As I’m sure many of our readers find themselves doing, I often ponder the future of my business.  Over the last two years, we have formalized our planning for the future with quarterly, yearly, three year and ten year plans. This process aligned our team in our goals for the future. We stand at the cusp of a seismic shift. How will the world be generating energy and powering the next generation of vehicles?  Like it or not, things are changing, and we need to be prepared for a time when the internal combustion engine will no longer be the dominant technology to transport people and goods. While this may seem intimidating and scary, the radiator industry has been here before.

In the Beginning . . .  .

Most early radiator shops started out as Blacksmiths. An example of this history is Don Hart’s Radiator.  Don’s ancestors, the Echols brothers, were blacksmiths who opened a radiator shop in Fort Worth, Texas in 1910. They recognized that this new “automotive technology” was the wave of the future. They trained at Henry Ford’s plant and learned how to service cooling systems for these new machines. To this day, the Hart family have been major players in the industry. From its inception, our industry has been particularly capable of adapting to new technologies.

I believe this adaptability was formed by unique circumstances. From the beginning, we have been a niche industry without a large amount of readily available procedures on how to tackle the jobs that come into our shops. With regional differences in climate and failure modes,  the average radiator professional had to be very creative and draw on their blacksmith roots to solve customer’s problems.  There are currently no labor guides for many procedures in our industry. Members are constantly drawing on their ingenuity and the NARSA/IDEA network to solve new problems.

The Only Constant is Change

In the 1980s, the plastic radiator came along, and folks spoke of this being the “death knell” of the radiator industry. While it certainly changed the landscape dramatically, those that recognized the need and figured out a way to solve their customer’s problem thrived. Names like Joe McGovern from Tanks and Tabs and Marty Newell from Active Radiator come to mind. These gentlemen were NARSA members with a vision. They recognized that the industry changing from traditional copper brass to plastic was not a threat to their business but an opportunity. They anticipated the change, and built strong businesses based around this new technology.

This inherent adaptability has also manifested itself into our members entering into whole new industries based on major shifts in technology. At a NARSA event in 2007, I was introduced to a strange technology called DPFs. It seemed like an odd fit. We were a radiator shop that was accustomed to soldering, welding, and replacing cores. But cleaning DPF filters? Tom Sutherland from Tanks A Lot/Enviromotive convinced me to take the plunge in 2008. Shortly thereafter, I had my new oven and associated DPF cleaning equipment in my shop. There was still a problem. I had no filters to clean!  Unbeknownst to me, most of these trucks were still under warranty, and my customers were sending them to the dealers. I received an occasional ribbing from then owner of ERS Cooling (now Executive Director of NARSA/IDEA) Mark Taylor asking, “How’s your pizza oven doing?” with a chuckle after not getting a single DPF job for 10 months. Within 2 years, though, DPF service became a major part of our business. I am grateful to Tom Sutherland for introducing me to the opportunities in DPF cleaning.  NARSA is now NARSA/IDEA to reflect the importance of DPF service in our industry. And Mark Taylor ended up buying DPF cleaning equipment shortly after as well… and eventually stopped asking about my “pizza oven.”

This last year has made me exceedingly thankful to be in the Radiator and DPF industries. We are niche businesses with unique skills that will always be needed. Trucks need to move and people need heat and air conditioning. Manufacturing needs compressed air, backup generators need to be ready to run, and industries need tube and shell heat exchangers. While there will always be ups and downs in  particular sectors, people need our services. This became particularly clear to me when I read about how dry cleaners were suffering because fewer people were going to the office or to formal events. While a restaurant can pivot to take-out and outdoor dining, the dry cleaning industry has been severely disrupted. Many of our members that I have spoken to have been thriving in the current market.  Undoubtedly, much of their current success has been due to their ability to anticipate the demand in their specific markets and adapt to the overall changing market. However, continued success long term will require us all to learn about future trends and adapt accordingly.

While I do not profess to know exactly where the market will go or how I will participate in it, I do know that I have to diversify my business and decouple it from dependence on the internal combustion engine. My job as head of Cooling Systems Caribe is to navigate our way through the fog and find a way to successfully make it to the other side. Like the Echols brothers and many others before me, I will continue to  identify how I can apply our current unique skill set to a completely new technology.  I say “Bring it on!” to future challenges. At the end of the day, I feel very comfortable betting on the adaptability and ingenuity of NARSA/IDEA and its members.    

Bobby Duran
NARSA/IDEA President
Cooling Systems Caribe
Aibonito, Puerto Rico