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6/20/2004

Tricky business

By Paula Aven Gladych
The Daily Times-Call

DEL CAMINO — Specialty Products Co. is expanding its automotive alignment parts business by targeting the “tricked-out” sports car industry.

A recent acquisition in November also has given the Del Camino-based, privately held company a position in the growing suspension and shocks technology market.

Founded in 1971, Specialty Products designs and manufactures after-market automotive alignment parts.

For 30 years, the company has marketed its wares around the world, including North America, Europe, Australia, Israel and Africa.

“Very few companies do the same thing we do,” president and CEO Ben Bigelow said. “We’re a market leader.”

He said the reason there are not more competitors in the alignment parts business is that “it’s a tough industry for people to get into.”

Specialty Products has thousands of part numbers in its inventory and develops new parts all the time.

Bigelow would not reveal his company’s revenues but said they were well above $1 million annually.

Specialty Products employs more than 60 people at three locations: Its headquarters about one mile south of Colo. Highway 119 on the Interstate 25 Frontage Road, its Light Racing subsidiary in California, which was acquired in November, and a machine shop in Berthoud.

Through Light Racing and its SPC Performance brand name, Specialty Products sells camber and alignment kits to “kids who ‘slam’ their cars,” Bigelow said, explaining the technique of lowering smaller cars like Hondas and Acuras by up to 2 inches, widening their wheel base and souping up their engines.

The market growth for lifted trucks and lowered cars has “been phenomenal for the automotive industry as a whole,” Bigelow said, experiencing “double-digit growth for six or seven years in a row, regardless of what the rest of the economy is doing.”

“Growth is the key,” he said. “We are creating a series of niche brands within the service automotive industry.”

Under a contract with General Motors, Specialty Products’ Light Racing division devised a new suspension system that will allow off-road vehicles to travel at greater speeds across rough terrain.

The system already has been installed on numerous U.S. Border Patrol vehicles, and the company has been working on a military vehicle that will be cheaper to produce than the Hummer, he said.

“The Hummer will always have a place on the battlefield,” Bigelow said, but the military continues to look at more commercial vehicles that it can turn into combat vehicles.

Under its agreement with GM, Specialty Products has worked on the suspension of the GMC Sierra.

A project like that offers the military “savings opportunities and versatility,” Bigelow said.

The suspension and alignment niche is “pretty low profile,” he said. “Most cars that go up and down the highway have our products in them.”

The company sells its parts and alignment equipment to companies such as Big O Tires that do alignments and work on suspension.

But Bigelow sees the biggest growth possibilities in new markets, such as heavy-duty “rock crawlers and four-wheel drives,” he said.

Bigelow is the son of the company’s founder, Frank, who retired 13 years ago and hired a new president to take over.

Bigelow recently came back to Colorado from Boston to run the company.

“It was an opportunity to come in and have some ownership, to have ultimate control of where the company was headed,” he said.

Bigelow spent the past five years working at Gillette, which was “cool, but it is an enormous corporation. The bureaucracy wears you down.”

Mina Cox, Specialty Products’ newly hired chief operating officer, said the company offers hands-on training on its alignment equipment.

“We have technical live support. People can call in if they have a problem, which is something our competitors don’t do,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of value-add we bring besides parts.”

Specialty Products is looking to expand its 40,000-square-foot facility — by up to an additional 20,000 square feet — to keep up with its growth, Bigelow said.

The automotive industry will always be stable, and that’s what Bigelow finds so attractive about it.

“There’s always going to be cars. It’s not like the technology industry, where you’re always wondering if you will keep your job,” he said. “We’re small. We can take risks and get into new products.”

Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 211, or by e-mail at pavengladych@times-call.com.