Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2013   by Steve Pawlett


Navigating today’s murky friction material and rotor aftermarket requires a great deal of savvy and a thorough understanding of the product, as well as solid supplier and installer relationships. But with competition so fierce today, it can be tempting for many jobbers to circumvent one or more of these essential steps in a desperate attempt to hold onto market share.

To understand how the waters got so murky, we have to go back a couple of decades, to when cheaper offshore parts began to flood the market. Back in the1990s, the economy was not in a massive recession, and these new super-cheap parts had a “wow” factor. Jobbers could now buy parts for a lot less and make greater margins with the belief that these offshore parts were of the same quality. But this was soon proven not to be the case. You simply can’t reduce costs to that extent without sacrificing something in the process, and today, the aftermarket is overrun with sub-standard pads and rotors. “At the time, it created a false impression to the market that a new money tree had grown,” explains Ed Demirci, vice-president of Durotech.

Fast-forward to today, where the world economy is struggling to come out of a global recession the likes of which has not been seen for many decades. The recession just added more fuel to the fire for cheaper parts. But now, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, as more and more consumers are choosing to hang on to their vehicles longer and are spending more on repairs to ensure performance and reliability.

“While more and more consumers are choosing to spend more to maintain their vehicles, too many jobbers are still caught up in the race to the bottom,” says Kevin Fleury, sales director at Transbec. “Cars are built better so fewer parts are wearing out, resulting in fewer sales. But friction will always be a seller. It’s designed to wear out. So in an effort to recapture or maintain market share, many jobbers are racing to the bottom – offering the cheapest rotors and friction material to get that sale and hopefully gain additional business,” explains Fleury.

over the past 25 years, consumers have been slowly but steadily migrating to dealership service departments for brake solutions, as they perceive them to be of higher quality and a safer option,” adds Demirci.

According to the 2012 J.D. Powers Aftermarket survey, even though independent repair shops still hold a leadership position over dealerships in the eight to 12-year-old vehicle category, with 43% of the market versus the dealership share of 38%, customers in this category are clearly migrating to the dealerships in their search for better quality parts. The survey stats show dealerships have gained five points in the past year, growing from 33% to 38% of the brake work in 2012 for vehicles aged eight to 12 years. Newer vehicle brake work remains unchanged at 62%.

Durotech puts on a number of clinics every year with jobbers and installers, and one of the questions Demirci asks installers is, “How many of you currently purchase parts for some of your jobs from dealers?”

“Upwards of 80% of the installers in the room always put up their hand, and the look of horror on the faces of the jobbers in the room is palpable,” says Demirci. “Here they are killing themselves thinking everyone wants the cheapest rotor, and meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, their clients are paying premium dollars to dealerships for certain parts. It’s really a case of not keeping a finger on your client’s pulse.”

A lot of jobbers think business is poor because they see a dip in business from some of their regular customers, when in fact these “loyal” clients have gone to other sources looking for premium product.

Ramzi Yako of Promax echoes these sentiments. “I had a call recently from a customer who normally doesn’t buy from me because my product is more expensive. I asked him why [he wanted to buy from me], and he said his normal supplier’s rotors were just too thin, and ‘I’m not going to put them on a truck.’”

Without this kind of feedback, many supplier shops are unaware of why they are losing business from certain clients. It behooves jobbers to get out from behind their desks and visit clients on a regular basis, to get a better handle on their changing needs and remain their supplier of choice.

“We brought in a good line of rotors that is a first-line product, and everyone was jumping on it right away – because everyone wanted something better. So this tells me there is an issue out there. Whether it’s a quality issue or techs [being] forced to do brake jobs twice, there is an issue out there,” says Yako.

“The perception of saving a few dollars on a rotor is really misleading,” he adds. “Sure, you pay a few dollars less, but you are getting a rotor that weighs 25 to 40% less than the original equipment. How will you get enough heat dissipation when there simply is not enough steel in the rotors to absorb the heat, or there aren’t enough fins to effectively cool it? The heat has to go somewhere, and that means the pads will get extremely hot and noisy and wear out faster,” explains Yako.

“A lot of aftermarket brake manufacturers aren’t OE suppliers. They’re doing the best they can from a technology standpoint, but they simply might not have the necessary insight into the latest brake system operating requirements,” says Peter Murnen, global marketing director, Federal-Mogul, manufacturer of Wagner brake products. “As an example, GM is coming out with new brake pads that work on rotors that have been treated to prevent ‘lot rot,’ which is common when vehicles sit in a lot for extended periods. The friction material we design for these rotors has a higher Mu level [a measure of friction] to enhance their performance. That’s just one example of something an OE brake system supplier does, day in and day out, to make sure their replacement pads are just as good as or better than the OE parts.

“One of the easiest ways to evaluate the quality of a manufacturer’s line is to ask whether it is an OE brake supplier. OE involvement is absolutely critical in this category, because each new generation of vehicles presents an entirely new set of braking requirements. That’s what sets Federal-Mogul and Wagner apart from many other aftermarket brake suppliers – we are also a global OE brake manufacturer. So the same engineers who are designing the OE brake pads for the big three, Asian, and European applications are working on our premium aftermarket products. That’s important to technicians and shop owners, and it’s important to consumers. There are a lot of new things going on within the OE sector; we are on the leading edge of understanding what those things are and how the friction materials and rotors should work. It is very important that jobbers understand this and recommend premium brake lines if they want to build stronger customer relationships,” adds Murnen.

The quality differences in brake pads can be huge. With no standards or regulations to set a minimum standard, virtually anything can be found in brake pads at the low end of the scale – from asbestos to cardboard. To avoid noise, low-end pads tend to be softer, creating more dust and sacrificing the life of the pad.

“You get what you pay for,” says Jim Marsh, a long-term tech instructor with Raybestos.

“The lower-end friction material and price point rotor will do the job. Yes, there is potential for less longevity and for noise. You take a plain-Jane vehicle with no problems and put economy stuff on it, and the odds are you will get no noise and no problems and a good friction coefficient that stops the vehicle like crazy. But you take a Dodge Charger, if the rotor isn’t precise and the calipers aren’t 100% and if the metallurgy involved in the rotor is sub-par and you throw on a cheap set of pads, you’re going to run into problems no question,” explains Marsh.

Presenting the facts clearly should result in an easy upsell to a premium line. If they ask about the lower-priced option, let them know it is available, but be sure to explain to them that the brake job will not last as long and the brake pads and rotors are a lower grade and may fade in emergency braking situations. Is this risk really worth the small savings? The labour rate to do the job is exactly the same cost, no matter what parts are used. The only difference is the cost of the premium parts compared to the low-end product. Premium brake pads and rotors may cost more; but the brake job is going to last two to three years, as opposed to one year, it comes with full warranty, and the components will perform at or better than OEM spec.

This approach allows the consumer to make an informed choice, rather than the jobber or installer making an assumption on what level of quality parts to install without the customer’s input.

“Premium rotors have become very popular now, mainly because of the affordable price and the needs of the consumer for both a better appearance in ‘open wheel,’ and also an improved coating to prevent rusting due to the inferior materials being used in offshore manufacturing. Fit is generally not an issue for both friction and rotor categories, and brake pads have shifted to ceramic materials to eliminate noise and dust. Premium quality pads now come with hardware, and a jobber should look for characteristics like ‘true’ ceramic pads, ‘scorched in’ for a smoother break-in process, and semi-metallic pads for applications like heavy trucks, commercial vehicles, and fleets,” adds Dean Weber of Proforce Automotive.

The proliferation of substandard brake pads and rotors and the lack of a minimum standard are leading the aftermarket brake industry down a path that will soon bring driver safety into question. In fact, there is already a precedent in the United States, where there are lawsuits pointing at sub-standard brake parts as the cause of accidents.

“I believe it will be the insurance industry that finally will drive the need for a standard,” says Demirci, “when they begin to turn down claims, saying, ‘I’m sorry, we cannot cover you because the brakes on your vehicle are not the same grade or quality that the vehicle was originally equipped with.’ When your car has sub-standard brake pads on it as opposed to the original equipment level pads, it’s pretty tough to win that argument.”

“A standard would be a good move for the industry. We need to ensure customer safety and we need to protect our environment and the health of our technicians by eliminating any brake pads with asbestos. I endorse the SAE’s recommendations for testing procedures to be used for the measurement of brake linings, materials, and disc brake pad wear. Vehicles have more horsepower and performance today than in the past – as a result, the brake system has to dissipate more thermal energy – the rotors are essential here, and proper quality standards testing should be the direction of the future,” adds Weber.

“The European union has regulations not only on brakes. We have them on the medium duty and the heavy-duty side of it – why can’t we just implement it on the light truck and car market as well?” asks Yako.

Fleury agrees. “I think there should be a standard. There are tests available, but they are not mandated by any governing body. This step would definitely level the playing field.

“Right now, virtually anyone can go offshore and bring back pads because the minimum shipping orders are lower now and they can literally peddle them out of the trunk of their car and there is no liability or recourse,” adds Fleury.

Given the current murky state of the brake friction and rotor aftermarket and the growing complexity of brake parts, a move to standardized testing for light trucks and cars may not be that far off.