SPARKS (Jan. 15)- Any vehicle that moves has some sort of driveline, the shaft or axel that brings the power from the motor, through a transmission and/or transfer case to the wheels. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 4X4, construction truck, rock crawler, off road racer, pick up truck or a new car, they all have some version of this.
And, like anything mechanical, some times those parts need to be either repaired, replaced or modified depending on what the vehicle’s purpose is.
Working on drivelines is exactly what Drive Line & Gear Service on Glendale Avenue has been doing for the past several decades. And for owner Tom Hauptman, it’s just about the only job he’s ever done.
“I went to work for them sweeping floors in 1978 right out of high school,” he said. “I’ve been with them ever since and we built this building in 1986.”
His involvement began when a friend of his father owned what was then Drive Line Service. At that time it was part of a franchise that began in 1971 when no one in the country specialized in just drivelines.
After growing to 122 shops across the country the franchise was disbanded in 1986. Eventually Hauptman worked his way up to manager and when his boss decided to retire he bought the business.
“So I’m here 36-years. I started sweeping floors and I still sweep floors,” he said with a laugh.
When the business began it dealt only with drive lines doing repairs, modifications, assembly and customizing.
“We do anything that has a drive shaft from little PTO driver shafts for water trucks, any construction equipment to the huge equipment from the mines,” he said. “We do marine, boats, race cars of course, lifted four-wheel drives, rock crawlers and we do a lot of hot rod work with the resurgence of Hot August Nights and old cars. Those people are putting in different transmission so they have to have the driveshaft shortened, lengthened or what ever, that’s what we do.”
He added that when many people buy old cars now they’ll get a pretty one at an auction then they want to get in and drive it, so they want a turnkey car. Others that aren’t interested in a full restoration will install new motors, transmissions and drivelines.
He also mentioned that if a person has a 4X4 truck and wants to modify it there can be problems, ones that his shop can solve.
“Lift kits are a big deal as it looks good but you change the geometry of the whole vehicle,” he said. “You try to make that truck ride, drive and steer like it’s right off the showroom floor but it’s very difficult. And that’s what we can do with angles and drive shafts.”
Hauptman explained that the 4X4 market is a big part of his business.
He mentioned that most have heard of Dana Spicer and the drive line parts that company produces. Well Hauptman’s shop is a Spicer Warehouse Distributor for all those parts.
As the years went by he kept getting calls about problems and modifications that required gear changes.
“Eventually we threw up our hands, and you know what, we got into gears. So back in 1986 we expanded the business to include gears so now we’re known as Drive Line and Gear Service,” he said.
He then used the example of putting larger tires on a truck as they sap the low-end torque from the motor. So it’s necessary to change the gear rations to compensate for this.
“We do a lot of repairs, have a 5-bay shop in the back of our facility here and have three mechanics going every day on rear differentials, transfer cases and of course on our drive shafts,” he said. “Most everyone in Reno has one or two 4-wheel drives and one their car. But even Soccer-moms drive 4X4’s as this is the 4-wheel capitol of the west and it’s a big industry.”
The shop also does a lot of work on rock crawlers as they’ve become more popular. And Hauptman pointed out that many times the owners don’t really consider the drive shaft when building one of these.
“They’ll drive it up to our shop on a trailer and have me look at the drive shaft,” he said.
After being told it won’t work they’ll say it has to. At that time Hauptman lets them know they should have thought about this before they built the crawler. Then he offers to solutions to their problems.
“But again that’s our forte at problem solving and we’re trying to help these guys out. So we have a pretty big rock crawler business,” he said.
As a result the business has morphed into three businesses with all being related to drive lines. This includes gear changes, work on differentials, transfer cases, a lot of fly-wheels, clutches as well as installations of positraction rear differentials.
“We also have about 400 drive shafts in stock ready to be exchanged on an exchange basis,” he said. “If a person has a worn out stock drive shaft they come in, we’ll measure it, give you one of the shop’s and they’re out the door. So our service is pretty fast as we can fix a drive shaft faster than you can have lunch so downtime is minimal.”
The recent economic downturn did affect the business but it was hit and miss for them.
Their biggest hit was servicing construction vehicles as many companies put them into mothballs or used some of their fleet for parts. And while other firms were pulling in their reins to save money and stay alive there were other opportunities springing up.
“But on the other hand we’ve done more repairs on vehicles with 2- and 3-hundred thousand miles on them because people were keeping their vehicles. They’d lose their 2010 brand spanking new trucks so they pulled their old 1979 Chevy out of the weeds and were driving that,” he said. “People can’t afford a brand spanking new $50,000 truck like they used to so now they’re keeping their older stuff longer.”
While he feels the economy is getting better he doesn’t feel it’s where it should be. In fact he described construction as timid.
“The fun money, the play money is not there. The construction guys with a pocket full of money that want gear changes for towing their boat to the lake and stuff like that, that’s not there like it used to be,” he said. “Now we’re living on more repairs than anything else.”
The mining industry also changed. Before they took care of their equipment themselves, and Drive Line got some of that, they now have a single vendor that takes care of everything. He said mining is a very tough market to get into.
And like any businessman there are challenges. Hauptman cited his biggest as being the rising cost of doing business.
“It’s growing all the time and I’m always amazed at the permits, health care, the overhead insurance, everything. The cost of parts, our suppliers don’t even send us price sheets anymore, it’s all on a computer and they don’t even tell you if it’s going up,” he said. “When you order a part you get it in and see the previous cost was $100 and this is $106.”
He added that a business just can not pass on that cost to the consumer. One advantage is he still charges lower hourly rates than the dealerships but that gap is narrowing.
“You’ve got to stay lean and the profit margins aren’t near what they used to be. The double-digit profit margins at the end of the year are long gone,” he said. “My old boss used to say, ‘if you can make a good living, treat your employees right, grow a little bit at the end of the year and have some left over, you’ve done well.’ And that’s basically what small business is all about.”
Another problem he faces is how price driven everything is. He used the example of Universal Joints where you can put several out ranging from $4 to $25.
“These days people don’t have any money and they’re hoping it works and they’ll save $25,” he said. “You can explain the difference but 80% of the public would take the $4 one. It’s made in China, going to work, fit and they’re hoping it’s going to last.”
That can cause problems if a customer brings in a low quality part and his staff installs it. Then the question of warranty is up in the air as if a part fails, who does the customer send it to.
Making this challenge even worse is the Internet as people are shopping on there all the time.
“The big box stores, even in our industry, live on zero margins. I don’t know how they make it since I know what they buy it for and what they are selling it for. They work on 100% volume,” he said.
Hauptman added that there are people on the Internet working with virtually no overhead, selling things at cost then making a profit by charging more for shipping.
“You can look in the Internet and they’re a cut throat bunch of Yeahoos,” he said.
However he admitted the Internet does work both ways as he and his staff uses it since the web is a vast sea of knowledge as he defined it. And he too buys things off the Internet.
One example how useful it can be is when they run into a problem they’ve never seen before. Putting it out on the Internet they’ll usually find someone that can help them with the information that’s needed.
“It does have its uses but as far as a competitor it’s a brutal one,” he said.
Unlike those low overhead operations he has to consider his staff, as they need a paycheck to pay bills, take care of their families while he has to buy insurance, pay the rent and keep the lights on.
Another challenge he mentioned was how few young people are interested in the business.
“In the last five years I don’t think we’ve had two people apply for employment. Young people don’t have the interest in cars, its computers and other stuff, that’s where their interest lies and not in turning wrenches,” he said.
Another problem impacting the industry are the rising costs for the consumer. He explained that a decade ago it was easy to see either high school college students in trucks with lift kits.
Back then Hauptman said the cost was from 500 to 600 dollars but now those kits start around 500 thousand dollars and few if any young people can afford them.
As cars get more expensive and complicated he feels the very small shops will go away as they won’t be able to generate any profit margin. But at the same time, while vehicles are lasting longer they are vastly more expensive to repair.
“In the old days if you had 100,000 you had an old truck. Now if you have 300,000 that’s no big deal as they’re better but the cost of repairs are bigger,” he said.
One example is that a new transmission in a truck could cost an owner from 6- to 8-thousand dollars to fix but not many fail. However after they are sold through one or two other owners any repair costs might be more than the used vehicle is worth.
Looking ahead he said, “It’s a difficult sell as in this day and age as the only things we have to sell is our knowledge. We’ve got 175 years of accumulated knowledge here in our shop, our knowledge, experience and our integrity.”
And this he said is a critical factor and one reason he’s still optimistic as he feels an established shop with its continuity and the knowledge the staff has will be the key to getting through all this. That and the business’s reputation as well as being a warehouse distributor for everything they deal with should help his shop survive.
All those factors came together during the recent Ultra 4 Nationals at the Wild West Motorsports Park in October.
“It’s a different sport and to us here at the shop it was a bit on the wild side because we kept trying to keep people going,” he said. “They would break something, race in here, we’d fix it then they’d race back out there to run again.”
Locally Hot August Nights is another event he really likes. And these older cars bring the shop a fair amount of work.
“It’s so phenomenal because it really appeals to everyone from the little bitty to the 90-year old grandmas. I see them sitting on the street saying, ‘hey I rode in one of those.’ It’s a magical time and I love to visit with the old guys because they’re so proud of their vehicles and I do my best to help them out.
And helping the customer or someone in need is one of the things he enjoys.
“We have a lot of knowledge and we don’t mind helping people. Anything with drive train issues, we’re more than happy to help. Anything I can help them with, I’m here,” he said.
For further information about Drive Line & Gear Service one can visit their shop at 1325 Glendale Avenue, about a half block east of Rock Boulevard or check their website at, www.drivelineandgear.com