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"The Morning Call"
Reporter's Notebook: Business Start-ups
January, 1994

Two Defy Doubting Auto Experts with High-Tech Wheel Repair

When Daryl L. Robbins earned his MBA from Harvard in 1985, he had the tools tobecome a big wheel. Nine years later, Robbins is running a littlecompany in East Allen Township, Pennsylvania, that fixes wheels.

"Every once in a while I run into a former classmate and they ask mewhat I'm doing," Robbins said. "I tell them I repair wheels,and they act as if I need to have my head fixed."

"They ask, 'Wheels?"

To Robbins, a 36-year-oldmechanical engineer turned entrepreneur, there's no question about it.There's a bright future in broken wheels.

"I was driving my BMW in Texas a few years ago, hit a curve, damagedtwo wheels and the suspension," Robbins said. "Although theinsurance company was paying and the wheels were only steel, I decided to findsome nice aluminum ones. Through the newspaper, I found a business that could order mewheels. But they couldn't install them, so I had to go somewhere else for that. Right then, I decidedthat was not the right way to purchase a wheel. It seemed like a market niche no one was pursuing."

SoRobbins, a former project engineer for Shell Oil Co. in Houston and businessdevelopment manager at the INPACO Corp. packaging machine company in Nazareth,began investigating the wheel market. In 1988, he opened EuroCalWheels and Auto Accessories, a specialty retail automobilere-styler near his home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. While this business has been successful, it wasn't quite hitting the wheelniche. Steel wheels are virtually disposable, but Robbins found thatmodern aluminum ones are worth rebuilding. He learned that, with a bitof expertise, a steel wheel costing $125 can often be fixed for $50.But the real gold mine is the modern aluminum wheel, which often costs $350 newand can be repaired for between $75 and $150 in two to five days.Better yet, virtually no one was doing it.

"There are maybe a half dozen other businesses in this country thatrepair wheels -- in Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Indiana and California,Robbins said. "There are thousands of experts on almost every otherpart of a car, but no one knows anything about wheels.Everyone thinks damaged wheels should be thrown away."

So he looked up George J. Herschman, who in 1990 was developing sophisticatedmachines to fix wheels in his barn in Moore Township. Herschman hadbeen a director of manufacturing and machine development at INPACO while Robbinswas there. So, they became partners.

A year later, theyopened the Wheel Collision Center in the Airport Commercial Park and began plansfor 15 franchises or company-owned stores around the nation.

Robbins,whose education also includes an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineeringfrom Cornell University, has the marketing background to jump-start the company.Herschman, 50, who has been designing and building machinery for 25 years, hasthe technical know-how to do what many automotive experts had thought wasimpossible -- fix damaged auto and truck wheels at a reasonable price.

It's an idea that's caught on with insurance companies who are looking to savebucks on replacement parts. And likewise for motorists who notice their vehiclerides a little different after hitting a pot hole.

"I was talking about putting my second EuroCal Wheels store inAllentown, and even had a location picked out," Robbins said."George had left INPACO, too, and he contacted me about helping withpackaging at my company. After we got talking, I decided to put this second store on hold and got together with George on somethingelse."

Thus, began the Wheel Collision Center, asubsidiary of Advanced Machine Systems Inc. in East AllenTownship. Robbins, president, and Herschman, vice president,each own 50 percent of the operations.

With an initial investment of$35,000, they leased a 2,000-square-foot facility in the Airport Commercial Parkin East Allen and purchased equipment in May 1991. They also obtaineda $35,000 grant in 1992 from the Ben Franklin Technology Center at LehighUniversity, and $77,000 in 1993 for metallurgical studies on the wheels.

Herschman, who has designed several machines to facilitate wheel repairs, hasapplied for patents on several of his prototypes. Herschman'sequipment is designed to straighten bent wheels and renew broken and scratchedones. The refurbishing entails machining, welding, polishing andrefinishing.

"This is a wonderful state for potholes," Herschman said. "There are tons of damaged wheels out there."

Robbins estimated that there are 250 million aluminum wheels on American roads,making the size of the market up to $200 million per year. Whileannual sales at Wheel Collision Center are just under $1 million, Herschman saidthere's plenty of room for growth for the company that employs 10.

"This is not something you'd want to do in your backyard, like peopleused to do with their steel wheels," Herschman said. "Specialequipment is needed, and we have developed the prototype, applied for patentsand are on the second level of equipment."

Currently, theWheel Collision Center is fixing more than 400 wheels per month. But that willexpand when the company finds more locations.

"We feel that from our information, we are the most advanced of thewheel repair companies in terms of the quality of our work," Robbinssaid. "Because of our professional approach, we will be the marketleader."

The Wheel Collision Center's primary market extendsfrom southern New England to Maryland -- areas where wheels can be shipped oneway in a day. That way they can be repaired and returned to the ownerin four days or less.

"It's very important, obviously, to have these repaired wheels returnedquickly," Robbins said. "That's why we're looking for otherlocations in the country -- places where they can be repaired and shippedquickly." Robbins plans to develop the markets with bothcompany-owned and franchise operations. They recently invested in atoll-free number (1-800-292-RIMS) to help begin their expansion.

"We will find the best people we can and bring them to the point wherethey can operate independently of us," Robbins said. "Thatbusiness could run itself without me. That's a tribute to all the peopleworking there." He wasn't kidding. On the day he andHerschman were to be interviewed and photographed for this story, easternPennsylvania was hit with an ice storm. Not only was Robbins unable totravel from West Chester to the Wheel Collision Center in East Allen, but hiscar was back-ended by another motorist. "They'll be okay without me," he said, speaking from aroad-side hotel near his deserted car."I don't know about my car. One thing. The wheels are OK. And I know a place I could have gotten themfixed cheap, too."

- by Dan Shope, of The Morning Call

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