Aftermarket 4X4 bumpers
James started Expedition One as an R&D firm for 4x4 brands, but went into manufacturing soon after its 2004 launch.
Funded by a grant from the University of Utah, he designed a sway bar system as an undergraduate, but didn't get any bites to license or otherwise commercialize it. "It just didn't make sense," says James. "That's not what the industry was looking for at that time."
By 2005, he started to look for a contract partner to make the company's bumpers. The model proved difficult. "It took us probably three years before we finally found a contract manufacturer that would make our parts properly for us," says James.
That iteration of Expedition One lasted roughly five years before James elected to bring manufacturing in-house with investments in a laser cutter and other equipment. "We were still always doing some of the work," says James. "We were still bringing the product in -- it was half-built -- and we were still having so half the manufacturing on it. We'd still need to get parts built, we'd still have to get it powder coated and finished, we'd still have to box it. There wasn't anybody in this region that really just do full beginning to end.
"Because we were already doing half of it, another thing we ran into is we were sending new designs to the company that we were going through at the time, the price kept creeping up and they indicated they were happy with the volume they were at. We felt we had hit a point where we couldn't grow. We just felt we were stuck in a stagnant spot."
Annual sales plateaued around $1 million before the company invested in manufacturing capabilities. "We saw ourselves dipping a little bit into the high hundreds of thousands," says James. "Once we got transitioned in, we started to go gradually upwards. In the last two years, we shot up a lot higher."
The new model got Expedition One off the plateau: It grossed about $3 million in recent years, with a catalog of heavy-duty bumpers, racks, and accessories for 4X4 vehicles from Toyota, Jeep, and other major automakers.
"I do all of the design work," says James. "The point was actually to leave a mark on the industry and build things that were inspiring and beautiful and innovative, but at the same time very functional for what the market needed. Instead of just making it as easily as I could with just a cool look and generating cash, a lot of times my products, as far as the manufacturing process, they're pretty hard to build. They're complex. They take more time than they could."
"For me, it's an artwork. It's about building something beautiful and inspiring that is very functional and that does its job perfectly for the end user," he adds. "I design for the guys who really want to get out there and need that reliability in their products so that if they're in the middle of nowhere, they're not going to be concerned about a failure or the product not functioning for them when they really need it. That's who I design it for -- for that person."
The in-house manufacturing allows for innovation. "We weren't limited anymore," says James. "Insteading of designing so we get the best price in manufacturing, let's design it however we want to design it and make it work however we want to design it instead of having to jump through hoops."
The company shares a 22,000-square-foot facility with Laser Farm Manufacturing, which the Fonnesbecks spun off as a standalone business in 2017. "We have people under Laser Farm as the order fulfillment for Expedition One," says Sarah.
Challenges: Pricing issues. "Inflation has been a big part of that," says James. "Materials pricing going up was hard, and also shipping costs went way up. That's been hard."
Expedition One has passed on some costs to its customers, but James says he has been reticent to pass them all on as he sees the beginning of a market correction.
Opportunities: OEM automakers have increased their off-road offerings, and James sees it as a catalyst for the 4X4 market in general. "They weren't embracing it," says James. "Just in the last couple years, you saw the Bronco come out -- those are a huge deal -- and GMC/Chevy started making off-road versions of their trucks."
Toyota is following suit with a burly new Sequoia. "It'll drive demand more," says James.
But the OEM embrace of the off-road market also means more branded accessories, including bumpers that compete directly with Expedition One's products. "They bring some of their aftermarket-style stuff," says Sarah. "But the vehicle itself being more off-road capable and more open to having that equipment to the end user opens up more of a market for us still to have someone who's going to want to buy off-road products."
Needs: The company needs more room. "We need more, because we're spilling out everywhere," says James. "For our next growth spurt, we need to be more like 40,000 square feet, because we have no room to keep proper inventory."