Following the FronTone Feeling
Klaus Matlschweiger, a trained mechanic from Lassing, Austria, started working in the vehicle safety sector in 1999. “I was deeply immersed in the industry,” the 37-old entrepreneur says, looking back on his two decades in the industry, working for the likes of Daimler, BMW, and VW. “My dream has always been to build systems [for vehicle safety solutions] that are easier to use and more precise,” he adds. Fast forward 15 years, his company, which develops systems for car safety tests, was recently acquired by Humanetics, the biggest developer of crash test dummies, becoming a major success story in the vehicle safety testing sector.
Electric beats hydraulic
When Matlschweiger filed his first patent for a technology that employed acoustics instead of physics to measure and assess test crashes in 2005, a colleague of his told him: “We need an English name – this is going to be big.” And it would be, leading FronTone to be the major supplier of test systems for vehicle testing, especially in the fields of Occupant and Pedestrian Protection. But success did not come overnight. Presenting their systems at various car manufacturers, Matlschweiger and his partner soon recognised their limitations. “We stood zero chance. We were just two random guys from Graz –we were doomed to failure,” the entrepreneur remembers.
Photo credit: FronTone
Undeterred by the setbacks, they continued developing their systems for vehicle safety solutions, conducting experiments and simulating crashes. “We needed to be different from, and better than, what was on the market at the time,” Matlschweiger says. The only way to do that was to develop a frictionless electric E-liner drive system, thus moving away from the hydraulic motor. Simply put, they have developed a system that provides more precise test results than conventional ones, thus making the testing process for all kinds of industrial applications more efficient and accurate.
In 2007, Matlschweiger and his team of two – his wife Sandra, and co-founder Michael Kohlweg – joined the Centre for Applied Technology [Zentrum für angewandte Technologie] (AplusB) in Leoben, a city in upper Styria. There, they received their first funding – 72,000 euros – as well as access to a workshop in Niklasdorf to develop their applications. They mostly focused on testing systems for front and interior testing of vehicle safety. Three year later, in 2010, FronTone was founded as a GmbH and acquired their first client. “It was a long dry spell,” Matlschweiger says.
Sleepless in Styria
At the time, Matlschweiger was working 30-hour weeks at the vocational school as an automobile technology teacher with an additional 10 hours of preparation per week and a part-time job at a lab at the University of Technology in Graz (TU). After getting out of school at 4pm, he would go to his lab job and then drive to Niklasdorf, where they had a workshop, at around 8 or 9pm to work on his prototype until 2 or 3 in the morning. All the money he earned in his two day-time jobs were poured into his startup and into the flying instructor course he took on weekends to have a plan B in case the startup didn’t work out.
It was a brutal time – for my family too. I don’t want to go through this again.
Klaus Matlschweiger reflecting on the beginnings of FronTone
“I now realise that might not have been healthy,” he says. “It was a brutal time – for my family too. I don’t want to go through this again.” Thinking back to an Easter Sunday five years ago, Matlschweiger remembers sitting at an industrial facility he had helped assemble in Germany, his overall on and thinking to himself, “this is not normal anymore.”
“I was often stretched to the limit but it’s the best thing I ever did – besides my family,” he says. “My wife always supported me. I couldn’t have done it without the help.” Sandra Matlschweiger acts as FronTone’s procurement head – “she looks at the cost side of things, while I tend to follow my gut feeling – it’s a good combination,” he says. This gut feeling also led him to pack up his things and move his family to Munich in 2010 in order to build up the branch there, leaving behind a home that had taken him 7 years to renovate – only to return a year later.
- MILESTONES BOX
- 2005: Matlschweiger files his first patent
- 2007: FronTone enters AplusB, receives funding and a workshop
- 2010: FronTone is established as a GmbH in Austria
- 2015: FronTone is acquired by Humanetics, Matlschweiger remains Managing Director
“But that’s my approach to things: one door closes, another opens. If I run into problems, I don’t ponder the ‘why’, but ask how we can make it work,” Matlschweiger says. His ability to tackle things head-on and move on is one of the traits that he believes have allowed him to succeed. Hurrying away from his mother’s deathbed, to take an important business call is part of the 100% dedication to his work. “I don’t have a cold heart, but this is the only way it works,” he says. “My message to other young founders: it’s extremely hard.”
What Matlschweiger appreciates most about his entrepreneurial journey is the personal development he has undergone. “Suddenly leading a team, being responsible for a whole business, going on business trips to Russia, the US and China, and giving specialist lectures has vastly broadened my horizon.”
It is at these lectures that Matlschweiger encountered the often impermeable academic sphere in Austria, characterised by its obsession with degrees. He remembers a time when he was un-invited from a talk because he did not have a university degree. “It was a slap in the face,” Matlschweiger says. Today, he is deeply immersed in these circles, “but it was a long way. In Austria, if the DI [Diplomingenieur] or MSc is missing, things become difficult. I always wanted to shatter that.”
Another systemic hurdle Matlschweiger has had to grapple with are finances. “We simply got lucky that we even got some money,” he says. “Banks don’t want to take any risks with young entrepreneurs anymore.” In a sector where the seller is usually expected to put up the money for monthly advance payments of around 400,000 euros per project, liquidity becomes a major problem. “Even with loan guarantees, we weren’t able to secure enough money,” says Matlschweiger. “In the past two years, I ended up spending a third of my time at banks – not a lot of fun.”
Photo credit: FronTone
In the end, financing was one of the main reasons why FronTone reacted positively to an acquisition offer by Humanetics, the market leader for crash test dummies. “The nice thing was that they approached us because they were looking for a suitable engineering company to add to their portfolio,” he says.
“Although we have all these great projects and are doing well as a company, the way the economy works at the moment SMEs don’t really stand much of a chance without a proper financial background,” Matlschweiger says, drawing attention to a problem that numerous startups, especially in the tech or medical sector, are facing these days. With Humanetics as their parent company, FronTone can now look into the future with more ease: “We now report to our parent company, and not the banks, which is definitely more relaxed,” Matlschweiger says.
Other than the improved financial situation – and “more clients, more staff, more work” of course – there aren’t many changes, says Matlschweiger, who will remain managing director of FronTone, adding that there is “a great level of trust” between them and the buyer.
Remaining in the lead
As FronTone has been the market leader in the test equipment sector since 2013, with customers such as Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen, and Jaguar Land Rover, Humanetics would do well to keep them as a subsidiary. What makes them so successful? For Matlschweiger, it’s the mix of having an innovative technology, paired with an extremely service-oriented approach. It is this approach to customer-friendliness that he teaches his current staff of 25, which is expected to grow to 30 this year. In the future, he wants to consolidate the base location in Feldkirchen and increase the volume of sales – all the while sticking to his mantra that he has pinned up on the wall in his office: “Success has two letters: do.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.