By: CHRIS WOODYARD on June 11, 2007
Original Article: USA TODAY

Saleen Rolled Love Of Speed Into Company

IRVINE, Calif. — Among auto enthusiasts, the name Saleen carries a certain mystique — whether applied to the man or the company he founded.

Steve Saleen is the automotive Midas who turned Ford Mustangs and F-150 pickups into high-performance gold. He also produced the $580,000 Saleen S7, a worthy American-built rival to Ferrari and Lamborghini.

A race-car driver, Saleen decided 23 years ago that he could make a business out of installing racing components in Mustangs to create road rockets with a sizable boost in horsepower, road-gripping thrills and in-your-face looks.

From its start on the family dining room table, the privately held company known simply as Saleen has grown to nearly 400 employees. The company says it has about $100 million in annual sales.

After seeing it through more than two decades of growth, Steve Saleen sold the business to Hancock Park Associates, a private investment group, in 2003. He continued as vice chairman until May. Last week, Steve Saleen announced that he will be CEO of ZX Automobile of North America. A subsidiary of China America Cooperative Automotive (Chamco), it plans to bring Chinese vehicles to the USA.

He isn’t abandoning his namesake company. He says he’ll continue to support Saleen, including consulting on new products.

The company is now in the hands of CEO Dan Reiner, who wants to broaden Saleen’s customer base beyond Ford to include other automakers and projects.

Though they may have disagreed at times, Reiner says, Saleen has been a worthy partner as “the heart and soul of the company.” They share a common passion: “He likes to go fast, and so do I.”

Steve Saleen, 56, grew up in Whittier, a Los Angeles suburb. The son of the founder of a pet-food company, he earned a business degree at the University of Southern California. He worked for his dad, but his love was cars and racing.

While he was driving a Pontiac Trans Ams on General Motors’ racing team in the early 1980s, he noticed the slow-poke Mustangs. “Mustang has been one of the iconic cars of all time,” he says, but “We were beating Ford on the track.”

He switched to racing Fords and worked to make his own Mustang more competitive on the track. Other enthusiasts took notice and soon were asking Saleen for help. A business was born.

In 1984, Saleen sat down with his wife, Liz, in their dining room and figured out how to start the business with little debt. “I focused on cash flow,” he says. “If you were able to get a little bit of credit and turned the product fast enough and were paid on a (cash-on-delivery) basis, you could get a business up and running in a short time.”

He started with a single blue-and-white prototype Saleen Mustang, which he showed off at a race. His first plant began operation with five workers.

Over the years, the business hit some rough spots. One crisis came in the late 1980s when Ford considered stopping production of the Mustang in favor of the now-defunct Probe, a decision it rescinded. Another crisis came in the early 1990s, when the auto industry hit the doldrums. Saleen borrowed money and added some investors.

He credits his racing background with helping him grow Saleen: “The lessons learned and speed and accuracy apply to business.”

Saleen’s cars are known worldwide for pure, hard-driven American muscle. “Steven Saleen is one of the quietest influences in the exotic-car marketplace,” says Tom duPont, publisher of the duPont Registry listings of collectible cars. “He is so subtle and low-key, and his cars are just the opposite.”

Jim Julow, president of the Sports Car Club of America, says Saleens draw respect on the track. “Their reputation overall is very good.”

The product line today includes:
• Mustang. They come in three versions — hot, hotter and hottest. Or more accurately, 335, 465 and 550 horsepower, a big improvement on the stock version’s 300.

The hottest, called the S281 Extreme Mustang, has more content added by Saleen in Irvine than when it comes off Ford’s production line, the company boasts. The $70,999 car is repainted in Saleen’s own colors.

Saleen buys the cars from Ford, customizes them, then fills orders from about 200 Saleen-authorized dealers. “We are dramatically changing the DNA of the car,” Steve Saleen says.

Besides its own Mustang line, the company also makes a Saleen/Parnelli Jones Limited Edition. It’s a throwback to the 1970 Boss 302 that won races for Jones, complete with orange paint and broad black racing stripes on each side. The dashboard is signed by Saleen and Jones.

• S7. Customizing other automakers’ cars wasn’t enough. In 2000, Saleen embarked on building its own supercar. “We wanted to build the fastest, highest-performing car in the world,” Steve Saleen says. The resulting S7 blazes from zero to 60 in 2.8 seconds.

Each S7 takes about six weeks to build. The S7’s engine, sitting behind the driver, is so big that there’s no rearview mirror. Instead, a video display pops open that shows the view from a camera embedded in the rear of the car. The driver’s seat is molded to uniquely fit its owner.

The car has become a star. Jim Carrey drove one in the movie Bruce Almighty. So did bachelor Andy Baldwin in this season’s run of TV’s The Bachelor. The S7 also is racking up successes on the European racing circuit, setting a track record at the 24 hours of Le Mans race in 2001.

• F-150. The S331 Supercharged, a $53,999 Ford F-150 pickup, is so powerful that Saleen says it can beat a stock Mustang GT around a track and still tow up to 9,500 pounds.

Next will be Saleen-powered version of Ford’s already customized Harley-Davidson F-150.

To play up the brand’s exclusivity, all Saleen Fords have their vehicle’s sequential production number painted prominently on the bumper. That’s a big hit with buyers. “We’ve had customers who have had their numbers tattooed on them,” says Billy Tally, who was chief technical officer at Saleen. Tally will join Steve Saleen at ZX Automotive as CTO.

In keeping with CEO Reiner’s plan to broaden the product line, Saleen just landed a contract painting the next generation of Dodge Viper, its first contract unrelated to Ford. And it’s in the process of trying to acquire ACS, a small automotive supplier that pioneered installations of sunroofs and also does contract work.

Timing of the moves couldn’t be better, Reiner says, because of how the automotive industry is moving in an age of mass customization. The goal is to become a small manufacturer nimble enough to meet the needs of buyers who want cars tailored just for them. Saleen is suited to make limited-production runs of 500 to 1,000 vehicles at a time, which isn’t economically feasible for a big automaker.

Despite outside owners, the business has remained a Saleen family affair. Son Clint, 35, is controller, while Sean, 34, is in sales, and Molly, 23, manages Saleen’s nearby mall store that sells everything from racing jackets to cars.

Steve Saleen says his new job will take him “from one extreme to the other” as ZX will work at bringing entry-level Chinese cars to the USA.

Looking back, he credits intense focus for growing his first business.

“Don’t lose your dream,” he says. “Everything takes twice as long, twice as much money,” as you would expect. “But if you believe in what you’re doing and work at it and have the tenacity, you can figure out a way to make it work.”