Small Business Owner Puts Technology in the Driver's Seat
Steve Mattie, president of a 13-employee firm that makes custom trailers, has capitalized on the introduction of new technologies to grow his business for nearly 20 years.
His company, Transport Designs makes highly specialized trailers and souped-up motor homes from its base in Montoursville, Pa. From the outside, one of these trucks may look like a slick 18-wheeler, but on the inside you might find something akin to a mini luxury home or a restaurant on wheels. Using hydraulics to expand the insides of a trailer, Mattie said these can stretch to 14 feet.
I spoke to him during the National Federation of Independent Business summit on Monday at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington after he received a $25,000 award from Dell for creating an innovative apprach to technology and applying it to his customers.
Mattie started his company in 1988 with not a lot of technology and only six employees -- most who worked on the factory floor, with a couple back in the office. He relied on drafting tables to draw and edit designs, and express mail to ship documents to customers. But one day, a client gave him computers as payment along with some AutoCAD software.
"I think that was divine providence," said Mattie. He went out and bought a book on how to use it, noting that he's completely "self-taught" on computers. He started designing the trucks using the software and when technology caught up, he was able to e-mail documents.
He said he thought about closing his doors when the national recession hit in 1990 and 1991. He contemplated the unthinkable again in the late 1990s after facing competition from long-established firms in Elkhart County that decided to try their hands in what he was doing. Elkhart, Ind., is an area that has been dubbed as the RV capital of the world.
However, he was able to lure customers back: "It's why as a small business I always focus on quality," he said.
Around that time, as the Web began to hit its stride, but before Transport Designs had a real Web presence, a company offered to link to Mattie's company online but in the process Mattie unknowingly relinquished the domain name TransportDesign.com. After somewhat of a kerfuffle, including demanding exorbitant fees for Mattie to reclaim the domain, Mattie ultimately was able to buy it back for about $50.
In 2001 and 2002, Mattie took advantage of the growing popularity of digital photography, which allowed him to provide weekly updates to clients via e-mail. AutoCAD also allowed his clients to see their designs via a special viewing version of the software.
Technology, however, could not help all his problems. He almost had to shut his business after an employee embezzled about $20,000 from him. He told his wife, who is a partner in the firm, that if they didn't get any more orders over the next couple of days, that was it.
But soon after, while sitting in the hospital with his son, who has a heart condition, his cellphone rang.
"It was someone who said they wanted two trailers. I'd never heard from him before and I've never heard from him since, but that project took the company through the next months." Additional orders from other clients soon followed.
"We grew 25 to 30 percent a year since then, but this year we're at 50 percent growth," he said, adding "it's important to figure out how to deal with that."
Orders for his trailers, which can be as high as six figures, have come from professional football players and as far away as Australia. He also said he's talking with the Los Angeles County morgue, which is looking for a refrigerated vehicle. Meanwhile, a fire department in Orange County, Calif., is looking to make some sort of "weird trailer" that could comfortably house 30 to 40 men, if they were off-site fighting a fire, for example.
I asked Mattie what kind of car he drove - a pick up. "That's the one for me," he said.
What about one of these RVs? "No," he said with a smile, "that's not my lifestyle."
As part of his winnings from the award, Mattie gets to sit down with Dell founder Michael Dell for a day.
What does he plan to ask? "How did you do it?"
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