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Great Scott! Wichlacz Takes Over as AERA Chairman
By Jenna Bates
Wichlacz Takes Over as AERA Chairman
Scott Wichlacz’s story begins the way many rebuilders’ stories begin: a young boy tinkering with lawnmower and tractor engines, taking apart the component parts of mechanisms and putting them back together, always knowing that this would be his chosen career.
One thing led to another, and Wichlacz moved on from simply tinkering to working on a neighbor’s farm performing tune ups and oil changes on trucks and tractors, certain that his future would somehow involve his love of engines.
"At the time, there was not an automotive machinist’s course in our area," Wichlacz explains, and so he found himself at a technical school, taking auto mechanics courses even though he knew he didn’t want to be an auto mechanic.
Despite Wichlacz’s reluctance to become an auto mechanic, he was doing an awful lot of that kind of work out of his father’s garage, performing tune ups and brake jobs.
All this time, Wichlacz was learning yet another discipline, working at a wood working plant during his junior and senior year in high school, and later, while he was attending the technical school.
It then seems somehow fortuitous that this man of many talents would be offered a job as a machinist at the auto parts store he frequented. Needless to say, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. For nine years, Wichlacz honed his machinist skills, doing valve jobs, turning drums and rotors and resurfacing flywheels.
After nearly a decade with the auto parts store, Wichlacz decided it was time to venture out on his own and start his own business.
"The parts store was very limited in its shop capabilities, and the owners weren’t willing to expand their shop any further," Wichlacz explains. So on July 15, 1985 he started his own business, where he could spread his wings.
And spread his wings, he did.
Though Wichlacz had expected to work alone for two to three years, in less than six months, he had hired another machinist to help out. Today, he has 12 employees, five full-time and seven part-time. And, that’s not the only part of the business that’s grown.
When he first started out, his shop occupied only 1,200 sq. ft. Within the first nine years, that grew to about 3,000 sq. ft. Today, Manitowoc Motor Machining & Parts, located in Manitowoc, WI, occupies approximately 11,000 sq. ft.
It’s a large expansion in a relatively short amount of time, but it’s been achieved with a simple plan.
"My goal has always been threefold," Wichlacz says. "To provide a safe place to work; a clean place to work; and to have good, up-to-date equipment."
A simple plan, yes, but one that seems to work. However, these goals are not achieved without a certain amount of sacrifice and vision.
"All along, I have taken a relatively small salary out of the business with these goals in mind," Wichlacz says.
Wichlacz recognizes that these goals have contributed to some of the stronger points of the business: boring, resurfacing, pressure testing and valve job capabilities.
But, Wichlacz isn’t content to rest on his laurels. Always looking ahead, he’s not shy about entering new niche markets.
"We service quite a few niche markets," he explains. "We are relatively strong in the general machine work area in regard to surface grinding, lathe work and milling machine work."
However, Manitowoc Motor Machining also does repair work on equipment from construction companies, milk processing plants and plastic extrusion places.
"We always have a lot of that stuff that’s going on, and it really helps to fill in everyone’s time," Wichlacz says. "So even if our normal engine work is slow, we’re always busy with other things."
They also fill their time by making tubes and hoses, like steel hydraulic lines, air conditioning lines and fuel lines.
"That’s another little niche that we added to our business, not to be a mainstay, but to help fill in somebody’s time."
Wichlacz also has vision when it comes to creative hiring practices. When he decided to get into making tubes and hoses, he hired a part-time retired person to do it. As it turns out, the employee is also good at doing some machine work, as well as engine disassembly and assembly.
"Having an extra person to do the hose work really helped the rest of our business because he has spare time from the tube and hose work to do our general work," says Wichlacz.
Wichlacz’s hiring practices certainly seem to work. In an industry that seems to find it difficult to attract and keep qualified workers, Wichlacz has two employees who have been with him for about 13 years each, and others who have been with him from six to eight years.
"I have been very fortunate in finding excellent, loyal, honest people," Wichlacz says. "I have also been relying quite heavily on retired people. They’ve been just fantastic. They’re good role models to have around; everyone respects them. They teach an awful lot of things to these guys just by being around. They’ve been just a fantastic find. Employees are the backbone of the business."
To motivate his employees even more, Wichlacz offers them a profit sharing plan. He toyed around with some other types of incentive programs but found that many of them became very complicated to administrate.
Wichlacz is no stranger to this kind of creative thinking, and it’s exactly this experience that he will bring to the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA) when he takes over as chairman at the June 21-23 AERA Expo in Orlando, FL.
Wichlacz has been involved with AERA for about 24 years. He’s been a member himself since starting his own business in 1985 and has been a board member since 1995.
Although Wichlacz says he has no desire to leave a sort of legacy as AERA chairman, he does want to make everything work as smoothly as possible, concentrating especially on AERA’s ongoing software project.
For two years, Wichlacz has been a member of a committee that has been creating AERA 2000, a business management software program that will offer such features as inventory control, core tracking, point of sale, reports and time tracking.
"Our goal is to help the small shop, the one- to three-man shop, to become automated," Wichlacz says. According to Wichlacz, many similar programs are simply too expensive for the small shops to deal with, are too complicated or the companies creating them go out of business and are unable to provide support.
"If AERA carries the torch and gets this software program done, we’re going to be there. AERA isn’t going away," Wichlacz says.
Neither is engine rebuilding if Wichlacz has anything to say about it.
"I believe the industry can remain strong as long as people look for the niche markets in their area," he explains. "I believe that people are going to find themselves doing non-automotive niche work with their machine shops. They need to keep their machines busy and find profitable work. It appears that general machine shops are going more to the production side and don’t want to do small jobs like one or two of a kind things, and that gives us an opportunity to do that type of work."
Wichlacz sites shaft build-up and repair, which he can do on his crankshaft grinder and crankshaft welder as potential profit makers.
"A lot of it is much more profitable than the automotive end of things," he continues. "I wonder sometimes about the engine rebuilding process today because it seems that engines are lasting longer; however, we are a much more mobile society than we were 20, 30 or 40 years ago because of the quality of the vehicles and the quality of the roads, so people are putting a lot more miles on their vehicles now than they ever did.
"I believe there will always be a market for rebuilt engines, whether it be automotive or medium and heavy duty and agricultural engines. People have to stay open minded to what they can work on."
You may e-mail Jenna Bates at email@example.com.