Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm
Burlington-based LDV Inc. manufactures custom vehicles that make regular appearances on television and have a national reputation for durability and performance in difficult situations. No, LDV doesn’t make flashy sports cars or monster trucks. It builds custom designed vehicles for two very different markets – police, fire and other departments that operate under the umbrella of Homeland Security, and mobile tool stores for Kenosha-based Snap-on Inc. sales staff.
Although many LDV vehicles look like they are recreational vehicles or delivery trucks, they’re not. The vehicles are designed to take a pounding and are built with custom designed frames, chassis and other materials able to withstand heavy use.
"It’s commercial grade vs. recreational grade," said David Krause, LDV’s president.
LDV’s custom law enforcement vehicles can include mobile command centers stocked with satellite communications, sophisticated radio dispatch, computer and video equipment.
LDV also makes specialized law enforcement vehicles such as SWAT deployment vehicles, dive team transports for fire departments and mobile crime scene labs.
Vehicles for law enforcement and fire services have been the company’s biggest source of growth over the past five years and make up about 45 percent of its business now. Company executives say mobile tool stores made for Snap-on are still an important part of LDV’s business, accounting for about 35 percent of its total sales. The remaining 20 percent is comprised of parts sales and other custom trucks.
For fiscal 2005, LDV’s revenues have risen by 19 percent. Its sales of Snap-on mobile tool stores have steadily increased, while sales of special service vehicles have increased by 43 percent. Special service vehicles include law enforcement vehicles.
The company’s total sales have risen more than 48 percent since 2000.
LDV’s mobile command centers and other law enforcement vehicles have been on the scene at the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, at natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and other large-scale disasters that have received national and world media coverage.
The company is a division of the Lynch family of auto dealerships and auto-related companies, all of which are based in Burlington. LDV got its start in the late 1970s, when David Lynch, owner of Lynch Chevrolet, decided to start selling walk-in trucks, a new product at the time, to Snap-on Tools. Krause, who has worked with the company since it started, said Lynch was taking a gamble at the time because there was no established market for the vans and there was no written agreement between himself and Snap-on.
"Dave (Lynch), as the Chevy dealer, said he would take the risk and ordered eight to 10 of the trucks," Krause said. "They were specific to one market, and there was no outside market (for the product if Snap-on didn’t work out)."
It was a risk that paid off in the long run.
After about one year, Lynch Display Vans moved into a rented building. It had a few employees, even though the work wasn’t always steady.
"We hired some young guys," Krause said. "It was a perfect scenario for a start-up business because when we didn’t have enough work, they didn’t care. The key was that the work ethic was there. They created the culture of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. They really invented the mobile tool store for Snap-on. I would come up with a concept and go to the guys, and they’d make it look like that."
In 1977, Lynch Display Vans was spun off from Lynch auto dealerships into its own company and moved into Burlington’s industrial park. The company still owns that building, which it uses for storage.
By 1989, the company had about 100 employees, growing alongside Snap-on. Sales to Snap-on made up about 90 percent of LDV’s business, and Krause said he and other company officials knew that the company needed to diversify.
That year, the company hired Larry LaGuardia, sales and business development manager, to help the company diversify and expand into other markets. LaGuardia immediately identified the law enforcement and emergency responder market as one the company could expand into, but said there were some significant challenges within the market initially.
"With law enforcement, there hadn’t been a real definition of what the market and what the product was," he said. "And there wasn’t funding for it at the time."
LDV was started as Lynch Display Vans, but shortened its name when it started targeting law enforcement clients.
The company had previously made a few vehicles for fire departments, but started to focus on building mobile command centers, so police, fire or other departments could have dispatch and communications centers on-scene for large crime scenes, fires or natural disasters. Before the company started selling to law enforcement agencies, mobile command centers had been made from used trucks or even mobile homes.
"And it’s pretty hard to get a city council to approve a thing like that," LaGuardia said.
LaGuardia started marketing to law enforcement departments by visiting trade shows, something no other custom vehicle maker was doing at the time. He said LDV almost had to create a market for its vehicles, mainly because no one had been making them before.
LDV’s first big break in the law enforcement market came in 1992, when LaGuardia made a contact with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the government branch that handles procurement processing. An initial proposal with five or six different models with pricing was approved, and government orders started coming in.
Like the first few law enforcement orders, they were slow at first. Law enforcement wasn’t completely ready for the vehicles, LaGuardia said, but several developments helped LDV gain a foothold.
The nation’s war on drugs allowed GSA to land contracts with local and state law enforcement agencies for mobile sub-stations, which police could park in troubled areas.
At the same time, law enforcement customers started spreading positive word of mouth about LDV’s products.
"It happened with both Snap-on and the federal government," he said. "(Customers) knew we’re not putting junk out there."
By 2000, LDV was able to grow its work with law enforcement agencies, largely because that market came to know about the company and its custom vehicles, LaGuardia said.
"As the market was forming, other companies started trying to get into it," LaGuardia said. "We had the resources out there, and we also had the advantage of Snap-on. We had a marketing edge. We were the only company going to (law enforcement) trade shows. LDV was the only name nationwide."
The law enforcement build-up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 was another big break for LDV. LaGuardia said the company was able to grow because it had worked more than 10 years to establish a market for its products and to have the government know about them.
"We were able to grow because of the acceptance of these types of vehicles and because the federal government started to issue grants (for their purchase)," he said.
But the sudden demand for more custom law enforcement support type vehicles such as mobile command centers made it easier for potential competitors to join the market, Krause said. Suddenly, the market was bigger, but so was the pool of potential competitors.
"After 9-11, anyone could put a CB on a pickup truck and claim they could build a law enforcement vehicle," LaGuardia said. "We had the advantage of the marketplace because historically, we’d been on the leading edge and we had developed partnerships with companies to build better chassis, bodies and components. Because of our volume, we can offer a significantly better product, across the board, at the same price as companies can offer a lesser product."
LDV has different divisions that handle painting, wiring, woodworking, cabinet-making, metal fabrication and electronics – all of the necessary facets of the customization process. All of its different departments have evolved with the company’s different products. Employees have always been encouraged to innovate and their ideas are routinely added to product lines, Krause said.
"Snap-on trained us and made us react to our customer’s needs," Krause said. "They made us a more responsive company and counted on us to be innovative."
The minimizing of outside contracting has encouraged innovation within the company and helped foster employees’ pride in their work, Krause and LaGuardia said. Because workers there take so much pride in their work, they’re constantly testing and re-testing equipment before sending it into the field.
"With the culture here, everything had to work and the product had to be reliable, and it had to be easy to service," LaGuardia said. "And we were able to carry that culture into a new market from the onset. We created new rumblings in other parts of the country because that culture was here. From the outset it started a reputation that continues to be there to this day."
LDV currently has 253 employees working in four different buildings in or near Burlington’s industrial park. This year, the company added 50 employees, and will likely hire an additional 25 to 35 in 2006, Krause said.
Although the company has struggled, at times, to find qualified employees for its skilled positions ranging from painting to cabinet-making to wiring, LaGuardia said it enjoys strong employee loyalty. Much of that loyalty has to do with the products employees are making and a sense of patriotism that is almost inherent to the job, he said.
"There’s a real sense of pride when you are working and you know that the product has an application and a role in the security and safety of the United States," he said. "In 9-11, we had command centers that were buried by the Towers. Within days, we had 12 plus more trucks there. And that was the same with (hurricanes) Katrina and Rita."
Command centers and other LDV vehicles are shown on TV relatively routinely, as news cameras visit crime scenes and natural disasters. Soon, a LDV vehicle will play a more prominent role in a Hollywood production. Director Spike Lee has shot a film titled "Inside Man" starring Denzel Washington, which will be released this summer. Much of the movie takes place inside or near a mobile command center, Krause said. LDV allowed the movie studio to borrow one of its mobile command centers, which was used for outside shots.
LaGuardia said one of LDV’s vehicles being used in the movie is indicative of its place within the custom law enforcement vehicle industry.
"That’s how full the circle has come – they used one of ours in the movie because we’re known as the standard," he said.
LDV Inc. Location: 170 Industrial Dr., Burlington
Revenues: 19 percent increase in fiscal 2005, with sales to law enforcement and fire departments up by 43 percent
Product: custom vehicles for Snap-on Tools and Homeland Security departments
Web site: www.ldvusa.com
Eric Decker is a reporter for Small Business Times.
Send news about manufacturing to Eric.firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling him at (414) 277-8181 ext. 144. News can also be sent to Eric Decker, Small Business Times, 1123 N. Water St., Milwaukee WI 53202.
Small Business Times, December 16, 2005, Milwaukee, WI