Employees: about 60 (some seasonal)
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Performance suspension and chassis products
Founder and Chief Engineer Justin Lambert has grown his motorsports manufacturer into multiple markets with a focus on continuous improvement.
Hatched in an old chicken coop in Arroyo Grande, California, Cognito Motorsports is now manufacturers a full line of aftermarket suspension and chassis components for pickup trucks, SUVs, and UTVs.
Lambert began with an idea and an engineering degree after a job in the aerospace industry didn't work out. "I was laid off after the September 11 terrorist attacks," he says. "Because I was always into performance vehicles, I was tinkering with suspension and truck lift kits, so I decided to take a gamble and went all in. I started the business in a chicken coop, that's all I could afford. Ready for the next step, I ultimately moved back to Bakersfield and rented a shop there. Then it all expanded."
Cognito designs complete vehicle suspension systems and manufactures them in-house, paring them with shock absorbers and springs from brands like Fox Factory, Deaver, and Bilstein. The effort creates a reliable, complete system for vehicle owners who want to improve upon the factory suspension systems of their vehicles during on- and off-road use.
"We want to make a good product at a good price and offer great customer service," says Lambert. "We want to serve the customers desire to solve their suspension need or want, and gain their trust that we will always do what's right for them. I am passionate about creating a product that is performance-minded and that my competition isn't spending the time to develop and make better."
Manufacturing a multitude of drivetrain, suspension, and steering upgrade components for Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet trucks, as well as Polaris, Yamaha, and Can-Am UTVs, is big business in the performance aftermarket, and according to Lambert, the trend is still growing. "The truck products we manufacture make up 70 percent of our business, while the UTV business is about 30 percent, but it's more popular with a growing consumer base for these vehicles," says Lambert. "The great thing about adding UTV products to our line is that every UTV owner also owns a truck."
To create complex and rugged components, Cognito utilizes some modern automation along with old-fashioned skilled tradesman. "We have a CNC mill, two CNC lathes, and a robotic MIG welder," says Lambert.
A lot of design and testing is needed to ensure the company creates a reliable product, he adds. "You can't help that in any industry, but I feel good knowing I did the right thing in designing a great product and know the ins and outs of what features and benefits it does for the customer's vehicle. We put our heart into it," says Lambert. "This is why our tagline is: Ingenuity, quality, and performance."
Challenges: "To have a sustainable business you have to stay on top of legislation, OSHA rules, and compliance. That is expensive," says Lambert. "There are fines for small, detailed infractions. I understand the safety aspect, but it seems like they are bearing down on companies."
In addition, Lambert says California legislation makes it hard for small to medium-sized businesses to grow, even though they are trying to improve efficiencies and can use profits to grow the business and keep employees. "If California would treat business owners fairly, it would help free up resources for these businesses to pay their employees more and retain them," he says. "Our goal is to keep improving efficiencies and reducing the bottom line. It's harder to do business here because of wages, legislation, and healthcare. It's driving people out of the state and that's been on my radar for a while. While some legislation is definitely needed, other is overkill."
Opportunities: "Our plan is to diversify into more than just GM and Ford trucks," says Lambert. "We will begin developing products for other vehicle makes. To do that, we need 20 percent more people in marketing than our engineering department. It's a bit of a game and balancing act to get all departments working right, but the infrastructure of the business is critical to get things working efficiently. We're also growing our e-commerce through our website. We are constantly improving it to keep that growing and to make it easy for customers to have all the data they need to make a purchase."
Needs: Lambert says Cognito is constantly looking to recruit motivated individuals who want to build a career. "In the San Joaquin Valley, however, it's challenging to find and recruit skilled operators and fabricators," he adds.
Lambert sees a need for a broader economic-development push "to get people to the Central Valley and increase our talent pool here. It's difficult. Bakersfield often gets a bad rap but it's a beautiful area of 400,000 people here, and it is a real centralized location being one and a half hours to Los Angeles, two hours from the beach, and one hour from the mountains. There's a lot of stuff to do here."