Talkin’ Performance with Steve Matusek

Nov 15, 2012

Steve Matusek is founder and president of Aeromotive Inc., in Lenexa, Kan., and he comes from sturdy stock. Born to immigrant parents-his father came to America from Hungary and his mother from Poland-the elder Matuseks always envisioned their U.S.-born son becoming a well-educated professional-and specifically, an engineer.

Matusek made his parents proud. He went to university, got the degrees, and found himself one day living his parents’ dream. There was the cubicle, the job, the salary, the real or imagined prestige.

But a profound and unshakeable thirst for being outside and on the racetrack ached inside Steve-thanks, in part, to another element his father had instilled within him, which was a love of racing. When Steve was a child, the Matuseks visited Indianapolis and other racing hubs on family vacations, even while his pals were going camping and to Disney World.

Eventually, Steve took that engineering mind and used it to achieve an even bigger American dream: to own and run a successful business and, in his case, to build it around automotive racing. Here’s a bit of the Aeromotive story-an American dream if ever there was one.

PB: Hi Steve. Thanks for taking some time right before the busy trade show season begins to talk with us. So, what got you interested in the automotive aftermarket?

SM: I grew up in racing. Throughout my childhood my father raced Altereds, front- and rear-engine dragsters and had much success. When other kids went on vacation to regular vacation spots, we went to Indianapolis for the U.S. Nationals. So I grew up in the industry. It was a way of life. That’s what we did.

My parents were strict. They didn’t ask what I wanted to do. I was given two options-go to college and get an engineering degree, or work. That was it.

I chose an education and graduated from Parks College of St. Louis University with an aerospace engineering degree.

It was a good scenario. I got married, had the house, the family, the pet and the white collar job as an aerospace engineer. It sounds like the all-American story. The only problem was that I was miserable.

The 9-to-5 job, the cubicle, the company bowling league was not for me, so I researched ways to break the mold. I went to school, earned my MBA and learned about venture capital. I started an 18-month journey. The catalyst to do so was my wife, Lori, encouraging me to go for it-to find venture capital and start a performance company.

Eventually, with my family, some investment money and a lot of luck, we launched Aeromotive Inc. in 1994. But it wasn’t an easy road. There were dicey times and a whole lot of question marks and wondering if we could ever make our products into a thriving business. It was truly a trying effort, with setbacks and sleepless nights.

But we were willing to put in the time and effort to get it going and, in February of 2001, we bought back our stock from the investors and haven’t looked back since.

PB: How is the business structured?

SM: Originally the company was structured with investors and the strategy was to design and manufacture performance products as a private-label manufacturer. I had no intent in creating a brand.

After a couple years I developed a relationship with one of our suppliers. We shared strategies and worked well together, so we decided to merge the companies.

In 2001, my partner, Jack Hylton, and I bought out our investors and never looked back. I was fortunate enough to be able to relocate my Dad and Mom to Kansas City from Pittsburgh and make them part of the company. It is very rewarding to be able to do that.

PB: Tell us about your company and its place in the performance aftermarket.

SM: We focus on fuel delivery components and that’s our expertise. We try to not diversify because then you take your eye off the ball.

We have the applications knowledge, the technology, the engineering and the experience-and we race. We understand it. Every product we make has a story. Our products are truly conceived at the race track. We’re out there and whether by our racing, or through our relationships with racers, customers and other manufacturers, we identify a problem, come up with a solution and turn it into a product.

We don’t do me too-type products.  Every product was conceived to satisfy a specific problem.

We came from the aerospace industry. I was privy to materials, processes and procedures most in this industry are not. We apply those same processes and procedures in this little company that major aerospace companies do. It’s just how I learned to do things.

That higher-level background and experience give us a distinct advantage.

PB: What’s a typical day like for you?

SM: I was in Charlotte racing yesterday and today I’m back in the office. The most I’ve sat still in the last month is with this interview.

I can tackle many efforts because we have very young and excited people learning and understanding the business and the product that I can hand things off to. I can see the opportunities, provide them with the necessary specs and the problem we’re solving and let them run. These younger guys are finding these opportunities.

We are growing dramatically because we have people who are very smart and who are very in-tune with how we do business. We have a great base of people bringing product ideas to the table.

I sift through those ideas, I meet with my partner and we look at what we can afford to do responsibly and where to get the biggest bang for the buck.

We identify a problem, figure out a solution, do the math and determine whether or not we can afford to execute it and whether the market can accept the product.

PB: What’s the best thing about your job?

SM: We were at the PWA conference last week and an employee said, “It’s good to be king!” We all laughed, but we truly have an influence.

We focus on making the pie bigger. We’re coming out with innovative solutions, with new opportunities. We’re continually growing-not by eating market share, but by creating new, innovative products that address complex problems.

PB: What’s the biggest challenge?

SM: Deciding which product is the most viable. Though we have no debt, we do have limited resources. I know what it’s like to have venture capital invested in the business, and I have no desire to go back there.

We are very cautious and methodical with our product development and very conservative with our capital.

PB: How do you see the current state of the performance aftermarket?

SM: We see it differently than other people. We keep our head down and try not to listen to the news or read the newspapers. It distorts your ability to see opportunities.

We are growing dramatically-we had a record year last year and we will again this year. Our continued growth is linked to innovation and new product development.

PB: Where do you think the industry will be in 10 years?

SM: It’s strong and I predict steady growth. When the bottom fell out of the economy, to some degree it did so in the performance business industry as well.

The performance segment of the industry does not see the dramatic ebbs and flows that some other segments experience. It’s more stable, but you have to be engaged in the industry.

PB: Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

SM: That’s a tough question. I truly feel any accomplishment I have been a part of has been because of a lot of people. There are bankers, family members, friend, partners and employees. Behind any successful company there are a lot of supportive and contributing people.

The thing I’m most proud of is the character and the way we do business. If we make a promise, we deliver. The reason I always try to tell the truth is because I’m not smart enough to remember a lie.

We try to do things right.

PB: What’s your next big goal to achieve?

SM: We want to continue to do what we’re doing. I’m getting older, yet I’m still very much engaged. I have a constant level of excitement. My wife and I are now empty-nesters. I can now devote even more of my time in the industry. My goal is to continue doing what I do.

I’m living the dream and I don’t want to retire. This is my hobby, my passion and my profession. I want to continue to stay around young, excited and energetic people.

Hopefully we’ll ride this roller-coaster for a long time.

PB: As a final question, what’s your advice for those in your industry seeking long-term success in the performance aftermarket?

SM: If you’re not out there participating, if you’re not engaged, you’re not going to be successful. The rewards are great if you can follow your passion.

This has to be a passion, a love, a desire. That’s the kind of industry it is. It’s a want-to industry.

More with Steve Matusek

What was your first car?

A 1969 Mach I Mustang.

What’s your dream ride?

The car I’m driving now. They didn’t have this class when I was young. My father raced and I always wanted a Pro Mod-type car. A Fuel Altered was what I dreamt about when I was young, but now I have to say it’s a twin-turbocharged Pro Mod.

What’s on your computer/phone wallpaper?

On my laptop a big Aeromotive logo; on my desktop a picture of my family gathered around my car we refer to as ELDO, our 1977 red convertible Cadillac Eldorado.

Person you’d most like to meet.

Ronald Reagan.

If I wasn’t in the performance aftermarket, I’d probably be…

I’d be involved in the NFL in some capacity. In a previous life, I was trying to get involved with the effort in St. Louis to procure an NFL franchise. Or, if that didn’t work out, I’d try to get back into motorsports.