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Preacher, Teacher, Fighter, Friend

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Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that reading this article may be hazardous to a negative attitude, and acting on the recommendations contained herein may result in increased job satisfaction and a more productive business atmosphere.

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If enthusiasm for his job were a virus, Dave Deegan would have one of the most serious infections the world has ever seen. And he is on a mission to spread his "condition" to as many engine builders as he can over the next 12 months.

Ask him how business is and you’ll likely get more than just a review of the latest sales figures at the Engine Lab of Tampa. With his infection bordering on terminal, Deegan’s positive attitude is that this business is great for the good businessman – and he’s doing everything possible to get that news out to everyone in the industry.

Luckily for Deegan, he has the perfect soapbox to tell his story. As the incoming chairman of the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA), Deegan says he has one goal over the next year: to communicate his conviction that this industry has a great deal to offer – and hopefully to witness an epidemic of excitement spread throughout the Association and beyond.

"I do love talking to people about the possibilities of what they can do," Deegan says. "If I have one goal for my time as chairman of AERA, it would be to get the whole membership of the association involved in helping to move their business forward."

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Where did such a positive attitude come from? Doesn’t Deegan read the papers and know the problems facing this industry? How can he be so optimistic?

"I love working hard," Deegan explains, "and my approach to doing the most with my work started when I was about 12 years old and I had two jobs and went to school. I cleaned the local Rexall drug store lunch counter area every morning before school. Then, in the afternoon, I had a paper route and walked dogs. Since that time, I haven’t been without a job – hard work has always been part of my life."

Deegan’s automotive experience began in 1966 when he was hired to sweep the floors of his local NAPA auto parts store in Venice, FL. "I was hired to sweep the floors and stock shelves – and after I had mastered that, my boss introduced me to the machinist in the store’s machine shop. My first job was the same as everyone else’s – disassembly and cleaning. That progressed to me learning to manage the parts store while attending Junior College before joining the Navy."

Deegan says that he also spent time during this period as counterman and inventory person at another parts store and assisted that facility’s machinist.

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Following a four-year world tour courtesy of the United States Navy in the late 1960s, Deegan returned to Florida to work as a parts store manager at Lenco Auto Parts. "Lenco didn’t have a machine shop, so I moved to a fairly large store in Sarasota (Sarasota Standard Auto Parts) that did have a machine shop. I had been managing the store for about a year-and-a-half when one night the head machinist had a heart attack and died. When I explained to the store’s owner what had happened, his reply was ‘I guess you get to learn to run the machine shop full time too, don’t you?’ His attitude was that he was paying me to run the business and that included running the machine shop, too. After about three years of that, I decided I wanted my own machine shop."

In 1975, Deegan and some associates formed a brand new venture in Venice, FL. Called Automotive Fleet Brake and Machine, the new operation was built from the ground up. "It was great for 3 or 4 years," Deegan says, acknowledging that joint ventures don’t always serve the needs of all individuals involved. When he had the opportunity to help a friend start a machine shop in Englewood, FL, Deegan left his new operation.

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Selling the Sizzle

Soon, Deegan set out on the road, as a sales representative for a variety of machine shop equipment manufacturers. For the next 15 years or so, Deegan traveled nationally and internationally for Sunnen, Kansas Instruments, AXE Equipment and Kwik-Way, as well as being an independent equipment rep in the Mid-South for Ed Fike.

"I enjoyed being on the road," Deegan recalls. "One of my life’s ambitions has always been to become a paid professional visitor – and if you’re a good independent rep, that’s essentially what you are. I enjoyed seeing on a national and international level the differences in cultures, shops and methods people use to go to business."

In fact, it was this period on the road that allowed Deegan to focus his attention on what he thought the ideal machine shop should be. "Our industry has such a diverse business culture. We have some of the most pristine shops in the world, being very profit oriented…but we also have some of the worst. In effect, I guess I became a preacher for this industry. It gave me a chance to talk to shop owners with the intent of helping their business. As sales manager, I was there to ask them about their goals for their business and find out how things were going – I wasn’t there just to sell a single piece of equipment to meet a quota. I sincerely wanted to help the longevity of their business.

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These experiences led Deegan to return to Florida in 1993 to a management position at the shop he now owns. He and his wife Susan bought the Engine Lab of Tampa in 1994 and began serving the industry with as much enthusiasm as possible. "Obviously, because this is Susan’s and my business, it makes for a wonderful thing. When it’s your own place, you direct your destiny. You are responsible. You are the captain of your ship. I take pride in that and I think it’s a boost to me every day."

Engine Lab of Tampa is a custom engine rebuilding facility that has designed its marketing and technical skills to target the "end user" of its machine shop products.

"My approach may be a little different than some others," Deegan explains. "I have a machine shop and an installation center. I have 10 bays, and four techs who do engine removal and installation of long block assemblies, cylinder heads, crankshafts and other internal engine work, as well as heavy line work for automotive and light trucks and light duty diesels. I also have a machine shop with four guys who are producing engines not only for my bays but for other service providers and individuals."

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This approach provides a dual benefit, Deegan explains: "One, it dramatically limits warranty situations, but more importantly it creates a venue for education and exposure to the general public of the high quality available in the automotive aftermarket."

Through the use of a positive-information Web site, yellow pages advertising and strategically placed "bus bench" advertisements, Engine Lab promotes itself to the broadest range of customers possible. Additionally, the facility’s telephone system uses an on-hold message system to further promote the shop’s philosophy and services offered.

"Customers are invited to stop by to take a tour of our remanufacturing facility," Deegan says. "Our eleven-member staff is accustomed to explaining machining procedures or vehicle related problems to customers in a friendly, easy-to-understand manner. This customer education experience is a powerful and productive promotional tool. Word-of-mouth referral is one of the most influential advertising tools we have."

As an example of how powerful word of mouth can be, Deegan offers this: "We’ve never marketed our medium-duty diesel crank, head or block work. But reputation brought our local Brinks fleet in – with about 40 trucks in the area. The fleet manager brought us some DT466 heads to see if we would work on them. All Brink’s wanted was head work, and they needed fairly quick turnaround."

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A great opportunity, right? Actually, Deegan admits that he had reservations about the project. "I had never worked on this head before, and I had no idea what I should do. But, some of my industry friends (in particular, Dennis Terrill from Terrill Motor Machine in Ft. Lauderdale and Jose Sabatier from Zabatt Inc., in Jacksonville, FL) always told me ‘If they walk in the store with it, and you think you have the capacity to handle it, at least say you’ll evaluate the job.’"

Deegan says he made two phone calls: one to Terrill and one to Sabatier to ask both what he needed to know about doing those heads. "Thanks to my relationships with them, I was able to get all of the information I needed – including part numbers and sourcing information – to turn this into a very good part of our business. The big payoff? From Brink’s came Ryder Transportation Services, another local fleet that brings us their cylinder heads to repair. It has turned into a very nice profit center for us: we probably do at least one job a week for each of them."

Business Analysis

According to Deegan, Engine Lab of Tampa’s business mix is quite varied:

 

  • Medium diesel (head work and long blocks for installation as well as commercial customers): 2-3 percent;
  • Marine: 3-4 percent;
  • Dealer or other service provider: 10-15 percent.

 

"We also do forensic inspections for insurance companies. They’ll bring us something that has been removed from a vehicle or the vehicle itself that has been involved in some sort of claim. It might have been a fire or a case where ‘the emergency brake didn’t work and it fell into the bay’ or ‘the vehicle was stolen and destroyed (but of course was mint beforehand…’ My guys, including Russell Whaley, ASE Master Machinist and Greg Cook, ASE Master Certified Technician will consult with the claims adjusters about what we see, what is there… and try to help them with their definitions. If they have questions, we can work with suppliers on investigating parts… That makes up about 1 percent of our business."

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The biggest portion of Deegan’s business is made up of what he calls the 3 Rs: removal, remanufacture and reinstallation, as well as heavy line work, including removal of cylinder heads, valve jobs and crankshaft repairs.

"We also do a very good percentage of performance work (10 percent of our total business), which was not the case just a year or two ago," Deegan says.

"I turned performance away until I met (past AERA Chairman) Eddie Browder. He convinced me that I was leaving work on the table that I didn’t need to be. He gave me immeasurable reasons to look at performance work as an option."

Deegan estimates that the percentage of work his shop did that could be classified as "performance" might have been 1-2 percent annually. "This year, I would say that 10 percent of my business is performance," he says. "And that’s a pretty good jump in a one or two year span."

In addition to pure performance work, Engine Lab does a good bit of restoration work as well. "Right now, we’re working on a 1966 Fairlane GTA," he says. "It was bought 38 years ago off the showroom floor. It’s gorgeous, but the sole original owner thinks it’s using a little too much oil. It’s pristine and rare, so we’re checking it out for him."

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A 1967 Steve McQueen "Bullitt" Mustang was another classic project Engine Lab tackled. "The guy bought it at an antique car auction but had no history on it so he wanted it taken care of," Deegan says. "We’ve done Corvettes, Mustangs, 1929 Dodges… Usually we’ll have at least one project car in-house."

Deegan explains that the care he lavishes on classics is not reserved just for locals. "We’ve had a customer trailer his 1967 Corvette from Auburn Hills, MI, to Tampa, FL, to have us do the ‘3Rs.’ He had to drive past a lot of other engine rebuilders to get here. A lot of that comes from our national exposure."

Up next, Deegan says a customer will be bringing his ’72 Torino Cobra Jet from Georgia. "He bought it at his bachelor party and he and his wife are still together – it means a lot to him, so it means a lot to us."

Deegan admits that as a relative newcomer to the performance business he usually has a great many questions about doing the jobs correctly. "I’m in contact with the AERA Technical Committee a couple of times a week asking questions and getting answers – and the same with other members."

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The exchange of information extends beyond just his relationship with AERA machine shop members.

"The suppliers who are associate members have been good friends as well. I have gotten business ideas from many of them as well," Deegan says.

"Randy Neal at CWT had told me for years that I needed to offer engine balancing. I was reluctant to do it until the producers of the "Two Guys Garage" television program called about a show on they were planning on balancing. ‘Did I do it?’ they asked" he recalls. "I simply asked them when they were planning to be in town. By that time, I learned more about the benefits and ways to go to market with the service."

Deegan says the service has been extremely profitable on both the performance as well as the standard jobs in his shop. "We sell it as an upgrade to our restoration work, especially with early muscle cars. We know the customers want the engine to be original, so balancing is a great enhancement that will give their engines longer life without affecting the ‘numbers.’ When we tell them they’ll notice longevity and performance, it’s a pretty easy upgrade."

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It’s also been a benefit to Engine Lab’s gasoline motor home work, says Deegan. "We do 454, 460 and 440 c.i.d. motors for a variety of different motor homes. Customers have noticed the smoother running, better performance."

Serving the diverse range of customers requires a dedicated, talented staff. Of the 13 people on the Engine Lab of Tampa staff roster, Deegan says he can’t give enough credit to his wife, Susan, for her involvement in the business. "She took a leap of faith – she didn’t know what this business was all about until we bought it. She is the greatest inspiration I have to keep moving forward and she is the inspiration for raising the bar continually."

This trait isn’t exclusive to the Deegans, of course. "If you look at what I consider to be some of the best shops in the business, I think you’ll find that spouses – whether male or female – are involved in the business and usually in a rather significant way," Deegan says.

Other things the incoming AERA Chairman says he’s learned from other members and suppliers include ways to purchase efficiently and how to look at his business critically.

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"My advantage has been to visit shops in all 50 states and internationally, to be able to make friends all over the world, and be able to share information with them as well as they share with me," Deegan explains. "The success of my business today comes from two main areas: Susan’s and my will and determination to be good at what we do and to get better; and the thoughtful insight and exchange of ideas of other members in both like and unlike business."

Networking with other AERA members has helped Deegan understand his business better and has spurred him to be open as well. "Members have held nothing back – whenever I’ve asked questions, they’ve been very open about how their business works. By the same token, Susan and I have come up with things we think are innovative and unique and we have shared those when we could."

In effect, Deegan’s upcoming role as AERA Chairman is a part he has already played – sales manager. "If I had one goal for AERA it would be to entice…cajole…drag kicking and screaming, whatever it took, to get the whole membership involved. I’d love to see us move from the famous 80/20 rule (where 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of our membership) to where we have at least 60 percent of our membership active and wanting to participate to move the industry forward."

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That is his daily goal, Deegan explains: to get people more involved in the association and in the industry.

"Getting the PROSIS updates, getting your issue of ShopTalk and maybe going to an occasional Expo…they’re good, but you don’t get the full benefit," Deegan explains. "To me, the most important thing about this association is the networking opportunities. Having people you can truly call friends as well as peers, all of whom have something to share with you, can help move your business forward."

Deegan admits the 80/20 rule applies here as well. "80 percent of the people in this industry think of themselves as too independent to share information. The other 20 percent of us share anything we can."

The exchange of information is crucial, Deegan feels, both short-term and long-term. "The universal rule at Engine Lab is an ‘open-door’ policy. Customers are able to see first-hand what is done and how. We encourage men and women to become involved in the process of the repair of their vehicle through a show-and-tell forum. Educating a customer with some simple basic information makes a strong statement of professionalism and honesty."

Don’t assume that his positive outlook on business has deluded Deegan from certain realities. "I am most cognizant of the changing market for automotive machine shops," he says. "It is my sincere belief that the automotive industry has traditionally been its own worst enemy. Professionalism, appearance, customer contact and education are generally not the focus of a machine shop and installation facility."

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Still, Deegan says change is needed. "Everyone within our industry needs to raise the level: of the quality of their work, of the appearance of their work and work place, of the appearance of their employees – if we don’t raise the bar, the OEMs will figure out that they can own this part of the industry as well."

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