Joe the Plumber isn’t the only small businessman affected by Washington. Bryan Abernathy, vice president of Champion Motor Graders in Charlotte, N.C., wanted to explain his struggles, and his triumphs, to someone in the capital as well.
“It felt like what I saw on TV didn’t represent real small businesses. I wanted somebody from Washington to come out and see what it was really like — to see a real business.”
Sue Myrick, U.S. representative of North Carolina’s 9th district, answered Abernathy’s letter.
“We’re just common people down here. To write a letter and have it answered was really an honor,” Abernathy said, “and just having the opportunity to show someone that is in a position to make a difference. I hope that maybe that will be in the back of their mind when they’re making laws in Washington, those people in Charlotte with the motorgrader business.”
Abernathy invited Myrick to tour his 25,000-sq.-ft. facility.
“One thing I was told about Representative Myrick was that she likes to keep moving,” Abernathy said. “In my letter I promised not to lock her up in a conference room and show her PowerPoints. I had an hour, so we moved and talked for an hour. I showed her our inventory, work centers and finished products. I know Ms. Myrick’s been in a lot of manufacturing facilities, but I wanted her to see how much we accomplish in this small space. We operate lean and mean.”
Abernathy added, “I think businesses like this are the backbone of America. And I wanted her to see that. Nobody ever sees this side of the world.”
Myrick, however, got an opportunity to see it, and it renewed her commitment to working with small businesses.
“Most economies are based on the success of small businesses and they employ most of the people in the country,” Myrick said. “Helping small businesses creates jobs.”
To this end, Myrick has made small businesses a focus point, voting for increased depreciation rates, tax incentives and other small business-boosting initiatives.
According to her Web site, Myrick also supported the development of a business incubator in Gaston County “so small businesses can pull together resources to lower costs.”
“Lower costs and lower taxes mean they can hire more workers,” Myrick’s Web site explains.
On April 17, Myrick visited the Champion facility at Abernathy’s request.
“It was great to tour their facilities. We’ve been talking in Washington for months about ways to grow the economy,” said Myrick. “This is how you make it happen. Effectively run small businesses like Champion Motor Graders, manufacture useful products, create jobs and you can help our economy get back on track. It was great to visit Champion, and I’m grateful that they invited me to see where the real work gets done.”
A Champion Business
Abernathy talked to Myrick about Champion’s struggles and its triumphs.
“Despite all the struggles, we’ve had a lot of victories,” Abernathy said. “Starting from a very small family business, we grew to be a well-known motorgrader manufacturer.”
The business was founded by Abernathy’s grandfather, Bud Lee, in 1980 and was managed by his parents, Gary and Pam Abernathy. The brand was Lee Motor Graders. In 1993, Bud Lee sold the business to Champion Road Machinery, a Canadian manufacturer of large motor graders. The Abernathy family stayed on as managers.
In 1997, the business was acquired by Volvo Construction Equipment. In 2004, Gary Abernathy purchased the compact grader division back and acquired the Champion trademark.
Today, Champion Motor Graders produces a variety of compact and production class motorgraders weighing 12,800 to 24,000 lbs. (5,806 to 10,886 kg) with distribution in more than a dozen countries.
The company has survived many changes in the market from changes in equipment to new engine standards to upturns and downswings in the economy.
“It’s just being very persistent at times,” Abernathy said. “We’ve managed to gain the respect of dealers, so that 30 companies now sell our products at 250 locations around the world. We had to show that we’re in it for the long haul and that we support our products. That was a big accomplishment — gaining the respect of the dealers.”
Abernathy also believes his business works because it runs efficiently.
“It doesn’t cost us millions of dollars to operate. We do things efficiently. Yet we continually make product improvements. I have three full time engineers, and we’re constantly developing to keep our product on top.”
One recent change was the implementation of Tier III engines.
“Tier III/Stage III A emissions regulations required an approximate 65 percent reduction in particulate matter and a 60 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide from 1996 levels. Tier III engines also produce far less noise,” Abernathy said. “Cleaner and quieter is the future for construction equipment.”
Champion also designed a new mid-sized motorgrader from the ground up.
“Our C110 really bridges the gap between small compact motorgraders and big motorgraders. The biggest compact graders are typically around 16,000 pounds. The smallest of the big graders are around 32,000 pounds, so there’s a big gap in the middle.”
At one time, the gap was filled.
“John Deere’s first grader was a 22,000-pound machine,” Abernathy said, “but they stopped making them in 1992. Even the used ’92 models are still being financed and traded around the country, because there’s a market for them. It’s a smaller market than the market for large graders, but it’s a perfect market for us.”
Abernathy said the grader appeals to customers because it has more horsepower and can handle bigger jobs than a compact grader, but it costs less than a large grader and is easier to transport.
“The transportability is the key. Small contractors don’t have big trailers. They have 12- and 14-ton trailers. This machine goes right onto them and meets all the height and width regulations. The machine itself costs less and you don’t have to make a big investment to transport it.”
In addition to its accomplishments, Champion discussed its struggles with Myrick.
“Growing your business is always a struggle for anyone,” Abernathy said. “There’s always a hump in the road and that hump is usually manpower and cash. One good example is we have a product that would sell very well in Europe, but before you can ship your product, it has to go through a certification process. The certifications are very expensive and they make it hard to export the product.”
Another struggle is acquiring parts.
“Because we’re small, we don’t have a lot of buying power, so if I pay a dollar for something, a big manufacturer may pay $0.65 for it, but we still have to sell the product for the same price.”
Even the new midsized C110 motorgrader, which presents many opportunities, also presents challenges.
“We can build the C110 here, but what we’re finding out is that we need space to save more inventory, so we’ve been looking at new buildings. Buildings are expensive and we need one that suits the motorgrader business.”
Myrick was impressed with her Champion tour.
“She seemed to really be interested in what we were showing her,” Abernathy said. “With a lot of people, you show them something and they have no idea what they’re seeing, but she was able to figure things out.”
Abernathy hopes the visit will help Myrick understand the small businesses.
“I hope it opened her eyes up to some things. She didn’t bring a magic wand with her, but she’s genuinely concerned, and she’s a smart woman that has a lot of experience with a lot of things.”
Despite the struggles, Abernathy believes the future holds great things for his company. He said that lately, the phones are ringing.
“Customers are getting ready to make an investment. Dealers are getting ready to buy machines, and we’re getting ready to build them. The dominoes are all stacked up. Somebody just has to give them a push.” CEG