Two years ago, Daryl Robbins and George Herschman were two employeeswith one idea and a lot of frustration. Working long hours for someone else inthe packaging business had given them valuable skills and the conviction thatthey could run the company more effectively -- if they owned it. Which theydidn't.
Racing along the interstate on a business trip to Minnesota,the two watched an endless line of cars and light trucks whiz by with dented andscraped wheels and realized their lives were following a parallel line. Theyshared the idea of starting their own business to repair damaged wheels --high-tech aluminum and alloy products on display in showrooms.
Arriving at a plan
Robbins packed an MBA
from Harvard and Herschman owned 17 acres and a couple ofhorses in
Moorestown, north of Bethlehem, PA. They had done their
homework,visiting a similar business in Maryland and compiling
statistics that showed ahuge market waiting to be tapped. There are 187
million vehicles on the roadand 750 million wheels, notes Robbins, and
a ready supply of potholes.
But this was the end of the '80s. The recession had put the brakes on theeconomy in the Lehigh Valley and bankers wouldn't lend them start-up money.
So they didn't borrow from banks or relatives. Robbins used the income from hisconsulting in the pharmaceutical industry and Herschman took a second mortgageon his land. As 1990 drew to a close, they dipped into their savings accounts,quit their jobs and hit the road -- or the hay, in this case.
The pairstarted by doing what they had done for their employer, INPACO of Nazareth -- ina hayloft. They made machines that make plastic packaging for the food andpharmaceutical industries -- precision equipment that provides high-integrityseals for medical and other supplies. Calling themselves Advanced MachineSystems, they formed the equipment in Herschman's barn.
On the side,they took in damaged wheels from mechanics and tire dealers who were skepticalabout plans to automate wheel straightening but could not refinish the productto perfection themselves.
With Herschman's expertise in tooling andRobbins' knack for the market, the partners soon traded the hayloft for a berthat the Airport Road Commercial Park in Northampton County's East Allen Townshipand christened their business the Wheel Collision Center. That was a year ago,and business has been rolling in ever since.
Reinventing the Wheel
Robbins can't reach his desk because just inside the door, four wheels
toa 1992 Corvette stand like guardrails - 18 inches of muscle-car alloy
shiningwith lacquer, the smell of clear-coating cutting the air.
Instead, he sits inHerschman's office behind a desk as sparse as the
walls, a blotter and pencilholder on the wooden top, with a half-dozen
framed certificates looking down. Robbins wears a dark gray sports coat
that hugs his trim figure, his hairfalling behind the collar of an
"We bootstrapped it", he says of the first two years, talkingwith a thick pen between long fingers.
The pair built a machine tostraighten the wheels, and others to polish and paint the product. Herschmanused his experience in packaging machines to develop one machine to work onwheels of any size. They dealt with skeptics who thought the market niche wastoo small. They dealt with auto dealers who had no paint code for the product,and had to develop their own paint codes in the end.
But they madeinroads. Executives from Allstate Insurance Co. were impressed when Robbinsrestored a wheel to perfect condition -- it looked and performed like new -- fora third of the $300 price of a new one. Now the entrepreneurs have fivefull-time and several part-time employees. Robbins won't divulge how much theWheel Collision Center grossed last year but says business increased by 100percent from the first to the third quarter of 1992.
History Rolls On
Robbins and Herschman weren't always wheeler-dealers. Robbins started hisprofessional career as a project engineer with Shell Oil Co. after earning aB.S. in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from HarvardBusiness School. For three years he installed oil- and gas-field facilities onthe Gulf of Mexico coast, and spent a year in Houston coordinating ShellCalifornia's natural gas business. Robbins, now 35, then went to work forINPACO, where he spent three years as manager of business development, helpingthe Nazareth facility manufacture packaging machines that would in turn makeliquid form, fill and seal pouches for the pharmaceutical industry.
After that, Robbins went under the hood, founding Cornell Enterprises Inc.,which operates EuroCal Wheels and Auto Accessories, an automobile restyler inWest Chester.
For his part, Herschman, 49, cut his teeth at AEI Corp.in Bethlehem, a contract packager and manufacturer of portion packaging machinesfor liquid and dry food products. During the next 17 years, he worked forINPACO as manager of field service, design and engineering, and as director ofmanufacturing and machine development. He won awards for his work and securedpatents on heat sealing and plastic film control systems.
While thetwo were at INPACO, they met after work and discussed their ideas aboutimproving the system over a couple of beers.
"We didn't plot to start a business when we were there,we just had philosophical differences with management," says Robbins
Herschman sits at a fiberboard table buried in blueprints, dressed in a denimshirt, jeans and tooled boots. He looks up from a form he's reading, slides offhis thick, black glasses and smiles at Robbins' comment, his eyes alert, hisrugged face suddenly warm. Robbins glances over and continues with the thought.
In many ways we're very different. I am good with finances so Ihandle the business side. George is technically oriented, and he works on themachines. But the way we are similar is we don't believe in politics at work. We don't like friction in the organization.
No way but up
With patents on the machines and contacts throughout the country, the pair planto go nationwide this year, selling franchises and opening up to 15company-owned shops near urban centers.
What is the secret of theirMidas-like touch? Robbins says it's being savvy enough to recognize a good ideaand act on it.
Herschman is not as philosophical. "The packagingbusiness is too volatile the income unpredictable. You have to have a cash flow. You have to have something coming in and going out"
Or, in this case, rolling in.
- by Jeff Widmer, forEastern PA Business Journal
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