Outside the Tyler Small Business Development Center, there’s a walkway that clients and counselors alike have a name for - “the Sidewalk of Tears.” It’s where new entrepreneurs and their SBDC advisors walk and talk out the inevitable problems new business owners face.
“Billy Niederhofer and I have walked that sidewalk many times,” said SBDC Director Don Proudfoot. “Every good business goes through those times. The great businesses make it through.”
Niederhofer’s business - Lone Star Handicap Vans - is a testament to that. On Friday, the 10-year-old company celebrated its expansion into a facility five times the size of its old one, and the potential for a ten-fold increase in its production in coming months.
The goal, says Niederhofer, who runs the business with his wife, Nora, and his two stepsons, is to produce the best handicap van at an affordable cost.
“For me, it started with my niece, who needed a van like this a few years ago,” Niederhofer explained. “The family looked around and saw handicap vans for $50,000, $60,000, $75,000 - they were just too high.”
Niederhofer, a former Houston firefighter, was something of an expert on vehicles, so he stepped in to see what he could find.
“I’ve built hot rods and I’ve always worked on my own cars,” he said. “I know about vehicles. But I found the same thing - everything was too expensive.”
Sensing a niche, Niederhofer, who was in business already selling discount office furniture, decided to brave the rigorous regulations involved in converting vans to handicap-accessible. He started with two vans - a white Chrysler and a red Dodge.
“It took about four months to build those first ones,” he said. “I kept modifying the flooring, to make it stronger, and we still use that design today.”
The key to making a safe, affordable handicap van is to start with a minivan, not a full-size conversion van. The vehicle itself is less expensive, but it also requires less machinery and power to lift a wheelchair to the level of the minivan’s floor.
The concept has caught on. Lined up on Lone Star’s shop floor on Friday were 10 white handicap vans that will soon be delivered to the state of Oklahoma.
“The state (Oklahoma) has ordered 13 more, and they said their demand could be a lot higher,” Niederhofer said. “We’re also building some for Nevada and New Mexico, for the Veterans Administration and some other agencies.”
The fact that states are buying the vans says something important about Lone Star - the design is exceptionally safe. That’s measured by the Federal Transit Authority’s Altoona testing program (mandated by the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987).
According to its Altoona tests, Lone Star’s van design is among the safest ever built.
In those early days, Niederhofer was doing most of the mechanical work himself. His wife Norma helped with the interiors, and with the paperwork.
“She’s a wiz at navigating all the federal requirements,” the SBDC’s Proudfoot said. “She’s really important to this operation.”
Within a few years, however, Lone Star was employing 32 people, and now plans to add 10 more within the next year.
Production went from about 15 to 20 vans per month in the company’s old 9,500-square-foot facility to as much as 50 vans per month in the new 45,000-square-foot building. There’s also a body shop with about 7,500 square feet.
It’s a challenge finding skilled workers, Niederhofer acknowledges.
“Usually we train them ourselves,” he said. “I’d say 90 percent of our workers came to us without skills, other than maybe some mechanical skills or a little welding. We train them, and it takes about three months to get them proficient, because the work is so exacting.”
It’s a solid business model, Proudfoot explains, because it’s built around a solid product.
“I love what the Niederhofers are doing here,” the SBDC director said. “They are really trying to be the best at what they do. When someone comes to us, and wants to do something great, we’re ready to listen.”
It hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve gotten those phone calls at midnight,” Proudfoot says. “A new small business owner is going to have those times when they’re struggling to just pay the bills and keep the doors open another day. But if they persevere, they can build something that lasts.”
That goes for the business, of course, but also for well-crafted vans that enable those with disabilities to live life more fully.
Remember those first two vans Niederhofer built?
“The red one came back, when the family using it no longer needed it,” Niederhofer said. “We found a new home for it, and resold it. Well, after that person no longer needed it, then it returned again and I bought it back. I’ve sold that van four times, and it’s still running great and still helping people. I feel good about that.”