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New Man In The Driver’s Seat
By Greg Bukosky
Incoming AERA Chairman Profile: Ed’s Automotive Machine & Supply
Arriving home from Vietnam in 1972, Eddie Browder, president of Ed’s Automotive Machine & Supply, Abilene, TX, and this year’s chairman of the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA), needed an outlet for his energy. He found it on the local drag strips where he immersed himself in the world of NHRA Super Stock drag racing. In the process, Browder hooked up with a local friend who was also the manager of a machine shop in Abilene, TX.
Here Browder got his feet wet in the machine shop business by performing work on his race engines, as well as the occasional job for outside customers. As fate would have it, the friend got divorced in 1974 and moved out of town. According to Browder, this left a substantial void in Abilene in terms of skilled performance-oriented machinists.
Always the entrepreneurial one, Browder decided to purchase some used equipment and start catering to the local performance crowd. "A $400 valve machine was my very first piece of equipment," Browder said. "Nobody else in town even knew how to do a three-angle valve job, so business was good. Soon after, I bought another $2,000 worth of machining equipment that I set up in my mother’s garage. The only problem was, I already had a full-time day job working as a Volkswagen service technician!"
Browder had actually gone through the company’s extensive pre-apprentice training program in 1969 before he shipped out to Vietnam. The program consisted of 40 hours of instruction a week for 15 weeks – an experience that Browder termed as "invaluable."
Two years later in 1974, Browder, still working nights out of his mother’s garage, decided to take a full-time job as a vocational teacher at a local high school. Browder did this for 10 years, during which time he turned out some highly talented machinists, one of which is his current head engine man. "He’s worked for me for 14 years," Browder said. "I gave him the referral that landed him his first job. That shop unfortunately went out of business, and I picked him up. He’s now an ASE-certified Master Machinist."
Browder’s teaching career lasted until 1984, when he finally realized that he had a large enough customer base to open his shop full-time.
Today, Ed’s Automotive Machine & Supply does a thriving business with a customer base comprising 50% custom restoration and motorsports work and 50% dealership, independent shop and do-it-yourselfer work. The shop has no formal fleet agreements; however, it does handle most of the local U-Haul and UPS engine rebuilding.
"We do a lot of custom street rods," Browder said. "We also do muscle cars, bracket cars, drag boat engines and circle track. We’re real versatile when it comes to performance work. Our business draws from about a 250-mile radius."
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that Ed’s Automotive Machine & Supply does so well with the performance crowd is Browder’s personal involvement with NHRA drag racing – both as an engine builder and a racer.
"I built and raced my own car from 1973-’93," Browder explained. "I went to almost every divisional and national event on the schedule. After a little break to catch my breath, we went back to racing in 1996 with our current car, a 1980 Chevy Monza that runs in the GT/EA category of NHRA Super Stock. We run the Chevy Corvette L98 tuned port, fuel injected engine."
Browder has four divisional championships to his credit, as well as two national event runner-up finishes. Although his new duties as chairman of AERA will see him running an abbreviated schedule this year, Browder expects to remain busy with performance work back at the shop.
"Most of the time we’ll build a turn-key engine before the season starts and then freshen them up as the season progresses," Browder said. "We magnaflux the parts and replace the rings, bearings and gaskets. We also check and replace the springs. This is true for our drag and our circle track crowd."
Browder emphasized that motorsports is going gangbusters these days and that more customers are spending more money than ever before. This includes purchases of expensive heads, blocks and other engine components, as well as machine shop services like porting and polishing, flowbench testing and dynomometer tuning.
The shop also does quite a bit of engine balancing that can be very profitable for those who know what they’re doing. "Other shops in the area do this as well, but we’re generally regarded as the experts," Browder said. "Our high performance portfolio has been growing steadily to include competition valve work, blueprinting, installing aftermarket billet main caps and boring and honing with torque plates. Again, others can do it – our customers tell us we do it best."
The other portion of the shop’s performance work is dedicated to the restoration of ‘60s and early ‘70s muscle cars. Because parts are so plentiful, turnaround times for a complete restoration are usually two to four weeks, depending on how big of a hurry the customer is in. Browder said, "we take care of whomever hollers the loudest!"
Ed’s Automotive Machine & Supply doesn’t do much walk-in parts business, other than performance items, although Browder expects this to change when the shop relocates to a facility with higher retail traffic in the next year.
Aside from performance work, the shop does a strong cylinder head business these days, according to Browder. "I’ve been working on aluminum heads since the early ‘70s when I worked for Volkswagen," Browder said. "We did our own valve work in the shop. We were actually repairing aluminum heads back before most shops had ever seen one, so you might say we got a pretty good jump on the subject."
The shop has also seen a marked increase in its cast iron welding business, mainly in the past three years. This includes both automotive and diesel cylinder heads. Browder said that the shop sees a little of everything come through, although the 3.8L Fords are real common these days. The primary problem seems to be head gasket failures, not necessarily head cracking. Most of these heads come from vehicles that are five to eight years old and arrive primarily from dealerships and independent shops.
Browder explained that cylinder heads have what is commonly referred to as "inherited family problems." For example, the Ford Escort came and went, as did the 2.0L and 2.6L Mitsubishi engines. "You see them for a period of time and then their window closes up," Browder said.
To keep things simple, the shop utilizes a menu pricing system for all four, six and eight cylinder engines. Browder posts this in the shop, as well as on the shop’s web site, (www.edsmachine.com).
In terms of equipment, Ed’s Automotive Machine & Supply follows a strict reinvestment strategy like most other shops its size. Browder does feel, however, that he has the right equipment to keep up with ever-tighter OEM requirements. "We’re still in the ballpark," Browder said. "You have to watch the tolerances a little closer, but overall, we can get the job done right as long as the machinist is working to the same high standards."
Browder is especially happy with his current cleaning system. "We’ve cut our cleaning time and handling drastically by going to a thermal baking system," Browder explained. "We can do a head or block in a little over an hour. This includes burn time, blast time (airless media) and handling. We figure that our people handle the part less than 10 minutes of the total cleaning process. And in terms of waste, all that’s left is dust. We’ve seen our disposal costs reduced by 95%. An added benefit is that the thermal baking actually stress relieves the part before we machine it."
Browder’s employees earn between $9 and $14 per hour, depending on experience. They get one week of paid vacation after one year and two weeks after two years. The shop compensates all employees for their work clothes, as well as their ASE certification tests. Medical insurance used to be covered 100% but rising costs have seen this reduced to 50% recently.
Browder utilizes a reward system used by many other top machine shops. Basically, all the fixed costs of an employee are added up (hourly rate, clothes, etc.) and then tripled. Whatever employees produce over this figure in a year’s time, they get 15% of the profits. Browder has found this to work well for some employees and not so well for others. "It’ll motivate some people," Browder explained. "Where it really helps is with the new employees who are really good and fast. They can take that $9 per hour figure right up into the teens with this system."
As incoming AERA chairman, Browder has outlined very specific goals. "Number one, we’re going to continue to stress the benefits of AERA’s PROSIS software system. We use it for every job involving a 1990 or newer vehicle. We also send copies of the bulletins with the engines to the dealership or installer. You can’t even calculate how much money this has saved us. It’s just smart business."
Browder also plans to lead the charge on the AERA 2000 business management system that helps machine shops track and calculate costs. "Shop owners need to know what their people are producing," Browder said. "Good machinists can be slow or fast. Bad machinists can be slow or fast. The bottom line is – slow costs you money in today’s environment."
Browder said that the first version of the software should be available by late spring. The software will include tools to help produce statements, accounts receivable, job tracking statements and more.
A lease program that includes a preloaded computer, software and peripherals is also being considered as a turnkey option for machine shops, with a price yet to be determined.
"Our goal is to make earning money as easy as possible for our members," Browder concluded.
From a shop owner’s perspective, who can argue with that?