he said. “There were so many companies that were way bigger and able to stock inventory in physical warehouses, I wouldn’t be able to offer a discounted rate and free shipping.”
Sharing his passion with other off-road enthusiasts was the easy part. For learning some of the ins and outs of the business itself, Bowden has two strong forces in his corner: his family and WKU.
Bowden and his dad, Robert “Bert” Bowden II, are equal partners in the business. His dad lives in Atlanta and is the CFO of Spartan 4×4.
On campus in his first year, Bowden found the WKU Small Business Accelerator and got involved.
“We have quadrupled in size in the last eight months,” Bowden said, crediting the accelerator with much of his business acumen and allowing him to scale Spartan 4×4 by taking action on his research.
“The business model did a 180, we pivoted aggressively, going into 2018,” he said. “We restructured our business; that was an extremely good idea.”
Spartan 4×4 became an off-road lifestyle brand. “We have our own line of apparel,” he said.
T-shirts, hoodies and hats, along with Spartan-branded headlights and taillights, light bars and brackets, foot pegs and tailgate tables are all available on a redesigned website, Spartan4x4.com.
The company is still reselling certain automotive products with some of the smaller manufacturers. Bowden and his staff of two employees, fellow WKU students, also offer consulting for customers who want to work on their own Jeeps. They’re in the process of opening an installation center this fall in Bowling Green for parts.
And they’re building their own Spartan beast, a Dodge Ram truck they’ve named Leonidas – warrior king of Sparta 2,500 years ago – by replacing the grille, bumpers, wheels and other features with aftermarket parts from Addictive Desert Designs, AMP Research, BDS, Method Race Wheels and other off-road companies. The Spartan staff and Leonidas have attended a couple of auto shows in Tennessee and are ready to make a showing in Las Vegas on Oct. 30 at the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show, an annual event put on by SEMA.
But don’t think all this fun and excitement is tempting Bowden to drop out of school and run with his business. He knows what he’s doing.
“I want to be in school for several reasons,” he said. “Education is very important, so I can treat my employees the best way possible. I’m self-taught, but as we scale and get bigger, I want to have a good understanding of everything.”
He’s well aware of the importance of a work-life-school balance to prevent burnout. In addition to an education, college provides a social component.
“Being as young as I am, I work a ridiculous amount of hours,” Bowden said. “This part of my life only comes once.”
He’s enjoying every minute of it.