Episode 18: Matthew Wanasz of Wanco on How Innovation and Customization Keep Them Ahead of the Curve


Adam Honig:  Hello and welcome to Make it. Move it. Sell it. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, and selling products, and of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we are not talking about that today. Instead, today we’re talking to Matthew Wanasz, the Chief Operating Officer at Wanco, which is maybe the best manufacturer of high-quality and easy-to-use highway safety and traffic control products. Welcome to the show Matthew.

Matthew Wanasz: Thank you for having me. 

Adam Honig: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Let’s start with the make it part of the discussion, can you tell us a little bit about what you guys make?

Matthew Wanasz:  Sure, we’re a manufacturing company first. We have engineers on site, so we engineer all our products. We also bring in raw steel, weld, paint, assemble, and so we’re pretty much a one-stop shop.

Adam Honig:  Now, when I think about your product line, what always comes to mind is the highway signs that say merge left. I don’t know why it’s always merge left in my mind, but that’s like the key thing that those big control panel displays, is that what they’re called?

Matthew Wanasz:  So we call them a message board or an arrow board. The one with the flashing arrow is an arrow board. And then if it has a message, you can type whatever you would like and it will display it. And if it says right lane close, merge left, that’s what you’re seeing.

Adam Honig:  Yeah, those are very popular signs. I live in the Boston area, and I don’t know who your salesperson is around here, but they’re killing it. Those boards are everywhere. 

Matthew Wanasz:  They are federally mandated as well for use whenever they close down a road to help the motorist safely get through the work site.

Adam Honig: This is really interesting. So you have a product that is federally mandated. I think a lot of people listening to the podcast might think to themselves, how do we get our products to be federally mandated? But that definitely must drive a lot of demand, but it must drive a lot of competition as well. 

Matthew Wanasz: There’s definitely competition in this and it grows every day.

Adam Honig:  And when you think about the competition in this space, what sort of strategies do you guys use to try to differentiate yourself from the competition?

Matthew Wanasz:  Our biggest differentiation is probably our customer service along with customization. We are a build-to-order. We’ve always been that way and we will continue to be that way.

Adam Honig:  And so that means that customers, when they want a sign or something like that, they can design it pretty much any way they want?

Matthew Wanasz: There are some basic functions, but there’s extra tools that work better for their area. Something as simple as a cone holder or a different hitch, different plug, cameras, so there are different options that they need for their job.

Adam Honig: Yeah, so in some areas like having a solar power with it might be important because they’re out in the middle of the desert or something like that versus near a power source. Are these the kind of options that you guys are offering?

Matthew Wanasz: Definitely, those options also have their variety where, what you would need in Texas in the middle of a desert versus what you would need. Let’s say, in your area, obviously you would need more solar and battery to last 30 days of run time. That’s usually our target for a lot of these products.

Adam Honig:  So the strategy is to be more competitive by offering more options and more customization for customers, is that what I’m hearing?

Matthew Wanasz:  That is one of the strategies, yes, as well as a quick turnaround.

Adam Honig:  What do you mean by quick turnaround?

Matthew Wanasz:  So typically normal operations, were two to three weeks out for delivery of products.

Adam Honig:  How do you think that compares to other folks in the industry?

Matthew Wanasz: Sometimes they have stuff in stock. You know, if they’re local to that manufacturer, it’s a little bit hard. But for nationwide delivery, working in Colorado, we’re pretty centralized, so it’s pretty easy to get products outta here.

Adam Honig:   So when I think about these message boards, the arrow boards, the different products that you make, I often wonder, are there other  unusual ways that people want to use them? It’s not all roadside safety, I assume.

Matthew Wanasz:  We have people who rent them. We’ve seen them in car lots if they’re running a special obviously for special events; Super Bowl. Other schools have used it for large games. There’s definitely a lot of events that end up using these boards to help direct traffic, not only car traffic, but also sometimes pedestrian traffic.

Adam Honig:  And maybe just to say happy   Adam, or something like that. 

Matthew Wanasz:  We could definitely do that.

Adam Honig: You could hook me up with something like that? Okay. I have a big birthday coming up, so I’ll let you know plenty of time in advance.

Matthew Wanasz: So we have a show that’s usually around Valentine’s Day, and so we’ll say Happy Valentine’s and people will stand in front of the sign and send it to their spouse.

Adam Honig:  Oh, that sounds like a great promotion. Yeah, I bet people are really into that. When I think about the need to have a product that can be configured and customized, I imagine that you guys are dealing with a large volume of SKUs and options and even like add-on products that go with it. How do you manage that complexity?

Matthew Wanasz: We have over 30,000 SKUs. Our product range also goes outside of the traffic control stuff. So there are other more complex products that really add to that difficulty. We do use a full blown ERP system where we track everything that comes into the warehouse where it is in the warehouse, when it gets moved, where it gets moved, when it gets consumed, and eventually when it gets shipped out. 

Adam Honig:  So investing in automation has definitely helped. And I bet you’ve developed a lot of processes around how do you make sure you’re staying on top of all of the orders and customer requirements and stuff like that? 

Matthew Wanasz:  There’s definitely a lot of processes in place. We do track down to the day: late/on time and what’s coming the next day or week. It is definitely in need of more automation every day as the complexity grows and as we venture into figuring out how to best remove errors and process it quicker. We’re coming across different technologies every day to help us do that.

Adam Honig:  Gotcha. I imagine in your business the safety requirements of your products are very high, like having a failure rate of something that’s telling people that the lane is closed. It’s gotta be pretty close to zero, right?

Matthew Wanasz: There is an LED light installed in there, so can it fail? Definitely. The life cycle of an LED light of that build is pretty long. So even if one goes out, the message still comes across really easily to a driver that they need to switch lanes.

Adam Honig:  Right, it wouldn’t be saying like, merge lift. I wonder what that’s saying. You know, I think they’d still know, even I would know it was merging left.

Matthew Wanasz:  A lot of abbreviations end up happening. Obviously if the user doesn’t lock the message, people will get in there and change the message. That has happened.

Adam Honig: Do people ever send you pictures of funny messages that they see?

Matthew Wanasz:  Most definitely.

Adam Honig: Can you mention one or are they all not PG so you can’t say them on the podcast?

Matthew Wanasz: There are definitely those but there are a number of them, like bridge out zombies ahead.

Adam Honig: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m gonna have to do a Google search for that when we get off. But going back to the complexity, so you’ve got this product that can be highly configured, you’ve got all of these options. Does that mean that you need to have like a big team of folks kind of working the supply chain angle to make sure you’ve got all the components all the time? Or you guys figured that out pretty well?

Matthew Wanasz:  Our team, I would consider pretty small. We have about four people on the supply chain side of making sure that we have the product in-house. Things have grown over the years, those four teammates have needed to rely on other processes in-house to make sure that they’re getting the right signals. So if I were to add them into it, then yeah, the team has grown and then there’s probably a good 10 to 12 people involved in that.

Adam Honig:  Yeah, we’ve been talking with a lot of people who during the pandemic and all of the ripple effects that have been going on, the supply chain issues have definitely been kind of creeping up for everybody. I know when we spoke before, you said you try to source a lot of things locally, but besides doing that, are there other strategies that you’ve used to try to solve the challenges of the day?

Matthew Wanasz:  Yes, for the most part we do try to do local sourcing. It’s not the easiest. Electronics are very hard to come by; chips and solar panels.

Adam Honig: Do they make LED bulbs in Colorado? Is that a local thing? No, not really.

Matthew Wanasz:  No they don’t. Unfortunately, most of that’s coming from overseas. Most LEDs, the chips themselves, they’re made overseas. So a lot of that stuff does come from there. Chips, they’re very hard to get. Obviously everyone’s hearing it in the news on cars having hard time getting chips to run the computers for the cars, we run into the same thing.

Adam Honig: Yeah, I’m sure you do. Taking a look forward a little bit, you and I spoke a little bit about machine vision and AI and stuff like that, what’s your view on how all of that’s gonna come together in your part of the world?

Matthew Wanasz:  I think the biggest push for us is worker safety, trying to remove a worker from the side of the road. There are technologies out there that would help and aid that by removing the person from the side of the road and replacing it with a machine. Whether they can control it with a line of sight or if it automatically can control itself with some type of AI that can determine if the work zone is safe for other cars to travel.

Adam Honig:  So basically the AI vision would be saying when it’s safe for the person to go out there, or would the AI vision know when the road is closed and would turn the sign on, or both even?

Matthew Wanasz: In this particular case, you have a flagman on the side of the road where it’s a one-lane road and they will allow traffic to pass or they’ll ask you to stop. Afad is what it’s called, and it’s basically an arm that closes the traffic from entering into the work zone to allow the other side to drive through.

Adam Honig: I see. So that way it keeps the traffic flowing but not colliding together. It also has the advantage of not talking on its cell phone when you’re sitting there waiting to go. And you know that it’s perfectly safe to go, but the guy standing there talking on his phone, that’s never happened to you, I imagine.

Matthew Wanasz:  I can’t say that I’ve seen that.

Adam Honig:  Cool. Are there any other product advances or ideas that you’re seeing kind of coming down the pike?

Matthew Wanasz: Because we are an engineering company, we get a lot of asks outside of our normal bread and butter, so to speak. Recently we’re working with a company here locally that does pollution monitoring. In order to do that type of stuff, they need to have a permanent install. Well, to get that done, the extra fees, the location approval is very hard, so we’re working with them on a solution to mobilize that.

Adam Honig:  So essentially you can kind of drag the message board into an area and it’ll say like, avoid, too much carbon dioxide.

Matthew Wanasz:  We could tie it in that way. Right now it’s a little bit more simple of just being a power source for them, for their current product and it just sits there and monitors. But there’s no reason why it couldn’t tie into our system and say hey, it’s a high pollution day, try carpooling.

Adam Honig:  That makes total sense. You know, one of the questions that I had, Matthew, was a little bit about marketing, how do you do marketing in this space? 

Matthew Wanasz:  So for the longest time it was just pretty much our sales team who was the marketing. It’s a lot of word of mouth. The clientele for our particular product is very narrow. We do have some other ones that are a little bit wider when it gets into construction, but for road construction in particular, it’s pretty narrow. It’s pretty well-known who all the customers will or might be so we never had to really spend too much time marketing. We recently hired a manager of marketing so we’re going through, and this is a new process for us. It’s new for me, and it’s new for everyone in the company here.

Adam Honig: It’s sort of amazing to me that you’ve grown the business to be over 300 people, a very well-known brand, at least according to people who noticed the signs out in the world without any marketing. So maybe you never needed it.

Matthew Wanasz: Yeah, we have a couple shows where we go to and anybody that is in this market is usually at the shows.

Adam Honig:  All of the buyers tend to go there. And a lot of the purchasers, are they state departments of transportation or other government agencies?

Matthew Wanasz:  They do purchase. They are not the largest. A lot of that stuff is either rental companies or what we call traffic houses. And they’ll be the ones who will be contracted to shut down the road, make sure it’s safe for the workers to do whatever they need to do.

Adam Honig: Gotcha. All part of getting the government out of the way here.

Matthew Wanasz:  In some cases, yeah, but there are other projects where the local DOT will oversee it or they’ll do it all on their own. It varies from state to state.

Adam Honig: Yeah. In Massachusetts, we love to have police officers at all of the roadside construction. I think it’s a law passed specifically to help the policemen pay for their pensions or something like that.

Matthew Wanasz: That might be one way they’re getting some more money. I’m sure the other reason was that enough people were speeding through the work zone to try to keep it safer.

Adam Honig:  Not in Massachusetts, nobody ever speeds in Massachusetts. That’s what I’ve seen. So talking about customers, one of the things that we’ve been talking with people about is changing expectations of customers. What I’ve been calling sort of the Amazon effect, you know, like everybody expects to order stuff online, everybody expects it to be delivered overnight. With your customer base, which sounds like they might be a little bit different, is that kind of creeping into their minds as well? 

Matthew Wanasz:  As far as delivery, they’ve always expected, they need it now, we can deliver in a couple weeks, and maybe we kind of set that expectation with our customers. In today’s environment it’s a little bit harder, but in terms of changing their perception of how they order, when they order, I can’t say that much has changed for us. 

Adam Honig:  Well, that’s good. That’s good because the general trend that I’m hearing is that people are just getting more demanding. 

Matthew Wanasz: In terms of delivery, yeah. I think for the most part, everyone likes the interaction, talking with the person. We did try going to an auto-answering system in the past, and we definitely heard from our customers that they didn’t like that. So we went back to a live answering person that can get them connected to whoever they needed to be connected to.

Adam Honig: Yeah, totally. Well, one of the other topics that we’ve been talking a bit about on the podcast is encouraging people, especially young people, to think about a career in manufacturing and that, for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem quite as appealing as some of the other industries out there; consulting or finance or whatever. What do you tell people about that?

Matthew Wanasz: Yeah, that’s actually a pretty sensitive subject for some people. There’s a lot of issues with finding the people who want to be in this type of career. For instance, welders, we’re not getting enough skilled welders coming through to the point where, yeah, we’re gonna have to start looking to welding robots to take over some of these higher paying jobs; skilled labor that is declining. There’s more people leaving that skill base than there are coming into it. Being in Colorado, we don’t necessarily have a strong base for assembly work and so we have to teach. And that is difficult in itself. A lot of people find out, no, they don’t really like to work with their hands that much. Some people love it, and it’s just a matter of getting the right people in front of us.

Adam Honig:  We spoke with a crane manufacturer a couple weeks ago on the podcast, and they actually bring in people from the farms in Wisconsin where they are and get them seasonally when they’re not doing farm work to be helping out. So there are all kinds of approaches that people are used to.

Matthew Wanasz:  Yeah, and I would like to say this time construction outside, we see an influx of people, but unfortunately our high time for production is also the summertime when they want to go back out to work construction.

Adam Honig:  Definitely a challenge for everybody. Well Matthew, this has been very interesting. I love hearing about the products. I mean, I’m a big product guy, love hearing about your products, love looking on the roads for the zombies ahead sign. Gotta keep my ears peeled for that. It’s also super interesting to think about the complexity of the products and how companies need to deal with that internally. Like obviously you want to provide the best product, the best options for your customers, but there’s an effect inside the business of how to deal with all of that. And sounds like you guys are on top of that and I’m very interested to see down the road how this machine vision the AI around how that works out on the job site. I think that’s gonna be super cool to see. 

Matthew Wanasz: Right now it seems to be a matter of adoption. A lot of people are not trustworthy, so it’s gonna have to be proven to them that it’ll work.

Adam Honig:  Yeah, I know from being in the AI space, just that word of trust is sort of a big thing for people because you’re taking, in a sense, control out of people’s hands a little bit, you’re trusting the machine with it. And you don’t really get exactly knowing what’s going on inside the box. So it can be scary for people. 

Matthew Wanasz:  Most definitely, especially when there’s someone’s life on the line too.

Adam Honig: Right. So I imagine that there’s gonna be a long period of people getting used to it. I know when Tesla first came out with, oh, we have these self-driving cars, everybody was super enthusiastic and I feel like that has come down a little bit.

Matthew Wanasz:  Yes, I agree. That concern has started to become more and more commonplace and expected to be an option for at least some people.

Adam Honig: You know, what I think we’re gonna see, and this is just my own personal point of view, but I think we’re gonna see machine assisted first, right? Like instead of having the software, or in your case the hardware just doing something, it’s gonna suggest it. That’s where I see the role. And then people will get used to that and maybe we can take the person out of the loop at some point.

Matthew Wanasz: Definitely. That is a natural step I see happening here for us with our afads. It’s first removing that person from the road side with a machine that they can control remotely. And then the next step would be hey, we suggest that you stop this traffic and do the other side because there’s a longer queue. So there’s definitely that middle step that needs to happen right now. 

Adam Honig: And have you seen any ideas around drones for traffic management and kind of getting a real time picture on things? Is that something we should be looking forward to.

Matthew Wanasz:  I don’t really know. It’s not something that we’ve seen or have been asked about. Maybe for surveying definitely, but for the middle of a construction and having the drones flying over and checking, I am not seeing a request for that.

Adam Honig: There’s no Wanco drones in our future. Okay.

Matthew Wanasz: Not today.

Adam Honig: All right. Well if you decide to get into it, let me know. I gotta have a little experience with drones.  Cool. Listen, Matthew, this has been super, really appreciate your joining us here. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can find every episode of the Make it. Move it. Sell it. podcast at Spiro.ai/podcast. Matthew, what do you think, should people give us a positive review for this episode?

Matthew Wanasz:  I really hope so.

Adam Honig: Yeah, come on, do it for Matthew, not for me. And if you did like the episode, you can always subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. And yeah, give us a review, let other people know that we’re talking about manufacturing and things like that here. Thanks everybody for tuning in. We look forward to speaking to you on the next episode.