Considering his background, it’s easy to see how Greg Leffler came to appreciate the finer points of manufacturing precision gearing. “My dad had a race shop, and I grew up helping him build engines and chassis for sprint and midget cars,” he says, “so I’ve always been interested in the mechanical side of things.”
So interested, in fact, that when he turned 21 he sold everything he owned, got a business loan from the bank, bought an old sprint car and began racing cars himself, eventually winning a USAC (United States Auto Club) national title in 1979. He entered his first Indy 500 race the next year, placing tenth, but he was then approached by March — a racing manufacturer based in England — to distribute their cars and parts in the United States. Four years later he decided to start his own company, selling cars, parts, and transmissions to Indy, NASCAR, and Formula One teams around the world. “But every time we were successful the manufacturers would come and take over or dilute the profits, so I started thinking that I needed to be making these parts myself,” he says. “That’s when I decided to launch First Gear, with the goal of manufacturing gears for the racing industry.”
Things were changing in racing at that time, however, and overseas competitors with deep pockets made it difficult for a startup company to compete. “Getting started in the gear industry is not an easy or cheap task,” Leffler says, “and we soon realized that it would be a good idea to rethink our strategy. So we decided to broaden our scope, in terms of the markets we would pursue, and to apply the same dedication to precision that racing required to producing gears for other, equally demanding applications.
“In both racing and gear manufacturing you need the best money can buy to be successful, so we have invested millions in state of the art equipment,” he says, “buying the most-precise equipment available with high spindle speeds, and most with automation.”
Once that decision had been made the company was able to find its footing, gaining traction by relying on friends in the gear-manufacturing industry for its first orders and finding that manufacturers in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana — where First Gear is headquartered — were pleased to have a new convenient source. “We were very fortunate to have some good contacts, some very smart people in the industry who were willing to help us,” he says. “Being new in the industry, we knew it would take time to build the infrastructure, find the right people, and develop the skills necessary to excel in the gear business. Our marketing campaign relied on the quality of our work and word-of-mouth advertising to develop and expand our customer base.”
These days those customers are found across the United States, involved in everything from automotive, to medical devices, to aerospace applications, and Leffler says the company is poised for additional growth — but not to the detriment of the quality for which it is known. “We’ve never been interested in producing the cheapest gears out there, in terms of cost,” he says. “Our goal is to grow in a way that we can meet additional demand without sacrificing the quality of our product or our ability to offer great service to our customers. That’s what’s worked for us in the past, and I think it’s a pretty good business plan for the future.”
First Gear manufactures spur and helical gears, both internal and external, and its modern high-speed equipment allows it to take advantage of carbide cutting tools. With years of experience in carbide rehobbing/skiving, it has recently added grinding to its capabilities with the addition of a Reishauer gear grinder, and its quality is certified with M&M gear analyzers. It also provides high-volume gear finish rolling. Another service involves the engineering expertise the company provides, not only creating plans and prototypes for its customers, but also reviewing the blueprints it receives to ensure that the end product is what the application requires. “Many companies that need gears cut for the products they manufacture have engineers working for them, but they aren’t necessarily gear engineers,” he says. “So we review their drawings very carefully, reverse engineering when we need to, in order to make sure that they’ll get exactly what they need. We want our customers to be successful, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to work with them in determining how we can help make that happen.”
This approach has led to sustained growth every year. “We have reached the stage where we are comfortable expanding at a faster pace,” Leffler says, “and we plan to make significant additional investments in machinery and people over the next few years. We currently have 16,000 square feet of manufacturing space, with room to expand to 50,000 at this location.”
Customers appear to have confidence in First Gear’s abilities, with one client placing orders for 400,000 parts annually. This, in turn, leads to the belief that the company is firing on all cylinders and prepared to move forward in the pack.
“We’re trying to do something different here,” Leffler says. “We want to hire the best engineers who embrace the latest technologies in order to help our customers reach their manufacturing goals. We want to be the path of least resistance, so that our clients know that when they send us an order they can check it off their list and move on to other things. They get what they want, it works, and they don’t have to worry about it anymore—end of story.”
MORE INFO Call (260) 490-3238, send e-mail to email@example.com, or go online to www.first-gear.com.