Thirty Years And Counting
Thirty years ago Espar of Michigan was born, although at that time it was called something else — Proficient Heat Inc.
Ray Lawrence, founder of Espar of Michigan, worked for Peninsular Diesel Inc, a Detroit Diesel Allison distributor in Dearborn, MI until 1985 after starting there in 1974. In the early 1980s, Peninsular Diesel became an Espar products distributor. At that time, Lawrence was the leader of the service department so it became his responsibility to learn how the new products worked.
“I just sort of latched on to it and thought it was the coolest product ever,” Lawrence says. Whenever a product came into the shop Lawrence was tasked with repairing it and he became an expert on the Espar product line.
Peninsular’s original maintenance and service dealer (MSD) got transferred to another company and Lawrence became a dealer for the new distributor that was actually a truck and auto parts repair company. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the company was not doing much with the Espar product line, but recommended that Lawrence become a distributor. Thus Proficient Heat was born.
Lawrence set up the business, but was basically working out of his car. “I remember we were doing a lot of school bus work and I would drive to the school district bus garage with two heaters in the back seat of my car and a tool box in the trunk,” Lawrence says.
You may recall in the 80s that fuel was less than $1 a gallon so making a case for a fuel-fired heater was not that easy, but Lawrence loved the product, believed in it and kept working to get it installed.
In 1999, he moved the operation to a building in Romulus, MI and changed the named of the business to Espar of Michigan. The building also housed the corporate office of Espar’s U.S. operation. At that time, Espar wanted to be close to “the big three” automobile manufactures in order to capture business from the automotive market.
Things went along fine until 2008-2009 when the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy. “We had a 5,500 square foot shop and it was empty,” Lawrence says. “We had people buying parts from us, but it seemed like no one wanted to pay for service thinking they could fix the units themselves.”
Lawrence recalls an a-ha moment when he was on a walk with his wife, although to this day there is still some confusion about who came up with idea to change the business model. Ray thinks it was his wife’s idea, Ray’s wife, thinks it was Ray’s idea! Kind of funny! Lawrence says Espar of Michigan has always done well with parts sales because he made sure to have the right inventory on hand. “If someone came in with an Espar heater we hadn't seen before or did not have a part on the shelf for, I would order two of the same parts to make sure we had it in stock for the next time.”
Regardless of who gets credit for the idea, while on that walk with his wife the idea of esparparts.com was born. Despite having no background in e-commerce, Lawrence launched the website and recalls dancing around the room when he sold his first product — a $15 thermostat — off the site. Today EsparParts.com is thriving.
In 2010, Espar of Michigan left the shop in Romulus and partnered with Verner Technical Services (VTS). Lawrence calls this “one of the best business moves we have ever made.” Brian Verner, according to Lawrence, “was doing services on tractors and Class 8 trucks when he was 14 years old, so he has always been in this business. He’s a real truck guy”
Lawrence adds, “He knows how important it is to make sure the job is done right the first time.”
The new business model has Espar of Michigan and EsparParts.com doing a lot of the same things they’ve done for 30 years, “only much, much better” Lawrence says. “We have surrounded ourselves with some really great and talented people that love what they are doing. Loving what you do makes a big difference, for you and the customer!”
When asked why he did not simply shut the business down during the Great Recession, Lawrence says that thought never occurred to him. Calling himself an optimistic person, Lawrence says he believed in the product and knew that as fuel prices rose and emissions regulations tightened, there would be a strong market for Espar Heater Systems and the necessary expertise that few have.
And it seems as if Lawrence was right because as he puts it, “The last couple of years have been the best years we’ve had over the past 30 years. We have landed some big accounts and have developed strong relationships with some significant fleets.”
As for the future, Lawrence is upbeat saying that Eberspacher, manufacturer of the Espar product lines, continues to refine its product offering, improving performance and becoming a viable option for more applications. “We have new products being launched and we are continually putting our products in new applications”comments powered by Disqus