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Parts business powering Janesville company

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JAMES P. LEUTE
September 19, 2010
— As it travels a new business path, the Janesville-based Certified Parts Corp. must crawl before it walks and walk before it runs.

“I think we’re now starting to walk,” said Jay Grafft, vice president of the company’s Comet Division.


Two acquisitions in the last 18 months have more than quadrupled employment at the company, which was founded in 1976 to meet the growing demand for replacement parts for recreational vehicles.


If expanding from 11 employees to 49 is what happens when a company goes from a crawl to a walk, Certified Parts will want its laces tightly tied when it starts to run.


“Hopefully, there’s a lot more people to be hired,” said Grafft, son of company founder and CEO Jim Grafft and brother of Britten Grafft, the company’s vice president of business development.


Earlier this month, Certified Parts signed a deal with a South Carolina company to jointly manufacture air-cooled engines for the outdoor power equipment market.


Certified Parts and the Graffts laid the groundwork for the deal more than a year ago when they bought the assets of the engine division of TecumsehPower Co.


Before it ended engine production, TecumsehPower made gas engines for snowblowers, generators and other lawn and garden, industrial and agricultural applications.


Production that had been spread between plants in Tennessee, Wisconsin and the Czech Republic were consolidated to Grafft-owned properties in Janesville and Edgerton.


The move brought 275 semitrailers of product, parts and machines to Rock County. While hard to come buy, materials still trickle in from the Czech Republic.


The recent deal with Liquid Combustion Technology of Travelers Rest, S.C., gives Certified Parts the engineering, manufacturing and sales capabilities to reintroduce the Snow King line of snowblower engines and other engines formerly manufactured and sold by TecumsehPower.


The engines will be sold under the Snow King, Lauson and LCT brands and serviced exclusively by Certified Parts and the existing TecumsehPower dealer/distributor network.


Jim Grafft said TecumsehPower’s failure created a void in the market that competitors such as Briggs & Stratton have tried to fill.


“But there’s still a need for these engines,” he said, noting that the Snow King line has powered more snowblowers than all other brands combined.


This year’s crop of snowblowers and engines have been built and shipped. Certified Parts and LCT are looking to next season.


“There are only a handful of customers that use these engines in significant volume, companies such as Husqvarna, MTD, Ariens and Toro,” he said. “As original equipment manufacturers, they have to see us get back into production.


“This is not a ‘build it and they will come’ deal. They need to see that something is happening here.”


Grafft said TecumsehPower was the only company that produced two-cycle engines for snowblowers, and that is a niche Certified Parts will fill when it builds as many as 10 different engines in Rock County.


In South Carolina, LCT will handle the high volume production of mass-market engines.


“We could have a prototype engine in six months that’s ready for winter testing,” Grafft said. “That’s important, because the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are not going to take a chance on something that could fail.”


At this point, Grafft is uncertain where Certified Parts will produce the engines.


They will be made in Wisconsin, he said, and most likely in Rock County. He would need about 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space, which he noted his available in a building he owns in Edgerton as well as others in Janesville.


In the meantime, Certified Parts has spread its recent acquisitions throughout buildings in the two communities.


Much of it, however, is in a building on South Jackson Street in Janesville, one of the city’s oldest manufacturing facilities. On the first floor, an injection-molding operation stamps out a variety of parts. Thousands of Tecumseh products and parts are stacked nearby in cardboard boxes.


Upstairs, workers meticulously build carburetors to service TecumsehPower products. The group started building 200 carburetors a day but can crank out as many as 800 when machining and parts allow.


“We’re having trouble keeping up with the tremendous appetite for carburetors,” Grafft said. “We’re probably 20,000 behind, but there is probably no part as critical as a carburetor.”


Earlier this year, Certified Parts bought the assets of Hoffco/Comet and has restarted production on South Jackson Street and in Edgerton. Hoffco produced lawn and garden equipment, while the Comet brand produced clutches, torque converters and other items for industrial and commercial applications.


That deal brought 45 semitrailers of material to Rock County.


“We’ve been busy since the acquisitions,” Grafft said. “We moved a lot of stuff, changed vendors, changed tooling, dealt with the problems in the Czech Republic, reinvented the assembly process and are getting up and running.”



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