REI celebrates 75th anniversary

Posted on May 20, 2013 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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With four active third-generation family members, including President Scott Hays (bottom row, fourth from left), REI continues to be a family-owned and run company.
With four active third-generation family members, including President Scott Hays (bottom row, fourth from left), REI continues to be a family-owned and run company.
This year marks Radio Engineering Industries’ (REI) 75th anniversary. The company is celebrating this milestone with its customers at trade shows, including last January’s UMA Motorcoach Expo; updating and releasing new products; and hosting a fun night out at the local baseball park in Omaha, Neb., for its employees and their families.

METRO Magazine spoke to REI’s President Scott Hays, who reflected on the company’s 75 years in business and discussed its future.   

How does it feel for your family-owned company to attain the success it has?
There is no greater satisfaction than taking a role over from my father, running the company, and then, seeing my children come into the company as well.

There are four active third-generation family members that work here now, and we all worked in various areas of the company — the production floor, the metal shop, the shipping department, quality control — before we diversified and took over different managerial roles within the company. I take pride in knowing that, just as we did, my kids will work in multiple areas of the company before one day working their way up like we did.

Discuss the company’s growth over the years.
A lot of my early memories are based on how the business has changed over the years. Ever since I’ve been driving, cars always came with radios, but when I was younger, cars didn’t come with them, so I remember there being a great deal of local walk-in business from folks who wanted to have one installed.

Back then, everybody embraced distribution modules. Meaning, we were a company that would make our own products, but we would also sell all kinds of other popular brands like Panasonic and Sony. What really changed, when I was young, though, was the distribution model was being eliminated; manufacturers were going direct to the dealer networks without having distribution. So at that time, we directed our company to invest more into developing, manufacturing and developing  our own products.

Who was responsible for that change in direction and why?
It was my dad, Robert Hays. The reason for the change was actually twofold. In the late 1970s, Blue Bird was one of the first companies we built custom products for, when they asked us to build a radio with public address capabilities. So, we designed and manufactured a custom radio for them. Following that, we found other companies were also looking for the same kind of specialized electronics, not just items you could buy at a consumer electronics store.

I also remember going out to Motor Coach Industries with my dad, and they mentioned they would like to find a company that could build a public address system designed for their bus. So, we did that too.

Both of these products carved out a new niche nobody was doing back then. We got into building different customized electronics for different manufacturers. We would walk in, talk with their engineering and manufacturing groups, and ask what they needed on their bus. Many were looking for something unique, and we were a company that could provide it.

We also did many other unique things, such as building product for AT&T, building  circuit boards for Minuteman Missiles, and were the second video store in the state of Nebraska back when VHS and Beta were having their battles and renting tapes was a brand-new concept. At one time, we were even one of the largest manufacturers of bottle washers and fillers that filled purified water bottles for home delivery, but eventually, sold that off. We have done a lot of offshoots of different unique things, and why I bring that up is, we are very unique in our manufacturing capabilities — we can really do a lot of different things for customers.

After building those initial products, how rapid was the growth?
We started building these initial custom products within the commercial transportation market around the mid- to late-70s. By 1989, we were completely out of the  retail distribution business and dedicated 100 percent to manufacturing. We now have a 150,000-square-foot facility that is our headquarters.

Is there pressure to grow and maintain what’s been built by your father and grandfather?
Of course, we feel pressure. It is a competitive marketplace, and the demands of customers have changed over the years. We have access to information at a moment’s notice. Things move faster, so we need to adapt quickly to continue to grow as a company and meet our customers’ needs.

The other challenge for any company, especially one that is family owned and been around for as long as ours has, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. We spend a significant amount of time analyzing what we do right and wrong and challenging ourselves to change the way we think to look for newer and better ways of doing things. Case in point, over the last six months we have brought in a team of consultants to analyze our customer service here, look at our people and processes, and see if there’s a more efficient way to provide a better customer experience.

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