As a kid growing up in Northern California, there was nothing cooler than that jacked-up 4x4 down the road in the high school parking lot. With its double rack of massive lights towering above its triple-chrome roll bar and dual exhaust stacks. They were yellow with big smiley faces. There was something about that truck that just said, “I’m bad … and the chicks dig me.” I dreamed of the day that I’d have my own truck, could pony up 50 bucks for a pair of lights, and become part of the smiley-face, chicks-dig-me crowd.
Seven hundred miles to the south, in Prescott Valley, Arizona, a young Michael DeHass suffered the same ailment. Each day he’d peer out the school bus window at a yellow Chevy 4x4, and each day a set of yellow smiley faces peered back at him. He too envisioned the day.
I eventually got my 4x4, scraped together the 50 bucks, and life was good. And DeHass, little did he know at the time, but the owner of that smiley-faced company, KC HiLites, would soon take Michael’s mother as his new bride. DeHass soon found himself working in KC’s warehouse, shipping those yellow lights all over the country. Earning his bachelor’s degree landed him a spot in the front office, and an MBA elevated him to director of sales. After a 22-year tenure with KC, he bought the company from the founder, Pete Brown. We bumped into DeHass at the Overland Expo in Prescott Valley. Realizing we were just a few miles from KC headquarters, we took the opportunity to check out this icon of American off-road sports.
The first thing we noticed as we walked into the non-assuming 30-year-old building — which is tucked in between pine trees and small ranches — was five Best of SEMA awards on the wall. The other thing we noticed was a stack of boxes with the words “Made in the USA” stamped on them. Stepping into the production facility we found employees bundling wiring looms, fitting lenses, and transforming piles of parts into consumer-ready off-road lights.
Though some of KC’s products are still sourced overseas, DeHass feels good about keeping a majority of the manufacturing in the states. Even the wire is made in the states. DeHass said KC buys its designer-labeled wire, miles of it each month, from Bee Wire in Los Angeles, and wiring looms are bundled in-house by American hands. It was clear after mingling with the staff that a strong family atmosphere prevails, and assembling a quality product is job-one.
KC’s legacy is not unlike many homegrown success stories. Back in 1970, it was just Pete and a few neighborhood housewives assembling lights and wiring harnesses in his garage. Pete worked his day job as a computer operator, and spent the wee hours of the night filling orders, marketing, and working on patent applications. Four years later Pete was able to quit his job, move the company to Williams, Arizona, and give KC 100 percent of his time. Today, KC has 30-plus people on payroll, some of which have been with the company for more than three decades, and more than half with 10 years under their belts.
From the original smiley-faced, 6-inch Daylighter, KC’s product line has expanded to hundreds of lighting applications in dozens of sizes. They’ve also come out with light bars, light brackets for Jeeps, and a new rack-mounting system. With the recent introduction of the KC POD, bazillion-candle-power HID racing light, KC is leading the way in high-tech lighting options.
Thirty years have passed. Terms like “way cool,” “groovy,” and “far out” are as dated as Angel Flight leisure suits. Triple-chrome roll bars can be found on eBay for a song. As for DeHass’ dream of the 4x4 with big yellow lights? Well, his business card now has the word “owner” next to a big yellow KC logo, and his company has millions of customers in dozens of countries on six continents. What began as a dream in Pete Brown’s garage has become an international icon and industry leader of off-road lighting. The KC legacy is one we can aspire to. And as it approaches its 40th anniversary, we expect the yellow smiley faces will be lighting the way well into the 21st century.
The first thing we noticed when we walked into the KC HiLites lobby (in addition to the five Best of SEMA Awards on the wall), was a stack of boxes that said “Made in the USA.” Taking a look out back revealed exactly that: American hands hard at work. DeHass is proud of this anomaly and said, “Producing these lights locally affords us better quality control … and we feel good about them being made in the USA.”