With “aggressive online marketing,” Maxlider Brothers Customs grows from “logical to surreal”

By Mary Ann Ford

Actor Jesse Soffer, who plays Lt. Jay Halstead on the popular television show Chicago P.D., has one of the customized Ford Broncos created by Maxlider Brothers Customs of Bloomington.

So do professional golfer Ben Crane and actress Jamie Chung.

The list of about 400 customers also includes Major League Baseball players, CEOs of major companies, and other Bronco lovers.

The business has almost doubled each year,” said Erik Barnlund, chief executive officer of Maxlider Brothers Customs, which was started in 2013. “We’ve been very blessed.”

One of their creations, a customized 1966 Bronco, was featured at the 2017 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas and made it on the show’s Top 10 in the builder’s competition.

The vehicle also won the Best 4x4 award from race car video game Gran Turismo and -- even more importantly -- “led to some key relationships with Ford (Motor Company),” said Barnlund.

Ford Motor announced late last year that after more than 20 years, it was bringing back the Bronco in 2020.

“We wanted to show them what we thought Americans wanted to see in 2020,” said Barnlund.  “We wanted to build the badest Bronco the world had ever seen so Ford would take notice and really consider it” for the 2020 Bronco design.

The custom-designed 1966 Bronco featured at SEMA was cut in half and extended to add two more doors, making it a four-door. Its features included a super-charged V-8 engine, custom suspension, Bluetooth sound bars, and subwoofers.

“Everything was hand-built,” Barnlund said.

Maxlider Brothers received numerous offers to buy the Bronco while at SEMA but ultimately sold it for about $250,000 (far less than some of the offers) to one of their social media followers who had religiously followed the videos the company posted during the building process, Barnlund said.

That decision goes along with the philosophy of those who make up Maxlider Brothers Customs.

Brothers Erik (left) and Kris Barnlund (photo courtesy Maxlider/Facebook)

“We’re about people.  We’re Christian guys who want to do the right thing,” said Barnlund. “We have a set of values we believe in.  We treat people the way we want to be treated and make them happy.”

The “we” Barnlund is talking about includes his brother, Kris Barnlund, and their cousin, Rick Conrad. The business has a total of 12 employees. It started with just one.

Kris Barnlund, who previously worked at Ford dealerships and earned senior master Ford technician certificates, is co-owner and the creator of Maxlider Brothers Customs.

Rick Conrad, who was a senior master Ford technician for 35 years, now shares his expertise at Maxlider Brothers and is one of the main reasons Kris and Erik love Broncos.

It happened in 1988 when Rick bought a 1975 Bronco and dismantled it in his garage. Then teenagers, Kris and Erik went over to watch him work on it every chance they could get.

But what really sealed the deal for their love of Broncos came one afternoon when Rick took Kris and Erik for a ride in the Bronco.

“He jumped a set of railroad tracks. It launched the Bronco,” said Erik.

They didn’t have seatbelts fastened, and Kris almost fell out.  Erik grabbed him and kept him inside the 4x4.  Erik said the Bronco then bounced a few more times.

When they came to rest, Erik said, “We thought that was the greatest moment of our lives. We built an affinity for them.”

As a young adult, Erik started buying old cars, fixing them up (with the help of Kris) and selling them to make money.

He moved from the small town of Donovan, Ill., in Iroquois County to Bloomington-Normal to attend Illinois State University.  Kris moved as well and started his career as a Ford technician.

In 1999, the two started a rock band called Maxlider, a venture that lasted about six years.  After it broke up in 2005, Erik and some friends started Mavidea, a Bloomington-Normal-based technology company that builds websites, does Internet marketing, and manages IT infrastructure for small businesses.

The company took off and began thriving.  Meanwhile, Kris was changing jobs and expecting his first child and was uncertain about his financial future.

“He asked if it was time to get back into flipping cars,” Erik said.

The two pooled their money and started buying cars – Broncos and Mustangs. The Broncos always sold quickly while it took time to sell the Mustangs, he said.

“About that time, the Bronco market just started to explode,” Erik said.

They bought more Broncos and started selling them on the Internet.

In 2014, Erik was tired of leasing space for Mavidea and wanted his own building. He found a 4,000-square-foot building on the far west edge of Bloomington.

“It had room for Mavidea and a showroom and shop for Maxlider,” he said. “God’s given us the perfect platform.”

Erik said he took the Internet marketing strategy that made Mavidea successful and applied it to Maxlider.

With “aggressive online marketing,” the growth of Maxlider Brothers Customs went from “logical to surreal.”

“Right now we have the biggest Bronco social media site on the Internet with 100,000 followers,” he said. “We have become recognized as one of the top car builders in the country.

Their popularity got them a part in an EBay commercial and their story has drawn interest from Discovery/Velocity channels.

“We’d like to host a show,” said Erik.

In the meantime, they are focusing on the present – primarily customizing Broncos but also customizing Mustangs, classic trucks and vintage SUVs (prices start at about $25,000) – and looking toward the future.

“I can see the day when the (2020) Bronco is released.  We’ll get a lot of phone calls from people who bought one and want to send it to us to make it even cooler,” he said. “We’re in the day and age where people love to flare up their vehicle.”

They are working on their own line – Maxlider Edition – of Ford F-150, F-250, Ranger (which Ford also plans to re-release) and Bronco, and they are “in conversation” about building a $350,000, four-door Bronco.

The brothers also would like to have a Bronco show in the Twin Cities and maybe even a Bronco museum.

“There’s not much (in the way of car shows) in the Midwest,” Erik said. “I’d love to have the biggest Bronco destination here.