2023 Spring Conference Wraps up in Rochester

Dozens of NARSA/IDEA members descended on Rochester, New York for the 2023 Spring Conference. The two-day event was hosted by longtime NARSA/IDEA member Empire Radiator, owned and operated by the Schelkun family.

“Hosting this event was my dream, so it was both exciting and terrifying, but all the work we did to prepare was validated by NARSA/IDEA members,” said Jim Schelkun. Several NARSA/IDEA members told Jim they had followed Empire Radiator on social media for years. “They said they saw what we did on Instagram, and they were even more impressed when they came in person. Many of them said after visiting our shop, they walked away with ideas to improve and build up on. So I guess you can say mission accomplished!”

On Thursday, April 27, attendees gathered for some technical presentations outside Empire Radiator’s facility. The first session was Selective Catalyst Reduction (SCR) Conversion by Austin Ormond from Diesel Laptops.

As a new member, this was the first NARSA/IDEA conference for Raymond Neill of Federal Mufflers/Techno Tubes based in Québec, Canada. “I was more interested in the DPF content, and I definitely learned from Diesel Laptops’ presentation. I learned more about how to diagnose SCR, and they did a demonstration of their scanning tool. It was worth the trip for me.”

Neill also said, “It was good meeting new people. I actually met some people who I’ve only spoken with over the phone, so that was great.”

Randy Garner of Western Maryland Safety Consultants led 3 presentations which covered OSHA standards, hazard recognition, proper rigging techniques, and other common safety mistakes. After each presentation, Gardner spent several minutes answering different questions regarding specific safety scenarios.

“My biggest takeaway was the OSHA safety discussion,” said Brian Dunnam, American Radworx Service Manager. “I’ve known for a while that we need to add more safety measures into our shop. Like Randy Gardner said, we don’t want those guys just walking in the door and slapping fines everywhere. Because covering the shop is the secondary benefit. The first benefit is keeping our guys safe.”

Rochester was Dunnam’s fifth NARSA event. “I’ve never been to a NARSA event where I didn’t learn something. I go back to my shop, fired up to make changes for the better,” said Dunnam. “I have always have a good time seeing others from the other shops that I’ve made connections with. And I make a new connection every single event.” 

After a delicious lunch from Uncle Buck’s Catering, members walked through Empire Radiator’s 30,000-square-foot facility and viewed various demonstrations. The theme of the 2023 Spring Conference was “Fabricate to Generate Profits.” The goal was to showcase how Empire Radiator has successfully invested in equipment to be able to fabricate parts, which in turn, expanded services and the Schelkun’s business. 

Empire Radiator’s welder and fabricator Sam Murray has been in the industry for more than 30 years, but this was his first NARSA/IDEA event. “I don’t really talk in front of people much, but it’s been a lot of fun,” said Murray. “I’ve met a lot of really nice people. The biggest questions I received were about the big fixture table we have and about how it works, which was a surprise to me, because I have worked on fixture tables much bigger than this over the years.” 

Philippe Trentin of Armand Signori Radiateur came to Rochester from about 5 hours away in Quebec, Canada. Trentin has been a NARSA member since 2000 and has been to several events over the years. “I love coming to NARSA events, because you get to talk to people who are doing the same thing as you, but they’re doing it a little differently so it opens your mind to new practices. It’s not always better. Sometimes, your way is better. But there’s many ideas out there, and you get real one-on-one time with suppliers.”

Trentin added that he always walks away from NARSA events learning something new. “The conference was very interesting. I got to see so many things I didn’t expect to find. I saw some equipment that I didn’t know existed, and I saw some tools that they made here that surprised me. There was an apparatus to bend over the straps for fuel tanks. Another tool, the fixture table, will prevent us from interrupting someone else working because they have to hold pieces together. We’re definitely going to copy that!”

James Wilson of Barton Radiator Works said he was impressed with Empire Radiator’s equipment. “They had some neat test plugs and neat jigs. I was surprised at how simple it can be and what it can do. Jim Schelkun had a jig for forming T-bolts into a strap. My brain always said, ‘Oh it’s got to be complex.’ But it’s literally a rod and a square bar welded to a flat bar, went into a vice and he bent it. I have always over-thought it.”

This was also the first NARSA event for Wilson who lives in Ontario, Canada. “I’ve always wanted to go to a NARSA event, but it was always kind of far away. We’re a small shop of 4 people, so if I leave, it hurts. But this was about 3 hours away, so it’s close enough to drive.”

Greg McKenna, J-MAC Radiator in Salt Lake City, Utah said he learned some new DPF processes at Empire Radiator. “I’m very interested in DPF service and regeneration. There’s things we have been doing for years, but we’re learning new ways to improve our processes.”

McKenna has been attending NARSA events since 1981. “I wanted to come to Rochester, because I missed last year’s event in Houston, and afterward, I was really kicking myself. There’s always a takeaway from every event, and just one idea could save you $20,000 or make you $50,000. There’s people out there that are doing things better than you, and you have opportunities to learn about their processes here. If you’re still in the cooling business, you’re serious about it. And NARSA includes the very best shops who are left.”

Brian and Amy Haese of Pickart’s Radiator in Wisconsin were also among the attendees. “It was cool to see Empire’s equipment and to see how they’re up to speed,” said Brian Haese. “We’ve gotten a lot of good ideas of things we can use back home. We’ve also gotten a chance to talk with people about things we’re trying to learn for the future like good financial information and good social media information that’s going to help us grow our business.”

The conference continued on Friday, April 28 at the Strathallan Rochester hotel. The first speaker was Lisa Schaffer of North American Trade Schools, whose presentation titled “The Blue Collar Dilemma” touched on how business owners can potentially partner with trade schools. 

Brian Dunnam from American Radworx was also impressed with Schaffer’s session. “We’ve actually got a tech school right up the road and a tech college further up the road, so we’re going to look into that as soon as we can. I’ve got six full-time technicians, but we’re so busy that we’re stacking work outside. We’re going to look into the tech school for some extra help as we grow and bring the brand of the business further out. It will be good to get out in the community and participate, maybe go do demos and partner with the schools.”

NARSA member Will Garrett also led an interactive presentation on social media. He showcased different ways shops can highlight not only their jobs and products, but how they can also post interesting photos and videos in a way to connect with their communities. 

Jesse White, Amherst-Hamburg Radiator Auto & Air’s General Manager, said Will Garrett’s presentation especially struck a chord with him. “I’ve been dabbling in social media, so Will definitely shed some light on some unique angles I can try. I’d say all in all, it was a great conference.”

One special moment during Garrett’s presentation was a message about making memories. Garrett handed out dozens of $2 bills and had everyone write NARSA 2023 on it as a keepsake. 

White also said attending the Rochester event was a no-brainer. “It’s always an added bonus when you can drive here. This was a convenient one for us. I definitely had to make this one since it was right in my backyard.”

The 2023 Spring Conference keynote speaker was Joel Block of Bullseye Capital. Many attendees thought Block’s presentation on what it means to be an Advantage Player™ was very interesting as he compared successful entrepreneurs to experts Black Jack players.

“As far as the speakers, Joel Block’s outlook on the various things in the world was really interesting. I never thought of that,” said Bill Rickermann of Affton Radiator in Missouri. As a longtime NARSA member, Rickermann says he’s probably been to 45-50 NARSA events over the years. “You always take away a learning experience, and it’s good to see my old friends like David Bienvenu. It’s just good to see the old guys.”

After lunch at the hotel, the conference continued with a Table Top Exhibition featuring more than a dozen different companies who also sponsored the event. 

In addition to connecting with other NARSA members, engaging with vendors is a highlight for many attendees. “I’ve probably been to 10-12 events over the years,” said Jimmer Seger of Seger’s Industrial Radiator in Morrisdale, Pennsylvania. “NARSA events are how we find out about our new vendors and what people are selling. Networking is great. We have a lot of friends here. Some are vendors, some are radiator shops. You get to see what someone else is doing in other parts of the country and try to pick up on little things and learn from them.”

Meeting with members from all over the world is another highlight for attendees. “It’s a great opportunity to talk about the business,” said Steve LaRouche from SKL Aluminium. “Every time I come to a NARSA event, I learn new things.”

Although LaRouche has been to many NARSA events over the years, this was the first conference for his employees Michael Marks and Francois-Neil LaPointe. 

“You know, we are from Quebec Province, Canada, and it’s funny,” said LaPointe. “I was speaking with others, and we were saying how we’ve got similar problems to solve like attracting good people. We’re all dealing with the same problems, so it’s good to chat within the industry.”

“Events like the 2023 Spring Conference fulfill NARSA/IDEA’s mission of One Idea, One Opportunity, and One Connection,” said Mark Taylor, NARSA/IDEA’s Executive Director. “Our goal is to provide different opportunities for members to network with one another and share ideas whether it’s expanding, investing in new equipment, growing their social media presence, learning how to be an Advantage Player™, partnering with trade schools, or general problem-solving. Because of events like the Spring Conference, NARSA/IDEA members can meet face-to-face and return to their businesses with a fresh motivation to better their business.”

Frank Finger of Finger’s Radiator Hospital has been to a NARSA event every year since 1958.

“At the time I went to my very first convention which was in a motel in New Orleans, we were a 2-man radiator shop: my father and myself,” said Finger. “I knew no one, but I went out there, because I heard about NARSA. Every year after that, I met more and more people. And every year, I started to get more involved. To make a long story short, that was the way I built my business, just by meeting people in NARSA. I would go to every single booth and talk with every single person out there. Each year, I was able to meet different people, maybe another person to distribute for, or someone with a great idea about distributing. And from that, we grew to 35 warehouses and 300 employees. It was all through NARSA.”

Finger has worked with many NARSA members in the past, and because of those relationships, he’s learned some important lessons. 

“Bryan Braswell’s grandfather was a guy who came over to me at a convention one time,” said Finger. “He had this deep Southern voice, and he came over, and said, ‘Frankie, if I sell you something for $10, and you sell me something for $10, we won’t improve very much. But if you give me one good idea, and I give you one good idea, we both walk away very rich.’ And that’s the story of NARSA.” 

“NARSA has a way of circling back to this common theme: One idea, One opportunity, One connection,” said Bryan Braswell, NARSA/IDEA’s President. “That will help your business, and the fact that my Grandfather and Frank Finger were discussing how important sharing ideas was back in the 80s still holds true today. We’ve based our entire association on helping one another for 70 years, and it’s amazing to still see it in action today.”

“The fact that you have so many industry leaders in place at a NARSA/IDEA event, you can’t walk away and not learn something,” said Jim Schelkun. “You have to come with an open mind, and just listen and talk to people, and the answers come and the ideas come.”

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