Optima finds aftermarket road leads to designers, OEM status

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Sometimes to get the attention of car manufacturers and become an original equipment manufacturer, you have to do an end-around.

"Doing well in the automotive aftermarket is a great opportunity for component manufacturers to get their foot in the door with the major carmakers," said Steve Scharnhorst, general manager of Optima Batteries, a division of Johnson Controls Battery Group. "It creates industry buzz and demand from car enthusiasts, two things which can get you noticed by the people who most matter to original equipment suppliers-automotive design engineers."

The Optima battery has been positioned in the high-performance aftermarket since its creation in the early 1970s by Denver-based Gates Rubber Co. It uses patented Spiralcell technology that boasts more power, a longer-life, multiposition installation capability, greater vibration resistance, lighter weight and a spill-proof design.

"We have heavily advertised our batteries to retailers and consumers touting these cutting-edge features," Scharnhorst said. "Many of them buy Optima batteries simply because they want the best battery, but automotive design engineers were more interested in the specific solutions Optima presented."

For example, designers of the Chrysler PT Cruiser Diesel wanted a battery they didn't have to mount in the engine compartment, Scharnhorst said. "Because Optima batteries have remote venting and are spill-proof, they could be placed in the passenger compartment, giving the engineers more room for the engine," he said.

However, aftermarket buzz alone didn't put Optima into OEM status. "Engineers need to have the components in their hands and be able to test them; that's the only real sale that needs to be made," Scharnhorst said. "For that reason, traditional b-to-b advertising doesn't really do that much for would-be original equipment component suppliers. You have to be relentless about getting physical products in front of them."

One way to do that is to be omnipresent at industry trade events such as the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association show, Scharnhorst said. But the best opportunities lie in shipping products to the engineers and having your sales force-and your own engineers-work directly with them onsite at the carmakers' design facilities, he said.

Optima first achieved original equipment supplier status in the spring 2002 with the Ford Eurostar Minivan, manufactured in Austria. Next came the Mexican-made PT Cruiser Diesel that summer and the Jeep Liberty Diesel shortly after that. This year, Optima truly lived up to its high-performance reputation by being selected for the 2005 Ford GT, the carmaker's new $140,000-plus dream machine.

Scharnhorst admited that some of Optima's original equipment success does come from being part of Johnson Controls, which bought the Optima brand in 2000 and markets a full line of lead/acid batteries as well as automotive interior components ranging from instrument panels to seating systems.

"A lot of innovation in the automotive world comes from smaller companies with smart ideas," he said. "But often they're acquired by larger organizations that have much more clout and marketing capabilities, and that's certainly the case with Johnson Controls." 

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