When the Metro Spirit last talked to Mark Branum, president of Augusta-based America’s Remanufacturing Company, his business, which remanufactures vacuums, was in the midst of an incredible growth spurt. They were going from handling 20 percent of the North American remanufacturing work for TTI Floor Care, the company that owns Dirt Devil and Hoover, to handling all of it.
That day, as he waited in his office for 30 semi loads of returned items to arrive from Juarez, Mexico, he had 35 employees. To cope with the new growth, he expected to add 65 more, topping off at about 100. Forty-five days earlier, he was at just 15.
That was approximately 14 months ago. Today, he’s got 192 employees and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“We feel there’s a very good possibility of doubling in the next 12 months,” Branum says. “That means we’ll go from 190 employees to possibly 350 employees. We really don’t know where the top is yet, but we know we’re not there.”
While still doing all the North American remanufacturing for Dirt Devil and Hoover, Branum just signed a contract with Electrolux to do the same thing for Electrolux and Eureka products.
The growth has been phenomenal. Branum says he’s the largest vacuum cleaner repairman in the world and jokingly refers to himself as the Michael Jordan of vacuum cleaner repairmen. But all that growth has meant an awful lot of moving around. Fourteen months ago he had just moved into a 36,000-square-foot building on New Savannah Road and was renting an 18,000-square-foot building across the street. Now, the 36,000-square-foot building is their recycling facility and the one across the street is where they store their boxes. They also occupy the old Serta Mattress factory off Walton Way for their shipping building and are in the process of constructing an 80,000-square-foot warehouse.
Currently, production and receiving are located in a 180,000-square-foot building on Gordon Highway. For a size comparison, a Walmart Super Center is 160,000-square-feet.
More impressive than the size of the operation are the numbers they operate with.
Every day, the company receives three to seven trucks of vacuums that have been returned. If they are not salvageable, they break them down for recycling, but, if they are, Branum’s 11 production lines remanufacture them, at which point they are repackaged, complete with a new label, a new manual and a new data plate, and sold as refurbished items at places like Big Lots, Roses and Fred’s.
In addition to that, Hoover has its own store on eBay, and Branum supplies all the items sold there as well.
“In the last two days, we’ve shipped in excess of 700 vacuums direct to customers,” he says of this growing portion of the business.
The daily numbers, however, are even more eye-popping.
“We’ve got over 100,000 vacuums in stock right now waiting to go into production,” he says. “We’re producing 1,500 full-sized vacuums a day, and we’ve had big weeks where we’ve hit 10,000 vacuums in production, so it doesn’t take long to go through 100,000 vacuums. Not when you’re doing that kind of volume.”
Because he wants to be a constant employer, he says managing the flow of product is important, which is why he’s spending more and more time these days in his office looking at the numbers.
“We’ve got to control the throttle so we don’t wake up one morning and have to fire half a crew,” he says. “We want to give good, consistent, solid jobs to individuals, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re controlling the throttle on how fast we build.”
Ensuring the quality of their product is an important part of their success, Branum says, which is why the 15 people in quality control are so valued and the process they follow is so stringent.
Every time a line goes from building one product to another, for the first three days of that production, the quality control team goes through 100 percent of the production. If they don’t find bad examples or problems, that number drops down to 20 percent.
The team also checks 100 percent of the first pallet of the day and 100 percent of the last pallet of the day.
“These guys are on a production bonus,” Branum says. “If they don’t get a certain quality score from the quality team, they don’t make bonus. I don’t care how many you’ve built, if you build crap, you’re not getting paid for it.”
Besides providing jobs himself — he says he never has to advertise when openings arise — he also takes pride in helping expand the local economy by buying local whenever he can. Like printing, which he does through Quality Printing out of North Augusta.
“We print 1,600 of the color lithos and 1,600 manuals every day,” he says. “Just to support our production, they’ve had to add employees.”
The same is true for other items, from boxes to shrink wrap to toilet paper.
“When you’ve got 190 people in an organization going through toilet paper every day, it will blow your mind how much money you spend on toilet paper,” he says.
Because each production line has a washing station, he has 11 Hobart conveyor dishwashers and he buys more dish soap from his local supplier than any school or organization in Augusta.
While much of the operation is traditional hands-on, heads-down labor, new warehouse management software is poised to take the business into the future, giving employees the ability to track products the same way an airline tracks luggage.
Perhaps the most exciting new change is the addition of the corporate direct store, where customers will be able to purchase products directly from Branum at a small fraction of what they cost in the store.
“Augusta is going to be able to buy a vacuum cheaper than anyplace in the world,” he says.
Because they are end of life models or products where the small number they receive doesn’t justify setting up a production line, a separate department prepares them for direct sale, and the profit goes directly to Branum.
“Anybody in retail would love this concept,” he says. “I don’t have any rent because I’ve got it anyway, I don’t have any electric bill because I’ve got it anyway and I don’t have any labor because I’ve got it anyway, so this store should be very profitable and the consumers can get a deal they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.”
Because of the amount of product they receive and the cost of moving it across the country — Branum says freight costs run over $100,000 a month — he’s contemplating expanding to another location, possibly Dallas, but in spite of the rapid pace of his recent growth, Branum tries not to lose sight of what he considers important.
“My insurance agent tells me I’m his 20-year overnight success,” he says. “I’ve been in business for myself since 1984, and I enjoy what I’m doing today more than I’ve ever enjoyed anything in my career.”