In 1991, I hosted my first Education/Technical session at my shop in Baltimore, Maryland. Back then, we were gathered at my little shop and discussed Ford Ad-Tech radiators and the first computerized radiator catalog program. Flash forward to October 2020. We just completed a two-day virtual conference with more than 180 different accounts logged in from more than a dozen countries including the United States (and Puerto Rico), Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Brazil, Cameroon, the United Kingdom, Poland, China, and Australia. Compared to other industries, perhaps we have been slow to evolve, but I believe the virtual conference is a testimony to the resilience of an industry continually adapting to the new business climate.
In 1981, when my Pops and I started in the radiator business, there were roughly 15,000 radiator shops in North America. NARSA had five regional conferences and a national convention along with various Ed-Tech meetings each year. Membership was above 1,500 members, and outside an OEM dealer, the only place a consumer could get a radiator was from a specialized radiator business.
My involvement with NARSA started in the early 80s. My first conference was a Northeast Regional in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and soon after that I attended a national convention in Las Vegas at the Riviera Hotel. Some of the members of NARSA seemed bigger than life. There was a hustle and bustle about the organization that was captivating. Today, radiator businesses are scraping to get their share of the radiator market. This is evident by the association which is also trying to constantly evolve and carve out a place in this niche industry.
There are several NARSA/IDEA members who remember the days of the past and have fond memories of the way the radiator business was. However, the one reality is: nothing stays the same forever. From soldering radiator re-cores to tig welding aluminum coolers, our industry is still relevant, but it has evolved over the years by acquiring new skills necessary to service the different types of heat exchangers that are in the marketplace today. Just as your radiator repair business is different today compared to the way it was at the end of the 20th century, the trade association which represents your industry is different today also. There are plenty of choices when it comes time to replace that radiator in your Honda Accord, so as an industry, we have found areas where our specialized skills are needed. We are like water flowing down hill as it takes the path of least resistance. Business does the same as it looks for markets and services to replace business that has been gobbled up by large mass retailers.
From soldering radiator re-cores to tig welding aluminum coolers, our industry is still relevant, but it has evolved over the years by acquiring new skills necessary to service the different types of heat exchangers that are in the marketplace today.
Your association has done the same, and we are a reflection of your business and the marketplace. Just as there are fewer radiator repair businesses, NARSA/ IDEA has fewer members. Just as your business has had to find a niche, the association is providing support for niche industries and hopefully exposing new niches and opportunities to its members.
Today, there are approximately 3,000 businesses who dabble in radiator replacement and or some form of radiator repair. Out of the 3,000, there are only 500 businesses whose primary income is produced by the servicing and selling of heat transfer products for mobile and stationary applications.
Most of us are aware of this information, so why is this important to note? These facts serve as a background or foundation for the story of the association and where we are today compared to 40 years ago. NARSA has added IDEA, the International Diesel Emissions Association in an attempt to capitalize on another niche business our members have expanded into. The association no longer has a vast pool of businesses to appeal to, but rather a small niche industry, whose very survival is attributed to the entrepreneurial spirit so often found among small business people who refuse to allow their businesses to wither away.
As human beings, we are wired for personal contact and personal interaction. Just as babies require being held and talked to when they are born to ensure healthy psychological development, the vast majority of us never stop craving personal contact with family, friends and business associates. Even for those who are introverted, personal contact at some level is necessary to maintain a healthy psychological demeanor. There is no substitute for in person meetings and the gratification that comes from seeing your friends and acquaintances. NARSA/IDEA’s staff and board of directors realizes this, but also realizes the need to fulfill our mission in the midst of a pandemic which makes our normal means of meeting impossible.
One year ago, virtual conferences were not on my radar. I had used Facetime and the occasional video conference, but the pandemic forced us to utilize technology in a way that I had not previously thought about. Zoom is almost an everyday occurrence for us as it is a way to interact while keeping everyone safe. Our entire world is different than it was in February at the beginning of this year. We all yearn for a return to the way things were, but will they ever be the same, really?
It is easy to resist change but at some point, boldness is required for the benefit of progress. I am thankful to the NARSA/IDEA Board of Directors who supported the virtual conference platform and to our great staff who dedicated so much time and effort to make this new venture worthwhile and rewarding for our members. Without Linda and Mary Margaret, Vision 20/20 would not have been possible. We are extremely fortunate to have two special ladies who poured out their talents and time to ensure a successful event. We also owe a debt of gratitude to our sponsors who took a chance to support something new because they are committed to helping the association fulfill its mission. We are eternally grateful to our staff, sponsors, and members for supporting the association.
This editorial was originally published in the Sept/October issue of The Cooling Journal.