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Automotive Rebuilder Interview with Brad Hartmann, Hartmann Bros., Inc.
Automotive Rebuilder editors will interview a member of the engine rebuilding community every other month to offer some insight into the business environment of machine shops/engine rebuilders in various parts of the country. Each profile will feature questions ranging from shop operations to customer and supplier relationships. We hope you’ll enjoy reading about the similarities – and differences – of operating these engine rebuilding facilities.
Brad Hartmann is president of Hartmann Bros. Inc., a heavy duty rebuilding operation located in Abilene, TX. He is the incoming chairman of AERA’s Vanguard committee, the group providing leadership opportunities to AERA members under the age of 40.
Hartmann, 31, has been with the company since high school in the 1980s, beginning full-time employment in 1987. The company itself has a very long history as a conventional repair garage, but Hartmann’s father and uncle took over their father’s shop in 1983, converting its focus to heavy-duty rebuilding.
: Your shop is dedicated to the heavy-duty marketplace. Are you primarily involved with diesel trucks?
: Not necessarily. We do a lot of heavy duty truck work, but we also do agricultural work, big diesel stationary engines for natural gas pumping stations as well as diesel-electric motors on oil wells. We’ve done some locomotive work as well as crankshafts for a manufacturer of high performance crop dusting planes.
A lot of our work comes from Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. We’re doing the marine motors for a lot of the tugboats on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
We do have some competition. There are several shops within a 200 mile radius that do the heavy duty stuff like we do. One of the shops is crankshafts only, so they give our crank department competition. It’s about 150 miles away, but we’re still in there once a week picking up truckloads of parts.
Another shop does everything like we do from blocks to rods to heads. It can be pretty competitive at times. But most of our work comes from out of state anyway. We’re in the middle of Texas, so customers are shipping stuff in from Arkansas, Louisiana we have freight trucks coming and going constantly every day.
AR: Is it difficult to keep busy?
BH: Right now, business is real good. Texas crude oil prices have been above $25 per barrel since last August, and when that’s the case, we’re extremely busy. With nine machinists in our shop, it hasn’t been difficult finding work for everyone.
Several of our machinists are ASE-certified. Our valve shop guy is certified. Within our block department, one is certified on cylinder blocks and one is an ASE Master Technician. I am ASE certified in several areas but haven’t had a chance to take all the tests to become a Master Technician.
In our crank department we have talented people, but there is no ASE crank grinding test. We also have a parts department that sells overhaul kits for Cummins, John Deere and Caterpillar engines, primarily to agricultural dealers, tractor repair shops and independent truckers.
Our most experienced machinists right now are in the block department. After all, we have one master machinist as well as others certified in various fields. Not surprisingly, because of that, I feel, the block department is our most profitable area. But the crank department does well, too. In fact, they seem to offset each other. When one department is slow, the other one always seems to be busy. So far it’s worked out that they’re not slow at the same time they’ve always been able to cover the other and make the month.
Our least profitable department is the valve department, but that’s understandable to some extent. Our long-time valve shop guy recently retired after 30 years. Even though our remaining valve guy is ASE-certified, you don’t just automatically replace that much experience. But things are getting better.
AR: How do you compensate your skilled machinists?
BH: Most everyone is paid an hourly rate. For all employees we offer a 401K program, vacation, sick days. ASE certification is a definite benefit because it means better pay.
We also have a special year-long program. At the end of each year, we access our computer to determine each machinist’s billable hours. The top three get awards at a special banquet. The top billing machinist is named "Hartmann Bros. Machinist of the Year" and receives a plaque and a $1,000 prize. Second and third places also receive plaques and a prize.
When we first started the program and they saw what the prize was going to be, they worried about their hours. It spurred competitiveness in them: "I want that job!" Now, they realize there’s enough work to go around.
In fact, during most of last November, we had been running 10 or more hours per day to try to catch up to our customers’ demands. This lasted for about three weeks, until we realized it wasn’t helping customers must have learned that we were working overtime and they kept sending more. We decided it wasn’t worth it to keep killing ourselves and not make a difference.
I feel it’s important to keep the guys in the shop happy, because as long as they are, they’ll tend to produce better work.
AR: How have customer relationships changed?
BH: Some things haven’t changed. We always let the customer know he’s important to us. We want him to feel comfortable with us as people and as machinists. Turnaround time, for example, has always been critical. Now, with oil prices the way they are, it seems to be even more important.
A key change, though, has been the fact that customers are getting to be more knowledgeable about specifications. They want their work to be done by the book. If it says it should pull a certain amount of vacuum, make sure it does.
They used to not look at that kind of stuff, now they’re reading manuals, paying attention to OE guidelines…they want to know that your product does what it’s supposed to do. It’s a good thing, because you know that if something happens, you’ve at least put it together correctly.
Luckily, for us, our comeback rate is less than 1%. Our guys try to take their time on a job. Most comebacks are just minor oversights, nothing major. We’ve never had a rash of any consistent failures, just the very rare case-by-case situation.
We provide a six-month/50,000 mile warranty in the case of agricultural equipment, it’s 2,000 hours. We cover the warranty ourselves, but we have insurance in case of anything major. The problem with warranty claims is always determining who is responsible for failures.
AR: What piece of equipment would make your shop more efficient?
BH: We have just about everything we need right now in our 30,000 sq. ft. building Rottler and Serdi equipment. The main thing that keeps our crank and grinding department so busy is the spray metallized welding for stainless steel. We have one spray welder now, and if I added one more, I think it would make it faster and increase our productivity.
AR: What new markets have you entered recently?
BH: Although we’ve thought about getting into some new markets, we haven’t done so. We’ve considered diesel injection service, including rebuilding injectors and injector pumps, but nothing has come from it. We’re busy enough doing what we are.
We have an automotive department, but we don’t get much automotive work in off the street. Most of the automotive and light duty pickup stuff we do is for the bigger companies we work with. This includes some fleets and dealerships as well.
Likewise, our performance work is limited, accounting for maybe 1% of our work. But this doesn’t mean we don’t do it. Some of our larger customers may dabble in racing and have a race car or a pulling tractor or top alcohol drag boats and we’ll do some work for them as a favor, but it’s not something we advertise and go after.
We are good at performance work, though one of our customers likes to attempt land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. We did some crank work for him, and he broke the land speed record on a Triumph motorcycle.
AR: How have your supplier relationships changed?
BH: I think the buyouts by the big suppliers have made sourcing parts difficult. We might just need a couple of things for an engine kit, but we find we have to call five warehouses sometimes to track down three parts. We may order some things from warehouses in Arkansas and Dallas, and the stuff from Arkansas gets to us first.
The fill rates are poor and they don’t seem to want to be willing to deal with the independent shop anymore. The Vanguard board discusses this all the time. It seems like if you don’t buy a half-million dollars’ worth of parts, they don’t want to deal with you. Whether they’re going after too big a customer now, I don’t know, but salesmen used to come in here all the time to check on us. They don’t come around to see us anymore.
It’s strange, because we do buy a lot of parts, new valves, especially. The problem is, we’ll put most of our kits together from one warehouse and may have to call another warehouse for a single remaining part. Even though they’re both from the same company, it seems like the warehouses aren’t aware of what the others are doing.