Anybody who’s in the clutch rebuilding
business today knows that it’s an entirely different ball game,
one with new rules and a changing field of players.
A proliferation of new passenger car
and light truck clutches in recent years, plus an influx of low-cost
new clutches from offshore manufacturers, has driven the cost
of new clutches down to the point where the difference in price
between new and reman hardly matters to many customers of replacement
Consequently, the demand for new clutches
has soared, displacing the sales of reman clutches. This has forced
many rebuilders to shift their product mix away from reman toward
a higher percentage of new, or to add a line of new clutches where
they didn’t offer new before.
"Small rebuilders in the passenger
car, light truck market are now doing about 60 to 70% of their
business in new clutches," said Doreen Tomao, director of
sales and marketing for Universal Friction Composites, Manheim,
PA. "Many rebuilders have stopped remanufacturing nine inch
and smaller clutches altogether and are only selling new clutches
for these applications."
Bill Moreland, division manager for
BWD, Ottawa, IL, said a few years ago BWD’s sales were 80% reman
clutches and 20% new. Today the mix is 60% reman and 40% new,
and it’s constantly changing. "The key is to stay flexible,"
said Moreland. "A rebuilder has to have both new and reman
clutches today because there isn’t enough of a price difference
with many reman clutches to entice buyers who want new. Even so,
there are still a lot of clutches that can be easily and profitably
remanufactured because the new ones are so expensive."
Mark DeMayo of Ft. Wayne Clutch, a
rebuilder located in Ft. Wayne, IN, said his company just recently
added a line of new clutches. "We felt we had to add new
clutches because building one clutch at a time was hurting us,"
DeMayo said. "To make money in this business, you have to
do volume production. But there are so many different numbers
now it’s hard to do that. Now we’re looking for the right mix
between new and reman. We’ll continue to rebuild what we can,
and replace with new where we can’t."
DeMayo said it’s hard to compete with
new clutch prices seen in many discount auto parts stores. "Selling
new clutches isn’t necessarily profitable, either," he confessed.
"It’s a tough market. With so many people selling new clutches,
and prices so low, we’ve found the best way to compete is to offer
service our competitors can’t match."
Good ‘ol days gone for good?
Though some people think the pendulum
may eventually swing the other way, signaling a return to rebuilding,
others are more pessimistic about the prospects of a return to
the "good ‘ol days" of clutch rebuilding. "There
may be light at the end of the tunnel, but if there is, it’s only
a flicker," said Bill Murray of Murray Associates, Bluepoint,
NY, who calls on about 60% of the clutch rebuilders in the U.S.
Murray said many rebuilders seem to
be confused about what’s going on today. "They’ve watched
their market for passenger car reman clutches be eroded by all
the new clutches coming into this country from offshore,"
explained Murray. "Yet they’ve done nothing to stop it. A
lot of them are now starting to talk about what can be done to
reverse the trend and how they should be promoting and marketing
the advantages of reman clutches compared to new.
"These would include not only
the price advantages but the environmental benefits of recycling,"
continued Murray. "It would include the improvements in quality
and reliability over the original OEM design that are sometimes
made when a clutch is remanufactured."
Murray said those who are still doing
well in the clutch remanufacturing business today are mostly "niche"
players who have found a profitable market in agricultural, marine
or off-road clutches where customers will pay a good price for
a reman clutch.
"A certain percentage of many
rebuilder’s sales are in some type of niche market because that’s
where the money is," said Murray. "The least profitable
niche today is the passenger car market, especially front-wheel
drive. It’s too competitive. Next would be heavy-duty. It’s more
profitable, but still not as profitable as some of the more specialized
The trend to new clutches has also
lessened the demand for clutch cores, which has created a glut
of cores and brought down prices. Though this is good news for
rebuilders, and may encourage a move back to remanufacturing,
lower prices are not good news for core suppliers.
Greg Jackson, of Russell Auto Parts
in Boerne, TX, said his core supply business has been hit hard
by the influx of new clutches and the current decline in remanufacturing.
"I had a rebuilder who used to buy all the 12_ Chevy clutch
discs I could sell him," explained Jackson. "Three months
ago he called and said he had a backlog of 8,000 cores and a two-year
supply of reman product sitting on his shelves because his customers
were now buying new clutches. Discs that I used to sell to rebuilders
for $6 now sell for only four bucks. And discs that I used to
pay $4 for from my sources I can now buy for $2.50," said
Though the remanufacturing of passenger
car and light truck clutches has declined significantly, there
hasn’t been a mass exodus of clutch rebuilders from the playing
field. A few have gone by the wayside (Champion Parts Rebuilders
and Blue Chip, for example), but overall numbers have not declined
Chris Jackson, of AMS, Fenton, MO,
has a different perspective on the impact of new clutches in the
aftermarket. He said he hasn’t seen a decline in the number of
clutch rebuilders, but he has seen a big drop in the number of
clutches being rebuilt. "Rebuilders are still selling as
many clutches as they used to, but fewer of the clutches are rebuilts,"
said Jackson. "Many rebuilders are buying new clutches to
fill out their product lines. They’re buying new where core availability
is a problem or the clutch is difficult to rebuild.
"Some are selling the new clutches
as rebuilts when in fact they’re new," continued Jackson.
"But a lot are also selling both a line of rebuilt product
and a line of new clutches with good success. Rebuilders who have
added a line of new clutches have found that it can help to increase
the sales of their rebuilt products.
"We didn’t think this would happen
because we assumed there would be a cannibalization of rebuilt
units as customers shifted to new clutches," said Jackson.
"What’s happened, though, is that the new line has allowed
rebuilders (in some cases) to sell to customers who only wanted
to buy new. Once they’re in with a customer, they’ve been able
to bring their rebuilt line in through the backdoor by getting
the customer to try them. So, (some have) actually gained a net
increase in rebuilt sales.
"The issue of new versus rebuilt
is primarily quality and price," said Jackson. "The
price of new clutches in many instances is so close to that of
a rebuilt that many people are willing to step up to a new unit.
There’s a lot of labor involved in replacing a clutch, so when
the price difference is close, mechanics often opt to put in a
new clutch because they think its safer, which maybe it is and
maybe it isn’t."
Jackson says that trend could continue. "We’re seeing a lot
of new passenger car and light truck clutches for both domestic
and import vehicle applications from Third World countries such
as India and China that are inferior to OEM clutches, as well
as rebuilt clutches," he said. "As more and more of
these low-quality new units get into the market, it may diminish
the quality perception that new currently enjoys. This should
help the image of rebuilt clutches."
Jackson says that rebuilders who have
bought these Third World clutches at a very competitive price
have found that many come back under warranty. "They’d be
better off selling a quality OEM clutch or a rebuilt of their
own where they can control quality," said Jackson. "The
main problem in the passenger car and light truck market today
is a worldwide over capacity of clutch manufacturing. We have
more manufacturers of clutches than ever before, all of whom are
looking at the North American market as a way to increase their
sales. This drives the price of new clutches down because supply
exceeds demand. So, in the short term, I think we’ll see a falling
out of clutch manufacturers and distributors as far as the aftermarket
Jackson says he thinks rebuilders should
capitalize on the current situation by re-vamping their product
lines. "In the passenger car, light truck market, there are
probably 800 different clutch applications," explained Jackson.
"But if you look at where most of the sales are, they’re
in the top 100 numbers. So, rather than worry about the 700 applications
that constitute a very small portion of a rebuilder’s total sales,
they should concentrate on the highest volume applications.
"Rebuilders also should concentrate
on rebuilding the clutches they can do profitably, and sell new
clutches for those they can’t. Rebuilders need to refocus their
business, and be able to supply their customers with whatever
type of clutch they want, be it rebuilt or new."
Jackson says many rebuilders have a
lot of expertise when it comes to the technical aspects of clutch
remanufacturing, but they lack the basic marketing skills that
are necessary to succeed in today’s market. AMS has a program
to help rebuilders market their products under their own name,
rather than the name of a distributor or manufacturer. Jackson
said this approach capitalizes on the reputation and relationships
a rebuilder has already established with his customers. He also
says rebuilders need to put more emphasis on the quality they
put in their clutches, and compare that to what’s coming into
this country from some of the Third World countries.
"If rebuilders can show their
customers that there is a lot of variation in quality in new clutches,
and at the same time convey the quality they put into their own
rebuilt product, they can be successful selling against new clutches,"
The heavy-duty market
As topsy-turvy as things are in the
passenger car and light truck clutch business, the heavy-duty
segment of the market shows remarkable stability. Reman clutch
sales still predominate, though new clutches continue to make
inroads all the time. Kevin Keller, sales and marketing manager
of D&W Rebuilders, Baltimore, MD, says the heavy-duty clutch
business has been "fantastic." Keller said D&W is
in the process of expanding to a larger facility so they can increase
production. D&W sells only to distributors in a seven state,
350-mile radius. Ninety percent of D&W’s business is heavy-duty
clutches, with about 60% of that being Spicer clutches.
"We’ve only added three new accounts
this year, but we’ve seen a big increase in business with our
existing accounts," said Keller. "I’d attribute the
jump in business to a more aggressive sales and marketing effort.
Our main competitor also went out of business a year ago, so we’ve
picked up a lot of his business, too."
Keller said the demand for heavy-duty
foreign truck clutches has picked up the past year, along with
agricultural, industrial and off-road clutches. "We put a
lot of new parts into the clutches we rebuild, so our clutches
are expensive," said Keller. "We also offer a one-year,
100,000 mile warranty on our Spicer clutches, and 120 days or
10,000 miles on most of the others."
Most of the heavy-duty rebuilders we
spoke with said business has been good, but that the OEM reman
programs (Spicer namely) continues to be a thorn in their side.
Spicer continues to take cores out of the market for their own
reman program, which makes it harder for independent aftermarket
rebuilders to get them. At the same time, Spicer has discontinued
their angle spring design, as well as the sale of parts to the
Spicer has also introduced new clutch
designs, such as the Easy Pedal and Solo Clutch, which have considerable
patent protection to discourage aftermarket suppliers from duplicating
the OEM replacement parts. Though some say this could be viewed
as a "restraint of trade" issue, no one seems willing
to take on the expense of a legal challenge at this point.
Whether the influx of new clutches
from Third World countries, declining profit margins on new clutches,
and lower core prices will eventually tilt the passenger car and
light truck market back towards reman clutches remains to be seen.
Many rebuilders are hoping for just such a change. But it’s unlikely
clutch rebuilding will ever be the same again because of fundamental
changes that have taken place in the aftermarket as well as OEM
OEM clutch suppliers are now selling
direct to jobbers or installers who used to buy from rebuilders
or jobbers. The proliferation of new clutch designs also means
the days of huge single number production runs are history, and
that means higher remanufacturing costs for rebuilders. And although
there are still many clutches that are profitable to rebuild,
light-weight crimp style "throw-away" clutches may never
be viable candidates for rebuilding.
The niche players will likely continue
to expand their markets as well as to develop new ones. Those
who are in the more competitive passenger car and light truck
market will likely continue to shift their product mix and juggle
the numbers to find the best combinations of new and rebuilt units
for their particular customers.
And the small rebuilders? They’ll continue
to rebuild anything that comes in the door, using their service
flexibility to full advantage. Dan Pelley who operates Clutch
Dynamics in Lansing, MI, says he’s a small rebuilder who wants
to stay small. He started rebuilding clutches part-time, 16 years
ago. He left his "day" job as an industrial design engineer
to pursue the clutch business full-time eight years ago.
"We rebuild anything that comes
in the door, be it car or truck," said Pelley. "Being
small has been a perfect niche for a guy like me because I can
give my customers the kind of service they can’t get anyplace
else. So, I don’t have to go out looking for customers, they come
to me. There are other small rebuilders around, but we’re so spread
out we don’t step on each others toes."
Pelley said he works mostly with parts
stores and transmission shops, but also does some DIY business,
too. He says he avoids fleets because they’re not profitable.
Pelley says the clutch rebuilding business has been "really
good" to him. "I can’t think of any other business where
you can make such a good percentage of profit."It all goes
to show that, despite a difficult market overall, there are those
that find a way to prosper.