Interview: ‘Energized’ President Dave Z Keeps Focus on Customers


Three years ago, we sat down for a Q&A with Stellar President David Zrostlik, affectionately known as ‘Z’ both inside and outside the company. Since then, the industry has dealt with the pandemic, supply chain issues and higher material costs, yet Stellar has continued to launch new initiatives and innovations. That makes now a great time to catch up with Z for a fresh look at how the company continues to serve customers. 

Stellar President Dave Z talking to two others in front of Stellar Air Compressors

Can you provide your perspective on the challenges and highlights of the past three years?

Obstacles have always led to our greatest achievements, and that’s certainly been the case in recent years. COVID, inflation and more weren’t just our challenges. They were, and some continue to be, challenges for our customers as well. Our philosophy has always been that we succeed when our customers and distributors succeed. We’re invested in that partnership, so we continued to focus on delivering equipment and service that help our customers stay productive even in troubled times. 

Quite a bit contributed to that. First, we’re a strong and stable American company, which helped us weather the storm. We strive to set the standard in quality and productivity, and our team continued to innovate new, advanced equipment. We expanded our customer service capabilities, including a new parts distribution center. We transitioned to 100% employee ownership, plus we unified our brands and reaffirmed our commitment to partnership with our We Are Stellar initiative. Many new products were showcased as the industry reemerged from the pandemic with historic trade show crowds. So while there will always be challenges, including ongoing supply chain issues and a labor shortage, there will also be a Stellar team dedicated to rising above them. There was a lot of pride when we celebrated our 33rd anniversary.

President Dave Z announcing that Stellar is 100% employee owned while standing on a trailer

You have described the recent transition to 100% employee ownership as a “transformative” moment in the company’s history. What exactly does it mean for distributors and customers?

Simply put, ESOP ensures quality for our partners. Everyone has a stake, so the philosophy that we succeed when our customers and distributors succeed has more meaning than ever. Everyone shares the goal of enhancing the Stellar experience. Being fully employee-owned means we will continue to develop an ownership culture that makes us better for our distributors and customers. Unlike a public company that has to answer to stockholders, Stellar employee-owners won’t cut corners that could put quality at risk. Plus, we can react quickly to changing market needs to meet and exceed customer expectations.

What does 100% employee ownership mean for the company?

Through employee ownership, Stellar is locally owned by those who live in our American Heartland communities of Garner, Kanawha and Mason City, Iowa; Hastings, Nebraska; as well as Pottstown, Pennsylvania. We are better able to attract and retain the best, most motivated employees. We will continue to love what we do and work even better together as a team to build the highest-quality work trucks, trailers, and service truck and van accessories for distributors and customers in the markets we serve.

The We Are Stellar initiative put a lot of focus on the Stellar name. Can you share the story of how the company got its name?

My dad, Francis, grew up in the 1950s on a farm south of Duncan, Iowa, working on my grandfather’s farm and at Zrostlik Tire Service. Dad was a serial entrepreneur who never stopped innovating to meet the needs of his customers. In 1990, he founded Stellar as the first U.S. manufacturer of hydraulic hooklift hoists with my mother and two of his former co-workers in the work truck industry, Gary Bomstad and Jim Vlaanderen. Jim was an amateur astronomer whose hobby was building telescopes. Between Jim’s passion for stars and the word “stellar” meaning “high quality,” the name really sunk in. To this day, we strive to carry on the Midwest values, innovative spirit and focus on quality that my dad and his original team had.

An old Stellar booth with founder Francis Z

We Are Stellar has two key components to it. Can you tell us about the first one, brand unification?

Well, though unifying our brands seems like an internal thing, it’s a good example of our commitment to listening to customers. Over the years, we’ve grown by developing new products as well as by acquiring complementary brands. Talking with customers, they would praise their TMAX™ Mechanic Truck, Stellar® Crane, American Eagle Drawer System, LubeMate® Lube Skid and the Roose Utility Trailer they were pulling, not realizing that every single one of them — and more — were Stellar products. Stellar is far and away the most recognized brand, and research shows that the brand continues to be associated with high quality and dependable customer service, so it just made a lot of sense to clear up some of that market confusion by uniting brands and product lines under the Stellar name. 

Can you expand on why that’s a benefit to customers?

Clarity. Reassurance. By unifying products under the Stellar name, such as drawer systems from the former American Eagle brand or combine head and utility trailers from the former MD Products and Solutions brand, the buyer has no reason to question the quality of the product or the company that stands behind it. So customers who might have known to count on Stellar for a tire truck or hooklift can have that reassurance that any additional equipment or accessories they buy are built with the same commitment to quality. We got immediate affirmation of this decision at the Work Truck Show, where some attendees were surprised to see that Stellar built air compressors, lube skids and, especially, service truck toolbox systems. It’s also easier for them to get exactly what they need because everything is now on one user-friendly website. 

Stellar distributors talking in front of a blue truck

How about the partnership aspect of We Are Stellar — what is Stellar doing to create and deliver new value for partners?

We’re very grateful for the partnership of our distributor network, including some new international dealers as we grow our global presence. Our research shows that about 75% of customers rate the distributor as one of their top three sources of information. Therefore, our job is to help distributors best serve their customers by providing product quality, innovation and expertise. We continue to invest in distributor program enhancements to improve communications and ensure we’re doing all we can to support distributor business. These include the launch of a new portal with an e-commerce solution that allows distributors to order replacement parts online 24/7/365, more technical training opportunities and different ways to provide feedback. The better our distributors and their customers do, the better Stellar does.

Let’s wrap up with a look at the future. What’s ahead for the newly unified Stellar and for you personally?

We love knowing that our research says 94% of our customers would recommend Stellar, but we won’t stop there. We’ll continue to strive for continuous improvement in all areas to drive productivity with quality work trucks, trailers and accessories for hardworking companies that help make the world run. Customers can continue to contact us or find a distributor to get the productivity products and support they need. 

As for me, I have no plans to retire. I’m having too much fun. I’m looking forward to leading the company as we continue to grow and prosper over the coming years as ESOP owners. I’m energized to begin this new chapter of Stellar and continue writing our story.