Pole position

Note: The following story was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Berry magazine.

Steve CageSteve Cage (74C) loves high performance – in cars, companies and colleges. That’s why he collects “muscle” cars, starts businesses and supports Berry.

The successful entrepreneur actually retired in 2004 at the age of 52 when he sold a company launched in 1980 with his father. After “takin’ care of business” for nearly a quarter of a century and developing the enterprise into the leading provider of quality inspection services for the automotive industry, Cage tried to take it easy as a young retiree. He spent his time collecting the coupes and convertibles he loves and planning a museum to showcase them.

But just as spark plugs continue to ignite the six-pack of power under the “shaker” hood of his favored bright orange Barracuda more than 40 years after it rolled off Plymouth’s assembly line, Cage’s innate entrepreneurial spark couldn’t help but rekindle a new fire of business development when opportunity knocked.

On Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009, the company Cage had sold only four years and a few months earlier collapsed in the economic turmoil overwhelming the automotive industry and ceased all business operations. Cage immediately contacted and rehired his best former sales professional. On Friday, Feb. 13, the duo met with executives at Honda, and before the sun had set, Cage had launched Stratosphere Quality LLC to provide quality inspection services to the industry giant. The two men then spent the long President’s Day holiday weekend hiring 50 employees to start work on Tuesday.

“Things just don’t work that way,” Cage said, “But the company told us that they knew our ethics and our business practices – that they trusted us. That says a lot.”

It was a good move. In two years amidst the worst economic environment since the Great Depression, Stratosphere Quality has gained clients in 11 states and Canada. Currently employing approximately 700 workers, the company had sales of $20 million in 2010 and anticipates sales approaching $40 million for 2011. The operation provides quality assurance and outsourcing solutions for the automotive, agriculture, medical-device and electronics industries.

“Stratosphere Quality is currently the second largest in its field,” Cage stated. “And we’re headed toward first.”

But it’s not all about size. The two-year-old high-performance enterprise has reached a pinnacle of recognition never achieved by Cage’s previous company: Honda has named Stratosphere Quality its 2011 Supplier of the Year.

“It is a huge deal,” Cage emphasized, “that shows we’re doing things right. It is a great team effort.”

The right combination

Cage took a calculated risk launching a business in such a difficult economic environment but believed that, with good leadership and good people helping, he could make it a success.

“I know what I’m doing, I enjoy what I do, and I want to help others,” he said. “Ethical business practices and treating people right are important to me. I got that from my mother and father, and Berry helped drive it further home. Those values have paid off handsomely for me.”

In starting Stratosphere Quality, Cage put some of the proceeds he received from selling his first company back into the system. The move has helped the industry, the manufacturers with which he contracts, and the many employees who have gained benefits-laden jobs. He emphasized that there are no shortcuts; you have to do the right things the right way. And he believes in hiring good people and then letting them do their jobs. He guides with his hands “lightly on the steering wheel.”

“I’m a few years older, but it is still fun,” Cage joked. “Besides, you can only hit so many golf balls or go fishing so many times.”

Start your engines

Before Cage launched Stratosphere Quality, he created the rpmcollection.com website for muscle car enthusiasts. He also acquired 80 of the oh-so-cool vehicles and a 47,000-square-foot building to serve as a museum. The Stratosphere Quality operation has now taken over the structure; his beloved cars are relegated to the corners. 

“They are fun to have and very beautiful,” he said of his collection of powerful two-door autos. “The late ’60s and early ’70s was a great time for cars. But I’m trying to reduce to 20. I just don’t have the time they deserve.”

As his father was a Chrysler executive, Cage has a penchant for that company’s automobiles. He favors Plymouth’s Barracuda and Superbird, as well as the Dodge Challenger and Daytona. But his love of high performance vehicles doesn’t end there. He enjoys NASCAR, F1, GP Moto and Indy Car racing. In fact, the Indianapolis native has attended the Indianapolis 500 for 48 years in a row and plans never to miss the race until … well, until he has no choice, he said. 

Big win for Berry

When Cage sold his original company in late 2004, he immediately put a great deal of money where his heart is and made the largest alumni gift in history – $10 million – to his alma mater.

“From the sale, I had the opportunity to give back to Berry,” he explained. “I love Berry with all my heart. I had a great experience, and I like the way the school is being run and handled. I gave in a way that worked for me, but, hopefully, also for the students and the college.

Among other things, Cage’s gift launched fundraising for a critically needed athletic and recreation center on Berry’s campus – the facility that now bears his name: The Steven J. Cage Athletic and Recreation Center. 

“Berry needed a quality facility to move forward in many ways,” Cage said, “and I am so pleased with the result. It is beautiful and functional. Berry, the architects and the contractor did a wonderful job. I hear great things from the students. Berry did it right.”

Cage’s gift also established one of the college’s most prestigious scholarships, available to top business students. In only a few short years, his scholarship recipients already include graduate students at Yale, Georgia State, Georgia and Alabama, as well as a consultant for an international corporation and a senior associate at a major accounting firm. A 2011 Cage Scholar currently is teaching in Korea on a Fulbright grant from the U.S. State Department. 

“When I hear from the kids about what they are doing after graduation, it is the best email or letter I get,” he emphasized.

Cage’s strong memories of being a student at Berry include the opportunity to get his feet on the ground in a nurturing environment. The classes, values and professors “who talk with you not at you,” such as Dr. Sam Spector, Milton Chambers and Dr. Ouida Dickey, all helped him to grow.

“Berry was the right school for me,” he said, “I might have gotten lost at a big college. It would be interesting to see where I’d be today if I hadn’t gone to Berry.”

In 2003, Cage was invited to serve his alma mater as a member of the Berry College Board of Trustees. He accepted gladly, appreciates the opportunity to have input into the college’s future and is amazed by all that he has learned.

“From what I now see as a trustee,” he said, “so many jobs at Berry – those of the president and the faculty members in particular – are so much harder than what I do starting a company. I have a better view now of all that is done, all that it takes. The college is in very, very good hands with Steve Briggs as president and Karen Holley Horrell as board chair. All the trustees are working hard to move the college forward.”

On the throttle

While Stratosphere Quality already is in second position among firms of its type, it is, as Cage remarked, continuing to pick up speed. With character as its chassis, ethics as its engine, Cage in the driver’s seat and a highly worthy crew, there seems to be little doubt about the company’s ability to move forward. After all, Steve Cage loves high performance – in cars, companies and colleges. And he knows how to drive results at high speed. The rest, as they say, will be history.