#3 Innovative Vehicle Solutions
Lisa Kuhn, President
Innovative Vehicle Solutions is a full-service upfitter that manufactures lightweight and durable dry boxes and dump bodies for the light and medium duty truck market. Founded in 2012, the company is headquartered in Charleston and has a total of 18 locations in 12 states. Innovative Vehicle Solutions partners with companies around the world.
What are the keys to your company’s rapid growth?
Our #1 key to growth is providing a high level of service to our customers. The second key is to sell what the customer wants to buy. Customization is at the core of our business model; we produce exactly what our customer needs even when our competitors can’t or won’t. This goes hand-in-hand with service; we first fully understand our customers’ needs before providing them with a total solution that exceeds their expectations.
What do you see as your company’s greatest opportunities in the future?
Our greatest opportunity as a company is innovation that keeps up with technology, particularly the rise of Amazon.com and online shopping. As more and more shopping moves online, we want to build the vehicles that make that happen. As more industries get into the delivery game, there will be a growing need for specialized vehicles that make those deliveries possible. For example, we are in the process of revolutionizing the refrigerated van, which a huge number of businesses will need if they are to begin selling their products online.
What are your biggest challenges and how do you plan to overcome them?
Our biggest challenge has been too much growth too fast. We’re thrilled to have acquired so much new business so quickly, but the speed at which we’ve grown has caused some difficulties. Our revenue has grown up so much faster than other elements of our business. We’ve had to scramble for enough office and manufacturing space. Some of it we’ve dealt with by simply staying flexible, and making short-term sacrifices when necessary to keep the business flowing. We’re hoping we never truly overcome this problem, just get better at dealing with it.
What advice can you offer someone just starting a business?
Fully understand your capitalization needs. Don’t underestimate those needs; you’re guaranteed to experience some cash flow crises and they’re impossible to weather if you’re undercapitalized. You also need plenty of money in the bank to stay flexible regarding growth opportunities. My second piece of advice is to know your markets. If you really understand your market, and your customers’ needs, better than your competitors, you will reliably be able to provide a better product and superior service.
What is your strategy for innovation?
Leveraging technology is everything to us. We constantly keep an eye out for technological advances that allow us to build vehicles that had never been possible before. We’re always looking for ways to build vehicles that can only exist because of brand new technology.
Who do you consider to be your mentor/mentors in business?
Jim Kennedy of Cox Enterprise. He was the CEO, and I worked for him for nine years. He took a family business and turned it into an empire. Most importantly, he taught me that the way to build an empire was with a focus on people, service, quality, and integrity.
Does your company’s geographic location offer any specific advantages?
Yes, South Carolina’s state government has been extremely welcoming and supportive to businesses. Easy access to a major interstate has also been essential to our growth, since our business requires us to transport vehicles.
How many employees do you have and do you plan to add any in the coming year?
We currently have 48 employees and will continue to grow more in the upcoming years. We’re in the process of constructing a new building that will massively increase our manufacturing space. We’ll be filling that space with work, and we will need more employees to do it.
How is your company legally structured?
We are structured as a limited liability corporation. An LLC was the right balance of flexibility, simplicity, and financial security for us. We absolutely required liability protection, and acquiring that protection without all the bureaucracy and expense of a conventional corporation was a winning formula.
What is the hardest thing about being a founder?
Convincing banks that you are a sound investment. As a founder, you know what makes your business special, and why you’re going to succeed. Banks don’t necessarily care, though; they only see risk. The key to succeeding as an entrepreneur is to reinvent your market, but banks would rather see a proven business model. You can’t succeed without financing, but you also can’t afford to compromise your business’ identity too severely seeking that financing. It’s a tremendously challenging balancing act, and the hardest part of my job.
What is the best thing about being a founder?
The biggest thing about being a founder is reinventing the marketplace. There isn’t a lot of money in doing the same thing that everyone else is already doing. If that’s all you’re doing, the founder isn’t providing any value to the company. The founder’s most important job is to recognize opportunities within the marketplace that no one else is seeing, and developing a plan to take advantage of those opportunities.
If you are a founder, at what point did you start paying yourself?
I started paying myself in year two, but I’ve continued to prioritize the business over my personal finances. This has been one of the keys to our ability to procure financing; banks love it when I pull up to meetings in a beat-up old truck. Keeping as much money as possible in the business has also been an essential component of our rapid growth.
How much money did you use to start your business?
We started IVS with $1 million. It was a mixture of my own capital and funding from a partner who I have since bought out of the business. This funding arrangement has worked out well for us, since I was able to retain complete control of the business without any strings attached.