What do you do when, after nearly 40 years, your auto-making company is purring like a kitten? Put the pedal to the metal.
Terry Malley doesn’t mince words because, these days, he doesn’t have to. “This is the best year we’ve ever had,” the 60-something proprietor of one of only two ambulance builders in Atlantic Canada states categorically.
In fact, he says the company that bears his name—and which employs dozens of New Brunswickers churning out hundreds of the ubiquitous rescue wagons for hospitals and police departments across North America—posted 40 per cent more revenue in 2019-20 than it did the year before. Its export business now accounts for two-thirds of its entire product line, compared with less than 35 per cent five years ago.
What’s more, the 2010 Atlantic Business Magazine Top 50 CEO Hall of Famer insists he and his staff achieved these results deliberately, beginning in 2015, by thoroughly refocusing the company’s main business units—ambulances, autos for people with disabilities, and thermoform plastics for vehicle interiors—on bigger orders of more marketable products for farther-flung customers with deeper pockets than ever before.
And how, specifically, is that going? “The growth is primarily in the United States,” he says. “We’re setting up to go westward all the way. In September, we broke into Israel. That one is still early days and we’ll see where it goes. The point is we are expanding our reach everywhere. We’re really selling.”
In fact, that’s a tangible departure from nearly 40 years of tradition. Malley pauses before adding, “We had always done a lot of custom work, a lot of different things for a lot of different people—which is great, but it’s really hard to scale up. We wanted to focus more on providing a standardized product with a variety of options, rather than a specialized product with few, or no, options. That’s obviously better for us when our customers—especially those in export markets—are ordering 20 or 30 units at a time… Come to think of it, we were always good at building things, but maybe not so good at selling.”
Indeed, if there’s little doubt about Malley Industries’ latent rigor, there’s even less about its quirky beginnings. Young Terry and his father had already been working together for five years, customizing vans and constructing parts for campers, when a Moncton ambulance service asked the two to build a new vehicle for them in 1984. For the younger man, whose interests were as easily creative as mechanical (he studied graphic arts in university), the prospect seemed like fun.
As he recalled in an interview with Atlantic Business in 2015, “We said, ‘why not?’ Then, when the customer had left, we said, ‘My God, we’d better get down to the hospital and see what an ambulance looks like.’ So, we got out the measuring tape and just started asking questions. That’s basically how it all started. It was a defining moment for us.”
There would be others—some good, some not so much. During the 2008-09 economic downturn, many automakers faced virtual extinction. In that fiscal year and the two that followed, General Motors filed for bankruptcy, as did Chrysler. In his joint address to Congress early in 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama promised to invest $15-billion in automotive technologies. He acknowledged that “years of bad decision-making” had “pushed automakers to the brink.” Meanwhile, Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, Stephen Harper, authorized massive bailouts worth billions of dollars for both GM’s and Chrysler’s Canadian operations.
For his part, Malley doubled down on his core businesses and began to anticipate crucial market trends that might tell him what, and to whom, to sell. The strategy worked, but slowdowns in the industry—which hindered his ability to obtain the parts he needed to fill orders—impaired the company’s progress. In time, though, the bottlenecks eased, and what emerged was a clear set of operating fundamentals, underscored by aggressive sales and marketing.
“That’s the focus which has really evolved over the past five years,” Malley says. “What’s been a big help is a completely new management team, which is sales and marketing oriented. We have a new CFO, a new director of operations, a new director of sales. We’ve also added new sales positions. We’ve managed to get everybody singing from the same hymn book, and that means we’ve become more progressive. This is probably the strongest team ever.”
Its strategy involves spreading “organically” (as Malley likes to say), adding new dealers in key markets where it already succeeds and which promise expansion in the future—Boston, New York, Chicago, for example. “We have 13 dealers now in the U.S., and products now as far as Washington state,” he says. “We just did a sale in Colorado. We have stuff in Arizona and Nebraska. The real growth at this point is east of the Mississippi, but we’re moving organically westward.”
The company is also investing more of its energies on continuous process improvements, including better inventory control, and on serving the needs of customers with larger fleets in bigger cities. “I mean, we’ll never turn down the onesies and twosies, the one-off jobs, but that’s really not where we’re heading in the future,” he says. That sounds an awful lot like his 2015 remark on the same subject: “We can’t afford to stand still. In fact, that’s never been part of our corporate culture. That wouldn’t be like us in anyway.”
None of which should suggest that Malley Industries’ evolution into a lean, mean street-fighting machine undermines, in any way, its commitment to its Moncton base—where it maintains a substantially homegrown workforce of mechanics, plastics workers, technicians, engineers and artisans in a 90,000-square-foot production facility that will, on certain autumn nights, obscure even a harvest moon—or its past. His family has been involved almost since Day One, and they still are.
“My wife Kathy and two of my children all work here,” Malley notes. “They just do very different things now. Like I say, we want to grow. We all want to grow. We all want to stay sales and marketing focussed.”
Of course they do. After all, these days at Malley industries, it doesn’t pay to mince your words.
Paint by Terry
He might have been a portrait artist, except, he says “I didn’t see a career path there. That was when I was in university. I loved university. If I didn’t have to work for a living, I’d be in university.”
Read by Malley
An avid reader, Terry swings between British mystery novels and tomes on best management practices: “Right now, I’m reading Sue Grafton and Peter Drucker. Both at the same time!”
The links loaf
Malley doesn’t play golf. In fact, he’s never played golf. Not even once for charity. He’s left-handed and he doesn’t know which way to swing: “Besides, the little windmill always screws me up.”
Terry’s proud that he’s a card-carrying member of the Canadian Street Rod Hall of Fame: “I have a 1944 street rod, which I pulled out of the woods and fixed up when I was 30.”
Malley loves model cars. Not the full-sized ones that run on gas. The little plastic ones that used to cost three bucks at a hobby shop. He says nowadays, one will set you back $40. He’s got 600 of them. •