“How do you grow big but not be big,” said Dan Sandberg, Brembo North America President and CEO, leaning back in his chair, his eyes focused across the room. “That’s our challenge.”
It was an unseasonably warm winter day in Plymouth, Michigan at Brembo’s North American headquarters. Sunlight poured in through the pristine windows overlooking the parking lot in the upper conference room. I scratched Sandberg’s words on my note pad but had my tape recorder beside me.
Earlier, Sandberg quipped I wasn’t old enough to know what a tape recorder was. We had a good laugh.
I am old enough to know cassette tapes, but more importantly, am I wise enough to know the merit of what was recorded? Sandberg’s telling of the Brembo story may well be etched on my tape recorder but what about my own heartstrings? Just as Brembo brakes instantly tame a race car, I felt the sudden halt in the room. Brembo’s three core employee values are innovation, commitment, and urgency; each were clear and present.
I put my pen down and looked up at Sandberg as he finished his thought on Brembo’s design.
“Are we artists or are we automotive guys, Carl? I think we are a little of both,” he said.
60 to Zero in 2.2 Seconds
It’s easy to spot Brembo brakes by their vibrant colors, but there’s much more behind the paint. Brembo’s signature comes in a fixed aluminum caliper with pistons on either side, making them lighter and more efficient than a traditional floating iron construction.
Although Brembo innovations are numerous, from carbon ceramic discs to brake-by-wire, the aluminum caliper stands unparalleled.
“The real products that put us on the map and launched our expansion were the aluminum calipers,” Sandberg said. “That novelty started on the performance side and has now moved into segments which are higher volume and obtainable by the normal consumer.”
Brembo purchased the brake business of Hayes Lemmerz and orchestrated three near simultaneous expansions on their Homer, Michigan facility, which we visited for part one of this series. Being in Homer put them close to the Big Three and as automakers continually focus on more exhilarating driving dynamics, Brembo’s location and technology became ideal. When vehicles increase in power, the conclusion is often held that conventional brakes just won’t do.
“We are used to stopping 250 mph rocket ships on the race track, doing it in a small space, and being as lightweight as possible,” Sandberg said. “As a result, we have a patented technology that performs well and looks great in the ascetics of it all.”
Along with technology patents, Brembo also owns manufacturing patents, helping them produce quality products at low cost. Such patents proved vital as Homer, Michigan was called upon to meet the rising demand.
“When you look at the entire build numbers for some of the exotic cars we supply – that could be one model alone for somebody like General Motors, whereas it might be the entire production for another company,” Sandberg said. “We have a technology driven culture, especially here in Michigan, that really helps us at the Homer plant.”
Although, coming to Michigan was a half-century in the making.
From Garage to Globe
Brembo is an American story with origins in Italy over 50 years ago. Guys in a garage started making rotors of their own when they found it difficult to get brake parts. They conducted business with manufacturers in Europe but about a decade in were approached by Enzo Ferrari. He was having problems with the racing brakes on his cars and needed a solution.
“That was our first introduction into Motorsports over forty years ago and since then, we have grown the company from both the performance and the OEM side,” Sandberg said.
Talk with some of the older engineers and they will fondly recall working during the week, then racing on the weekend. That dedication formed a strong business on the racing front that still continues. Brembo is a leading brake manufacturer in Formula 1, IndyCar, MotoGP, and even NASCAR. Their track presence now translates to everyday roads where Brembo braking components are found on everything from minivans and sports cars to mail trucks.
“We are looking at a lot of technology but with the same philosophy we had in racing,” Sandberg said. “We have taken technology, like aluminium and some of the components we use for the racing calipers, and moved them down into the cars we drive every day.”
Homer is Home
Painted on the blue water tower in town is “Homer is Home.” As of the 2010 census, it rings true for 1,668 people. Past the small traffic circle on Hillsdale Street is Homer Community School. I think of parents hugging their kids goodbye in the morning, then driving up the road to Brembo for the day. The hands that hold their children are the same ones building the braking components that keep our loved ones safe.
I imagine just like early Brembo engineers did in Italy, area residents work during the week, then hit nearby Butler Motor Speedway, Springport Motor speedway, or Michigan International Speedway on the weekend.
“It’s about the people – you can build all you want and you can put in all the equipment you want, but if you don’t have the people, it doesn’t matter,” Sandberg said. “We have a lot of passionate people here that add a lot of value to the organization.”
Companies like Brembo, who preside in smaller communities like Homer, forge a remarkably endearing legacy. Growing up in the rural Midwest, I was introduced to communities that are shadows of their former selves. When jobs leave, opportunity goes, and when opportunity goes, so too does optimism.
“My goal is to keep the manufacturing here in the U.S. because when I look at American manufacturing, I see a reliability, consistency, and commitment not seen anywhere else in the world,” Sandberg said. “When I see a plant go up in North America the return is pretty immediate because of that dedication and consistency.”
I Am Brembo
The sun’s rays, with a late afternoon glare, shift away from the windows as my cassette recorder clicks. Out of tape. Sandberg, a former attorney, just finished telling me how he always had more fun with the guys in the brake business anyway. As I attend to my tape recorder, he slides a box across the table, encouraging me to open it. Inside is a little Automoblox car with yellow Brembo calipers and a silver pin of the company’s logo.
I felt like part of the team. I felt like they do in Homer . . . that it’s home.
“Managing the growth is the most challenging part of my job but it’s getting to know the people and continuing to have that connection with them,” Sandberg said.
Before I leave, I ask Sandberg if he plans to retire at Brembo.
“I hope so,” he said. “Brembo is a fifty-year-old company, but as far as Brembo is concerned in the United States, it’s only a ten-year-old story.”
Walking across the parking lot, I look back at the upper conference room, recalling Sandberg’s definition of “I Am Brembo” from our conversation. The phrase embodies what Brembo employees are: innovative, committed, urgent, honest, and ethical. I stop walking, pull out my Brembo pin, and attach it to my shirt.
As I get into my car, I recite the phrase to myself.
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan.