It is a nerve-wracking quest, forming a new company—a daunting and difficult prospect, to say the least.
Most who attempt it don’t succeed. When startups do manage to survive for more than a year or two, the growing pains and the struggles to stay afloat are usually brutal, grueling and ongoing. Starting a new company that takes off immediately and just keeps growing and prospering usually amounts to nothing more than a hope.
This is especially true for a new luxury vehicle builder. The upfitter realm is a tough one—there is stiff competition from builders who have refined their work over years of experience, and buyers will only purchase the very best custom-upfitted products.
Battisti Customs is the type of young company whose success most startups and new business ventures only ever dream of achieving. This is a company that, Khamis Mushait in just four years, went from selling parts and doing small conversions to upfitting 10 to 12 Sprinters and buses every month, and becoming one of the most respected and revered custom vehicle builders in the business.
It is also astounding, when considering Battisti Customs’ birth and ascension, that the company was founded in 2009—the infamously worst economic year in the Great Recession, when most corporations were either laying off huge fractions of their workforce, or folding altogether.
In that year, Bill Battisti and Carl Hazzard put together a plan for how they were going to break into the luxury vehicle market head-on. Battisti’s background was in seat manufacturing, working for and growing with Superior Seating doing design, development and sales. Hazzard had previously worked for MTG’s MastrAir division, specializing in HVAC engineering and 12-volt electrical. As these are the two primary components in a vehicle build, they already had a leg up on the typical custom upfitter arrangement, in which a salesperson or partner breaks off from a former employer to begin his own company.
The two men designed and developed their first Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, e-blasting their results to every builder they knew. TMC Ameritrans was immediately interested, and invited Battisti Customs to build all of their Sprinters. They also built conversions for other companies to brand as their own. Shortly thereafter, their own lines of credit and brand name recognition were solid enough to get things really moving.
The Perfect Vehicle
Much of Battisti Customs’ skyrocketing growth has occurred in the last two years. “By 2011 we were building two to three Sprinters a month, and just gradually growing,” Battisti explains. “At the end of 2012 we went from about four to eight Sprinters a month, and now we’re at 10 to 12 Sprinters or limobuses a month, and still increasing.”
A fair amount of the company’s good growth fortunes are the result of specializing in a vehicle (the Sprinter) that is currently experiencing explosive growth in population in our industry. “We’ve been a Sprinter dealer since August 2011, and we’ve been busting at the seams with these vehicles,” says Robert Sullivan, fleet director of the Gurley Leep Automotive Group in Mishawaka, IN. “The limo industry in particular has been buying them up like crazy.”
Sullivan thinks he knows why our industry is currently in the throes of a Sprinter feeding frenzy. “A lot of people want the Mercedes experience,” he says. “You pay a lot of money for corporate transportation, and people love that Mercedes star on the front end.” Sullivan adds that the durability of the vehicles is an even greater selling point, saying that Gurley Leep’s service department has Sprinters coming in on a daily basis with 600,000-700,000 miles on their odometers, which are still running great. “I think what people in the limo industry are starting to find with the Sprinters is that with the fuel economy, the way they last, and the great resale value, they may be the best vehicles you can buy.”
Battisti and Hazzard concur. “The Sprinter is the perfect vehicle for the industry,” says Battisti. “We also operate a limousine company here, and we’ve seen the way the customers respond. We’ve seen the kind of sales dollars you can do on it compared to the other available vehicles—your hourly rate on a Sprinter is just so much greater, but the cost of the vehicle isn’t. It’s a no-brainer.” “Nothing really compares to it,” Hazzard adds. “At the end of the day, the limo market is 90 percent corporate business stuff. So to have a vehicle that can satisfy the core business all year long, but with which you can also run that retail stuff, fits the bill for just about anything.”
The Winning Formula
Though the Sprinter is Battisti Customs’ bread and butter, the company also performs builds on limobuses and limousines for Mauck 2 and others, and is the exclusive limousine interior builder for ABC Bus/Ameritrans. And though these arrangements and the Sprinter are definitely outstanding assets, not just any new company can take a pair of gems like these and carve them into automatic success and growth (starting in a 4,500 square-foot space four years ago, moving to an 11,000 square-foot building, then landing in the 30,000 square-foot warehouse they’re in today, with plans to double that space within the next year).
Battisti Customs’ success comes from a perfect arrangement of key ingredients. The company is constantly, aggressively expanding their dealer network nationwide, adding at least one new dealer every month, resulting in service ability for their products in what Battisti calls “all the hot areas”—the East Coast, the West Coast and the South. The builder is also currently in the final stages of becoming a Mercedes-Benz Approved Upfitter.
Another key asset is Battisti Customs’ Elkhart, IN location. Known as “The RV Capital of the World,” Elkhart is the home of many vendors for every need—fiberglass, nuts and bolts, thermoform, HVAC and other vehicle manufacturing products, all very competitive with one another and “all right here in town to service absolutely every need we have, right away,” according to Hazzard. “And we get extremely competitive pricing because of that, and also next to zero freight costs.” Battisti Customs is also in an ideal location for shipping their vehicles to customers, literally 20 feet from Interstates 80 and 90.
But it is the way the company operates on the inside that is the primary reason their formula works so well. Battisti Customs is committed to doing a great job on everything they do, building world-class custom interiors, and doing a lot more of it themselves than is common for this type of business. For instance, they perform their own in-house wood grain water-transfer process, which entails hand-sanding cut pieces of MDF (an oak-dense particle board), running it through a painting process which includes a base coat of color and a sealer coat, and water-transferring ink onto the finished piece.
“It’s a very durable, automotive process—the same process Cadillac uses for the wood grain on the dashes of their vehicles,” Battisti explains. “This is something new that we’re doing in-house as of this year. It helps speed up production, because it is such a long process. If it’s here, then you can move parts back and forth faster. If you’ve got to rush something through, you can do it right here.”
And of course, given Battisti’s background in seat manufacturing, seats are also made on-site, but under their sister company Chairmen Seating, which is run by Dave Lorence. Lorence spoke with us about the benefits of beginning his company with Battisti Customs two and a half years ago. “It was great starting off knowing we had one solid customer, Battisti Customs, and it was a really good move to partner with Bill and Carl. When we started, they were right on the verge of getting everything in line for a big explosion, a big expansion. So to come on board when we did really gave us a nice stepping stone to get up and running.”
Lorence is quick to mention that Chairmen Seating doesn’t exclusively provide seating for Battisti Customs, however. But as a supplier to the competition, Chairmen’s partnership with Battisti gives them huge advantages. “Our being part of a builder gives us a different understanding of seats’ applications,” he says. “We’re not just selling you a seat—we’re selling you the knowledge and the service behind that seat’s installation. Once it gets there, it’s not just yours to figure out. We know the mechanics of how that seat has to be installed.”
“It’s a really nice thing to have,” adds Battisti, “that we’re able to produce our own seats in-house, and are able to service our customers—if there’s a tear or rip, it’s very easy to fix.”
There is also another company that fits in nicely under the Battisti umbrella. As was mentioned above, they operate their own transportation company, Ann Marie Limousine. Lead by Emily Harman, Ann Marie consists of a very busy nine-car fleet of Sprinters and Town Cars, as well as Dodge Magnum, Lincoln Navigator and triple-axle Town Car stretches—and, according to Battisti, is the largest operator in the South Bend/Notre Dame area.
Ann Marie is a thriving company in its own right, but it’s also a huge asset to Battisti Customs, as it serves as what Hazzard calls “a nice little test bed.”
“We know what it’s like to have a vehicle down,” he says. “We’ll try new things, new products—before they go into our customers’ vehicles, they go into ours.”
“I believe that is part of what sets us apart, too,” Battisti adds. “It’s a pretty unique thing—we see the day to day experiences that our customers are having. I think that’s why we focus so much on the service after the sale. Because we know how important it is to keep the vehicle working perfectly.”
The most obvious finding of this ongoing research through Ann Marie is the massive popularity of the fleet’s Sprinters. “We’ve had them for four months, and they’ve made more money than any other vehicle we’ve had,” says Battisti. Ann Marie’s Emily Harman confirms this, saying that every one of the fleet’s vehicles is busy all the time, but that the Sprinters are by far the busiest.
She also adds that Battisti Customs is building a new Chrysler 300 stretch for the Ann Marie fleet, which, as testament to Battisti’s and Ann Marie’s superb vehicles, is already booked out far into their schedule. “People haven’t even seen pictures—they just know our vehicles are of great quality.”
The Key Ingredient
It’s clear that Battisti has many pieces fitting into perfect places to make this whole operation work as well as it does. But it would all fall apart without the key ingredient—the most important piece of this puzzle. And that is the company’s treatment of its employees, and how much every one of them loves working there.
This isn’t just the usual “Sure, this is a great place to work,” when asked if one enjoys his or her job. Talk to any Battisti employee, and you’ll get outpourings of praise for the company, the guys at the helm, the work environment, and the type of work being performed. These people really love their jobs.
Andy Rininger, builder and fabricator, says he loves everything about working at Battisti Customs. “It’s just an awesome place to work, and this is the best job I’ve ever had.” He adds that Hazzard is the best boss he’s had, and that he doesn’t ever want to do any other type of work for any other company.
Electrical technician Brian Sanders tells us that his position is absolutely his dream job. “I’ve been searching for something like this for a long time and I’ve finally found it,” he says. “It’s like home. This is it, right here. I love it. You ask anybody, any of my friends, they’ll say ‘yeah, he found home. He’s home.’”
Cliff Battisti, builder and fabricator, continues in this vein, telling us how much he loves the atmosphere and the work itself. “These guys are awesome to work for,” he says. “Great bosses.”
And Office Manager Dawn Caldwell sums up the collective spirit of Battisti Customs: “I want to stay with Battisti for as long as possible. Battisti Customs rules!”
Bill Battisti explains one part of why this may be, saying that what sets Battisti Customs apart from other shops is that they function in a team environment. “We have teams that actually build the truck, front to back,” he says. “This gives them a sense of ownership and accountability, and allows them to take pride in what they do. Instead of just being the people who install the cup holders or something, they build the whole thing.”
It seems to be working very well for employee satisfaction. Battisti Customs has just the right mix of elements needed to make a complex machine like theirs function smoothly and productively, but the employee enthusiasm and adoration for the company that Battisti and Hazzard have fostered is the glue that holds it all together. It has given the company the octane boost required to take it from merely running well to accelerating into an explosion of productivity and success.
From here, the company plans to keep booming as they have since the beginning of their short four-year history. They hope to acquire that second 30,000 square-foot space within the next year and double their production of Sprinters, buses and limobuses. Hazzard is enthusiastic about expanding their van lines with the new products on the way from Ford and Chrysler, in the form of the Transit and Ram Van, respectively. He shows particular enthusiasm for the Fiat Ducato-based Ram Van, as it has what he calls a “very European look,” but says both are solid new offerings, especially given that they could very well undercut the Sprinter by $15,000, a savings they would pass on to their customers.
Hazzard says Battisti Customs’ primary goal is to do whatever it takes to change with the limousine market, which is a market of constant changes. They certainly got into it at the right time with the surge in popularity of the Sprinter in our industry, and they believe all these vans from the different manufacturers are where it will continue to head—for now.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” he says. “This is what we want to do. For the future, we plan on continued growth, but controlled growth. We’re growing fast but not letting it get out of hand.”
Bill Battisti sees his company as one that was started in a perfect storm, and he wants to continue to wrangle every opportunity as it comes their way. “We’re rising out of that perfect storm. Everything has been timed perfectly, every step of the way. And every day, there is a new, giant opportunity.”
As it has done since day one, Battisti Customs will combine the forces of its winning formula—of outstanding employee care, world-class interior builds, in-house manufacturing, a triad of companies feeding and supporting one another, an ideal location, and the right vehicles to harness the abilities of these opportunities—and utilize the power of their perfectly concocted business recipe. Sticking to this, the young star is sure to remain a growing staple of the luxury custom builder kingdom for many years to come. // LD