From Passion to Product: Reinventing a Company Through Innovation

Today’s Machining World Archive: September 2006 Vol. 2, Issue 09

The machining community is filled with ideas about making better products. The challenge is to take the imagined product, then the tinkered prototype, and finally, the working model into the marketplace. And if the market embraces the new product, how do you take it from product to business to brand? For dreamers and contract machine shop owners, Corsa Products of Berea, Ohio, and Manth-Brownell of Kirksville, New York, are working examples of companies in the process of turning their ideas into viable market winners.

ENTREPRENEURIAL BENT

Jim Browning Sr., president of Corsa Performance, started out making exhaust components for the marine industry in his garage in 1989, after leaving his senior management job at an automotive components group. Building on his love of boats—he has built three himself—Browning went to two nearby boat manufacturers and asked what their biggest problem was. They told him it was water surging down the exhaust system into the engine. Engines at that time were equipped with valves to stop the water, but the ones on the market failed frequently, causing major headaches for boat owners and the manufacturers.

Browning set out to solve the problem, and with the help of a former NASA engineer, developed a new antisurge valve that’s now found on the majority of boats with inboard engines. Browning and his two sons started making the valves themselves, hand mixing the batches of silicone that form the water seal. His next problem was developing a new exhaust diverter valve to direct the exhaust path through the propeller for quiet operation or through the hull above the waterline for maximum performance.

A major marine engine manufacturer had a complicated pneumatically operated diverter valve that was heavy, expensive and prone to failure. Browning devised a much simpler mechanism driven by a proprietary high-power solenoid. That product was so successful the engine manufacturer dropped its product altogether.

From there, Browning developed exhaust systems that are now found in nearly 80% of boats on the market. The company grew to 115 people, selling high performance exhausts around the world to the marine and automotive markets.

Browning was satisfied making marine exhausts, until the automotive world came calling.

John Lingenfelter, a renowned builder of high-powered Corvettes, asked Browning to build an exhaust system for a new Corvette package. Of course, he needed it in two days so the car could be tested by writers for Car & Driver and Motor Trend magazines. During the tests, the car suffered from droning, a low-frequency hum that’s annoying and fatiguing for those inside the vehicle. Browning wasn’t satisfied, so he went back to his engineers for a solution.

Nine months and eight iterations later, Corsa’s patented Reflective Sound Cancellation technology was born. Browning got an early publicity boost when the exhaust was fitted to the Corvette pace car for the May 1998 Indianapolis 500. He started shipping product in June 1998.

The RSC technology uses the sound waves themselves to cancel out certain frequencies, much like waves from pebbles dropped in a pond collide and subside. Inside a car or truck equipped with a Corsa exhaust, the bothersome low-frequency noise is banished, making normal conversation possible, even in a diesel pickup truck under full acceleration. Outside, the roar and rumble that enthusiasts crave is still impressive.

The fi rst Corsa exhausts were aimed at the Corvette enthusiast market, but have since expanded to include many GM models and vehicles from other manufacturers, including Dodge, Ford and BMW.

PATENTLY PROTECTED

Browning was quick to patent his technology, even though there was little danger of anyone stealing it at the time.

“Sometimes you have an idea, and people look at it and don’t think anything of it, like our car muffler,” Browning said. “It’s taken a while for people to appreciate the value of it, but they certainly do now.”

He regrets not securing a patent on the shape of the exhaust tips, the showy chrome that lets observers know the exhaust system is something special. That shape is starting to show up on competitors’ products.

“The next time I come up with some new exhaust tips, there’s going to be as much patent protection as I can possibly get on it so we that we don’t have people stealing from us,” Browning said.

GROWTH MODE

Corsa recently adopted a new distribution model, leaving behind a relationship with General Motors and placing its products with major distributors and wholesalers for mail order, specialty shops and warehouses that reach about 46 % of the marketplace.

The company is also spending more on promotions, becoming a corporate sponsor at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and increasing its marketing outreach as it adds more vehicles to the lineup.

“We’ve elected to spend money on product development instead of advertising,” Browning said. “Everybody that has a Corvette knows about Corsa, but for a Chevy pickup truck, maybe not.”

With the new distribution model fueling growth, Browning is considering building a new factory and research center because the current facility is running three shifts a day and there’s no more room. It’s not the first time Browning has been in this situation, as his previous employer went through a similar expansion. The lessons he learned there enabled him to lead Corsa into its next phase, including bringing on board qualifi ed people with experience at the auto manufacturers.

CHOPPER CHALLENGE

Management at Manth-Brownell, a $24-million manufacturer of turned parts in Western New York, is looking to bring new energy and hopefully a new line of business to the company by making custom parts for the motorcycle industry.

Wes Skinner, president of Manth-Brownell, said the idea germinated in a strategic planning session.

“We said we need to be getting into higher complexity work, and we kicked around a lot of ideas,” Skinner said. “The energy in the room began to come up when we got around to things where we’re doing our own products.”

The group considered products such as jewelry and hardware, but a shared passion for motorcycles won the day. The team decided to enter the custom chopper arena by marketing to bike builders who need a steady stream of unique, high-quality bling bling for their projects.

“We are customizing anything that you can do on a motorcycle that would be unique,” Skinner said. “Our theory is to go into something where there’s a lot more energy and excitement, and position ourselves using customization. We are looking for products that flow out of that.”

After only four months on the project, TV cameras have been in the plant twice, as the Fox Network taped segments for a biker build-off program featuring custom parts turned at Manth-Brownell.

Skinner had found that building relationships with bike builders and generating publicity may be more important than machining skills.

“It’s all based on connecting with people and getting them to like you,” he said. “There’s a whole motorcycle culture, and you have to join that culture.”

Skinner and his team set aside a budget for developing the business and hired a designer. The goal is to develop a business before the budget is exhausted. Being a part of the TV shows is a step in the right direction for the fledgling effort.

“Notoriety is what we’re looking for,” Skinner said. “This is high energy, and it’s a break from screw machining. It’s something where our people get to see the end product.”

Skinner has added a graphic designer to his staff. His traditional screw machine business of Wickmans and Davenports did not prepare him for his one-of-a-kind designs for choppers. But he and his staff are learning on the fly.

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