Industry Spotlight: High Lifter’s Scott Smith

ATV Rider chose to highlight Scott Smith as one of the industry’s leaders. Thank you ATV Rider for the awesome article about how Scott is creating, providing, and living the American dream!

From the July/August 2011 issue of ATV Rider Magazine

High Lifter’s Scott Smith isn’t your average multi-million-dollar- company president; he’s just an incredibly lucky guy who happened to make some good business decisions and is smart enough to know how to enjoy his success.

It’s rare to see someone truly enjoying what he’s doing for a living. Most of us have serious love/hate relationships with our jobs and fantasize about one day being able to support ourselves doing something that we actually enjoy. Sadly, the truth is we will never live out that fantasy; we’ll either never get the opportunity or be too scared to take a shot at it when it presents itself. Of the few who are willing to take the shot, very few succeed. And of the lucky few who do make it, 99 percent end up losing the hobby that they once loved as it transitions into a job.

The Life Of A Janitor, 8:30 a.m.

It’s somewhere between 8 and 9 a.m. CST, and the self-proclaimed “janitor” at High Lifter Products Inc. rolls in the door. The first order of business is a quick beeline to the coffee machine (where he’ll stop at least twice more before heading into his office), next up is a quick trip through the various departments to exchange pleasantries and offer employees valuable face time and an open ear. The morning walk concludes with stop number two at the coffee machine. “It doesn’t matter if it is 20 degrees or 110 degrees outside, you’ll rarely find me without a cup of hot coffee in my hand.” While the 17.6-mile commute to work takes 30 minutes, the 250-foot commute from front door to the desk can take equally as long. “Most everyone has learned that it’s the best time to catch me, since my mind is fresh and I’m not yet preoccupied with my own projects.” Oddly, his office is quite impressive, much more so than that of the average janitorial technician, yet understandably so when you see the way High Lifter treats the Janitor’s father (Mike Smith), who not only planted the seeds for the company, but doubles as its official Hall Monitor. Prior to actually sitting, it’s time for coffee number three before embarking on a 90-minute foray through his inbox and the prior evening’s email.

Staying in touch is a high priority for Smith; whether it’s vendors, customers or one of the many people biding for a minute of his time, Smith somehow manages to squeeze them all in and responds to just about every email. “I’m just a regular guy, with a kickass job, nothing more.” The funny thing is that Smith is anything but regular; he’s actually quite the opposite in his work ethic and accessibility for a guy running a multi-million dollar enterprise, and it’s that accessibility (and a dash of OCD) that can be somewhat credited with High Lifter’s success. Granted, the company makes great products (which we’ll get into), but what it doesn’t sell, and competitors can’t replicate, is the company’s ability to connect with their customers. Whether it’s the highly successful Mud Nationals events (which attract anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 attendees) or the many smaller rides that you can find most of the staff on or even the customer rides that Scott himself frequently attends when invited, the High Lifter staff is generally always around and willing to connect with their base.

HL 101: Diagnosing The Void, 1996

The High Lifter story isn’t necessarily the stuff of movies or a motivational rags-to-riches story; it’s just a great example of someone seeing a void and filling it extremely well. As we all know, recognizing and diagnosing the void is the hardest part, and in the High Lifter case, the void was a simple bolt-on lift kit for a 1996 Honda Foreman. After finding himself in need of a few inches of additional clearance on his Foreman, Mike Smith tapped his son Scott, who was co-owner of a successful construction business, to fabricate a simple lift.

The first version was simple, and welded in, but the Smiths could sense they were on to something. Rather than settle on the weld-in kit, they decided to create a bolt-on version that the average ATV enthusiasts could install themselves. The father and son duo collaborated on the project in their spare time, as they tweaked and refined what would eventually become the first bolt-on ATV lift kit on the market. Scott was tapped to spearhead the project, as Mike was holding down a demanding full-time job; Scott’s first order of business was to market the new kits via the local Thrifty Nickel. The public’s response was good enough to warrant some equipment purchases, and Scott built the first High Lifter shop in his backyard. The initial ads would eventually spread to Thrifty Nickel magazines in 10 other cities before making their way into the nationally distributed Dirt Wheels Magazine.

10:15 a.m. To Noon

With the day’s emails answered, it’s now time for a trip to the R&D department. Smith grabs little brother Brian (mechanical engineer at High Lifter) and Project Manager Charles Singleton for a quick run-through of the newest batch of products. Fit and finish are checked and rechecked, while anything that is ready for testing is put through its paces by the “quality control trio.”

Scott is adamant about making sure things function as intended. “I’m OCD, and I believe that if we build it, it needs to work perfectly. If it doesn’t meet my standards, it won’t go out the door.” Luring brother Brian away from GM where he worked as a quality control engineer is just another example of a simple move that makes perfect sense.

HL 202: All In

Despite being “on to” something and well on his way to success, Smith didn’t go all in, so to speak, until nearly a decade after creating the first kit. It wasn’t until 2005 that Smith sold off his half of the construction business he had cofounded in 1994. “We were a legit [construction] company, we did upwards of 300 jobs a year.” In all fairness, Smith was already heavily into the ATV lifestyle by 1996 and worked both jobs for nearly a decade. “I worked for three years at High Lifter without drawing a single penny, not because I needed to, but because it was still a passion.” That passion coupled with a bit of OCD, has undeniably led to the company’s current success. The once “side job” now employs nearly as many employees as the main job ever did, and has become equally lucrative. The truth, however is that the road to success hasn’t necessarily been an easy one, and finding the right balance between work and play took years to perfect. “I was honestly miserable there for a while. I no longer wanted to ride in fear that it would turn into an inadvertent work session. People were constantly asking me about our products, and even riding became like going to work.”

It wasn’t until Smith let go of the reigns a bit and surrounded himself with a knowledgeable staff that could help carry the load that he finally found the balance. “I’ve got a great team in place, and if it wasn’t for them, I’d never get to ride. As it stands now, I ride every single weekend with either my kids (eight-year-old Tanner and 16-year-old Kelsey) or with buddies.” Prioritizing his passion has led to the opening of the High Lifter Off Road Park, which is within riding distance from his home, and the creation of events like the High Lifter Mud Nationals. “We started the event as an opportunity to just get together with our families, vendors, staff and customers, and spend a weekend riding.” Nine years later, the once “small family and friends ride” has grown into the world’s largest utility ATV rally, and now requires 12 days’ worth of on site setup, five days of break down, as well as a year’s worth of planning in order to pull off. “I still squeeze in at least 150 miles of riding that week, granted about 120 of them are during the set-up days, but the other 30 or so are during the event itself.”

The non-riding hours at the Mud Nationals are consumed by a myriad of separate tasks that include checking in on the company’s Polaris/High Lifter race team as well as running the actual races, and trying to ensure that everything goes off without a hitch. When questioned about the perceived conflict of interest in running a team at the events he’s promoting, Smith is quick to point out, “I’m actually harder on our team than anyone else. It’s tough, but we can’t show any sort of favoritism. I try not to interject myself with the officials, but it seems like when I do I’m usually penalizing one of our own riders. We race like we run High Lifter: We want to be the best and are willing to do the work leading in. We don’t have to rely on crooked judging. I will cheer for my guys, though, but I think everyone there understands and is OK with that.”

1 to 5 p.m.

After a quick lunch (if any), it’s back to the office for any of a hundred tasks that might be on the calendar that day. The days are generally wrapped up with managerial meetings where any immediately pressing fires are dealt with. “When I get home in the evening I either turn into a total vegetable, head out to my shop at home or go for a ride around my place, it just depends on how intense the day was.”

While the routine keeps things running smoothly, Smith rarely gets to perform it more than twice a week. “Realistically, in that mix you have to throw in meetings with suppliers, vendors, other manufacturers, staff meetings and planning for future events. We took a one-week break after the 2011 Mud Nationals, then immediately went to work on the 2012 event.” While it may sound like a grind, it’s one that Smith is seemingly tailor made for.

HL 2011

With High Lifter now in its 15th year of business, the company has carved a comfortable niche for itself, all while helping spearhead the utility ATV mud market. The void the Smiths were able to identify is now a full-on industry within the ATV industry, and growing daily. Outside of the original lift kits, the High Lifter name can now be found on wheels, tires, clutch kits, suspension and tire sealant. In addition, the High Lifter website now sells many competitors’ products, and its Internet forums have become the place where mudders congregate. And like every other aspect of the business, you never know when you might stumble on Scott in the forums. While many imitators have made a nice living by flooding the market with cheap, poorly crafted knockoff parts, it’s the work ethic and vision of companies like High Lifter that continue to break new ground. “It may sound like a lot of work, but I kid you not when I say that I’m loving every minute of it. At the end of the day, I’m just living the dream.” ATVR