Six years ago, Tony Belay and Ben Colrud were employed as full-time Columbia County deputies and working on their business out of a garage in Poynette. About a month ago, the business they built, Belco Vehicle Solutions in Lodi, won the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation’s “Small Business of the Year” award.
Belay and Colrud agreed that it’s nice to be recognized, especially since they built the company from the ground up.
“We started this in a slow, controlled, moderate fashion,” Colrud said. “We funded all of this without borrowing any money, all out of our pockets, all small scale. It gradually grew, but we were never getting in over our heads.”
With no formal background in business, the two local deputies saw a need and developed a vision.
“We saw a need for specialized installation and equipment sales that kind of catered to law enforcement,” Belay said.
Belco’s central business deals with various divisions of emergency vehicle equipment, along with the sales, service and installation that goes with it.
“What we basically do is we take a brand new squad car purchased off the lot by a department and they bring us their old one,” Belay explained. “We take the old one, take all the equipment out that we can salvage or use in the new one, unless it’s a different body style. Then, we put everything back into the new car. It’s about a three-day process to do a full change-over for one vehicle.”
In addition to the complete vehicle transitions, Belco sells equipment for emergency vehicles across the board, from lights to K9 kennels to door panels.
“What’s kind of unique to us is we’re a stocking distributor, whereas a lot of places do not carry an inventory,” Belay said. “We have an inventory that we could build approximately 10 squad cars without having to order anything. We have all that equipment on hand.”
After years of doing it on their own, Belay and Colrud began to hire employees in 2015, which brought a new side to the business.
“I think now the employees bring a whole different aspect to our business, where they bring new ideas and better ways of doing things,” Belay said. “We’ve made changes and adjusted to that. So, our success now is not just the two of us, it’s all of us combined.”
New avenues of growth
The business, which now has five employees along with Belay and Colrud, has recently expanded into other arenas, opening doors for a new public side of sales.
“This year, we’ve grown into window tinting, vehicle graphics, signs, billboards – you name it,” Belay said.
With these new routes and growth comes a change in the company’s location, which is set to move to Poynette in March 2017.
Belco has expanded three times at the current location in Lodi. At this point, a move makes sense, according to Belay and Colrud.
“It was very reasonable and it suited our needs at the time,” Colrud said about the existing location. “We’ve outgrown it. We’ve done everything we can do here.”
Belay agreed the big issue with the present space is size.
“Currently, we can only pretty much put three or four vehicles in our shop, where we can do six to eight at the new location,” he said. “We have a storage unit that we have to rent next door and now everything will be right with us. We’re excited to move.”
Along with the bigger shop space comes opportunities for Belco to continue to grow into the public sector, with one of the hopes being to someday have a retail showroom, Colrud said.
A showroom for Belco could help display items that local, everyday customers could be more interested in, such as seat covers, floor mats, remote starts, door unlocks and signs.
“The public can benefit from a lot of our things that we can bring to the village and the communities around it,” Belay added. “They won’t have to go to Madison to get these things. I think our pricing is really competitive, too, and where people normally would have to go to a big city or buy online, they can just stop in and get these items.”
From retirement project to booming business
Belay and Colrud said Belco started off in their minds as a retirement gig; neither of them estimated how much it would grow over the last few years.
“Never in a million years would I dream that we would have what we have today,” Belay said. “We started out with maybe a dozen customers the first year in 2010. We’ve grown to hundreds now. We do cars all over the state.”
After committing to their business full-time and continuing to work full-time as deputies, Colrud left the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department in 2013 and Belay followed suit the next year. Since then Colrud has worked part-time for the Lodi Police Department, but he will be completely done at the end of this year.
“It consumes enough time to just concentrate on this,” Colrud said.
Although what the future holds for Belco is still to come, the two said giving excellent customer service has been key to their success.
“It’s not uncommon for places to be calling us at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, saying ‘hey, we have a siren that’s out,’” Colrud said. “And it’s not uncommon for us to say, ‘alright, I’ll swing by tonight or Sunday morning.’ Because those places, if they have a car that’s out of service, some of them only have one, maybe two cars. So, it’s not uncommon for us to go out at 10 p.m. at night.”
In addition to being widely available for customers, Belco also gives back to law enforcement departments and initiatives, including donating funds for K9 units and Crime Stopper programs. Belco will also soon be donating a billboard to the Antigo Police Department to help spread the word about a juvenile who has been missing for several years.
Belay said with their move to Poynette, the team hopes to get more involved in local community activities as well.