I LOVE GUYS LIKE THIS
Bryan Chambers' and Todd Helms' dream took root last fall as their employer, Saleen Inc., told them their services were no longer needed.
Over the years, Saleen built more than 8,000 souped-up Ford Mustangs, the GT supercar and other enthusiasts' fantasy cars.
These supercharged classics sold for between $100,000 and $650,000 each. But the credit crisis, gas prices above $4 a gallon and friction left over from Saleen's 2007 merger with ASC Inc. took a toll. By February, Saleen ceased operations.
"We didn't know if we were going to cut lawns for a living or what," said Chambers, who has engineered and built specialty vehicles for more than 20 years.
After commiserating with former colleagues, Chambers and Helms decided to convert their experience and free time into a successful start-up.
Thus was born Alternative Automotive Technologies LLC. The venture has sprouted from two men plugging in their laptops at a neighborhood coffee shop to 20 employees.
Most of AAT's workers are Saleen alumni, working long hours on a variety of projects ranging from tuning muscle cars to custom painting 17 bright pink Cadillac Escalades for Mary Kay cosmetics' best-selling agents.
Fueled by tea, coffee and cinnamon rolls, Chambers, AAT's president, and Helms, vice president, leveraged the frustration and passion from their Saleen experience into a business plan.
First priority was finding an affordable industrial site and equipment needed to detail show cars, tweak a few more horsepower out of late-model muscle cars, perform custom painting and stamp body panels.
The other key was to branch out beyond the street rod business to develop electric powertrains, prototype parts and even paint panels for such medical equipment as magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs).
With credit shut off for even established businesses, Chambers and Helms sold more than a few possessions, tapped into their home equity and pleaded for their wives' patience.
Few things went according to plan. After finding a 40,000-square-foot building with painting booths, service bays and other equipment, a key investor backed out on the day they were to sign the lease.
"That's when we decided we were going to do it no matter what," said Helms.
They are preparing Volkswagen's auto show vehicles. Last week, they were installing superchargers or specialty body panels on about five Mustangs and a Dodge Challenger. They are putting the finishing touches on a classic 1932 Ford V8 Deuce. AAT does the painting and body stampings.
Back in the nooks and crannies of AAT's new home on Executive Drive in Troy is evidence of their diversification. Together with Lektromotiv Inc., another startup in Birmingham, Chambers is developing an electric wheel motor than weighs less than 70 pounds and is being pitched to a manufacturer of military vehicles.
Next week, Chambers is to meet with film producers in New York to discuss production of prototype vehicles for movies.
"It's all about evolving," Chambers said. "We can't just put superchargers in performance cars and expect to survive in this economy."
Article by Greg Gardner in The Detroit Free Prsss.