GREENSBORO — Your local auto dealer doesn’t carry bookmobiles, mobile law enforcement command centers or mobile mammography units.
But Matthews Specialty Vehicles will be happy to build you one. In fact, they’ll be happy to build you virtually any custom-designed medium-duty commercial vehicle you can dream up.
The company’s customers include the Greensboro Public Library, a number of state agencies and even the Central Intelligence Agency.
The variety in the company’s customer base has made marketing a challenge, even as the firm looks to grow its business.
Librarians and cops don’t read the same trade publications, attend the same conventions or refer vendors to one another.
So, after a not very successful attempt to build a dealer network in the early and mid-1990s, during Matthews Specialty Vehicles’ first few years, the company has turned instead to a time-tested sales technique: shoe leather.
Dennis Hoag, Matthews Specialty Vehicles’ sales director, spends plenty of time at industry trade shows and conventions, making contacts and looking for opportunities to get his company’s vehicles in front of potential customers.
“You have to go to each market,” he says.
That approach seems to be working. The 13-year-old company now has annual revenues in the $10 million range, President Brad Matthews says, and the company is growing.
Building on Thomas
Matthews’ parents owned the Thomas Built Buses Inc. dealer franchise for New York state, and a parent company, Matthews Group, owns other bus-related businesses, such as a tour company and a High Point firm that manufactures air-conditioning units for buses.
Matthews Specialty Vehicles was founded in 1992, when Thomas Built was looking for a way to get out of the specialty vehicle business. Customers sometimes wanted their buses customized, and Thomas Built had accommodated those requests, but the High Point bus maker was looking to get out of aftermarket customization.
The Matthews, through their New York dealership, were already doing some aftermarket work themselves, so Thomas Built asked them to take over the specialty vehicle business.
In exchange, Matthews became Thomas Built’s exclusive specialty-vehicles provider.
Matthews uses Thomas Built chassis and bodies when possible, but also will build specialty vehicles on other platforms, depending on a client’s needs.
Working with the client to define those needs and develop a set of specifications for the job has been the key to winning contracts, Hoag says.
“People want to deal directly with the manufacturer, and they want to deal directly with us,” he says.
When developing a vehicle, Hoag and his colleagues will talk not only to managers involved in making the purchasing decision, but also to the people who will ultimately use the vehicle.
With customers from government agencies, especially, it can take as long as three years to complete a sale, since frequently a major purchase requires decisions from several layers of management and sometimes a legislative OK to spend the money.
Close contact with customers before, during and after the sale has paid off in other ways, too: repeat business, for instance.
In the last nine years, North Carolina’s Forensic Test for Alcohol Program, a unit of the state’s Division of Public Health, has purchased five mobile blood-alcohol testing units.
The 32-foot-long buses are outfitted with breath-testing machines and are used at DWI roadway checkpoints. The vehicles not only have stations where police can tell whether a driver has had too much to drink, they’re even equipped with a work station so a local magistrate can write warrants on the spot.
“I’ve been pleased with the quality of the work, but also their customer support,” says Al Eisley, supervisor of the Forensic Test for Alcohol Program.
The program trains and certifies law enforcement officers on breath-testing equipment, plus it staffs the mobile DWI units and runs public education programs.
With the $225,000 vehicles on the road across the state every weekend, and often visiting schools and other public places during the week, Eisley says Matthews Specialty Vehicles’ willingness to provide service and support around the vehicles’ travel schedule has been important.
He also cited the company’s help in designing the vehicles, using its experience to make suggestions that could be incorporated into his plans.
Responding to the market
In the wake of the 9/11, terrorist attacks, the demand for mobile law enforcement command centers has grown considerably, Matthews says.
Government budgets, however, haven’t necessarily followed suit.
So in order to satisfy the demand at a price more local law enforcement agencies could afford, the company has begun refitting used buses.
The underlying vehicles are less expensive than a new vehicle would be. Matthews Specialty Vehicles workers then retrofit them with cabinetry, new seats, even specialized electronic gear.
Sometimes, too, the company will set out to create a new niche itself.
“A lot of times we design a new product that no one’s ever bought before,” Matthews says. Mobile spay-and-neuter vehicles, he said, are an example.
Matthews and his brother, who own the company, are using their bus expertise to spin out more companies.
Matthews Specialty Graphics, for instance, is built in large part off Matthews Specialty Vehicles’ need for workers and equipment that could create and apply large graphics to vehicles.
Matthews Specialty Graphics is now out hunting for new clients on its own.
“We try to stay one step ahead of our competitors and be proactive,” Matthews says.