By Lloyd Graff
Todays Machining World Archives May 2007 Volume 03 Issue 05
When you enter a machining firm which cuts millions of pounds of brass bar each year, you expect to find a line of New Britain screw machines or Davenports – bunches of almost identical automatics methodically turning out fittings.
But at Marshall-Excelsior Corporation in Marshall, Michigan, the machinery assortment reflects the eclectic taste of its owner, Jeff Begg. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Warner-Swaseys, New Britains, Davenports, Wickmans, National Acmes; 5-spindle; 6-spindle; 8-spindle; a menagerie of screw machines bite at the brass rod, turning out Jeff’s variegated mixture of niche market non-ferrous fittings.
Begg’s mixture of screw machines cannot be easily type-cast. If it’s a good buy and it cuts brass with efficiency, he’s usually interested. Jeff Begg has built a thriving independent fittings business in southern Michigan amidst the wreckage of automotive-land by following his instincts and his own intense personal scrutiny of the fittings marketplace. Marshall Excelsior reflects the particular style and taste of Jeff Begg, who says, “I guess people say I’m eccentric,” not just because of his collection of screw machines, but because he defies the notion of the blueprint-bound engineer, even though he is an engineer by training.
Fit for a Collector
Jeff Begg makes fittings, but he also collects rare books on a variety of topics, particularly Scottish history and horticulture. He also loves car racing. He has two vintage Offenhauser Indianapolis-style race cars that he adores and rebuilds. And he’s into antique glass too.
Begg’s interests are overflowing. So are his books. He is constantly buying and occasionally selling out of his collections. He keeps adding bookshelves, but a lot of his books are still in boxes at his two offices in Marshall and his home in Battle Creek.
He says he spends ten hours a week buying and selling on eBay and a bevy of other internet sites, but people who know him well say he’s always got the computer trolling for the next find. His eBay credentials are impressive. He has 8,645 stars (representing feedback on items bought and sold), which is probably just a fraction of his transactions just on that trading venue alone.
Jeff Begg is an avid reader. He devours four newspapers every day. He reads many of the books he purchases. They are not merely trading vehicles. He is fascinated by his Scottish heritage and thirsts for more knowledge and more Scottish volumes.
Begg has a roving intellect that allows him to move from his hobbies to his business in intersecting loops. Marshall-Excelsior has had to weave through the roadside bombs of Chinese competition, violent price swings in brass and copper, dying brass casting suppliers, and the chronic shortage of screw machine professionals. Yet Begg’s company keeps growing. He has around 100 employees, and the firm is profitable. He says his strength has been finding the niche markets where fast service and dependable supply trump cheap foreign competition and big company muscle. His specialty fittings are especially strong in the LP gas markets. Forklift truck propane gas connectors anchor his line, but he keeps adding new pieces that his stable of distributors can sell.
Begg is self-deprecating about his own technical and managerial skills, but the Marshall-Excelsior line keeps expanding, aggressively competing with the giants like Parker and Eaton with their off-shore capability and virtually unlimited capital and reach.
Begg buys his castings and forgings exclusively from domestic suppliers. He says he hopes to continue to be able to pursue this practice, though he acknowledges the possibility he may eventually have to go to China for cost savings. His U.S. purchasing is for both patriotic and pragmatic reasons. His forte is quick turnaround on jobs, so a long off-shore supply line would hinder him in that approach, but Begg is also staunchly pro-American in business and deplores the decimation of the Michigan manufacturing economy. He sees the middle-class lifestyle of Midwestern factory workers going down the drain with the decline of the domestic Big Three and the culling of Tier One suppliers.
Begg has consciously steered clear of OEM automotive. He does some job shop work, but finds the commodity pricing arena increasingly problematic. His primary business push is toward expanding his brass fitting product line in consultation with his distributors.
I last caught up with Jeff Begg at the M & S Manufacturing auction sale. He needed Winter thread rolling attachments for his National Acmes. He bought the rebuilt heads, which were in as-new condition. They were the first of fifty Winters to be sold. Begg’s bidding strategy was straightforward.
“Jeff says his strength has been finding the niche markets where fast service and dependable supply trump cheap foreign competition and big company muscle.”
He needed the heads. They were the best available, and he was going to buy them unless they were bid up to a stupid price.
He ended up paying two-thirds of the new price, but he got exactly what he wanted.
Begg is an extremely sophisticated auction bidder. On eBay machinery bids, his style is to hold back until the last possible moment to bid. On eBay alone he has over 2,500 positive feedbacks in the past year.
But Jeff, the canny Scotsman, saw that in the M & S situation – holding back was not going to work for him, so he played a different game.
Whether buying books or threads rollers or building his product line, Jeff is always assessing the action and plotting his next move.