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In Pursuit of Quality: Tom Vecchi, Engine Supply, Inc. incoming PERA president
By Dave Wooldridge
Tom Vecchi, president of Engine Supply, Inc.,
Phoenix, AZ, and incoming president of the Production Engine Remanufacturers
Association (PERA) hasn't spent his entire business life in the
engine rebuilding market. However, since acquiring Engine Supply
in 1988 with his brother-in-law, Len Joy, who is chairman of the
board, he's learned enough to know that rebuilding engines is
not an easy way to make a living.
Back in 1988, Vecchi received a call from Joy,
who was working in strategic planning and acquisitions for the
U.S. Gypsum Co. "He told me he had seen a "for sale"
ad in the Wall Street Journal for this engine rebuilding company
in Phoenix, and would I like to go there and take a look at it
with him," related Vecchi. "After meeting with then
Engine Supply president, John Martin, and touring the facility,
I just felt we could do it."
Vecchi, who had been working for the Arizona
Public Service as an engineer in the state's electric utility's
industrial marketing division, brought a strong background in
heavy engineering to his new job. But he admits that his only
real experience in the automotive field was as a young man who
raced go karts and performed service work on his own car. "I
had never heard of a remanufactured engine before we purchased
the company," said Vecchi.
What Vecchi quickly learned was just how complex
engine remanufacturing actually was. And he has learned that complexity
in the midst of a marketplace that has experienced a whirlwind
of consolidations and competitive pressures almost since the first
day he assumed responsibilities as president.
Engine Supply today is a far cry from what
it was when Vecchi and Joy purchased the business in 1988. Back
then, the company had grown from its initial roots as a small
automotive service repair business into a combined production
engine remanufacturer (PER) and parts distribution operation.
About 60% of annual sales were generated from
rebuilt engines and 40% from engine parts. The company owned three
distribution facilities in Albuquerque, NM; Las Vegas, NV; and
Tucson, AZ, along with a small industrial machine shop, also located
in Tucson, which was engaged primarily in large diesel engine
Initially, the two new investors tried to expand
along existing business lines by opening a new warehouse in San
Diego, CA. However, after a nearly two-year struggle to generate
enough sales to pay the overhead, Engine Supply closed the warehouse.
Following the closing of the West Coast warehouse,
the company downsized its three remaining warehouse operations
by selling the facilities and then becoming a leasing tenant.
The company held about 120 remanufactured engines and $30-$50,000
in parts inventory in each of the warehouses, but saved significant
money by occupying only about 2,000 sq. ft. of the original 10,000-12,000
sq.ft. in each of the warehouse locations.
Continuing profit margin pressures and a decision
to refocus the strategic direction of the company resulted in
Engine Supply closing all three warehouse locations, along with
the industrial machine shop in Tucson by 1993.
"We were really operating two different
businesses at that time," explained Vecchi. "We had
sales and distribution of engine parts and we had rebuilding and
sales of engines. We decided to get out of the parts business
and focus on being a remanufacturer of engines. Today, less than
5% of our $18-$20 million in annual sales are engine parts. The
majority is in our rebuilt Spartan engines."
Earlier this year, the company also sold its
headquarters space in Phoenix for more than $4.3 million and leased
back more than 75% of the space on a long term basis.
The company's present day customer base has
also transitioned from largely traditional jobber and WD outlets
to primarily sales to large retailers within 1,000 miles of Phoenix.
AutoZone, Pep Boys, CSK Auto, Inc. and Western Auto, comprise
the lion's share of Engine Supply's sales, along with selected
NAPA stores and a few other independent distributors.
Vecchi explained that the company's move into
retail sales was more of a defensive strategy, at least at first,
than anything else. "AutoZone got into the rebuilt engine
sales business around 1984-'85," said Vecchi. "It didn't
take them long to acquire a significant share of engine sales
in our markets and it was continuing to grow. Since they were
buying their engines back East, we viewed becoming their supplier
as somewhat of a defensive strategy. Today, more than 80% of our
engine sales are to retailers."
Although he acknowledges that profit margins
are not very high selling engines to retailers, Vecchi points
out that his company no longer has the very expensive distribution
and inventory costs it had when it was supporting three to four
warehouse locations and selling to nearly 2,000 jobbers.
He also points out that, in general, retail
engine sales have been good over the past year. And he says that
several of the retailers that are now pushing into the commercial,
professional service side of the market could offer additional
engine sales for Engine Supply over the long term.
It's common knowledge in the marketplace that
becoming a supplier of rebuilt engines to a few large retailers
can be a lot like dancing with an elephant. Cash flow can be squeezed
quickly when disagreements arise over such issues as core credits
and warranty coverage from large volume buyers.
While acknowledging that the cost of building
an engine can be doubled by the cost of a return, Vecchi says
that to remain a supplier to retailers you must build a high quality
product. "The retail accounts we sell to are repeat buyers,"
said Vecchi. "They buy over and over again and, consequently,
we have to provide continuous quality to keep them satisfied."
Vecchi also notes that in many instances it
is becoming harder to tell the difference between a retailer and
a traditional WD. In many cases, both are selling more direct,
have reduced their inventory levels, have lowered their operating
costs, and are providing the end user a friendlier environment
to do business in.
"Overall, retailers are more sophisticated
today," explained Vecchi. "For example, many have realized
that extended warranties are not necessarily in their best interest.
Many of them do not want to be married to an engine for that long.
In its own case, 60% of all Engine Supply's rebuilt engines are
sold with a 1 year/12,000 mile warranty, 30% with an 18 month/18,000
mile warranty and just 3% with an optional 3 year/36,000 mile
"In general, I think they (retailers)
treat us better than they did in the past, said Vecchi. "But
it still isn't easy. In today's consolidating market we often
find ourselves squeezed by both big company suppliers as well
as big company customers. And in the pursuit of building a quality
engine, some retailers just don't understand everything we've
undertaken to ensure consistent quality."
Like many companies today, Engine Supply has
implemented extensive charting and statistical process control
parameters in an effort to achieve consistently and efficiently
produced quality rebuilt engines.
"We began implementing a statistical process
control (SPC) Timer Saver software program six or seven years
ago," said Vecchi. "We used to drive all of our quality
decisions and production changes based on analysis of our returns.
However, today it's based on extensive and daily charting.
Vecchi says that the company is about half-way
through the process of implementing the program on all aspects
of engine rebuilding. Already, it is in place for such procedures
as rod and main journal grinding and polishing, valve face and
seat runout, and cylinder boring and honing.
Vecchi says that the pursuit of quality today
is one that requires both remanufacturer and component part supplier
meet critical quality targets. "We used to have pistons,
for example, moving down the line with an engine, explained Vecchi.
"We'd mike the pistons and then hone accordingly. But we
don't do it that way anymore.
"Now there is a standard deviation that
each cylinder hole must be within, and there is a specific spec
that the piston manufacturer must also meet so that when assembly
takes place proper clearances are achieved. We both must do quality
charting to ensure that our products meet those specifications."
Although there are still parts that are returned
to a supplier for good reason, for the most part, Vecchi says
that most engines that come back as a warranty claim are not the
fault of bad parts.
"I'd say that 98-99% of our engine warranties
are due to our own workmanship, not the materials we are using,"
said Vecchi. "Occasionally, the OEM makes a mistake, but
with the type of quality control most of them have implemented,
it's really rare that they provide parts that are out of spec.
"For the most part, there is way too much
blaming the customer or the parts supplier when an engine comes
back," said Vecchi.
What Vecchi says most PERs today must do is
to focus on their own quality control documentation processes.
Quality control charting and checklists have
been created for all aspects of the remanufacturing process at
Engine Supply. Vecchi says that in "the old days" an
employee would be given some training on a piece of equipment
and expected to deliver good parts. Now that employee is provided
with the measurement tools and performance specifications to ensure
that every part meets proper specs. Those tools and charting also
enable him to track his consistency in reaching those quality
parameters on a daily, weekly, monthly or even "lifetime"
Engine Supply is now using the upgraded SPC
Synergy Gold software to eventually provide each of its 150-160
engine rebuilding employees with a weekly as well as lifetime
"CPK average." A CPK average is actually a performance
capability ratio for each employee. It shows their ability to
produce parts consistently within established specs.
Vecchi notes that providing such information
to employees motivates them to work towards targeted quality goals.
"Our crankshaft grinders, for example, are able to see their
CPK average for keeping every crank that they grind within the
established journal deviation specification," explained Vecchi.
"A CPK of 1.33 indicates that for every 1 million parts produced
63 would have been outside of spec.
In addition to eliminating the "excuse
of the day," such charting, says Vecchi, provides real-time
information on the remanufacturing process. With the quality expectations
held by today's customers, it is a necessity.
"Four years ago we were in a situation
where we were trying to build too many engines for one of our
customers without the benefits of SPC," said Vecchi. The
ensuing warranty returns made him understand the requirements
for implementing better quality procedures.
"You can't successfully remanufacture
engines today with a long feedback loop in understanding quality
issues," said Vecchi. You have to know today if your cylinder
hole is too big or too small."
The established specifications and procedures
used in various departments also involved a lot of long term failure
analysis. In fact, Vecchi was able to produce data which detailed
claims by code description, for example, valve seals, wrong, leaking
or missing, the number of claims in each of those areas, and the
average cost per claim.
"I've kept track of every warranty for
the past 10 years," explained Vecchi. "It took me five
years to realize just how complicated engine remanufacturing actually
is. The theme that I've chosen for my year as PERA president is,
ëRemanufacturing is manufacturing.' Just like a manufacturer,
we start with our raw materials to produce a finished product.
But our business is really much more complex than a lot of new
Vecchi says that he has identified more than
200 different failure codes that can result in a warranty claim.
And behind each of those failure codes can be a list of as many
as 40 different root causes for a failure.
"When you consider that on a day when
we rebuild 77 engines there may be 20-30 different types of motors
being produced, you can see how problem areas can be magnified,"
said Vecchi. "You can see how there needs to be a relentless
pursuit of quality." Vecchi adds that he continuously looks
at the last 30 days of warranty claims to see where the trends
are and to make any necessary adjustments in remanufacturing specifications
"We are spending a lot of money to make
engines run without any problems," said Vecchi. I believe
that in 1992 we were building a pretty good motor. But in 1998
we are building a great motor."
Like every engine rebuilder, however, Vecchi
realizes that quality must be an end goal that is reached with
production efficiency. "Over the next three years we will
be working hard to get our productivity where it needs to be,"
said Vecchi. "In today's marketplace the companies that are
more efficient will survive and those that are less efficient
But Vecchi admits that reaching quality and
efficiency goals is far from easy in today's competitive and demanding
marketplace. "Buyers rather than sellers are the arbitrators
of price in today's market," said Vecchi. "My reality
is that I cannot produce 350 engines and sell them for $800 per
unit. What our customers and the ultimate consumer get today is
really an unbelievable value."