When he first toured the company he was considering purchasing, Steve Janke encountered a sight that many who’d experienced the "old days" of the gear-manufacturing industry would find thrilling—a roomful of manual Barber Coleman machines. While he realized that a significant capital investment would be required to update the company’s technology, he also took away a different meaning than one might expect.
“There were nearly 30 of them, but I felt that a company that could survive and remain viable even though it only had one CNC machine, a Mitsubishi GB-10 hobber, was solid at its core,” says Janke, who bought Brelie Gear in 2005. “Especially since it had been around for 75 years by then.”
The short version of that story involves Henry C. Brelie, who founded the company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—where it is still located—around 1930. After changing owners a number of times over the years, it ended up in the hands of Edmund Piehler, who was a friend and business partner of Janke’s father. “My dad owned a foundry, where I worked as sales manager for a number of years, specializing in heat-resistant alloys, and they owned a heat-treating company together,” he recalls. “When my father passed away in 1997 we decided to sell the company, because I was only in my twenties at the time and didn’t have enough experience to take over such a large operation.”
He remained with the foundry for a few years before joining the sales department of an investment-casting foundry, at the same time pursuing his MBA with an emphasis on finance in the evenings. The reason, he says, is because he already knew by then that he wanted to do something on his own, and he began searching for an existing company to purchase. “I approached Mr. Piehler, who I’d known practically my whole life, about buying Brelie Gear, but he wasn’t ready to do so at the time,” Janke says, “so I just kept working on my degree and looking for an opportunity that was right for me.”
Three years later he revisited the situation to find that it had changed. “He was ready to consider retiring at that point, so we found that it was the perfect time to make the transition,” he says. “Within a year I found myself the owner and president of Brelie Gear.”
One of his first decisions was to keep the name, in order to capitalize on an established reputation and also to minimize confusion with existing customers. Janke also took the time to meet with key accounts in order to introduce himself while providing assurances of a smooth transition. This was partially achieved by retaining many of the company’s longtime employees, with their many decades of combined expertise. He also began acquiring the CNC equipment that would help raise the company to a new level of productivity. The first machine was a Koepfer 200, which he purchased rebuilt directly from the manufacturer. The second was a new Koepfer MZ-130, and then another model 200, both delivered in 2008. “They say that once you’ve bought one Koepfer you’ll want to buy another,” he says with a laugh, “and that was certainly the case with me.”
As for the company’s current capabilities, Janke says many of the parts it manufacturers haven’t changed that much from when Brelie Gear was first founded. “I have a photo from 1940 of the parts Brelie was making at the time,” Janke says, “and it’s funny how similar they are to what we’re still doing today.”
Those parts include worms, worm shafts, helical gearing, and smaller spur gears, in addition to new capabilities such as skiving—also known as carbide re-hobbing—and crown hobbing parts post-heat treat, which many of its customers find attractive. Quality is assured via its M&M gear inspection unit, and short lead times are achieved in a number of ways. “We have about 10 CNC turning centers in-house, so that we can produce our own blanks for quick-turnaround, short-run jobs,” he explains. “And for longer or larger runs we can purchase the blanks outside and schedule our work in order to meet their demands.”
Brelie Gear also offers a Kanban-type system, in which it keeps a certain number of parts in inventory for particular customers under a blanket order contract, releasing parts on an as-need basis and usually shipping the next day. With 35,000 square feet of space—a portion of which is currently leased out to other companies—and capital investments totaling some $1.5 million made over the past few years, Brelie Gear is clearly poised for growth.
“I think we have the perfect mix of a solid core of experience, and all of the latest technologies, including automated systems that have helped us grow revenue 30 percent with fewer employees than we had when I purchased the company,” Janke says. “So we are lean and mean, fully modernized, and everyone here is onboard and headed in the same direction. And when you have a team that’s working together so efficiently, our customers will definitely be the ones who benefit.”
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