MRO Magazine

SUPPLIER PROFILE: Machinery Man

Hands-on owner of mechanical shop, a former biker, serves variety of tough industrial customers.When former Grand Prix motorcycle racer, Thomas Wachner, swapped his crash helmet and goggles for a hard...


December 1, 2001
By Christopher Robinson

Hands-on owner of mechanical shop, a former biker, serves variety of tough industrial customers.

When former Grand Prix motorcycle racer, Thomas Wachner, swapped his crash helmet and goggles for a hard hat and safety glasses, he was no stranger to fierce competition.

On circuits across Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, he had made his mark as a skilled and determined rider as he manoeuvred his 250 cc GP Honda at speeds of up to 220 km/h, eventually attaining number four in the ranks of the Canadian racing elite.

The knowledge that victory comes about only through a team effort of man and machine put him in pole position to weather the economic slowdown when he bought into R&S Tech Services Ltd. of Stoney Creek, Ont., in 1990.

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“It was,” he declares “a hell of a time to become a capitalist!” While other companies folded because of a recessionary economy, he began to wind down his racing career and took on gruelling 16-hour work days in the machine shop and on sales calls to secure the firm’s position in a declining market.

Today, with a skilled team of 16 people, the company provides a comprehensive machine/fabricating service and a fully computerized balancing operation. “Balancing,” says Wachner, “is our specialty.”

As the president and sole owner (he bought out the remaining partner two years ago), the 35-year-old runs the 6,000 sq ft machine shop with a keen eye for detail and takes pride in turning out the highest quality products and services.

His racing past, however, is never far away. Action pictures of high-speed motorbike exploits adorn his modest office in an industrial area south of the busy Queen Elizabeth Highway, an hour’s drive from downtown Toronto and 45 minutes from the U.S. border.

Balancing machine aids productivity

R&S recently completed fabrication of the largest non-captive balancing machine in the Golden Horseshoe region of southern Ontario, with a capacity of 12 ft in diameter and a load capacity of 20,000 lb.

“Now we can do a job in 12 to 13 minutes that used to take an hour,” Wachner says, then adds wryly: “The first inspection (of any job) is very critical. If it’s garbage in, it’s garbage out, and the same mistakes will be repeated over and over.” A printed notice on one wall of the shop reinforces the point: “To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.”

Servicing steel and paper mills both in Canada and abroad in the manufacture, repair and redesign of components relating to mill operations, R&S is a preferred supplier to General Electric in the Toronto area for the precision balancing of its various high-speed load couplings.

Neighbouring steelmaking giants Stelco and Dofasco also buy the firm’s products, ranging from rolls and shafts to spindles and bearing housings, while precision-ground kingpins are sold to Euclid Trucks. As well, R&S distributes adjustable speed drives and pumps.

How does a small company compete in today’s tough market? “When something leaves our plant, I’m proud of the product,” says Wachner, declaring that quality is his number one priority and the major factor in his long-term success. “We’re also working towards our ISO designation and should have it in place by the end of 2001.”

Though Wachner is heavily involved in all aspects of the operation, his company does not install what it supplies to various buyers. Occasionally, however, he will be called on to observe or advise at the on-site installation of certain equipment, and he makes his services available for emergency jobs 24 hours a day.

Additionally, R&S specializes in steam turbine repair work, servicing steel mills in nearby Hamilton and across North America. This involves the replacement of shafts, rotors and bearing housings for turbines which harness steam from the rolling mills produced during the cooling of the hot steel.

Since 1990, Wachner has helped the firm triple its volume, though the current economic slowdown has had an impact on his business. He was forced to put some of his people on short-term layoff earlier this year, sustained a seasonal slump of 10% over the summer and rode out an 80% downturn in trade from one customer alone.

He believes these are only bumps on the track, though, and is convinced the worst is already over, declaring: “Business from the steel mills is actually up 10% year to date. I don’t anticipate any more slowdowns.” His plans for the future include an expansion of volume in existing products and services.

Interest in machinery

From his early days at Highland Secondary School in nearby Dundas, Ont., Wachner displayed a keen interest in machinery and moving parts, and took the opportunity in the school’s machine shop to make parts for his motorcycle.

In later years, he would return to his alma mater to teach a machine shop course, even though he once had ambitions to be an architect and was not much interested in working in the noise and grime of a factory. He recalls with a smile: “My dad ran the Stelco machine shop for 20 years, and took me on a tour one day. I thought it was a pretty dirty place.”

Nonetheless, he qualified in machine shop and mechanical drafting and was happy to take a job at R&S in 1984. After apprenticing to the shop foreman, he seized the chance to run the shop himself and quietly began absorbing the environment and the way the business was run. When the investment opportunity arose 11 years ago, it was the entrepreneurial kick-start he had been looking for.

Wachner takes his owner’s responsibilities seriously, and is keenly aware that his employees depend on his business acumen to keep them in a job. He puts it this way: “I’m not the only one who has a mortgage to pay.” He hosts occasional summer staff barbecues to foster a sense of belonging among his team, and through trial and error has built a loyal group of workers.

Active in the local community, he sponsors a co-op training program at Stoney Creek’s Orchard Park Secondary School, offering awards and cash prizes to promising students, and gladly dedicates time to speak at school career days.

Though he rarely works 16-hour days any more, he still arrives at the shop between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. daily, and when he’s not doing administration, can be found doing CNC programming, quoting on orders, making outside sales calls, and occasionally travelling the province to check customers’ requirements on-site. Very much a hands-on individual, he’s always ready to step in when required. “I still put on the work boots when the foreman is away.”

Dedicated also to his family, Wachner particularly delights in time with wife and his two daughters, aged 5 and 3, and likes nothing better than to take his girls on short camping trips. Also an accomplished chef, he chooses mountain biking for exercise and often powers up and down the Niagara Escarpment trails close to his home in Grimsby.

He may be a man with a checkered-flag past, but today, whether it’s business or pleasure, he still has his eye firmly focused on a first-class finish.

Christopher Robinson is a regular contributor to Machinery & Equipment MRO.

Photos: Christopher Robinson