The Problem Solvers
Kit Masters, Inc. is an aftermarket manufacturer of heavy-duty fan clutches, rebuild kits, and various accessories including fans, tensioners, and control components. The company is headquartered in Perham, Minnesota but has regional representation throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Mexico.
Recognized for the quality of its products and a commitment to service, Kit Masters is a solutions company dedicated to identifying industry needs and applying its hard-earned expertise toward filling them.
The company was founded in 1996 by Keith Swanson and his son Darrin. They started the company in the basement of their house in Minneapolis, and operated out of that location for a year. Together, they recognized a need in the industry for a company that offered aftermarket fan clutch solutions with a focus on quality, and began researching and designing their first kit. A year later they had successfully outgrown their basement location and moved the company into a single bay facility in an industrial park. Within three years they expanded to five bays, and growth became a lasting trend from that point on.
In 2003, the pair began looking for a location to build a manufacturing plant. At first, they planned to build in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, but found that the cost was prohibitive. They decided instead to build in the city of Perham, a few hours north of the urban center. “Perham is where my parents were high-school sweethearts,” says Trent Swanson, Vice President and one of four owners. “This is where we vacationed. If you can work where you vacation, that’s a pretty good deal.” Perham is beautiful, small-town Minnesota, and Kit Masters has the small-town, family values to fit right in.
In the beginning, each of Keith Swanson’s four sons were following their own career paths, developing their own unique expertise in manufacturing, in finance, in sales, and in service. Whenever he recognized a need within the company suited to their particular skill sets he would call on them to join the business. In time, all four of them had joined the ranks of the Kit Masters team, each bringing their own expertise to define the roles they would play within the company.
Between 1996 and today, the company has grown from a small two-man operation in the basement bedroom of a house to having 150 employees in two plants and eleven warehouses across the country. Having begun with a single seal kit, by the end of 1997 the business had sourced more parts and began offering a full kit, called the 9500HP. This kit is still available through Kit Masters today, having been refined over 20 years with superior components and innovations. The development of this kit was a major milestone for the company, enabling it to build a reputation in the industry for manufacturing aftermarket products at OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) quality.
Around 1999, the company began to apply its expertise to remanufacturing fan clutches. This meant installing its own kits into fan clutch cores and offering complete fan clutch packages. The company’s commitment to quality meant that the remanufactured products it offered could rival the OEM equipment available on the market. A key example of this capacity to build OEM replacements at better than OEM quality can be found in the company’s GoldTop product.
In 2002, a leading OEM introduced a new type of fan clutch called a spring-engaged fan clutch. Soon after its introduction, it became clear that this new technology was prone to premature failure. The purpose of a fan clutch is to engage the fan in an engine only when the engine is running above a specified temperature. Fan clutches can be thought of as two separate components. One part is attached to the engine and spins continuously; this is called the drive portion. The second part is attached to the fan blade, and is called the driven portion. These two components are independent of each other when running cool, preventing unnecessary load on the engine. When the engine reaches a predetermined temperature, the two components connect, and the drive portion turns the fan blade. Depending on the type of fan clutch, this connection can be made in a number of ways.
With spring-engaged fan clutches, a spring is used to press a friction plate in the drive portion against a second friction plate in the driven portion, causing them to turn together. Historically, spring-engaged fan clutches are prone to a higher than acceptable rate of failure for the bearings within the drive portion. OEMs have tried to address this problem by using different bearings or different bearing grease. While these approaches have improved the operation of the components to some degree, the problem still exists. The engineers at Kit Masters took on this problem and through careful research, determined that the problem wasn’t with the bearings at all.
Torque is a critical component to the operation of a fan clutch. In the context of a spring-engaged system, the torque is the capacity for the spring to provide sufficient pressure to keep the two friction plates engaged until the engine cools down. When these systems were first brought to market, they were capable of 2100 lbs. of torque, more than enough to turn any fan blade available in the industry at the time. Around the same time, government specifiers began to implement regulations to reduce diesel emissions. This resulted in engines that ran hotter, and a need for larger, heavier fan blades. As fan blades increased in size, they began to exceed the torque capacity of these fan clutches. When a fan clutch fails due to torque, the friction plates slip against each other, creating excessive heat, which can damage bearings. While many in the industry saw the damaged bearings as the cause of the failures, Kit Masters engineers looked deeper, and recognized the bearing failures as a symptom of the real problem.
The GoldTop product is Kit Masters’ solution to this problem, and it is unrivaled by any competing equipment. This is one example of the company’s ability to identify and solve the problems facing the industry. “As the industry was getting frustrated with our competitor, we provided a solution that worked,” says Swanson. “We’re still getting some of them back now. It’s fun to see something that normally only lasts three or four years on a great day last twelve or thirteen years.”
Kit Masters has diversified its product line to include every type of fan clutch available in the market place, but its key products are air operated and viscous fan clutches.
Kit Masters is technically a manufacturing operation, but the heart of the company is in service to customers. Running straight through every aspect of the business is a consideration for how to make life easier for the people using its products. In 2005, the company incorporated a very deliberate warehousing system that enables it to keep all its facilities stocked with its highest demand inventory so that most of the country can get product in one day. This demonstrates the company’s dedication to structuring its procedures around what best serves its customer base. Kit Masters is committed to providing the best possible products, as fast as possible, at a competitive price, and it backs up these promises with a solid reputation.
The company’s customer-first approach to business has enabled it to build relationships that last. “Friends buy from friends,” says Swanson. “Our relationships and our reputation set us apart. We make it easy to do business with us.” Kit Masters sells to distributors, and those distributors in turn sell to fleets. Those distributors sell thousands of products, and have to deal with many manufacturing outfits, so making it easy for them is key to the company’s success.
It’s a strong culture of collaboration within the company that enables it to provide customers with a painless experience. The Kit Masters team is made up of dedicated workers who all take their job very seriously. They take great pride in the work they do, and they work well together as a team. It’s a family environment that the company makes a very deliberate effort to preserve. “We really take that to heart, and look after each other. It’s nice to come to work and be with family,” says Swanson.
Since the beginning, Kit Masters has kept a clear focus on working to understand what the industry needs, and developing solutions to fill those needs. It’s an approach that has worked very well for the company. After more than two decades, it has developed an unparalleled expertise that has catapulted it into the lead, where it plans to remain long into the future.