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Commitment, dedication and staying current with technology puts D.L.K. Performance in the fast lane ...
For any jobber committed to the performance market, offering machine shop services may be the best investment for success. But, like any investment, a jobber's machine shop requires a lot of time and expertise before it pays off. Over the years-after much careful planning, hard work and many changes- a quality machine shop can provide jobbers with an increased customer base, along with an edge on the competition.
However, before placing orders for machinery and hiring shop personnel , jobbers must make sure their dedication to the shop will carry them through the lean years when their investment is just getting off the ground.
One Pennsylvania-based jobber measures his success by his loyal customer following. Back in 1978, Dave and Keith Caro, owners of D.L.K. Auto Parts and Performance, Russellton, PA, which consisted of a parts store, a PB&E supply operation, a speed shop and a brand-new machine shop, were determined to offer the ultimate in performance service. Little by little, they expanded their machine shop. They started off with four pieces of machinery: a bearing press, a hot tank , a used valve grinder and a brake lathe. After a $300,000 investment, D.L.K. now boasts a shop with 24 pieces of machinery and equipment, plus a staff of five machinists and two countermen.
Though 50 percent of their automotive business is PB&E, the Caros have high hopes for the future of their performance section. They admit, though , that they had to be patient at first. Dave explained, "There's no way that you can buy a $60,000 crankshaft grinder at $1,500 a month and open up the next day with a guy you 're paying $1,200 to $1,500 a month. You couldn't get enough business to pay the interest, let alone the equipment and the machinist's wages. It takes years and years of acquiring enough business to make it profitable."
The Caros made a small $6,000-$7,000 initial investment at first, with only one machinist. Later, when they had more capital , they expanded their operation, in order to make room for the additional pieces of equipment.
Highly organized and well-run, D.L.K.'s operation uses such machinery as a Van Norman crankshaft grinder, a Sunnen line hone , a Kwik-Way 862 head resurfacer and a Gleason crankshaft welder, to name a few. Dave said there is virtually no job that cannot be done in his shop. "We can offer (the customer) any part of the motor they need serviced. We have all the machinery and manpower necessary." But, it wasn't always that way. When the Caros' investment was still young, and they did not have any of the expensive equipment, such as a crankshaft grinder, a line borer and a balancer, they had to send out work to other machine shops in the area, a process that was both frustrating and time-consuming.
The hassle of dealing with a third party, along with the realization of the benefits of a fully supplied machine shop proved to the Caros that they needed to expand. They never expected their present-day machine shop to bring them three times more business. Ironically, they now get orders from other machine shops that do not offer certain services.
The Caros' new-found success, however, did not mean that they could sit back and watch the money roll in. Since they entered the business, they have constantly kept tabs on new performance market developments, including new car technology, which, Caro noted, is quite a challenge with engines changing so rapidly.
Evolving technology also means that the machines, and tools, in the shop must be updated to accommodate the changes in the engine compartment.
"Many times," Dave said, "we haven't even finished paying for a machine before we have to purchase a new one to replace it."
Machine wear and tear is another reason the Caros must keep replacing or upgrading machines. Dave estimated that his bill for updates in the last two years was approximately $40,OOO-a phenomenal figure for anyone not truly dedicated to a machine shop operation.
Some examples of machine updates the Caros have made in the last few years include a valve grinder, a glass beading machine and an automatic flywheel grinder, which cuts in 10-15 minutes, making it more than twice as efficient than the previous machine. Recently upgraded with new parts was a Van Norman crankshaft grinder.
Tools, too, can be costly. Dave estimates his tool updates in the last year ran in the four-figure range, with recent purchases of new boring and valve grinding fixtures.
Communication with machinery manufacturers helps D.L.K. stay on top of technology advancements. Jeff Gillen, machine shop manager, said, "The machine manufacturers keep a steady contact with us. They usually visit us at four-week intervals to advise us on machinery updates available as well as to troubleshoot problems machinists encounter. "
Another way D.L.K.'s machine shop keeps current is by belonging to the Automotive Engine Rebuilders Assn (AERA), which publishes various technical bulletins. However, Gillen said much of the shop's technical advice comes from new car dealerships, who pass along technical information. "(The car dealerships) let us know about specific problems they encounter with new cars that we may need to know about a year or two down the road, such as the piston-to-wall clearance problems on one particular model car," he noted.
D.L.K.'s top-notch service, parts availability and one-day delivery rate attracts customers from a lOO-mile radius, including the city of Pittsburgh. Though the bulk of their customers are street or track racing enthusiasts, they also serve DIYers and even some industrial manufacturers.
Gillen said racing teams demand the most machine shop work hours, since racers put more wear on the parts than typical street performance enthusiasts. Gillen attributes D.L.K.'s loyal racing customer following to the speed in which jobs are completed and the staff's superb technical knowledge when faced with individual racer's needs.
Gillen said, "Sometimes on a Monday, I can spend as much as eight hours just locating race car parts for one team because I know they need the parts for the next weekend's race."
Dan Nicholas, pit crew member for Fergaed Racing, Saxonburg, PA, said, "I can call Jeff in the morning and ask him for a particular part, and I can forget about it. Then, Jeff will call me later to say the part is in, or tell me what the situation is and if he has to special order that part."
Many people may wonder how D.L.K. acheives its superb parts availability and delivery rate when the shop is located some 30 miles outside of the Pittsburgh city limits. But Dave said he doesn't give his standard one-day quick delivery a second thought. And he does not joke when he says D.L.K. is the United Parcel Service's best customer in the area. Dave said, "No matter where a part has been located, we will ship it next-day air. When a customer's need is urgent, we will go to any length to get (the part). Many times the cost to ship the part is much greater than the part itself. "
D.L.K. stocks both traditional and specialty lines, but for race engines, approximately 85-90 percent of the parts are from specialty manufacturers. D.L.K. carries brands such as Edelbrock, Holley and Crane in the specialty segment; and FelPro, TRW and Dayco in the traditional area, but Keith said they are constantly trying out new brands and parts.
Gillen added that D.L.K.'s customers tell him which brands they believe work the best. "They know what they want." Also, Gillen noted that trial and error of various product lines contribute to how D.L.K. selects brands. "This method," Gillen said, "leads us through the puzzle of determining which brands are effective. Obviously, what doesn't work gets phased out and what works is incorporated into our performance engine building, which leads to more reliability."
D.L.K.'s performance and machine shop success didn't just come out of nowhere. Years of testing new methods of doing business, and most of all , using various advertising techniques, contributed to their performance investment.
From their start-up in 1978, the Caros have spent upwards of $8,000 annually on advertising, including local newspaper and track magazine advertisements, as well as a commercial during a local radio talk show. In addition, the Caros get many word-of-mouth recommendations.
The most expensive advertising venture, said Dave and Keith, is their racing sponsorship which they have been involved in since 1982. That's when the machine shop really took off, with large investments in new machinery and shop and personnel expansion.
The initial racing sponsorship interest began when Keith bought a car and raced in the local circuit for two years, winning "Rookie of the Year" the first year. There, he met Ed Ferree, driver and owner of Fergaed Racing, a team D.L.K. has sponsored ever since. The Car.os have benefitted greatly from the Fergaed association, since Ed Ferree moved into racing the NASCAR series in 1989.
Besides Fergaed Racing, D. L. K. sponsors six other teams, providing assistance such as machine shop service, parts discounts and technical troubleshooting assistance.
The Caros seek out rising stars who will well represent the business. Keith explained , "We sponsor people who are respected at the track. Many times these people are coming up through the ranks. They may not be number one, but the spectators are looking for them to win - and therefore are seeing D.L.K.'s sponsorship logo."
Keith said he can't put a number on the sales increase D .L.K. experiences as a result of racing sponsorship. "From one team sponsored," he said , "we can get 10 walk-in customers who see our logo at the track ."
Though they sponsor fewer teams now than in the beginning of the machine shop business (when they were eager to get the word out about their new venture), the Caros continue to develop ideas to promote their business at the track.
One of the new sponsorship ideas is setting up a parts truck at the race tracks. "As an advertising and promotional method, we know it works," said Gillen. "It's not even important that we sell parts. As long as customers, or potential customers, get to know us and ask us questions, we will benefit from the truck set-up." The idea is in the early stages right now and more research has to be conducted before a commitment is made. "If we do it, we want to do it right not just throw spare parts into a truck and go to the track," he added.
Racing may be one of the most visible methods the Caros use to promote D.L.K., but perhaps even more beneficial is offering manufacturer-taught workshops. The Caros bring in a manufacturer's technical representative to teach D.L.K.'s customers about particular part applications. Since manfuacturer spokesmen are paid for their educational service, the Caros charge a fee for customers attending the workshop.
On one occasion, D.L.K. invited the owner of American Fabricating Co., manufacturer of chassis components, to sponsor a two-day seminar for 26 people. The topics included how to set up a race car and explanations of Afco part applications.
"The goal," Gillen said, "was not to sell the parts. The goal was to educate customers on how to use the parts properly and how to make their race car go fast. Needless to say, however, we did sell lots of parts. Now, 15 out of 26 people are very loyal customers who buy $700 to $800 worth of parts during a winter season."
Gillen said they are working on signing more manufacturers to sponsor seminars, but, they have had some problems cutting through the red tape from the manufacturers' warehouses and sales representatives. "We don't want sales pitch seminars. We want people with technical answers, because that is what our customers are paying for," Gillen said.
"These seminars not only bring more customers in the shop," Dave said , " they heighten our reputation of professionalism and reliability. The fact that we bring in experts directly from the manfuacturing company makes people trust us. As a result, more people come to us for machine shop service as well."
Committing to excellence
A machine shop investment like D.L.K.'s is more than just a monetary commitment. The Caros and all of their employees devote a great deal of time cultivating customer loyalty and trust, not just with high-quality product lines, but also with the continually upgraded machinery, fast delivery and constant research in changing engine technology. At D.L.K. , these are the keys to success in today's performance business.