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Loving Your Job, Losing Your Shirt?

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As editor of Engine Builder, I ask a lot of you, the reader. I ask that you read every word of every article, that you buy your parts and equipment from our advertisers and that you complete every survey form and questionnaire immediately, be willing and able to talk to me about any subject whenever I call and that you send me regular letters to let me know how we’re helping your business.

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Okay, maybe the last one is asking too much. I know how busy you are, and in the time it takes to write me a letter or an e-mail, you could have finished any number of jobs, taught your employees a valuable lesson or counted your profits.

While some of you might argue that  counting your profits takes the least amount of time in your day, it’s no doubt the most important part – or so I always thought. You’re in business to make money, right?

Well, until I got a letter from a reader in Idaho, I expected the standard answer to be “Of course, Doug – my mind is where it should be: on growing my business.”

As it turns out, explains Greg Mangum of M&S Engine Works in Sandpoint, ID, the attention of many of you isn’t on building your businesses, it’s on building your engines. I know – I was shocked, too!

In response to one of my recent columns about pricing and profitability in the engine building facility, Greg simplifies the situation for us:

Thanks for your concern for us overworked/underpaid engine builders. Someone needs to help take care of us, being that we haven’t done so well business-wise.

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I think it’s because we love what we do so much we would do it for nothing before we wouldn’t do it at all. There aren’t too many businesses like that, which is why we need to become more income-minded.

No matter how much you charge – and I am talking about performance engines here – the time you put into it will keep your hourly rate far below what you would like to make if you’re interested in doing the job correctly, which, of course, is what you do because you love what you do. People can see that in you and that’s why they bring you the work. That’s a nice feeling of vocational accomplishment but it makes for all work and not much pay.

Another thing that keeps profits out of the shop is that anyone can buy parts for the same price or less than you can and that’s including the “www.crateenginecompany.coms” so that pretty much leaves it to time and materials. If we’re not making a profit on parts that only leaves our time that’s worth anything.

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I don’t want to sound whiny (after all, we do make a living at what we do), but for the amount of investment we have in our shops and the amount of knowledge we need to do our jobs we just might be the highest-skilled, lowest-paid professionals in America. But it is a true form of independence that we can choose to do or not to do, and we engine builders truly are independent; just ask any customer.

I’m glad I chose to do what I do. Having a job because you love it is not something everyone gets to experience. How do you put a hourly rate on that? That doesn’t excuse the fact that we should get more for what we do but it sure seems to do a good job of it. I know all of us just keep on keeping on as long as we can no matter what the circumstances. That’s what makes the people in this industry so good at what we do. It gives the saying “Get’er done” its true definition.

So, if you can come up with a way for us to take (because no one is going to give it to us) more profits for what we do – as long as it’s honest – you will have done a remarkable and memorable thing for this beloved industry of service to which we give all we have.  Even so, we still have to do it for the love of it no matter what, because that’s just the kind of job it is. Are we hopeless or what?

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As you know from reading these pages, we ask for your feedback on a constant basis. Occasionally we’ll get a letter or a phone call as a pat on the back from a reader for a perceived job well done. More frequently, we’ll get a note explaining how a reader felt we screwed something up. But I think this is the first letter I ever gotten that says, in essence, “As an industry, we’re doing everything wrong and we don’t care because we love what we do.”

Is it possible to make a profit in this business? At the beginning of a fresh new year, it’s an appropriate time to ask the question – and yet, as, reader Bob Heidbreder from Cuyahoga Falls, OH, reminds us, it’s an age-old problem.

“It’s my opinion that most shop owners LIKE to work for nothing,” says Bob, explaining that efforts have been going on for decades to convince businesses to set their hourly labor rates based on real world expenses: utility costs, equipment expenses, personnel costs, etc. He says he led the charge to help make all his local competitors more profitable, and yet many prices are lower now than they were years ago. “Now, even if I get the job, I’m not making much money – how can this other shop make any?”

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Both Greg and Bob ask a great question, and in many respects, it’s the same one: is there a way to raise your own shop rates to realistic levels when no one else around you is raising theirs? And short of that, are there other ways to be profitable?

You’re busy, I know, but if you DO have time to write, I’d love to hear your response. Or, weigh in on our online “Forums,” at www.enginebuildermag.com.

This discussion may not be new, but if we keep having it, sooner or later maybe we’ll come up with a solution that works for all of us. 

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