It’s pedal to the metal for this Huntsville fabricator of automotive aftermarket performance exhaust systems.
If it’s made out of metal and has anything to do with tubing, cutting, welding or grinding, MBRP Inc. can manufacture it; however, this isn’t your typical metal fabrication company.
MBRP – which stands for Martin Barkey Racing Products – is known throughout North America for its motorsport and automotive aftermarket performance exhaust systems. This recognition is the result of aggressive growth strategies and investment in R&D that has fuelled its rapid expansion over the years, allowing it to diversify by delving into private label projects, specialty products, new automotive accessory lines and even the manufacturing of HVAC ducts.
Husband and wife team Martin and Ginger Barkey started MBRP in a one-car garage in Burk’s Falls, Ont. Martin, a motorsport enthusiast with a knack for sales, saw an opportunity to take his father’s several years of expertise and R&D in motorcycle exhaust systems and apply it to a snowmobile exhaust line. He hit the road in 1996, going door-to-door selling to dealers and warehouse distributors.
“I was working during the day, Martin was on the road, and when we got home at night we’d work on finishing the products and getting orders ready to ship,” says Ginger, MBRP’s CFO.
They burned the midnight oil for two snowmobile seasons before moving to a larger shop in Huntsville, Ont. and adding automotive exhaust systems to the repertoire. By 1999 they had moved into a 1,800-square-foot shop, which was followed by a few more moves to larger facilities as demand grew. “Then we moved into 30,000-square-feet here. We built this [facility] because we were growing faster than we could find space,” says Ginger.
Indeed, in 2006 MBRP was listed as one of Canada’s fastest growing companies in Profit magazine’s top 200 listing. And in 2008, when the economy – particularly the automotive industry – took a serious dive, MBRP invested in tooling, equipment and personnel. “We hit the road harder, while our competition was restructuring internally in a negative manner,” says Ginger. “We hired national and regional sales managers and expanded into Jeep accessories. We got into tubular bars and bumpers, roof racks, cargo baskets and a few other items. We developed a whole new market for the company that got us through 2008 and 2009.”
Located off Highway 11, just south of Huntsville, the MBRP compound is hard to miss. The main building – where it manufactures gas and diesel exhaust systems for heavy-duty and sports trucks, late model muscle cars and compact sports cars – is perched slightly higher than its secondary facility that turns out ATV and snowmobile systems, and Jeep accessories. Two years ago, the Barkeys opened The Garage, a performance parts and accessories retail store where they sell MBRP products, as well as other renowned brands, in a one-stop format for auto enthusiasts.
“A few years ago, we saw an interest in retail. People wanted to buy some of the products we put on our special-build vehicles that we use for marketing. That’s when Martin saw an opportunity to open a store,” says Ginger.
“But we support our dealers and don’t undersell or undercut. It’s very important that we hold the market value and retain the current pricing level of our own brand,” says Martin, president and CEO, who handles MBRP’s sales and marketing from his office in The Garage. He also manages Garage Racing, a road racing team that races factory built Porsches in the Ultra 94 Porsche Cup Challenge Canada. The Barkey’s sons are part of the action, too. Josh, who works at MBRP, races for the team and Jacob is the photographer/videographer.
When asked about adding racing to his company’s specialties, Martin laughs. “That’s another bad habit. We’ve been down for a couple races in the US as well. But we just wrapped up our season in the Canadian series in third place.”
The special-build vehicles – which have landed MBRP on 20 magazine covers and have been displayed at top industry events, prompting the sales inquiries – are not just suped-up showpieces, they’re test vehicles that are all a part of MBRP’s robust R&D program. “We start by finding out which vehicle is going to be the next hot item,” says Martin. “Take the Mustang 5.0, for example. When it came out it was obviously going to be a big mover. We will buy the vehicle for big ones like this and do some baseline testing. We have an in-house dyno [dynamometer, for measuring force], we’ll drive the car, measure performance gains and decibels, and basically just gather data. After that it becomes a test mule.”
With performance parts, it’s all about what the consumer wants. Adding horsepower, more torque, better sound, increased throttle response, and in many cases, better fuel economy are all key elements enthusiasts look for in aftermarket performance exhaust systems. “But testing is big. The decibels need to meet legal road requirements, while also meeting consumers’ wants and needs. In a brand new Mustang, we can actually lay down almost 40 extra horsepower at the wheels with MBRP products,” says Martin.
If the R&D team doesn’t get to dissect a vehicle onsite, they’ll get CAD specifications straight from the OEM, or use a scanning tool – which is one of the latest new toys in the department – to collect all the various points needed from a vehicle, and work on developing new parts with SolidWorks 3D CAD program.
“We work closely with some OEMs. Sometimes the CAD will come straight from them and we can have parts built and ready before the vehicle even lands in the dealership,” says Martin. “So when the vehicle arrives, we can get one back here for a test fit.”
With some tweaks, fine-tuning and dyno-testing, MBRP is often first to market with its performance systems. But throughout the entire process of creating new parts, MBRP’s design manager and his team are also carefully documenting each and every attempt – a strategic move that helps the company benefit from R&D programs such as SR&ED tax incentives, says Martin.
“I think it’s a great process… knowing that we make a product better each time. If you think you’re making a product right the first time, you’re not likely bringing the best product to the consumer in the end.”
In the manufacturing facility, 72 employees work across three shifts on a 24-hour schedule. Ginger says the process has always been very hands-on and manual, but they are adding automation into the workflow. Most of MBRP’s exhaust systems are made with aluminized, T-409 and T-304 stainless steel. The process starts with cutting 20-foot tubes with cold saws. Deburring is done manually, and the exhaust pipes for diesel applications are formed on a manual bender. Jason Buck, plant manager, explains that diesel applications have more tolerance because they’re used on bigger vehicles, whereas a CNC Horn bender is used for gas applications due to a tighter undercar tolerance. Pipe extensions and adaptors are created using an expanding and slotting forming process. And there are four welding booths where workers weld the mufflers, flares, flanges, hangers, resonators and clamps. MBRP also employs a CNC rod bender, which is next to a newly acquired Lincoln Electric robotic welding system used to fuse hanger clamps that attach to mounting areas under the vehicle.
Since MBRP doesn’t have tool and die or machinist capabilities in-house, it has partnered with local companies to fabricate tooling for its equipment and processes. And to decrease potential downtime it also has pre-cut piping coming from Ohio.
Partnership has been key for MBRP’s latest project – developing a package that will work with diesel particulate filters (DPFs) used in heavy-duty trucks to restore performance attributes. Martin says when the government mandated DPFs be put on trucks in 2008, the diesel industry changed overnight.
“Just like when catalytic converters were introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, everyone threw their arms in the air and said performance was gone. The DPFs took ‘great’ trucks and turned them in to ‘good’ trucks at best,” says Martin.
To regain horsepower and performance, diesel truck owners started removing the DPFs, breaking EPA and carbon laws. To remedy this situation, MBRP has partnered with other companies to pool resources and develop a package product that works with other aspects of the engine to restore 90% of the power, drivability and fuel economy that the illegal removal of the component was netting consumers.
“This is brand new for us. The beta testing has been done and we’ll have it ready by spring,” says Martin. “I believe gaining up to 90% of the performance and fuel economy is well worth it to have your truck deemed legal.”
While snowmobile and diesel performance exhaust systems are its largest segments, innovative thinking, strategic partnering and maximizing in-house capabilities have also spawned MBRP’s private label and specialty product business. In recent years, the company has expanded into manufacturing custom exhausts for boats, racks for truck companies and heat duct tubing. “If it has anything to do with tubing, cutting, welding or grinding, we can do it,” says Martin. “The private label opportunities are a growing part of our business.”
When they’re not at the facility overseeing the manufacture of the hundreds of parts they put out, or running The Garage, the Barkeys and the MBRP team attend more than 80 industry events a year. And whether it’s at SEMA, the world’s largest specialty automotive trade event, National Hot Rod Diesel Association races (which MBRP sponsors), a state fair or dealer open house, Ginger and Martin are often found talking to car enthusiasts, promoting the brand and even selling company t-shirts from their event tent.
“It’s still like day one, we need to market, build relationships, see and be seen. It’s 100 miles an hour all day long,” says Martin, who’s known as the “gas” whereas Ginger is the “brakes” in their dynamic working relationship.
With annual sales of just under $20 million, the Barkeys are again poised for expansion. More production space is needed, but their sights are set on expanding their gas applications, re-releasing the ATV segment and diversifying.
In other words, it’s pedal to the medal.
Noelle Stapinsky is a Toronto and Huntsville,
Ont.-based business writer and editor. E-mail email@example.com.
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From the January 2014 issue of PLANT.