As the sander and polisher manufacturer opens a new Texas plant, CEO Rob Volkert sees plenty of room to grow beyond its core auto-detailing market to manufacturers of all things shiny.
Founded by the father of current owner Guido Valentini, RUPES SpA started manufacturing power tools in Milan, Italy in 1947, and made the first drill with plastic housing in 1962. The innovation continued with the first electric palm sander, integrated dust removal systems, and an automated motor-manufacturing line.
RUPES (an acronym for “special pneumatic and electric tools” in Italian) made its biggest mark in the automotive paint and body market with pneumatic polishers and sanders primarily used by professional auto body and detailing shops.
“While they were doing their thing in Italy, there was a company in Denver called Cyclo Toolmakers that started in 1951,” says Volkert. Cyclo focused on the two-headed polisher space that was approved for military use on airplanes and missiles, but the company was in the same broad market as RUPES. “They were kind of doing the same things in two different countries at the same time.”
In an effort to bolster the RUPES brand in the U.S., the 75-employee Italian company bought Cyclo in 2015 and reincorporated it as RUPES USA. The company moved from Longmont to a new 33,000-square-foot facility in Louisville in 2018. “We’re still manufacturing that Cyclo tool in our facility,” says Volkert.
The company has expanded into Texas with a 45,000-square-foot consumables plant in Houston doing business as RUPES Mfg., LLC, a subsidiary of RUPES USA. Manufacturing is slated to commence before the end of 2021.
While RUPES tools are largely sold to auto paint and body shops in Europe, they’ve gotten the most traction with detailers in the U.S. “We’re probably 90 percent detailing, and 10 percent other, which is primarily paint and body work in the U.S., and then a small niche in what we call the industrial world, which is the manufacturing of RVs, boats, planes, things like that,” says Volkert.
Today, it’s all about the BigFoot. Volkert says the large-orbit polisher offers much more coverage than the competition. With an orbit diameter 15 to 21 millimeters — versus an industry norm of three to five — the BigFoot “took the detailing world by storm” after its initial release in the 2010s.
Volkert says it’s all about efficiency for the detailer: “It has a very high number of orbits per minute,” he explains. “Because it has that random orbital feature, it can cover a lot more space in a lot shorter time.”
The company even operates BigFoot Academy at its Louisville headquarters. “It is a big, flagship facility for us,” says Volkert. “We are very committed to training. We have a tagline that says, ‘Educate to differentiate.’ Under that, our goal is to teach people how to do paint corrections properly.”
The company sources a wide range of components largely from the Italian supply chain, then assembles the finished products in-house in Louisville. About half of the 45 employees work in production or logistics.
“We manufacture all of the polishers and sanders that we sell in the U.S. and the Cyclo tool, we manufacture all of those here in our Louisville facility,” says Volkert. “Then we’re distributing other RUPES products that RUPES manufactures in Italy and some of the consumables.”
“The purpose of RUPES Mfg. is to bring our consumables production over to the U.S. As you can imagine, we’re manufacturing compounds — so bottles of water, essentially — and foam pads, so we’ve been shipping water and foam across the ocean for many years. It makes a lot more sense to bring raw materials here and manufacture for our U.S., Canada, and ultimately South American markets, too.”
The Houston operation will start with foam pads in December 2021, then move to blending compounds and filling bottles in 2022. After launching with five employees, the largely automated operation will scale up its workforce in 2022, says Volkert.
Proximity to a port was a key consideration, “because most of the raw goods for foam production are coming from overseas,” says Volkert. “Because we have supply from both Europe and Asia, it doesn’t make sense to be on either coast. We picked Houston based on that.”
With annual upticks of 20 to 50 percent, sales have more than doubled since Volkert joined the company in 2017 after working in contract manufacturing. “It was too good of an opportunity to pass up at the time,” he says. “It was really the opportunity to run a small company and run the U.S. operations and be the CEO, but still have this parent company that was watching over our backs and helping out a little on the financial side. . . . The funding originally was coming from Italy, but now we’re self-sufficient.”
Challenges: “I’m going to have to be the broken record, but it’s people and it’s supply chain,” says Volkert.
A wide range of positions are open, he adds, but the company is “struggling” to find the right people for them. “We’re expecting similar growth next year — 20, 25 percent — and I’m a little worried about where I’m going to find the people.
While supply chain has been an issue, decoupling from the Italian parent is not cost-effective, says Volkert. “We have taken a couple of shots at trying to find suppliers here in the U.S. We’re doing everything from injection-molded products to machined products to stamped products. Because of the volume we do between our facility here and the facility in Italy, our pricing from suppliers in the European region is just phenomenal. Our U.S. supply base struggles to get close to us in cost. It’s sometimes three and four times here in the U.S.”
He adds, “When we look at landed cost, with the added expense of all of the containers we’re sending over, it makes a little bit more sense to look at local supply, both on the logistics side of it and cost, but we’re still talking about a 2X factor.”
Opportunities: Volkert says he sees a lot of potential with industrial clients — manufacturers of “basically anything that needs to be shiny.” Sales to manufacturers of RVs, guitars (including Fender), boats, and other shiny products now represent about 5 percent of sales, but Volkert sees runway for non-detailing sales to eclipse 30 percent of the gross. He points to wide-ranging sectors from helmets to caskets to gun safes as untapped markets.
For RV manufacturers, a BigFoot can be a huge timesaver. “They’re cutting their polishing time in half,” says Volkert.
Needs: “It really is talented people that are interested,” says Volkert. “One of the things we can offer people is we have a lot of examples where people started in production and moved up to other positions in the company.”