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Comet clutches thriving after purchase

By Dave McMahon

Known for its snowmobile clutches, Comet expanding under CPC ownership

Comet clutches continue to be an optimal aftermarket option in all powersports segments. Known mostly for its penetration into the snowmobile and go-kart marketplaces, Comet maintains continued growth thanks to improvements in size and staffing at its Edgerton, Wisconsin, manufacturing facility.

But the 200,000-square-foot operation that once was home to various other brands owned by parent Certified Parts Corp. (CPC) has not always cranked out clutches and torque converters. In fact, CPC acquired Comet from receivership in 2009, moving the company from Richmond, Indiana, to its current location. A whirlwind turn of events brought CPC, the former owner of Arctic Cat, to purchase the tooling, inventory and intellectual property of Comet.

Jim Grafft, founder and CEO of CPC, first became familiar with Comet in 1982, when he took over ownership of Arctic Cat.  CPC had been a distributor of Comet products and had watched the brand rise over the years. So when CPC officials got word of a potential Comet slowdown in 2009, the company took notice.

“We got an email from them saying that they would be shutting down for a month or two and that they were going to try to straighten things out,” Jim’s son, Jay Grafft, now vice president of Comet, told Powersports Business.

Jim and Jay Grafft, pictured outside Comet’s plant in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

Jim and Jay Grafft, pictured outside Comet’s plant in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

Efforts by CPC officials to reach the Comet owners came up short, but soon they learned Comet had gone into receivership. CPC eventually contacted the bank that was selected to liquidate Comet’s assets. Jim and Jay, fresh off a return business trip from the Czech Republic the night before, drove to Indiana for the Comet auction.

“We showed up at the auction and met with a former employee to get a walkaround and a lay of the land at their facility,” Jay said. “We got about an hour tour, then the auction started. The first thing that went up was the intellectual property, and we bought that. Next thing was the name, trademarks and patents. We bought that. And then, lot by lot, they auctioned off the entire building, and we bought all the inventory — a bucket of fixed faces, a pallet of movable faces, crates of spiders. All of the inventory, just like that.”

Jim knew that such a quality product would be an ideal fit for his company’s portfolio, which over the years has included brands like TecumsehPower, Lauson, Scorpion snowmobiles, Wetbike and more.

“Comet was one of my top 10 vendors,” said Jim, who began his career at Fox Corp., which made mini bikes and go-karts. “We were buying clutches from them, and I knew the brand and the family well. So we were familiar with the company, indeed. We weren’t going into it cold.”

What made Comet clutches one of CPC’s top products before it took ownership?

“They’re a world-class manufacturer,” he said. “You try to get a vendor number from Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha — it was very difficult to do business with those companies, where you could supply them with a product. Comet had done that. They were a manufacturer that was well recognized. So at first when we bought them, it was difficult to deal with the OEMs. Those companies aren’t looking for vendors that they don’t know. It takes a long time to get qualified with them. So we had to set our bar and jump over it. That was one of our first struggles, but we successfully got the vendors’ numbers with every one of the manufacturers that Comet had supplied prior to our ownership, and that’s a tall order.”

Comet’s 108 EXP clutch supports more than 300 different Arctic Cat, Yamaha, Polaris and Ski-Doo fitments.

Comet’s 108 EXP clutch supports more than 300 different Arctic Cat, Yamaha, Polaris and Ski-Doo fitments.

That December 2009 auction date was just the start for Comet’s new ownership by CPC. By February 2010, American-made clutches were being supplied to OEMs and sold to aftermarket distributors in the powersports market.

“It’s an elastic product line, meaning we can talk from side-by-sides to scooters to cement trowels. We even build clutches for log splitters, and our biggest ones are for amusement park rides,” Jim said. “It’s a diversified product line that we felt was enduring and would stand the test of time.”

And while Comet supplies to many familiar powersports OEMs, it’s also nimble enough to treat smaller orders with equal attention.

“There’s a niche market out there for 20 pieces to 150 pieces that most companies don’t even want to talk to you about,” Jay said. “They don’t want to take the time to make a custom bore for your crankshaft. Knowing there’s a market out there for those sizes, and we have a full machine shop to make those products. I say why not? If we have to bore some out to ¾, let’s bore some out to 17mm while we’re at it.”

Of course, the fact that all of Comet’s parts are made in the U.S. is not lost on their partners.

“That’s something we’ve been trying to drive home,” Jay said. “A lot of the OEMs are doing their own work in the U.S. as well, and that means something to them. A few of them have worked with offshore companies for their clutching, but they want to use Comet because they know it’s going to last.”

The factory in Edgerton has slightly less than 100 employees, with more growth coming as the business continues to build. Comet, for example, brought its injection molding capacities in house after previously outsourcing it.

“We had too many suppliers that missed ship dates and made promises they could not keep,” Jay said. “I said ‘I want to become our own supplier.’ I want to know what’s going on on the shop floor. I want to know what parts are being machined. When I tell the customer that all we have to do is bore out your clutch and broach a keyway, I know that is 100 percent factual, and we can hit ship dates. We had been relying on others for welding, broaching and certain other machine work, and they weren’t reliable.”

Now, Comet is supplying aftermarket distributors, including Parts Unlimited, Western Power Sports, Automatic Distributors and Kimpex, as well as others in Europe, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

“If you have a toy, we make a clutch for it, anything from 2 hp up to 200 hp,” Jim said.

The construction market has helped grow revenues in recent years also. As for the powersports segment, Comet expects its brand recognition to flourish in the coming years, particularly in the snowmobile aftermarket.

“We don’t supply to any snowmobile OEMs direct for production, but we’re one of the only companies that can say we’re OEM and aftermarket at the same time,” Jay said. “When we owned Arctic Cat, we were buying clutches from Comet. The same clutches that Arctic Cat used to buy are the same ones that we make now. It can be an aftermarket clutch and still be an OEM clutch. That’s pretty unique to Comet.”

Comet’s diversification since becoming owned by CPC has allowed it to reach new markets and grow in others, including saw mills and moose haulers in Sweden.

“If you had snowmobile sales driving your ship in the last couple of years, you might not have a big ship anymore,” Jay said. “We try to service many different segments so that we don’t have just one that’s driving us forward.”

Jim, meanwhile, is proud to have seen the major steps Comet has taken under CPC’s direction.

“It’s no small step to have gotten ourselves recertified with the major OEMs that we were doing business with before,” Jim said. “That was basically certification of our ability to move the manufacturing and reinstate all the processes here in Wisconsin. From there we keep getting back to the service parts segment of the business. Now that we’ve done that, we’re able to go knock on doors.”

Exceeding on quality and delivery expectations is part of the Comet mantra and will continue to steer the company.

“The number one goal we had after we bought Comet was to start supplying these replacement parts, so the OEMs could keep their customers happy,” Jay said. “They had product out there that they were not able to fix due to Comet going under. After that, for the past six years, we’ve just continued to develop those relationships, hit delivery dates and provide great service.”

 

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