Nestled in the folds of a sleepy suburban bosom, the tiny town of Lebanon, Ohio, is home to 20,000 people, along with one of the most infamous Republican GOP meeting spots in America, several water towers, and the world’s largest licensed General Motors restoration parts manufacturer. The latter is a sprawling 77,000 square foot warehouse is home to Restoration Parts Unlimited Inc. (RPUI), and houses a large chunk of its paint booths, lathes, casting molds, jigs, carpet stamps, and machining presses. While many of these tools are specifically designed for the creation of a very unique part, all of them share a single goal: create parts that exceed the quality of the original OEM ones they are replacing.
What most people don’t realize is that after a car reaches a certain age (typically between five to 10 years) a manufacturer will stop producing a lot of parts for it unless it is deemed utterly necessary. This gives companies like RPUI the chance to purchase all of the automaker’s old casting molds, and in this particular case, land the rights to produce GM certified restoration parts. No counterfeits here folks, everything here is the real deal. So if you need badges for your ’57 Chevy Bel Air, or tail lights for your ’52 Suburban panel truck, RPUI has you covered.
Formerly known as Trim Parts Holdings Corporation, RPUI is a parent company to a group of restoration focused production facilities that consist of Trim Parts, PUI, First Place Auto, Mr. Mustang, The Right Stuff Detailing, and SoffSeal. And while RPUI may have the largest stake in the manufacturing of OEM-grade parts for GM, each of these other companies cater to a specific portion of the market, with the majority of these parts being restoration components for classic GM, Mopar, and Ford vehicles. Owned by Dubin Clark & Company, a private equity firm headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut, RPUI and its affiliating companies are now a part of a much larger family of automotive brands that includes the likes of Flowmaster, Hurst Shifters, Hurst Driveline, B&M Racing, and Dinan Engineering.
So imagine our joy when the Cheat Sheet was invited to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities, sit down with the company’s President and CEO, and chat with the VP of Supply Chain Management to get an hour-long exposé on what makes this whole operation tick. Having the goal of making aftermarket parts more affordable, durable, and readily available requires some pretty forward thinking, and in the case of classic American car parts maker RPUI its inspiration came from the most unlikely of places: Japan.
As one walks through the towering rows of fabric, moldings, and trim, you get the feeling that there are far more classic cars on the road today than previously thought. But that is not true at all; the majority of the cars that these parts will adorn are in pieces, and are slowly being restored to showroom quality, or get ripped apart to be turned into resto-mod monsters. Supply Chain Management VP Ben Bowman walks excitedly through the facilities pointing out various key points of interest and answering questions, forever enthusiastic about the parts he sees produced every day, as massive fiberglass floorpan molds stamp heated carpet into predetermined formations.
As the tour continues, and more unique car components and the machines that make them are covered, a surprising statement is uttered. “Thanks to the Japanese manufacturing and supply business model, our productivity has nearly doubled across the board, while our spending and waste has been cut significantly.” You heard that right — an American classic car parts manufacturer has adopted Japanese work ethics to make every day more profitable and productive than the one before it; while there was some resistance at first from a few long term employees, the adoption of this new business plan has proven to be one of the most positively pivotal decisions in the company’s history.
Company President and CEO Mitch Williams says that his interest in utilizing Japanese business tactics and production procedures started years ago, when he was overseeing the German lighting company Hella. The Germans, long known for their ingenuity and efficiency, were getting absolutely trounced by the Japanese when it came to production times, and Williams said it’s important to note that if it were not for the Japanese, companies like Porsche would have likely gone belly-up in the early 2000s due to their reliance on outdated manufacturing techniques.
Decades later, Williams has incorporated this same mindset in RPUI’s operations, bringing in multiple former Toyota employees to help streamline the production process, all while saving precious time, money, and energy. So as Williams continues his tale, a projected industry forecast begins to emerge, as the company looks to grow even greater going forward, and put its best offerings under the vivacious lights of Las Vegas.
Every year, thousands of automotive enthusiasts swarm Las Vegas, Nevada, ignoring slot machines and strip clubs and instead focus on all things aftermarket and automotive. RPUI is always on point with a GM muscle car in attendance every year, and even though the majority of the parts they make are OEM-spec, there are still a lot of aftermarket upgrades they offer to the public, with its brake disc conversion packages leading the way.
Ask any automotive enthusiast what their take is on drum brakes and chances are you will get an earful about how they are “outdated technology,” and how disc brakes are so much cheaper, safer, and easier to service. The Autos Division of the Cheat Sheet has done several DIY pieces, and agree that having disc brakes all around on a car is one of those things everyone should include on their shopping checklist when looking for a new car.
So when RPUI started offering these fantastic conversion kits for older American cars a few years back, the market went nuts, and today this is one of the company’s best selling products. Complete with a parking brake function, brackets, bolts, and brake lines, these kits are a great way for classic car owners to upgrade their stopping power while eliminating the headache associated with drum brakes.
Riding high on the success of this aftermarket upgrade’s success, Williams continues to strive to keep the company on the cutting edge, regardless of how old the parts they manufacture may be. All of those sixty-year old molds they bought off GM years back will still be used regularly, and there will always be a need for fresh leather seats and spotless carpet. But as the next generation of automotive enthusiast begins to be bit by the “build bug,” the parts manufacturer will have to evolve yet again, as classic European and Asian import builds continue to gain in popularity. And in true Japanese fashion RPUI’s transition to these new markets will likely be swift and methodical, as they tirelessly strive to make parts that are better than the the original factory pieces.