BATH, Pa. - Daryl L. Robbins, president of the corporation, was
sitting behind a dark, dented desk old enough to qualify for
There was no aesthetic redemption for the distressed desk elsewhere in the room, a dingy, white, 10-by-12-foot space that looked more like a monastic cell than the office of the president. The closest thing to interior decoration were a half-dozen used automobile wheels scattered around the floor.
Clearly, this wasn't what Robbins had in mind when he got his MBA from Harvard in 1985.
"Everyone has these romantic notions about having their own business," observed Robbins, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer turned entrepreneur. "They think about how glorious it will be."
But as it turns out, a new business is often something other than a large, well-appointed office.
"It's hard work and heartaches," according to Robbins. "You don't know if there's going to be a paycheck, and there is no guarantee you will succeed. If you are a nervous person, you can get very nervous."
Happily for Robbins, co-progenitor of a clever new niche business called the Wheel Collision Center, the color of the ledger entries has darkened considerably in recent times. And that black ink has lightened the spirits of Robbins and his vice president and partner, a 49-year-old machine designer named George J. Herschman.
"We're starting to make money, and things are feeling relatively easy now," Robbins reported. "But until recently, it was a scary proposition."
The root cause of the Wheel Collision Center's improving bottom line was to be found in those wheels on the floor of Robbins' executive suite.
Those expensive cast aluminum-alloy wheels had been med-a-vaced in from all over the country with serious injuries. Some had been grievously bent. Others had chunks broken out of them. But by the time the Wheel Collision Center was done with them, a visitor couldn't even detect where they'd been repaired.
Here's the thing: Aluminum-alloy wheels like these cost an average of $350 each to replace, which is what most people do with them when they are damaged. But thanks to the techniques and machines developed by designer Herschman, the center repairs them for $75 to $150.
Obviously, that is quite a replacement-repair cost differential, and that disparity has not been overlooked by the auto insurance industry in its never-ending search for truth, beauty and a cheaper way out.
"About 50 percent of our business is with insurance companies," said Robbins.
The Wheel Collision Center started to take shape about three years ago, when Robbins and Herschman formed a company to design and build packaging machinery. The two had worked together for a similar machinery firm.
Designing and building machinery for specific applications is a long process, and the distant paydays it engenders can cause real cash-flow problems for a shoestring company with pygmy reserves like this one. So, Robbins thought it would be a good idea to start up a second business that would produce steady revenues, and thus bridge the gaps.
Robbins, who also operated EuroCal Wheels Accessories in West Chester, had earlier noticed a need among his store customers for repair of alloy wheels. He was able to help customers with bent wheels by sending them out to a shop that could straighten them. But if the wheels had chunks broken out of them, or cosmetic scratches, the customers were out of luck. They had no alternative but to shell out an average of $300 for a new wheel.
So Robbins got the idea of developing a comprehensive service that would not only straighten bent rims, but renew ones with cracks, scratches and missing pieces.
He and Herschman checked into the field, and found there were similar services here and there around the country. But most were relatively small, primitive operations that confined themselves to straightening. The two entrepreneurs reasoned that if they could develop an efficient, automated repair service that included fixing broken and scratched wheels, as well as bent ones, they could carve out a virtually uncontested niche in a potentially huge market.
"We estimate there are 250 million aluminum wheels on the road now, and that number will just get bigger," Robbins said. "We think the size of the market is somewhere between $100 million and $200 million a year."
The duo decided to give it a go. Working in his barn in this village near Allentown, Herschman designed several machines to facilitate the wheels repairs, including a press-like device that applies heat and pressure to reshape and balance bent wheels. After applying for patents on several of the prototypes, they rented space in a Bath commercial park, hired a seven-man crew, and started repairing wheels.
The repairs fall into two categories; the simple straightening of bent wheels, and the full renewal of broken and scratched ones. The renewals generally entail welding, machining, polishing and refinishing, and result in a like-new rim.
"It's largely an art at this point," Herschman said of the repair process. "We're trying to make that art into a science with the next generation of machinery, which will be more automated. We hope to do that in the next six months."
The needs and success of the wheel business have placed the machinery - design company that spawned it on the back burner. Robbins expects the wheel operation to be grossing more than $1 million by the end of next year. If plans work out to start 15 franchised and company-owned wheel centers in other regions during the next five years, Robbins believes the company could ultimately gross as much as $30 million annually.
- by Al Haas, Inquirer Staff Writer
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