Although he was raised in Chicago–where he also made his start in the gear manufacturing industry in 1952–Bennie Boxx, Sr., was born in Sidonia, Tennessee. While on vacation there in 1978, he spotted a building in the nearby town of Sharon that he thought would be perfect for the company he'd started four years earlier in Addison, Illinois. "It was a trucking company, and it had been empty for about a year," Boxx recalls. "The owners were looking to sell it, along with the eight and a half acres that it was on, so I wound up buying it."
Eager to return to what he'd always considered to be his hometown, Boxx still moved cautiously, incorporating the new company–B&R Machine and Gear–in Tennessee as an entity separate of the existing business back in Illinois, which was known as B&R Bevel Gears and Machine. "I decided to make them two separate corporations so that, if Tennessee didn't fly, it wouldn't drag Illinois down with it," he says.
But it flew, and so high that within two years Boxx had consolidated his operations in Tennessee. Since that time his land holdings have increased to 32 acres, and the original 7,000 square foot facility to four adjoining buildings with a total of some 130,000 square feet of manufacturing and storage space. And even though the company has taken the same hits as everyone in recent years, on average its customer base has accumulated "like a snowball rolling downhill," as Boxx describes it.
Although it may sound simplistic, his philosophy is the same shared by any successful manufacturer. "I call it the 'Three Golden Rules,'" he says. "First, you've got to make a good product. Then you've got to get it to the customer when he wants it. And number three is price, of course–it's got to be competitive. But we've found over the years that if you fulfill the first two, you can always get a little more money out of it."
But there's a fourth rule that will also be familiar to any business owner, and it has to do with commitment. "There's an old saying that if you want to know who owns a business, drive by on a Sunday afternoon and see whose car is in the parking lot," he says with a laugh. "That car has usually been mine."
In recent years there have been a couple more cars in the parking lot. "That would be my children," Boxx explains.
"My eldest son, Bennie Jr., is now president of the company, and my son Terry is in charge of our Heat Treating Facility–where his wife, Gwen, also works–and overall plant maintenance. My daughter Brenda is involved in everything from overseeing our Sales/Estimating Department to accounting, and my eldest daughter, Suzette, was our purchasing agent. She also ran our steel supply warehouse with Kevin, her husband, until their recent move to Denver. Nick, who is Brenda's husband, is our plant superintendent and keeps the shop running on a day to day basis. He also helps me and Bennie Jr. to quote prices and finalize engineering details, and he maintains our Gearbox Repair/Rebuild Facility. And last but not least is Doris, my wife of 50 years, who has been by my side from day one and still handles the most important part of any business–the money."
And now the third generation is getting involved, he continues. "Bennie's son Ryan operates our CNC turn/mill equipment and is in the process of handling programming the machines, and his sister, Erica, is currently working toward her master's degree in accounting. Terry's son–who is also named Terry, but we call him "Little T"– works with me every day learning reverse engineering, even though he knows how to use auto CAD and I'm still working things out with a hand calculator, and Terry's daughter, Tara, will start to work with us soon. Nick and Brenda's daughter Michelle works alongside her mother, and she's learning the ropes while attending college part-time pursuing a master's degree in business management. And their sons, Niko and Ben, hang around here when they're not in school, and they're anxious to get started."
As proud as he is of the company's accomplishments–it ships its spiral bevel gears to customers all across the United States, and has even done business in Australia and South Africa–Boxx is quick to mention those who helped him learn the trade. He especially enjoyed the seven years he spent with Arrow Gear, where he worked his way up to the position of general foreman. "That's where I learned how to work with spiral bevel equipment, and they were a really great company to work for," he says. "And when we decided to join AGMA in 1983, Arrow's founder, Jim Cervenka–who was then on the membership board–sponsored us, so he's really a fine person."
These days B&R is providing custom gears for a wide variety of applications, including printing, paper mills, rock crushing, and mining. From its earliest days it has also provided specialty ring and pinion gearing for automobile enthusiasts. "They'll have an old car that was built to go 40 miles an hour, and they want it to go 60, so we'll design what they need to get their automobiles up to speed," he says. "But that's just about the only automotive work we do."
An important part of the company's business involves breakdown work, Boxx says, and it has worked hard over the years to build a reputation as the shop to contact when you're in a pinch. "We did one just a couple of weeks ago, when a guy called on Saturday with a broken gear he needed replaced. Bennie Jr. got right on it, working Saturday and Sunday to make the gear, and we had it in heat treat on Monday and shipped it out the next day," he says. "People are thrilled to death when they get service like that, and if you can get a guy what he needs to get back to work in a couple of days, then you've made a friend for life."
As for the future, Boxx says that recent months have brought a surge in orders, and that he's glad the company chose to invest in equipment and other improvements that have it poised to take advantage of the economic upturn. "It was pretty hand to mouth for a while there, but things have really started to pick up in the past few months," he says. "We're back to a three-month backlog now, so that makes everything a whole lot easier."