When quality lags, its SQ to the rescue
When large manufacturers of cars, trucks, medical devices, lawn care and other equipment discover they have a quality problem, they know just who to call to solve it for them. They call Stratosphere Quality LLC, an 8-year-old Fishers company founded by Steven Cage.
Cage and his CEO, Thomas Gray, send one of their several teams to the factory having trouble, sometimes within just a few hours from when they received the call.
“We are flexible and so are our employees,” Cage said. “They know they can be called at a moment’s notice to travel anywhere to handle a problem.”
$10,000 a minute
Once they arrive on site, team members assess the operation, determine where the problem is and what needs to be done to fix it. These problems usually involve fixing defective parts that are supposed to go onto a car, a machine or device that for some reason won’t fit or won’t work properly.
These large corporations don’t hesitate to hire Stratosphere because shutting down most production lines in such factories costs an average of $10,000 a minute, Gray said.
The best-case scenario in Stratosphere’s work is when the problem they are called to solve is discovered while the equipment or vehicle is still in the manufacturing or assembly stage in the factory. Then Stratosphere’s team can go in and get the problem ironed out before anything is ever shipped. But sometimes, a problem isn’t discovered until later.
Unfortunately for one manufacturer of outdoor power equipment, one model had a defective fuel line that wasn’t discovered until the equipment had already been shipped to 2,200 retail stores. Stratosphere sent teams to every one of those stores to repair and/or replace every defective fuel line.
“The manufacturer was under tremendous pressure from the retailers,” Gray said. “It was the quickest solution for us to go directly to the stores to fix the problem so there was no additional waiting time for shipping and re-shipping the equipment.”
A word that Cage and Gray both use frequently when describing their work is “fun.” Adrenaline flows when they quickly get their teams in motion and deploy them to where ever the problem is. They serve companies across the United States and in Canada and Mexico.
Stratosphere has 75 employees in two different Fishers locations, 552 total in Indiana and about 2,200 employees total in its warehouses located in strategic locations to best help their clients.
An eye for opportunity
Stratosphere was started in 2009 after Cage retired from and sold his former company five years earlier. He was preparing to open a museum showcasing the American-made muscle cars he had been collecting for years. Instead, he learned his old company was about to go under. The day after that company closed its doors, Stratosphere Quality LLC launched and hired some of Cage’s former employees. It was a long President’s Day weekend and when the weekend was over, the company hit the ground running – even in a bad economy. It’s grown by leaps and bounds ever since.
Cage has had a knack for recognizing opportunity and then acting on it ever since he was a brand new 1974 graduate of Berry College of Rome, Ga. His first job after college was with P.R. Mallory on Washington Street in Indianapolis. He was astute enough to recognize an opportunity shortly after starting on the job.
“A union guy was picking up parts to put on these cars and looking them over himself to decide which ones were good or bad,” Cage said. “I saw the opportunity to have someone else do that before they got to the assembly line so it wouldn’t be slowed down.”
Cage worked and gained experience then made the leap to be his own boss in 1980, a year after his father, Robert M. Cage, Sr., had retired from Chrysler. The elder Cage helped his son get Chrysler as his first client. He started working on a workbench in his garage where he and his Dad would repair parts, then Steve would put on his jacket and tie and go out to sell his idea to other factories.
In 2004, when Cage sold his first company, it had 3,500 employees and $140 million in sales.
Stratosphere’s quality control inspection work is in such demand that in 2016, it made Inc. magazine’s list of America’s fastest growing private companies for the fourth year in a row. When Cage founded Stratosphere eight years ago, its income for the first year was a respectable $8 million. Last year, it was $122 million. It’s also received awards from large auto companies for its work, but you won’t often read about that in the news.
Says Gray, “We would love to talk about these awards, but when our clients have quality problems, they don’t want the public to know.”
Muscle Car Collection
Cage still hasn’t given up on his idea of opening a museum to showcase his collection of muscle cars. In fact, he’s filled a couple of showrooms in one of his Fishers plants with what he calls the RPM Collection. It houses perfectly restored Dodges, Corvettes, Mustangs and other high-powered cars that are eye candy for car enthusiasts. Some are the official pace cars from the Indianapolis 500, including the 1971 Dodge Challenger that was wrecked on race day that year. It was driven by Palmer Dodge owner Eldon Palmer with Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner, Tony Hulman, astronaut John Glenn and ABC Sportscaster Chris Schenkel in the car as passengers. No one was injured and the car has since been beautifully restored. It’s now on display with the RPM Collection, along with the live video of the accident.
By Susan Hoskins Miller
Photos by Stan Gurka