Maintenance Preventive Maintenance Reliability

Motor Repair Anywhere, Anytime

Michelle Segrest | March 19, 2018

Gulf Coast Electric Motor Service repaired this 2,000-hp chipper moter when the oil-lubricated bearing failed. An average paper mill will have two to six of these chipper motors. All images by Michelle Segrest

A family-owned motor-repair and -service company uses a never-say-no attitude to tackle challenging projects of any size.

Instinct and guts drove Higinio “Tico” Rodriguez to leave Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. “He wasn’t sure why at the time, but he just knew he had to get out of there,” said his son, Victor Rodriguez. “He knew that something just wasn’t quite right.”

With five dollars in his pocket and an 8th-grade education, Tico Rodriguez left his homeland and never looked back. Two decades later, in 1978, it was the same instinct and guts that drove him to start his own motor-repair shop in Pensacola, FL.

Victor Rodriguez said his father built Gulf Coast Electric Motor Service Inc. (GCEMS) with a simple philosophy—“Say yes now, and figure out how to do it later,” he explained. This mentality allowed the small company to take on large, challenging jobs that separated it from the rest of the pack. Even now, two years after Tico’s death in 2016 at age 79, his wife, Susana, and their three sons (Higinio, 54; Moises, 49; and Victor, 44) run the company with the “never-say-no” attitude at its core.

Gulf Coast Motor Electric Service Inc. has provided the greater Gulf Coast area with reliable and affordable electric-motor repair, field service, and motor sales for 40 years. The company, that began in 1978 with a $6,000 mortgage on the Rodriguez family home while sharing a small warehouse space, now employs 30 people with complete rewind, field balancing, high-voltage testing, vibration analysis, thermography, motor rebuild, machining, and field-service capabilities in municipal and industrial applications.

The company moved into its current space in 1992 and has since expanded the original 5,000 sq. ft. of space to 30,000. The shop includes balancing machines, testing equipment, bake ovens, steam-cleaning equipment, machining, CNC milling machines, assembly, disassembly, vacuum-pressure-impregnation tanks, pumps, motors, a fabrication shop, and a full machine shop. With a small staff and a big operation, the company is working on 5S certification and incorporates Lean manufacturing best practices.

“This business was built on flexibility, creativity, and loyalty,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the people who work here were originally hired by my dad. It’s a big family—even those who are not related. These guys understand the gravity of the work we do, and we count on them to keep things running efficiently. We are very task oriented, and all follow the work-ethic example set by my father.”

The family company got its start with submersible pumps. This remains a key part of its business.

The family company got its start with submersible pumps. This remains a key part of its business.

Finding a Niche

The company was built on submersible-pump repair and rebuilds. Taking on challenging jobs became its specialty. In fact, its first big order was one that no one else in the Florida Panhandle area would attempt to tackle.

During the first year of business, there was a huge rain event that resulted in massive flooding near a local chemical plant. “The guy in charge of maintenance had a relationship with my dad and sent him all the motors to repair,” Rodriguez said. “It was about 100 motors. He and a couple of helpers worked day and night to get the order completed. This was the first of many seemingly impossible orders. I think because of his background, my father was just not ever going to turn down work of any kind. He would find a way.”

The Escambia County (FL) Utility Authority now has more than 400 pumping stations. In the 1970s there were about 200, with approximately two submersible pumps at each station. Tico Rodriguez began to build a niche for repairing them when no one else wanted to handle this type of “dirty” work.

“When my dad got started, he was out scrambling, beating the bushes, looking for a niche to drum up business,” Rodriguez said. “These submersible pumps started coming in because he was the crazy Cuban willing to work on them. The local shops didn’t want any part of it…until they saw his success in building his business this way. Then there was some competition with submersible-pump repair.”

The company’s niche has now become “the crazy oddball stuff and stuff with challenging lead-time issues,” Rodriguez said.

GCEMS is rebuilding a complete motor from a scrap carcass. It’s creative solutions like this that have helped the company build a specialized niche.

GCEMS is rebuilding a complete motor from a scrap carcass. It’s creative solutions like this that have helped the company build a specialized niche.

Challenging Jobs

Rodriguez recalled tackling a job in which the 2,000-hp vertical synchronous motor for a vertical turbine was too large to fit on the existing crane in the motor shop. But this didn’t stop the Rodriguez family. “We rented a larger crane and parked it outside,” Victor Rodriguez explained. “Then we cut a hole in the ceiling. We dropped in the crane with the motor through the roof opening and placed it onto the truck to dismantle it. The local motor shop for this municipality said they couldn’t do it. They reached out to us and we said, ‘Sure, send it to us.’”

The motor weighed 22,000 lb., but that wasn’t the issue. It was so tall that once it was put on the truck, the under-hook height for the existing crane was inadequate.

On another occasion, the company received a 50,000-lb. motor that powered a a chemical plant’s compressor. “We had the lifting capacity, but again, the stator was so tall we couldn’t grab it with our existing hook, so we cut another hole in the sheet-metal ceiling,” Rodriguez said. “In this case, we had a door opening that was 16 feet wide by 14 feet tall. The motor was on the way here and we were reviewing the drawings and realized it would not fit through the door. So we cut the door down and then raised the opening another two feet so we could back in the trailer. We did this and cut the hole in the roof while the motor was on the way here from Texas. The repair job itself was not difficult. It was the logistics that created the challenge in this case.”

Taking on challenging jobs is not always by design, Rodriguez said. “After we commit to it, then we have to scramble and creatively find a way to make the job happen. We are not the type of manufacturing company that produces thousands of the same widget. What we are doing is truly custom manufacturing,” he noted. “The jobs that some people may shy away from, well, those are the ones we get excited about. Hopefully other people won’t want to do these crazy jobs, and we can keep doing them. Of course, we don’t shy away from consistent ordinary jobs either. That’s what keeps the lights on.”

Another job example is a motor the company is building in a joint effort with an OEM for an existing footprint. They found a dead motor in a scrap yard, bought the carcass, and are now building the guts of the motor to be installed into a steel mill. “The customer needs a drop-in replacement and is happy with our solution because it saves them time and money but will operate efficiently,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of these really large motors are one-offs and to buy a brand new one would require 40 weeks lead time. We can build this motor from scratch in 14 weeks.”

The company is also building a niche in field-service work. “We have OEMs who will send engineering support on jobs with us, so this differentiates us,” Rodriguez said. “We have the tooling to go to the site, pull the motor, bring it back to the shop, and do all repairs on motors up to 27,000 horsepower. Then we can take it back, reinstall it, and commission it for service.”

Some repairs happen on site. For example, the Gulf Coast Electric Motor Service team traveled to Chicago to repair and refurbish an old, large generator. The team went to Trinidad and Tobago to perform all of the electrical testing on site for another large generator.

“Sometimes facilities are built around the generator and there is no way to remove the equipment, so we go to the site,” Rodriguez explained. “It’s important to fix these quickly because they are having to purchase power while the generator is down. This type of field service is the biggest reason for our growth in past few years.” EP

GCEMS uses a vacuum-pressure-impregnation (VPI) system to rewind stators.

GCEMS uses a vacuum-pressure-impregnation (VPI) system to rewind stators.

A Family Business — An American Dream

In 1959, Higinio “Tico” Rodriguez, a tobacco farmer, was in a local park in his hometown of Guantánamo, Cuba, when he witnessed people being murdered on the streets. Fidel Castro had just gained power, and Rodriguez decided it was time to leave. He was 18 years old, had an 8th-grade education, and only five dollars.

Rodriguez lived with distant relatives in Mexico and worked as a farmer. He met and married Susana and started a family. When things worsened in Cuba under Castro’s reign, he helped 23 family members flee the island. In 1972, he took his family to Miami and found work washing dishes and fueling Greyhound trucks. But he didn’t like living in a big metropolitan city and migrated to Florida’s Panhandle, where he settled in Pensacola.

During the day, he worked for a doorframe manufacturing company. At night, he worked at Pensacola Aviation washing and fueling airplanes. But he knew there was something better for him and his family. On the weekends, he worked for free at a local motor shop because he wanted to learn a trade. In 1973, the owner of the motor shop was so impressed with his work ethic that he agreed to hire him at the same rate of his other two jobs combined. This is where he got his education and his introduction to electric motors.

He dreamed of owning his own business. After five years of working at the motor shop, he got a $6,000 mortgage on the family home and started the Gulf Coast Electric Motor Service company.

“Building his business, providing for his family, and living in America were his dreams,” his son, Victor Rodriguez said. “He always told us, ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ And by example, he showed us that hard work and dedication will pay off.”

The company is not intimidated by big motors. Its shop can handle industrial and municipal equipment as big as 27,000 hp.

The company is not intimidated by big motors. Its shop can handle industrial and municipal equipment as big as 27,000 hp.

Tico Rodriguez died unexpectedly in 2016 at the age of 79. He took pride in building the business alongside his family. His wife, Susana, played a major role.

“My mom provided the balance,” Victor Rodriguez said. “My dad was the cowboy who always had his guns blazing and was taking on crazy projects. Then you had my mom doing the books and questioning every expense. He was not one to stop once he had a vision, but she was the voice of reason and could make him see things differently. She was always involved and still is. She knows how to pull in the reins. Dad always knew the risks, but because Mom was there with the checks and balances, he was free to fly and use his creativity to build the business and tackle crazy jobs. It allowed him the freedom to think outside the box. She was always understanding and supportive and never felt threatened by the time he spent on the business.”

Susana Rodriguez said at times it wasn’t easy.

“Sometimes I would tell him, maybe you should work for someone else and have a regular paycheck,” she said. “But it was important for my husband to own something. This business was like having another child. We worked together, and we lived together. We were together 24 hours a day. People always asked us how can you do this? At first when he started the business I was kind of afraid, but I knew he could do it. He had some problems with the language, but that was the only problem. He learned English in everyday conversations. He never went to school to learn. He was very smart. I always had confidence in him.”

Tico Rodriguez had opportunities to work for others and to sell the business. But even during hard times, he would never entertain the conversation. His business was his legacy.

“This was my husband’s dream—to own a business like this,” she said. “He was very proud.”

Victor Rodriguez said his father had his finger on the pulse of every part of the business. “He could go to any specific pallet in the warehouse and tell you the customer and every detail of the job,” he said.

But it was his work ethic that got the attention of his sons and his employees.

“We all saw how hard he worked,” said his oldest son, Higinio Rodriguez, who began working at the motor shop when he was 15. “It’s challenging and different every day. I started cleaning parts back when there were only four people here. I worked from the ground up. Now I run the shop and do the quotes. The best advice my Dad ever gave me was, ‘Work hard and be honest. Everything else will take care of itself.’ He would be very proud of us now. He wouldn’t tell us, but he would tell everyone else.”

The sons also learned how to solve problems creatively. “My father taught us that you have to sacrifice and take risks to earn the American Dream,” Higinio Rodriguez said. “I think the actuality of his life exceeded his dream. My dad came here with no money, and now we are supporting 30 families.”

Moises Rodriguez agrees. “My Dad really taught us how to work,” he said. “We all followed his work-ethic example. We learned early that hard work will get you places. We will do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Michelle Segrest is president of Navigate Content Inc., and has been a professional journalist for 29 years. She specializes in creating content for the processing industries and has toured manufacturing facilities in 55 cities in six countries on three continents. If your facility has an interesting efficiency, maintenance, and/or reliability story to tell, please contact her at michelle@navigatecontent.com.

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Michelle Segrest

Michelle Segrest

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