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.[PAGEBREAK]
How have REI’s long-term relationships played a role in the evolution of your products and innovations?
It’s nice for us to go to events, shows, and meetings and shake hands with good friends — people you have known for years and years. We support their businesses, they are supporting our business, and we share the same challenges and successes. It’s just nice to be able to deal with people who respect what you do and know that you respect what they do.
When we are working with manufacturers and discussing electronic innovations, we can advise them because we too have talked to the customer. Many times, the customer they sell the bus to is the same customer we are selling our products to. We can stand together with their engineering, purchasing and management teams and explain why we are developing the concepts and ideas that we are. In our markets, we communicate not just with the manufacturers of the vehicle, but also the dealers, distributors and end users of products. We focus on tying together all of those different entities in the marketplace to make sure we have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on, what’s needed and what the hot buttons are.
Discuss the innovations you have introduced into the markets you serve.
In the motorcoach industry, we introduced video systems in the mid-80s. Every thing prior to that had just been an audio system. We developed the first integrated video system in the motorcoach market, which was a big turning point for us because we went from selling a radio and some speakers to something much more complex.
Today, a motorcoach can have 36 speakers with subwoofers, video systems backlit by LED, HD monitors, a wireless microphone system or digital audio players; a variety of customer-friendly technologies.
Another innovation was mobile video surveillance, which is about 35 percent of our business. In 1991, we developed our first surveillance system, which records activity in and around the vehicle. We market this technology to the transit, school, commercial vehicle and motorcoach industries with business continuing to grow year over year.
In the early 90s, surveillance was a VCR-based system, and then evolved into digital in the late 90s. The newest trend, which REI’s on the cutting edge with, is surveillance and audio vehicle locator (AVL) systems. We’re tying together the ability to have surveillance on the vehicle with analyzing driver behavior and passenger information systems. Customers now know when a bus is going to arrive or depart. In the case of city transit, with REI’s system, passengers can use a cell phone app and know the next bus is going to arrive in three minutes.
It’s important to tie these technologies together for an enhanced customer experience. It’s one of our biggest challenges, yet one our team is most excited about working on today.
What are some current industry trends and REI’s role in those trends going forward?
A large project we have is the development of surveillance and AVL technology. We want to enhance these technologies to make transits more effective and safer. Today, we provide passenger counting to inform a transit agency if a vehicle is full and they need to dispatch additional vehicles. We can do rerouting; if there is construction or an accident in a particular area, we can route around them. We can do text messaging to let parents know when children get on or off a school bus. There are just a few examples of REI’s safety and security initiatives.
Another new direction is the advancement of driver behavior modules, so you can not only have a clean, safe vehicle but good driving behavior behind the wheel as well. It is really about developing new technology tools to help enhance the experience and for bus owners to better maintain their vehicles, drivers and fleets.
Did you ever imagine you would play such a huge role in passenger safety?
The markets have grown. We didn’t envision what it is today back in 1991. The scope of what it has become was unpredictable. People in the industries we serve have really embraced technology and realized the sky is the limit. To match their needs, we have a team of engineers developing the next latest and greatest generation of electronic transportation products. It will be exciting to see what’s next.