EMMETT RADIATOR SERVICE HOURS OF OPERATION: 5730 CLEVELAND AVE MONDAY - FRIDAY 8AM - 5PM EL PASO, TX 79925 PHONE (915) 772-3219
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Article presented here is from the Automotive Cooling Journal as written by Art Jones. Art Jones visited Emmett Radiator Service in 2000.
BUSINESS BY DEGREES° When triple digit temperatures are an issue, Emmett Radiator Service knows how to get it right the first time
Most of us don’t think of cooling system service and repair as a life or death activity but then, most of us don’t have a shop in El Paso. West Texas summers are historically hot and triple-digit temperatures are not uncommon even in April. Out there, if you’re out of town and off the main road, you’re on your own. Walking out of this high desert is an ill- advised option at best.
Mike Emmett, president of Emmett Radiator Service, Inc., and his techs have a firm grip on the importance of getting it right the first time, every time. It’s what they do, and they do it well -- a family tradition spanning nearly half a century. Mike’s father, Chuck Emmett, Sr., along with an uncle founded the company back about the time Ford discovered fins. By 1959, Chuck had bought out his partner, and in the mid-1960s added a parts wholesale and distribution operation. To put it simply, Mike grew up in the shop, and that’s where you’ll still find him. The El Paso cooling and A/C season starts in April and runs through the end of August. Mike’s usually there Monday through Friday. Getting him to sit still long enough for an interview, well, that’s another matter.
It takes a little over an hour to fly the 600 miles from Dallas to El Paso. The tan and green patchwork of farms below quickly gives way to the straight-line patterns of oil patch roads and pipelines scratched into the aired landscape of the Permian Basin. As you continue west, the DavisMountains break through the monotony of red dirt and sand. Unlike the granite monoliths of the Rockies, these mountains were once ancient volcanoes. The occasional hot springs found along the range indicate the ancient fires are still smoldering somewhere deep below the surface. Large, green circles in the red sand, created by modern irrigation systems, mark the eastern fringe of the El Paso, Texas/Juarez, Mexico area.
Humans have lived here for countless centuries. Spanish explorer AlvarNuñezCabeza de Vaca probably sighted the pass created by the RIo Grande river through the FranklinMountains. Spanish-American explorer Juan de Oñate later visited the site in 1598 and named it El Paso del RIo del Norte (the Pass of the River of the North).
A mission was founded at the site of modern Ciudad Juárez in 1659. As a result of the Pueblo revolt of 1680 against the Spanish in New Mexico, whites and some Christianized Tigua and Piro peoples escaped to the south, where they established missions and settlements at Socorro and Ysleta. Ysleta, now a part of El Paso, is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in Texas. GROWING WITH THE CITY Emmett Radiator Service is located on a quiet side street a mile or so east of downtown and only a few hundred yards from 1-10. The facility consists of two buildings separated by the parking lot and surrounded by chain link fencing. Radiator service and offices occupy the south building and A/C the north, along with 2,500 square feet of warehouse space .
As I parked the rental car, a pair of mourning doves bobbed and strutted along the curb looking for a few seeds before the midday heat would drive them up into the trees. The forecast called for a high near 95, cool for mid May. The week before, temperatures were nudging the century mark.
Mike was at his desk on the phone, a frequent activity this time of year, and after brief introductions, led me to the break room and its welcome pot of coffee. The space doubles as a customer waiting area with a comfortable couch, table and chairs, a vending machine and a gas grill. It’s clean, neat and all the required state and federal employee notices are conveniently displayed. First impression? This place is run by professionals! With the batch of morning brush fires successfully tamped out, Mike and I headed off for a tour. He’s long-legged, lanky, and may hold the “saunter” land speed record — that’s the Texas-style walk that looks slow but covers a lot of ground. Between his desk and the service bays of both shops, Mike probably covers a couple of miles a day. The radiator repair facility consists of a “plastic room” where plastic and aluminum units are repaired and pending work is staged. A separate bay is dedicated to the large truck repair and reassembly work. Down at the far end of the building are the testing and flush operations, the new ultrasonic cleaner and overhaul bay. The second building houses A/C service and repair. Again, the facilities were clean and orderly, employee-safe and customer- friendly. I had the impression it was usually that way after all, they only had a day’s notice that “company” was coming for a visit.
Like many second-generation owners, Mike began learning the trade at an early age. “I started working for my dad when I was 12 - summers, after school - like that,” he recalls. These were hours well spent. Mike can weld, laughs easily at adversity, and understands the importance of keeping employees and customers happy and the shop profitable - in that order.
“Customer satisfaction is always our bottom line,” he explains. “We had a customer come in for some A/C work. The car had just been repainted — an expensive job, and the owner was real proud of it. We took extra care to keep things away from the car during service, but when the customer returned he pointed out two little dents in one door. I said we’d make it right, have it fixed, no argument. I probably spent $350 to fix a car that came in with $150 worth of repairs. I don’t know if it was our fault or not. That wasn’t the issue. A satisfied customer — word of mouth advertising is your best advertising — that was the issue. He’ll be back, and he’ll tell his friends. You can’t buy that kind of loyalty. You have to earn it.” Mike has spent most of his life learning the value of customer relations. After graduating high school, he went to work full-time managing the family retail and wholesale business. In 1983, he bought the company from his father. Mike was only 23 years old at the time. “He came to me and said, ‘You know, I want to pursue other things. I think you’re ready, let’s cut a deal,’ so I did. He’d been working since he was 17, and I think he just needed a break.
He took about three years off, got his Realtor’s License, and did a lot of Christian volunteer work for the church,” Mike explained. “Then, three years later, he offered to buy back the warehouse and distribution part of the business he wanted back in. The first year we split the operation, we each doubled our side of the business.” After his father retired a few years ago, Mike purchased the warehouse back. Living in this era when rapid growth seems to be the norm — when fortunes can be made and lost overnight it’s refreshing to find someone hesitant to rush into things. Mike Emmett may be the epitome of the first rule of business: Think, Plan, Act. “When I first bought my father out, we had three employees and one truck. Now we have 15 employees and four trucks. We try to buy one new piece of equipment a year and keep up with the technology and the regulations. It’s been good, slow, steady growth as the city has grown, and we’ve grown with it.”
And the city has grown significantly over the past few decades. El Paso is the commercial and industrial hub of a mining and agricultural region producing cotton, fruit, pecans, vegetables and livestock. Manufacturing activities in El Paso include copper refining and the production of food, clothing, construction materials, electronic and medical equipment, and plastics.
Emmett Radiator Service has the capability to handle virtually any size job that might come in, from irrigation pump engines and off-road farm equipment, to the over-the-road rigs that haul produce and other products to market. When you add the personal vehicles of a potential customer base of nearly two million people and the growing tourism industry, the opportunity to grow profitably is obvious.
“Agricultural, off-road work is sort of seasonal,” Mike explains. “Right before planting we get a lot of John Deeres— we do a lot of John Deeres. But this time of year the bulk of my business is going to be road rigs — Peterbilt, Kenworth, Freightliners. We do Cat work. I do the Cat dealer here in town. We do the Cummins dealer. I do work for the refinery, we do work for the railroad we’ve got a lot of good fleets.”
Many shops across the country have been hesitant to take the OEMs’ advice and approach dealerships with a “let us do this for you” proposal. Not every city is an El Paso, but the concept of cooperative effort seems to be working, at least for Mike Emmett. Setting up similar programs for fleets or industrial operations in your area might not be a bad idea, if you can handle the work. Mike takes a slightly different approach to the individual customer too. “We do a lot of retail walk-ins. Someone has a problem with their car, we look at it free of charge, then give the customer our best recommendations. We’ll give them a bare bones fix, and a turnkey. We give them options and ask them what they would like us to do, then we run with it.” There has been a lot of talk (and ink) spent in recent months advising shops to recoup diagnostic expenses by passing them along to the customer instead of considering them simply a “cost of doing business.” Sure, there’s time spent checking a system, and the customer may take the work to a competitor who’ll do the job for a little less money, or elect not to have the work done at all. Is Mike’s approach outdated, or simply less greedy? Does it pay off in the long run?
“It’s the right thing to do,” says Mike. “It doesn’t take much to figure what’s wrong with a cooling system. Some of our walk-ins will have a hard time paying for the repairs, much less a diagnostic fee. We have to keep in mind that a customer is also a person just like us. We keep some old parts around just in case someone can’t really afford new. We give them options to get them on the road again. Most of the time they come back when they can afford it.It may take a couple of paydays, but they trust us to do good work because we helped them when we really didn’t have to.”
ADDING A/C SERVICE TO THE MENU Up until about 11 years ago, Mike was content to service the cooling system needs of the area. However, expanding his capabilities to include the service and repair of automotive air-conditioning systems seemed to present yet another opportunity for growth. “That’s worked very well for us we were already doing the aluminum welding on the condensers and we were welding the fittings for lines for the guys building the hoses. I talked to my techs and we all agreed, heck, we’re already doing the hard stuff let’s do the gravy!” Mike applied his usual, cautious approach to the new endeavor. “You do a little research on the regulations, you make sure you buy the proper equipment, you train your guys, you get ‘em certified, and you run with it! It’s nothing to be afraid of— you just need to do a little research on what you need to do.” Since 1994, one of the primary industry issues has been the appropriate retrofit procedures to convert an R12 system to R134a. Mike takes the no-nonsense approach. “We shy away from doing any retrofit work, because of the seminars I went to through NARSA. Engineers from Visteon have said we have enough R12 to cover those cars forever. In my opinion, the R12 works more efficiently in those systems. Sure, you can change out condensers, or other components to get RI 34a to work okay, but by the time you do all that, is the customer really saving anything? “We do a lot of air work two thirds of the cars we work on in the summer are for air conditioning problems. If it’s an Rl2 system we use R-l2, and if it’s R134a we use R134a. We use a ‘sniffer’ on every A/C job, and if it doesnt register clean Rl2 or R134a, we don’t work on the car. I ask the customer to go take care of the refrigerant problem - take it back to wherever they were before and when it’s been evacuated properly, then we can work on it, then we can fix the problem. But right now, we’re turning down work we simply can’t get to. So losing a contaminated refrigerant job is just not a problem. Of course, most of the cars I see come in, are empty.” FORECASTING THE FUTURE Considering Mike had nearly 50 years of family experience behind him, I felt it was only appropriate to ask his opinion on the future of the industry. There are always a lot of rumors floating around: new 32-volt systems, increasing “smart car” technologies, consolidations and acquisitions all contribute to the hall-talk and water cooler telegraph. So, where does Mike think we’re headed? “Will there be challenges? Sure! We’re going to need to educate ourselves. If you stay stagnate, you die. One of the things I like about being involved in MACS and NARSA is that by going to these seminars, you get informed. You get the latest updates.
You educate your staff, you keep yourself educated to the best of your ability. You go to the hands-on tech sessions and you try to learn what you can and you meet the people that can steer you in the right directions to help us keep abreast of the changes as they come.
“You know, when [the OEMsI make a major change on the vehicle, normally the [aftermarket] repair facility doesn’t see a lot of it for three to five years. The rule of thumb is that the owner is going to take it back to the dealership while it’s under warranty. That’s going to give us time to let the dealers and the so- called engineer-experts who designed all this stuff to get the bugs out of it. Then, by the time we have to start dealing with it they hopefully will have the proper equipment available for us to purchase, get familiar with it, and service the vehicles.” As with most other things, Mike takes the specter of dramatic industry change in his usual, good-natured stride. Perhaps it’s the geography and the history of this area — a rugged land that has accepted change for millions of years as a natural course of events. More than likely though, it’s his inherited “do what you have to do” attitude. Accept it, learn about it, and keep moving.
IS THERE LIFE AFTER FIVE AND ON WEEKENDS? It has been said that you can learn more about a man in an hour of recreation than in a year of occupation. We went to lunch at Leo’s, which Mike claimed to have the best Mexican food on either side of the border. He didn’t lie. In a quiet booth, away from the phone calls and customers, Mike can relax a little and you get a glimpse of the man inside the “boss.” For the next hour and a half, we discussed a number of thins, some of them actually relating to the shop. Employees: “These are some of the best guys around. One of my radiator techs has been with me since '75, and a couple hired in '89. I hired another in '94 . In '98 we added another employee. We have continued to expand our staff within the last few years." “They all know I know how to do any job out there — I can lay down the prettiest bead with a welder you ever saw — so there’s no smoke and mirrors. They’re all qualified professionals and I respect their abilities."
“We try to close around five p.m., and we’re one of the few shops in the area that is closed Saturday and Sunday. We all have lives, and I think we all do our jobs better if we have some family time on the weekend. That’s not to say there aren’t emergencies, and I pay overtime for any Saturday work that needs to be done. I rotate the jobs among the guys, depending on the skills required some of them can use a little extra cash now and then — and that way no one feels singled out, or left out." “There’s a good sized grill in the break room, and when the weather is not too hot we’ll wheel it out and do burgers and hot dogs we work hard and there’s nothing wrong with playing hard too." “When I took over the business, I knew how to do the work, but I really didn’t have a handle on how the ‘business’ side worked. I didn’t realize you have two partners: the IRS and your insurance company. My mom kept the books for my dad, and did the same for me for quite a while. Six years ago, she told me she wanted to do some other things, and I was real lucky to find Judy she came to work for me in August, 1995 she’s a treasure! And that lets me do what I love to do and that’s run the shop.”
Customers: “You have to understand where you are and who your customers are. There are a lot of people here but some of them don’t have a lot of money. We work with them, try to meet their need in the most affordable way we can. We keep a few used parts around that might help somebody. Maybe they’ll come back when they can afford a better job. But at least they’ve got a car that can get them to work or school for a while.”
Competitors: “We consider our service area about 70 miles. There are some other shops out on the edge that we try to leave alone — after all, they buy parts from us. West Texas is a big area but there aren’t a lot of people in it. We’ve gotten work from FortStockton, Sierra Blanca, Alamogordo, Las Cruces, sometimes Odessa that’s getting out 170-200 miles. Competition isn’t really an issue for us.” Food and Family: “I love Mexican food. This restaurant (Leo's) does a good job, but my wife, Laura now that’s cooking!"
West Texas: “People either love this place or hate it — not a lot of mixed opinions. I love it out here. When I was a kid, my dad, my brother, my uncle and I would go rafting the BoquillasCanyon and SantaElenaCanyon in Big Bend. That was a lot of fun." “One time, we were floating down the river and on the Mexican side there were three Vaqueros I mean, one had the gold tooth, big sombrero, machete - this is the real McCoy here. My dad is bilingual, and asked them where would be a good place to camp, and the big one smiled real big and replied, ‘Right here!’ And my dad says, ‘No, I think we’ll continue down for a while.’ And we went quite a way and camped on the American side. We laughed about it — but still.”
Commitment: “When I got out of high school, I was offered this scholarship with some military strings attached. I talked to my dad about it, and he said it would be real tough to have mc gone for eight years he didn’t think he could keep things running alone. I made the decision to stay, and never regretted it. It’s what I love doing.” Mike Emmett is an easy man to like."
GETTING A PERSPECTIVE Our little planet has spun around a few times since Chuck Emmett, Sr. completed a radiator repair course and encouraged his son Mike to hang around the shop. The industry has grown large enough to he regulated. Computers have invaded the HVAC system along with OBD- I, OBD-2 and, or so it would seem, every other aspect of our lives. For many shop operators today, it’s like being caught in a raging river, swept along with only a modicum of control. But as Mike will tell you, there is calm water after the rapids. Emmett Radiator Service’s first truck was a white, ‘55 Chevy pickup. There’s a plastic scale model of one in Mike’s office and the real thing is being restored out in the shop. “I’m thinking it’ll take a couple more years to finish it,” Mike says. “I’ve got two others I’m using for parts. When it’s done, it’ll be our little show truck.” Staying in touch with the past, recognizing where we’ve come from and how we got here, is a good way to keep things in perspective. There’s nothing wrong with reaching out and taking the time to inventory our personal values and examine our goals, to realize who we are and why and to determine our future. Perhaps it’s easier to find yourself out in the desert. Watching the ancient Franklinmountains change color as the sun drops below the weathered peaks is somehow therapeutic. It’s not too difficult to forget all about dot-corns and bottom lines and the next Washington intrusion into our lives. It’s not too difficult to embrace, if only for a few moments, a simpler time — a time before Ford discovered fins.