If you asked a roomful of people to make a list of the 20 most exciting cities in the world, you would probably find New York, London, Paris, Rome and Beijing on every list. While the exact order and final tally of cities might vary, it’s unlikely that Hastings, NE, would even be mentioned.
But ask the attendees at last year’s AERA New Products Showcase to name the hot spots and that same Hastings would probably head the list. Because Hastings is not only the home of Kool-Aid, it is the home of Gessford Machine, the 2004 Engine Builder Machine Shop of the Year. And George Anderson, owner of Gessford, is determined to put Hastings on the map.
Gessford Machine was founded in 1955 and has been in its current location since 1965. Since its founding 50 years ago, the company has been known as the place to go when no one else can do it.
“Jim Gessford (founder of the company) was a brilliant machinist with a great reputation,” says Anderson, explaining that he is only carrying on a legacy. “He was a champion sprint car racer and supplied performance parts to some of the best known suppliers, but in the 1960s and ’70s, he felt that the best potential for profit would be in the heavy duty diesel repairs and the bigger things that no one else could do. Even though we’re in the middle of farm country, with all of the big irrigation motors and tractors, there really was no one local who could service this industry.”
To serve this market, Gessford bought the bigger equipment he needed to do line boring and vertical boring on John Deere, Allis-Chalmers and Caterpillar engine blocks, as well as crankshaft grinders capable of handling D9 cranks. “He still did automotive work and operated a speed shop, but no one locally could do the heavy duty work and factory reman programs were non-existent,” says Anderson, “so he really had a captive audience.”
Anderson, though, was not among that audience. For while Jim Gessford believed the future was in agriculture and heavy duty diesel, George Anderson’s only thoughts were more performance for his ’67 Mustang. Even as a high school student in the mid 1960s, Anderson’s purchases must have helped to convince Gessford of the profit in high performance.
“I was down here all the time trying to get head work done and buying all sorts of parts for a series of cars,” says Anderson. “The money I spent bought more than just parts, though. I spent untold numbers of hours at Gessford’s side and as much as he loved when I spent money, he loved it when I asked questions. I learned so much from him – not only from a technical standpoint but from a professional one, as well.”
This relationship lasted until October of 1969 when Anderson went into Army. “As soon as I was gone, my dad sold my car – I think he was glad to be rid of it!”
Over the next several decades, while Gessford built a wonderful reputation and continued to do quality work, Anderson served in a variety of management positions at several large East Coast manufacturing facilities. Their paths didn’t cross again until the early 1990s.
“My wife and I were getting ready to move to England to work at a manufacturing facility there, when my father got sick. I came home, found out that Jim Gessford was interested in selling the business and here I am,” Anderson says.
Today, Anderson describes his business as a staff of eight people working together in a fantastic shop dedicated to engine rebuilding and machining. You don’t even have to try hard to imagine the smile on his face when he says that.
“Hiring and then keeping great people is the simple secret of a successful machine shop such as ours,” Anderson says. “Five of our six shop machinists have been with us for more than 13 years. Two of them are ASE-certified Master Machinists, and having such experience ensures that we’re offering the very best quality work.”
The Gessford Gang includes: Russ Kennedy, Matt Schmitz, Neil Groff, Shannon Fowler, Tony Powell, Bert Wright and part timer Justin Ham. Anderson also says his wife Jo’s (“or Josie or Shortyjo”) support is a vital part of the business though she isn’t involved in the shop operations. “We both know that the sweat of our employees is what makes it possible to serve our customers and do what we love.”
Anderson admits that while his shop is considered one of the most expensive in the area, Gessford is still known as the place to take problems. “We have close relationships with our long-term customers. They know they get more than just good machine work here – they have extensive experience working for them too.”
Anderson says his shop has the equipment and employees to handle almost every type and size of engine, from small Briggs & Stratton engines to D9 Caterpillars. And along with traditional align boring services for all engine sizes, Gessford offers the unique service of align boring automotive race blocks for roller cam bearing and regrooving the cam bores if required.
“Many race and performance machine shops all through the Midwest send their blocks to us for these and other specialty operations due to our extensive equipment inventory and unusual abilities to do these unique operations,” says Anderson.
Gessford’s balancing equipment sees regular use for many different applications, as well as performance engines. “We balance large air-moving fans for industry and straw choppers for large agriculture combines and shredders. Our Stewart-Warner balancer is utilized many hours per week doing non-traditional balancing operations for a variety of different businesses.”
Along with the standard engine rebuilding and machining, Gessford also offers other services and welding repairs to large electric motors, utilized regularly (and often on an emergency basis) by two very large ethanol plants, the Eaton valve plant in Kearney, NE, and many other Nebraska businesses. The shop sleeves the end housings in these motors for new bearings and welds, repairs and grinds the internal rotors used in engines up to 500 hp.
“With our horizontal boring machine we’re able to do bearing bore repairs for many items in addition to engines,” explains Anderson. “Some of these special applications are very large transmission cases and housings from large machinery with damaged bearing boxes, and we are able to sleeve and repair things that are otherwise not salvageable. We make our own cam bearings and other sleeves in house for these special repairs.”
Having the equipment to do these jobs – thanks to Jim Gessford’s forward thinking – allows Anderson to absorb much more overhead expense than the typical engine repair facility. “Equipment capable of repairing large diesel engines has applications far beyond their traditional uses. By thinking outside of the box, our employees have been very innovative in thinking of uses for it that will help keep this equipment valuable to us,” Anderson says.
“One of the unique items we build is a product for the U.S. Government Meat Animal Research Center,” says Anderson. “It’s a shear force device used for testing very high quality beef for tenderness, to allow steaks to be certified ‘USDA Tender Select.’ “
From Cattle To Cobras
One of Gessford’s specialties is building Ford 427 motors for genuine CSX Shelby Cobras along with many brands of replica Cobras and Mustangs. As members of the “Gasholes” car club (motto: “We don’t like us either.”) can attest, Gessford’s attention to detail makes these engines worth every penny.
And you had better believe those pennies add up. Today, Cobra engines account for half of Gessford’s business and have been sold to customers in all areas of the United States, as well as Canada, Spain, Germany and New Zealand.
For customers such as those ready to part with up to $30,000 for a Cobra engine, Anderson says the Internet is the perfect marketing tool. “We build a Web page for every specialty engine we build for these Cobras and other vehicles,” he says. “Each Cobra project is documented on a personalized Web page that contains pictures of their motor from start to finish. The pages also include a detailed bill of materials.”
It’s details such as these that ensure that even customers on the other side of the world have confidence in Gessford Machine’s skills, because they can virtually watch the engine being built. “We recently purchased a digital camera that can take up to an hour of MPEG movies,” Anderson explains. “Now a customer can watch us bore the block with a deck plate, grind their crankshaft, balance the engine and build their motor. They can hear it running on the test stand. They can even ride along on the test drive of their Cobra with a Gessford motor.”
These digital movies, which are published nightly on the customer’s Web page, are not just designed to be self-promoting marketing videos. Anderson says movies are also used to send hands-on instructions for such operations as setting valve lash.
“Imagine a technical question answered with a digital video clip that they can watch over and over until they understand,” explains Anderson. “If pictures are worth a thousand words, then digital technology is priceless. This is one of the ways our shop will ensure its future success and have a competitive advantage.”
Life In The Fast Lane
Anderson has recently become an authorized Shelby Cobra dealer, and will install his engines in his cars to sell all over the world. To make the process of buying and titling the cars easier, he helped introduce a bill into the Nebraska legislature that would allow original manufacturers of collector vehicles, such as the Cobra, to register a unique “continuation” title in place of the traditional “Replica” or “Kit Car” title.
This will be a boon to not only Anderson’s businesses, he believes, but other businesses that will relocate to or open plants in Nebraska. And to help make that possibility more attractive he is in the process of opening Motorsport Park Hastings (MPH).
MPH is a 160-acre facility that will likely include a two-mile road race course, as well as a complex of industrial and service facilities, including welding suppliers, upholsterers and restoration and installation shops.
The facility’s first event will be the inaugural SCCA National RallyCross event. “RallyCross racing is the hottest new type of racing,” explains Anderson. “It’s coming in from Europe and growing very quickly in the U.S. Basically, it’s like an autocross except that instead of a large parking lot it’s held on dirt.”
Anderson says that because his new facility is so large, the SCCA has christened the event “the XXXL RallyCross.”
Hastings Is Home
Selling and promoting his business around the country and the world is important, but to Anderson, Hastings is where home is, so the shop gives back to the community in amazing ways. Some examples: to celebrate the birthplace of Kool-Aid, Gessford Machine Built the World’s Largest Kool-Aid Stand. It’s 64-feet long and is used during Hastings’ annual Kool-Aid festival.
Other annual shop promotional efforts include a snow making machine that fits in the back of the Gessford shop dually. For days without snow, Gessford representatives can take the truck out and create instant sledding opportunities on the local hills.
For their efforts to put Hastings, NE, on the map and Gessford power under the hood, Engine Builder magazine and AERA (Engine Rebuilders Association) congratulate George Anderson and all of the gang at Gessford Machine Shop.