The Oxnard manufacturer of auto performance-enhancing kits diversifies into other industries to weather the weak economy.
By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times
September 4, 2011
Vortech Engineering Inc. has built a business helping drivers satisfy their need for speed.
The Oxnard company manufactures superchargers that force more air into an automotive engine, providing a boost of additional horsepower.
The firm has built a loyal following among young gear heads and professional racers who love giving their rides some extra muscle.
“It makes a little engine behave like a big engine,” said Vortech’s founder and president, Jim Middlebrook.
To some aficionados, the sound of the supercharger spooling up “is what you hear first. It’s like the scream of a hawk swooping down on a rat,” said automotive journalist John Pearley Huffman. He recently reviewed a 2011 Ford Mustang GT outfitted with a Vortech supercharger that boosted the engine’s horsepower to 605 from the original 412.
“What kind of person wants a car like that?” Huffman said. “Vortech superchargers are for enthusiasts, for people who want more of what they already have too much of.”
What Vortech wants more of these days is customers. The company’s signature supercharger kits for cars and trucks are sold through big online suppliers including Summit Racing Equipment, Jegs Performance Parts and Keystone Automotive Industries Inc. They can cost $2,000 to $8,000, not counting installation, Middlebrook said. And that’s proving a tough sell in a troubled economy.
Sales at privately owned Vortech are projected to total $11 million this year, down from a high of $18 million in 2007, according to Middlebrook. With 52 employees, the company’s workforce is about half what it was four years ago.
“It’s a discretionary purchase and it’s expensive,” Middlebrook said.
The U.S. economy may be stumbling, but the 63-year-old Middlebrook isn’t slowing down or getting out of the business. He’s diversifying to reduce Vortech’s reliance on automotive sales.
The company has a unit that makes compressors for industrial uses, such as de-icing aircraft without chemicals. Those products account for about 10% of Vortech sales, a percentage that Middlebrook is looking to double by next year.
“When the economy comes back, yes, we will sell more superchargers, but I think we are going to see more growth in those other areas,” Middlebrook said.
Raised in Torrance and Palos Verdes Estates, Middlebrook took machines apart when he was a kid to find out how they worked. At age 9, he put together a go-kart that topped out at 25 miles per hour. There was just one problem: “I forgot about brakes. I remembered them when I needed to stop.”
As a teenager, he hung out with a group of guys who called themselves “The Performers.” They worked on their cars together and attended drag races. Middlebrook purchased a yellow 1967 Camaro SS with a high-performance 350-cubic-inch engine and a bumblebee stripe on its nose.
“Of course, I modified it. I added a different camshaft to change the valve timing. I added headers, springs, a roll cage. Everything I earned went into that car,” Middlebrook said.
Through his older sister, he met a gruff fellow in the neighborhood named “Jonesy.” That would be a future Indianapolis 500 winner who would become known by another nickname, Rufus “Parnelli” Jones.
“I was just a stupid punk kid, so he barely gave me an acknowledging nod when he saw me, but that didn’t mean it didn’t feel great when I got that nod,” Middlebrook said. “The car culture was all around us.”
Indeed, Southern California became the nation’s hot rodding epicenter after World War II. That’s when returning veterans skilled at working on jet, ship and tank engines turned their focus to street machines. Small shops hatched in garages grew into larger enterprises, according to Peter MacGillivray, spokesman for SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., a Diamond Bar trade group devoted to the automotive aftermarket.
“It helped build a lot of manufacturing businesses here in Southern California,” MacGillivray said.
Middlebrook got his start in 1970 working as a technician for American Honda Motor Co. Within a few years, he said, he was helping Honda build race car engines. In the 1980s he went to work for famed speed-shop legends the Granatelli brothers — Andy, Vince and Joe — building custom supercharger systems.
He heard so often from customers dissatisfied with the turbochargers and superchargers available on the market that he figured he’d found a niche. Encouraged to go for it by his wife, Theresa, a patent attorney, Middlebrook read every book he could find on vehicle and air dynamics.
In 1990, he launched Vortech Engineering in a 2,100-square-foot space in Moorpark. At first the company operated purely as a distributor, selling other firms’ products. But soon Middlebrook was designing his own superchargers and having them manufactured in various trusted California machine shops.
Sales grew quickly, but it took a decade for Middlebrook to land the capital he needed to do all of his own manufacturing. In 2000 he moved Vortech to the company’s present location in Oxnard, eventually acquiring competitors including Paxton Superchargers.
Today, Vortech is located on a four-acre industrial park campus with 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The heart of its assembly line is three horizontal milling machines that enable two to three employees to accomplish what used to require seven or eight.
The machines, which cost $2.5 million each, can be programmed to operate virtually around the clock.
“You save time. We call it ‘lights out’ engineering because no one has to be here. It is much more efficient than the way we used to do it,” Middlebrook said. “We pay more attention to all costs. What we are managing now is very competitive.”
Vortech’s main competition is Eaton Corp. of Cleveland, a $13.7-billion industrial heavyweight with powerful automotive connections. In contrast to aftermarket players like Vortech, Eaton supplies supercharger technology directly to General Motors Co. and other original equipment manufacturers.
But hard-core enthusiasts such as Richard Holdener said no factory-installed supercharger is good enough to meet his exacting standards. The 48-year-old Vacaville, Calif., resident said he bought his first Vortech supercharger in 1990, adding it to a 1988 Ford Mustang GT with a 225-horsepower engine. He said the Vortech supercharger and other improvements doubled the horsepower.
“We drag raced it. We beat the heck out of the thing and never once did it leave me stranded. It was the epitome of reliability,” Holdener said.
He recently bought another Vortech supercharger to add to a 430-horsepower LS3 engine he plans to shoehorn into a 1970 Datsun 240Z sports car.
“I’m a hard-core performance guy, so it’s going to be fun,” he said.
That kind of loyalty has Middlebrook committed to the speed business for the long haul, even as Vortech continues to venture into other industries for growth.
“We’re car guys,” Middlebrook said. “That’s not going to change.”