Rail Ryder’s back story is a classic tale of entrepreneurial thinking.
Dale Hofius identified a need and invented a solution. Then he and his wife, Susan, started working their way through the hoops needed to launch their business.
“It started with Dale and I sitting at the kitchen table,” Susan Hofius says. “We were doing Google searches like ‘How to design a logo.’”
That was then. Now, Rail Ryder is in its eighth season, and is continuing to grow.
Rail Ryder designs, manufactures and sells trolley systems – the “rail” in the company name – that allow cars to be easily loaded into trailers. It eliminates the problem that many owners face when they transport their cars by trailer – they have to drive the car into the trailer, then try to squeeze out, usually through the car window.
“My best friend races vintage cars, and I’ve watched the guys getting bigger and grayer trying to get out of these cars,” Dale Hofius explains. “I thought I could come up with a solution.”
His solution is the now-patented trolley system that allows a car to be tied down outside and then pulled into the trailer using a winch system. The framework is self-adjusting, meaning it can accommodate any car, whether a Hummer or a Honda, Dale and Susan Hofius say.
Steadily, the device is catching on among car enthusiasts. At the start, Rail Ryder made and sold about two systems a year. Now, that number is up to 50 – and the owners have an eye on expansion.
They’ve outgrown their Belle Valley workshop, and are looking for a new location. They’re interested in adding staff, too – now, it’s Susan, a part-time teacher, keeping the books and Dale, a former GE machinist, handling the assembly, with some part-time help.
“We choose which 90 hours a week we work,” Susan Hofius says jokingly. “That’s the nature of being in business for yourself.”
About Rail Ryder: Most of the company’s customers are car collectors or racing enthusiasts who live far from Erie County. Rail Ryder has shipped to Los Angeles, Colorado and Canada, among other places. Rail Ryder works with trailer companies to customize the trailer with the patented system – “your imagination and your wallet are the only limitations,” Dale Hofius says. The Rail Ryder system remains unique, which means the company doesn’t have a real apples-to-apples competitor. The closest competition comes from transporters who pack six or eight cars onto a truck – but that method means car owners sacrifice control of their valuable vehicles, Dale Hofius points out.
Why Erie County: Dale and Susan Hofius say they can operate their company anywhere – in fact, at one point they considered moving it to Indiana to be closer to trailer manufacturers. What stopped them? A lack of potential employees. Here in Erie County, they benefit from skilled workers, including from GE, who have welding ability or machining skills that are needed to construct the Rail Ryder systems. But Dale and Susan Hofius have also found valuable resources here in Erie County as they worked to build their business. At the start, they had to figure out the ins and outs of business on their own. Since then, they’ve worked with local resources like the NWIRC, Gannon University’s Small Business Development Center and, in particular, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners – which the Hofiuses describe as “a phenomenal resource.”
Challenges of Erie County: One of the biggest challenges facing Rail Ryder is getting the word out about the product. With the help of the NWIRC, they’re reaching out to dealers, who could promote the product to customers buying cars or trailers. They’re also looking to expand their social media profile, since a good part of their customers can be found online. But cultivating a social media presence isn’t something that Dale and Susan Hofius have the time to do, so they’re hoping to hire someone to handle that aspect of the business for them.
Fun fact: Dale and Susan Hofius have never met in person about 75 percent of Rail Ryder customers – they were long-distance transactions.