It's the fourth time in the past year that Adam Sulimirski is headed to China, but he doesn't mind. “I like traveling,” he says with a chuckle.
As a partner and general manager of Cruise Car Inc., Sulimirski, 50, goes to China each quarter to meet with resort operators and fleet buyers, as well as to examine product shipments at the company's assembly plant in Shanghai. The agenda for this quarter's trip also includes interviewing people for a full-time supervisor position at the plant.
But Sulimirski won't be jetting back and forth from China as often anymore. Instead, he plans to travel to other countries to expand Sarasota-based Cruise Car's international client base.
“We think that next year 50% of our sales will be international,” says Ken Chester, 67, a retired pharmaceutical executive and president of Cruise Car.
A lot has changed in the five years since Sulimirski joined what was then a solar golf cart company founded by Chester. “I pretty much said let me earn my keep,” Sulimirski says. “Ken said 'OK,' handed me a stack of leads and I ran with it,” Sulimirski says.
Shortly after Sulimirski joined Cruise Car Inc., the company experienced an unexpected marketing boost. The firm sent four solar-electric hybrid vehicles to the University of Mississippi campus for the media to use during the week of the presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain scheduled to take place there. “That's when things exploded,” Sulimirski says. The company's website, which usually gets 1,000 hits a day, got 200,000 hits in three weeks. Within five months, the company began shipping carts to more than 20 countries as a result of the increased exposure.
From Solar to Unlimited
The idea for a solar golf cart company came to Chester as a result of his electric golf cart running out of battery power during an afternoon game of golf in 2003. Although Chester and his fellow golfers were forced to walk the rest of the way, he couldn't walk away from how silly the whole thing was. That's when it hit him—what about a solar-powered golf cart? The idea, combined with Chester's business and marketing expertise, led to the creation of Cruise Car Inc., a company that manufactured and sold a variety of solar-powered vehicles.
Back then the company capitalized on the nation's all-time high fuel prices and the growing interest in transportation that wasn't dependent on gas. However as years passed, the niche limited the company. Chester says he was turning away customers who wanted quality customized vehicles with a fuel-powered engine.
“For us to say 'sorry can't help you,' didn't make any sense,” he says. “We did that in the beginning, but I was like, 'What are we doing? We're turning away business.'”
So in 2010, the company teamed up with Luis “Lou” Hasbrouck, 57, of Custom Carts, a Sarasota-based golf cart manufacturer that is also a Club Car and E-Z-GO dealer. The two combined their strengths — Cruise Car being more experienced in marketing and connections and Custom Carts in manufacturing. “It's one-plus-one is three [when you take] their strengths and our strengths and you combine them together,” Hasbrouck says.
The company has since morphed into a full-service custom golf cart company that designs “lifestyle vehicles” to function, and look, like pretty much anything. Chester says it's a “build-it-and-they-will-come kind of thing.”
Whether that means propane-powered engines, or add-ons like waterproof storage boxes or fold-down windshields, Cruise Car attempts to accommodate any request, even if it is purely aesthetic. “We made the front of one golf cart look like a pig for Smithfield Farms,” Sulimirski says.
And its client base has grown as a result of its willingness to custom build. Within the last two years, Cruise Car has provided vehicles to various hotels, schools and retail outlets, as well as U.S. military bases.
None of the company's growing pains has been as grueling as keeping its high quality standards while outsourcing some of its manufacturing to China. Cruise Car sends some parts to its Chinese plant to be assembled, along with staff to oversee the assembly. Sulimirski goes to inspect the product before it gets shipped back to Cruise Car, where it finishes assembling and customizing the vehicle.
If there is anything wrong with the shipment, Sulimirski “pulls the plug” before it's shipped. “It's like pushing water uphill,” Sulimirski says. “But you have to do that or else you're just another Chinese factory.”
Quality control has undoubtedly been a driving force behind the increase in the company's customer base. Chester says the firm has several prospective Chinese clients that have realized that quality matters. “What's interesting about China is that they've gotten to the point where they want brand-name recognition,” Chester says. “Cruise Car is the American brand for China.”
China is a significant target as the company looks to expand its client base internationally. “We're penetrating the market at the right time,” Chester says. Aside from a few sampling orders, the company's customers have been primarily in the U.S. up to this point.
Although Cruise Car will be hiring someone to look after things at its Shanghai facility, Sulimirski will likely continue to visit clients in China periodically because he is familiar with the Chinese business atmosphere from his past endeavors, which include an aromatherapy business. “It's a slightly different way of doing business there, so you have to have friendships,” he says. “It's all relationship-based.”
Chester declines to release the company's sale figures, only saying they're in the millions. The firm will have exceeded last year's sales by August, he adds, and it's on track to grow as much as 50% over the next year. Solar is approximately 25% of the firm's business.
One of the biggest challenges the company anticipates in the next year will be keeping up with the manufacturing, which can be tricky when developing custom vehicles for every client.
But Sulimirski and Hasbrouck say that during the last year they have worked on lowering costs by determining how to get parts, and learning which vehicles sell and which don't. Thay also have worked to develop as many as 20 configurations of product.
“We didn't want to be the dog that got the bus and get this huge order and all of the sudden not deliver,” Sulimirski says. “Now we know that we really are ready to start accepting some large orders and for the first time we're really going after some of the big boys,” — those customers who operate more than 50 low-speed vehicles.
The business partners anticipate a significant influx of large orders as a result of a new hardware and software “Sky Fleet” program they are launching to help fleet operators better manage their vehicles. Chester will only disclose that Cruise Car is no more than six months away from finalizing the new technology. He says they got the idea after fleet managers told them they're under pressure to manage their fleet more efficiently.
“They're under budget restraints and military cutbacks, and we're coming in with a solution based on feedback that we've heard directly from them,” he says. “So we know already that we have a huge market to run in as soon as we finish testing everything.”
However, the increase in orders could be bittersweet — especially if the company receives a large amount of government orders. While most customers pay a deposit and then process the full payment within 24 hours of shipping, government customers pay after delivery, which in the past has taken Cruise Car as long as 120 days to receive payment.
“If our government business grows at a more rapid pace than all other, it would be a challenge,” Chester says about the company's cash flow. “It's a small-business issue.”
That's why Cruise Car expanded its client base, so it's not so reliant on government clients for cash flow. Although orders from government clients haven't slowed, that segment has become less of the mix, Chester says. “We're the Johnny-come-lately,” Chester says. “We're tiptoeing into the marketplace.”