LAVERGNE, Tenn.—Do you have a bit of vintage auto service or tire repair Americana gathering dust in some dingy corner of your shop? In many ways, changes over the years in equipment have mirrored advancements in the tire and automotive industries themselves: crude behemoths have metamorphosed into computerized marvels.
With a bow to its past and a nod to its future, this year Hennessy Industries Inc. is marking a ``doubleheader'' jubilee—the 75th and 50th anniversaries, respectively, of its Ammco and Coats brands of auto service equipment and tools.
In conjunction with those celebrations, the company is conducting a country-wide ``treasure hunt'' for the oldest functioning Ammco brake lathe and Coats tire changer and wheel balancer.
Company officials say the promotion not only will allow its customers to ``claim their place'' in Hennessy's history, but is as much a testament to the longevity and durability of its equipment.
``Our industry is becoming much more sophisticated, from a technician's standpoint, and much more customer driven,'' Hennessy's Ronald G. Newton, senior vice president of sales and marketing, told trade press and automotive magazine journalists recently invited to the company's LaVergne headquarters and manufacturing facility.
Wheel balancers have changed from being a simple iron post with balance bubble to highly computerized units, he said. And tire changers ``have gone from crude, crude equipment'' to machinery that can change a technical hybrid like a ``run-flat'' tire in a matter of minutes.
Some types of equipment, such as balancers, last a long time and don't wear out, noted Mike Parkinson, manager of product planning for Coats. ``They `obsolete out'.''
The anniversary celebrations are being highlighted through a marketing campaign currently under way. One advertisement, for instance, features timeworn equipment—such as an Ammco Model 3000 lathe first offered in 1952, and a Coats ``Three Star Tireman'' which debuted in 1958—alongside more recent gear, including a just-introduced Coats IBS 2000 wheel balancer and optional wheel/tire lifter unit.
The ad's tagline says: ``Around here if you do a good job, you're history.''
The company plans to offer special factory and anniversary cash-back promotions tied to equipment purchases, it said.
Hennessy's focus on the historical comes in the wake of a complete reorganization that involved moving its Chicago plant—with some manufacturing equipment dating back to 1948—to the LaVergne site, which is literally at the back door of a Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. truck tire plant.
That mammoth undertaking—seven tractor-trailer loads of products and equipment per day made the trek for eight weeks—was begun in October 1994 and concluded in early January 1995.
It was a feat from which the company is even now still recuperating.
The move from a 250,000-sq.-ft. facility in Chicago to a 120,000-sq.-ft. one in Tennessee, said George Slocum, vice president of operations, required Hennessy to do some heavy consolidation. It eliminated 20 to 30 percent of its inventory last year alone, and more reductions are to come.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, equipment that was already spread across the LaVergne plant had to be moved to fit into a 50,000-sq.-ft.
space, while machinery from Chicago then was shoe-horned into a 70,000-sq.-ft. area.
While that maneuvering was being completed, the company began the arduous task of interviewing some 500 applicants in order to find, then train a new workforce, since only three equipment operators relocated from the Windy City.
``Upgrading and rebuilding our culture'' is how Mr. Slocum put it. ``These (new employees) come for a job, but they have to realize it's a culture they have to create here. But the environment that's growing here will aid the longterm growth of the business.''
Its workforce currently standing at 220, Hennessy has found that ``there aren't many skilled machinists around these parts,'' Mr. Slocum said. ``That's where the technology is helping—there's a lot of on-the-job training going on.''
While ``we didn't lose any customers,'' he added, ``we stretched those relationships. . . . But we feel we've finally put a stake in the heart of our consolidation.''
Among the good things that came from the move, according to Mr. Newton: ``Three years ago we used to ensure we'd ship product to a customer in three days. Now, 95percent of the orders are shipped the next day. But that's not good enough—we want it to be at least 99-100 percent.''
Without being specific, Mr. Newton said Hennessy has experienced ``steady, big, single-digit growth,'' and 20 percent sales increases for several years. Meanwhile, its Washington, D.C.-based parent company, Danaher Corp., had sales of $1.4 billion in 1995, and $1.8 billion last year.
``Being part of a profitable corporation has given us the flexibility and capital to grow,'' he noted.
``Our industry is on a fast track, and is changing rapidly.''
As outlined by Mr. Newton, Hennessy's 1997 corporate goals include:
Continuing its emphasis on distributor profitability via new products, programs and promotions;
Upgrading the ``key area'' of field service capabilities;
Improving phone response to customers;
Improving sales and market share—``in some of our product categories, it's flat to slumping,'' he said. ``The way to remedy that is by growing market share''; and
The company is providing better on-time service, he said, with low backorder numbers. But it also plans to continue reinvesting in its field service operation because ``we want strong, not weak partners in this business.''
Many of the internal changes—and, for that matter, equipment—Hennessy has introduced in recent years are a result of what Mr. Newton called a ``Voice of the Customer'' mindset for the company.
``We're going to truly be sensitive to what the customer needs—not what Hennessy wants to give him,'' he promised.
``And that's a change of direction for the company.''