A true gem

12 May 2020

From left: HM GEM Engines owner Bruce Parker, VACC CEO Geoff Gwilym and HM GEM Engines General Manager Dean Taylor

Bruce Parker’s chosen area in automotive has been through immense change during his decades running HM GEM Engines. True, the automotive industry in general is ever-evolving. However, in many ways engine reconditioning has already weathered changing technologies and consumer values – and Bruce and his team have had to adapt in order to survive. Bruce sat down with VACC CEO, Geoff Gwilym to share his thoughts and commemorate his recent 50-year membership milestone with the Chamber.

Bruce insists that he was always headed down the trade route. He attended East Doncaster State School, before kicking off his trade education at Box Hill Technical College, then Richmond Technical School. “Thank goodness my mother had the sense to send me in that direction!” he recalls. Bruce’s father was a mechanic before joining the air force as a flight engineer, passing away after he returned from the war. So, it was Bruce’s mother who raised and supported the family; Bruce being in his early teens at the time. He recalls, years after the fact, learning that his mother would travel down on the bus to do the night-shift at a food packing business, making her way back home in time to get the kids up for school. The war widow pension wasn’t enough to bring up a family, and so Bruce’s mother did what she had to do. That industriousness is something that has been passed on to her son. 

Bruce was eager to learn the trade, but he had a false start as “all (he) could do at Box Hill Technical College was fitting and turning and sheet metal... they didn’t have a trade subject for mechanics”. So, in 1958, during his fourth year, Bruce’s mum organised a transfer to Richmond Technical School so that he could study mechanical and engine reconditioning. In those days, to be a qualified mechanic, engine reconditioning was part of the apprenticeship package. There was no separate trade, and so Bruce learnt crankshaft grinding and boring, familiarising himself with all the different machinery. “I loved it, I loved every minute of it,” he declares.  

Bruce went on to do his apprenticeship with Preston Motors, commencing with the business in 1960. “They were a great company to work with and during that time I did more engine work... that was my specialty,” he says. Preston Motors had their own reconditioning division and Bruce got a gig – “but not the title” – working in there while a supervisor was away on leave. 
After five years, Bruce left the company after being conscripted to the army. Fast forward a few years and he was running the assault swimming section. It was during this time that the Whitlam Government made the decision to scale back Vietnam initiatives – leaving Bruce at a loose end. Although his army career was cut short, he still maintains that it taught him good old-fashioned leadership. “It was the best management course you could ever do. It really set me up very, very well for running my own business. It’s all about systems, discipline.”

By the end of 1969 he was self-employed. For about six months he had a steel shed in the backyard of his mother’s house and was building motors. “That was what I knew, that is what I liked.” A vehicle would come in, he would remove the engine and strip it, dismantle it, clean it, have the components machined and then assemble it. His next move was Headmod Engineering, a joint-venture with two other automotive specialists. The Doncaster business started off with cylinder head work, eventually progressing to full engine rebuilds. Bruce maintains that one of the keys to their success was that they invested in premium equipment and “had a policy every year of buying one new piece of machinery”. 

There was an understanding that the partnership was a convenient set-up for the time being, rather than a long-term arrangement. Eventually, Bruce took the reins of the engine remanufacturing segment of this business and under his direction the company continued to expand – including the 1998 acquisition of GEM Engines, a New South Wales company. Thus, HM GEM Engines was born. The business prospered, with Bruce remembering “at its peak in 1999, we re-manufactured just under 40,000 units per annum. Now, we build less than 1,000... quite frankly, it was heaven back then”. 

In those early days, people would buy a car and invest in getting its engine reconditioned. To the consumer, it was a no-brainer financial decision because cars were worth a lot. “The engine reconditioning industry was huge,” says Bruce. It was the introduction of GST which saw the volume begin to steadily fall, consumers were convinced that they were paying more money for a re-manufactured engine. At the same time, the price of new and used vehicles came down. “The financial equation, putting an engine in a vehicle, started to disappear,” says Bruce. Fortunately, a section of the business focused on heavy diesel work. “We did a lot of OE diesel machining work for Cummins, Caterpillar, Mercedes-Benz.”

Bruce had to rethink his business model. This saw HM GEM Engines branch out to offer professional engine reconditioning and cylinder block machining services, as well as crankshaft/camshaft and cylinder head servicing.   

Reflecting on the support and relevance of the Chamber during these years, the former Chairman of the VACC Engine Reconditioners Association of Victoria is emphatic. “VACC has been absolutely first-class, I couldn’t have wished for a better organisation to be a part of. I started with the General Division, and then Engine Reconditioning as a specialist Division and all the way along the line the support has been first class.“I am so pleased, and I applaud VACC for its work. For the whole of the 50 years that I have been a member, VACC has been ground-breakers in ensuring that the members are not pushed around by big oil, OEs...” 

Thirty years ago, engine reconditioning, fuel retailing and radiators were big business – now they are among the smallest of the VACC Divisions. It’s not good or bad – but it reflects a clear trend in the industry. Now, Bruce casts his mind to what the future holds for automotive in the next 30 years. “In my opinion... technicians will take over from the traditional mechanics, but they’ll be all about electronics: auto-electrics, diagnostics and all of the aspects that are in that group.”

Bruce has a clear vision for HM GEM Engines too. “I want this business here to be ongoing. I have had opportunities to sell it and I won’t sell it, because of the people. I am well past retirement age, I am 75 years of age and I have people with me here that have been with me for the whole 50 years.” Bruce’s tight-knit team includes his General Manager, Dean Taylor, who has been with the business for 22 years. “Dean came directly from school. He was smart enough to do a degree, but he wanted to know everything there was to know about engines and three years ago I made him General Manager. And that gives me a great degree of satisfaction.”

It’s hard to count how many engine reconditioners there are now in Australia, although Bruce admits probably “not that many anymore”. However, he does believe that the industry has had as much rationalisation as possible. “There’ll be more specialisation, those that have specialised in an aspect of business are doing very well.” Bruce uses his friend, Ian Shugg, who primarily does crankshaft work, as a prime example. “He is excellent, right at the top of the industry. He’s getting on now but whatever happens, that business can be ongoing.”

So, is anyone going to rebuild an electric motor? “Yes,” says Bruce. “The financial equation will stack-up. They may not be the electric motors that are being used right now, but in the future, there will be – there will have to be – electric motors that can be rebuilt. However, I can’t see an electric motor taking over from a 5000-horsepower diesel engine for very heavy dump trucks because those engines are made to be rebuilt.” That’s heavy covered, but what about a suburban car? “Questionable,” Bruce admits, “but a suburban delivery vehicle, depending on the size, yes – they will.” Another major challenge facing engine reconditioning today is a lack of up-and-comers being trained. The only way forward is for businesses to take on training themselves. “We’re actually taking people in… because TAFE colleges do not have the equipment anymore.” Bruce starts them on engine assembly and then progresses them into machining work. “That works well for us,” he says.

“Well, yes and no,” Bruce says, when considering whether he envisaged his own children joining the business. He talks proudly of them, gifting Geoff a copy of his son Mick’s biography, Spirit High: The Mick Parker Story, written following his passing in 2009 after summiting Makalu in the Mahalangur Himalayas. “He is the only Australian ever climbing over 8000-metre peaks that had never used oxygen... he was never happier than when he was on a big hill,” says Bruce. In Mick’s memory the family established the Michael Parker Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for underprivileged children in Nepal and East Timor – something Mick aimed to do after he retired from climbing.

Bruce’s other son, Daniel, has his own small manufacturing business that employs four people. He did an engineering apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, Bruce maintaining, “I wouldn’t let him do an apprenticeship in this company because I didn’t think it was right. Nor was it right for him to come straight in at the top level. But he has worked through every single section of this business now, prior to starting his own show. And he’s good. Like his brother, he worked in this business as a kid at school – dismantled engines, got dirty and learnt about engines and understanding what makes them go but also what makes them fail. I expect he will take over from me. “I run this business here like a family. Part of that is the way I was brought up,” says Bruce, and it’s clear that this value system goes beyond workshop walls. Bruce is involved in multiple charity projects, including the East Timor Roofing and Training Company. Additionally, as a Past President of the Australian Commando Association – Victoria, Bruce is the co-founder of the Commando Welfare Trust which provides a first-class education to dependent children of fallen and wounded Commandos. “We look after our own,” 
says Bruce. 

HM GEM Engines has also won the Prime Minister’s ‘Employer of the Year’ award multiple times, the honour recognising Bruce’s commitment to developing employment opportunities for people with disabilities and troubled youth. A proud Australian, Bruce insists: “We live in the best country in the world... we are still growing and developing as a country, but it is the best... and we have an obligation to keep it that way for future generations.” Although he shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, reflecting on his years in business and long-standing association with VACC, he puts it plainly: “It’s been a great journey with you guys, it really has. Thanks for the journey.”

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