Rob Munro had an inauspicious entry into the automotive machine shop trade. Although he had developed an enthusiasm for cars in high school, it was only when that hobby got out of hand that he ended up working in the business.
It was 1984 and Valley Speed and Marine owner Eric Garret had just finished Rob’s dream motor. “It was a 350 Chevy, with nitrous etc. It was a fairly extravagant motor and I got totally carried away. Before I knew it I had racked up this huge bill.” Since he was still in high school, money was hard to come by for Rob. It’s a tale that is not unheard of, but the way it turned out is unusual to say the least. One can only imagine what Rob’s non-automotive parents–dad a computer programmer, mom a real estate agent– must have thought about his love of cars, especially after he couldn’t pay his bill. “They must have thought I was a demented child,” smiles Rob. “Eric kept hounding me for money,” he continues, “and I eventually went to work for him to work off the debt.”
Of course, it has all turned out okay. With Rob Munro at the helm, Valley Speed was selected from all North American shops as the Machine Shop of the Year at AERA’s Tech Show in April, the second time a Canadian machine shop has received the honor, with Ideal Supply Ltd., Listowel, Ont., winning it in 1998.
While his daily exposure to the business of a machine shop started with a bad debt, it was only when he got serious about it as a full-time vocation that it turned into a positive development. “About two months later I approached him about apprenticeship,” says Munro.
That got him started in earnest, but Munro’s real break came six years later. That’s when different business ventures led the owner to leave the management of Valley Speed to Munro. It was during those years that he learned about running a business, “between watching mistakes and doing things the wrong way,” he says.
When he bought the business in 1994–with a subtle name change to Valley Speed Machine Shop Ltd.–he set about transforming the business.
“I had managed the company for four years. I had so many ideas and so many things I wanted to try.” One of his first moves was to computerize many of the management functions. He had seen the Pace system at some of his customers’ shops and figured he could easily adapt the work codes to his needs. It helped him reduce office staff and keep better track of the business’ work flow and costs.
He also had to take a hard look at the niche the business was targeting in the town of 85,000.
“When I first took over, I was only going to focus on the things we were good at.” That meant performance, of the type that got Munro into the business in the first place, but the market was dwindling. “In our area, performance is a good set of tires and a whopping stereo. It’s still our specialty, but if you can’t fix pretty much anything and everything, you’re not going to do well. We started taking on some weird stuff.” That included jobs like reconditioning high-pressure fertilizer pumps with pistons that have a tungsten carbide overlay (you can’t machine them, they have to be ground). This kind of work tends to be more profitable than the run-of-the-mill engine rebuilds, but all jobs are important to Munro and maintaining a good reputation in such a small center as Kamloops is critical to success.
“Everybody knows everything about everybody. We can all do a quote and we can know who got it. You have to back what you sell. You have to go out of your way to make sure the guy leaves happy.
“The garages have their own association and they meet about once a month. All it takes is a few bad words to cause a problem.”
In such a limited market, one issue that continually faces Valley Speed is competition. Munro works hard at making sure that customers understand why he doesn’t get into price matching.
“I try to get them to come down to the shop and show them what they’re getting.” Those who do come down find a startlingly clean workshop with modern equipment. Munro’s so proud of it–and so comfortable in it–that he regularly holds seminars on engine technology and invites tours from schools and other groups. He makes a point of reaching out to the community in a number of ways.
“In all honesty that comes from my wife, Charlene. Her family owns a resort, so she knows about marketing.” In a combination of community service and marketing savvy, for example, an engine rebuild for the local ski bus was parlayed into radio advertising time, benefiting everyone concerned.
He has also ended up as the key source for an article on engine rebuilding in The Daily News, Kamloops’ leading newspaper. It’s a progressive attitude that carries over to his view on training.
“As soon as I took over, I insisted that we all go for our ASE Master Machinist certification. I don’t think it necessarily sells more engines, but it makes you a better person.” He says that he is always willing to foot the bill if an employee wants to pursue additional training, whether for machine shop related skills or other areas. Training continues even today, with the AIA Motive Power Machinist program in progress.
“The easiest way to look smart is to be surrounded by smart people.” He says that the more someone is willing to learn, the more dividends it pays in other areas of the business, such as communicating with customers. He’s willing to accept the fact that sometimes an employee will take those skills somewhere else. He says too that it’s becoming increasingly important to learn computer skills and how to tackle work in an organized fashion.
“It’s nice to have mechanical aptitude, but it’s almost easier to teach them that.
“If we get the attitude that we already know everything, then we’re in the wrong business. You have to have the frame of mind that there’s something to learn. This is a changing business.”
It’s clear that many things have changed at Valley Speed since Munro joined the ranks of the machine shop. The company has changed, business has grown 25% in six years, and the market has changed. Last but most definitely not least, Rob Munro has changed from the blindly enthusiastic motorhead who hated school and couldn’t pay his bill, to a progressive owner with a vision of the future.
On every front, it has been a change for the better.