This year, ACDelco is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Like many notable brands in the aftermarket today, it all started with humble origins and a group of visionary entrepreneurs.  

We recently spoke with Bob Sanford at Durand Mobil – an ACDelco Professional Service Center (PSC) program shop in Durand, Mich. – to learn more about the lessons ACDelco has learned over 100 years in the aftermarket, and to get his thoughts about the future. Sanford joined GM in 1982 and served as general director of GM’s ACDelco division from 2014 to October 2016 and plans to retire at the end of the year.

Q. ACDelco now boasts 100 years of experience in the aftermarket. Could you share a bit more for the benefit of our readers that may not be familiar with ACDelco’s history? 

A. Absolutely. It started with humble beginnings in Flint, Mich. While the automotive industry and General Motors were still in their infancy, William Durant, who also founded our parent company General Motors, correctly predicted the importance of vehicle service to the growing ranks of automobile owners.

He realized all of the vehicle brands he brought under the GM umbrella would require replacement parts, and he decided it would be more efficient to create a single company to handle those needs.

So in 1916, Durant established United Motors Corp., which in turn became United Motors Service – the company that would eventually become ACDelco – to bring a dream team of premium aftermarket brands under one roof.

The new holding company combined several parts manufacturers – including Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co., or DELCO. Others included the Hyatt Roller Bearing Co., New Departure Mfg. Co. and Perlman Rim Corp.

As the company grew, so did its customer trust and innovation. In 1927, AC Spark Plugs were used to power Charles Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic Ocean. And in 1934, the brand began selling the industry’s first manual turn signals for trucks, which helped to improve vehicle safety on the increasingly crowded roads of the time. 

The 1960s were also a particularly exciting time for our company. In fact, NASA tapped the technical expertise of our engineers to develop the inertial guidance systems for the Apollo moon missions.

By 1974, GM merged its AC Spark Plug Division with United Delco to form AC-Delco. AC-Delco was a household name with a reputable image, making its mark on the automotive aftermarket parts and service business.

In the 1980s and 1990s, AC-Delco became very involved in motorsports, sponsoring races and drivers in NASCAR, IHRA (International Hot Rod Association) and NHRA (National Hot Rod Association). Some of racing’s most successful names wore AC-Delco on their backs, including Dale Earnhardt, Kurt Johnson, Steve Park, Kevin Harvick, Harold Martin, Ken Schrader and Ron Hornaday, to name a few.

In 1995, one final company name change was announced: The hyphen between AC and Delco was removed, creating the current ACDelco logo. Today, technicians who want the best for their customers around the world know they can count on the ACDelco brand. 

Q. What has ACDelco learned from 100 years in the automotive aftermarket?

A. We’ve learned that continuous improvement in everything we do – especially when it comes to our product portfolio – is key to our success. If technicians can’t find the right part for the job when they need it, we’re not helping them deliver for their customers.

That’s why we have grown our portfolio to include more than 90,000 SKUs across 37 product lines, and we’re always working continuously to improve the quality and customer experience for all of our customers.

We’ve also learned that the parts themselves are just part of the value we need to provide for our customers. ACDelco doesn’t just sell parts – we also bring our OE expertise to the aftermarket through our network of more than 5,000 independent PSC (Professional Service Center) program participants. Eligible members receive industry-leading training, national marketing support, local merchandising support, facility image enhancement programs, point-of-sale promotional materials, and other vital services to help them grow and succeed.

We know that these shops have been critical to our success over the past 100 years, and we expect they will play a key role in our future success. That’s why we rolled out the red carpet to recognize several of these shops with an all-expense paid trip to the AAPEX and SEMA shows this year. This trip also included a day at the nearby official Corvette driving school at Spring Mountain.

In our opinion, it’s just the right thing to do. They work hard every day to serve their customers, so we hope to do more of this to recognize them in the future.

Q. ACDelco recently launched a marketing campaign called “Be Certain.” What does this mean for technicians? 

A. When we visit our ACDelco PSC program participants and other customers in the field, they tell us certainty is the No. 1 priority for them. When technicians choose replacement parts for their customers, they want a product that delivers the right fit, form and function the first time and every time.

ACDelco delivers this certainty with our GM Original Equipment (OE) parts lines. Although many of our competitors claim to offer the same OE quality, only ACDelco can offer parts in the aftermarket built with the proprietary GM OE factory specs. And this allows us to offer technicians the certainty of choosing parts that meet or exceed the factory specs that were used the day their customer’s GM vehicle rolled off the assembly line. 

Q. In the coming years, our industry is expected to face a technician shortage as many Baby Boomers retire. What is ACDelco doing to address this challenge?

A. We know that offering the right products is only part of excellent vehicle service. That’s why ACDelco and GM have been so focused on training throughout our history. From the GM Automotive Service Educational Program (ASEP) to ongoing instructor-led and web-based training delivered to our independent shops, training will become increasingly important as vehicle technologies become more complex.

Today, we offer more than 400 courses ranging from traditional instructor-led technical training courses and seminars to a wide selection of online courses that offer the latest available business and technical updates.

To celebrate our centennial and invest in training the next generation of technicians, we launched the “100 Years, 100 Futures” scholarship program. The program awards $1,000 scholarships to 100 deserving GM ASEP students throughout the U.S. this year. These students are critical to the future of the independent aftermarket, so we see think it’s very important for us to do everything we can to support our industry’s next generation of talent. 

Q. How do you think the automotive aftermarket will change in the coming years?

A. I think many of the trends we are already experiencing today will continue in the future. Customers are continuing to keep their vehicles longer. Today, the average age of U.S. vehicles has climbed to more than 11.5 years, so this will present a great opportunity for the aftermarket in the coming years.

In the near term, we expect relatively low fuel prices and rising overall fuel efficiency will drive higher vehicle miles travelled (VMT), and a sustained increase in VMT is always good news for our industry. 

As automakers continue to add increasingly complex features – including vehicle connectivity, active safety systems, alternative powertrains and fuel-saving technologies like start-stop – I think this will increase the importance of ACDelco’s OE parts lines. 

For example, many of these systems rely on complex software to operate effectively, and only ACDelco can deliver products developed with GM’s OE source code and proprietary specs for GM vehicles in the independent aftermarket. 

It will also increase the importance of continuous engineering enhancements to our products to keep the ACDelco brand competitive in an increasingly global aftermarket. 

The increasing technical complexity of our products will also increase the fundamental importance of training. That’s why ACDelco’s training programs will continue to combine a variety of proven delivery methods to ensure maximum learning benefits for service professionals.

Q Are there any new product launches ahead that our readers should know about?

A. Yes, we’ve had some great new product introductions to our undercar lines this year, and we expect this to continue in the coming months. We recently launched an all-new line of coated rotors and zinc-plated calipers, which is great news as we get into the winter months. Both are designed to resist rust and corrosion, and we test this using a harsh process that includes prolonged salt sprays and other wear testing.

We also recently expanded our ACDelco Advantage line of ball bearings, clutch release bearings, hanger bearings, hub assemblies, hub spindle kits, taper bearings and wheel bearings. This expanded bearing line provides coverage for 69 million vehicles on U.S. roads today. 

In the near future, we are also going to have some announcements involving our chassis lines, so more to come.

Q. Last year, you expanded your U.S. field team. Has this made an impact in 2016? 

A. Yes, the aftermarket is a people business, and our success or failure will hinge on the relationships we build with our customers.

That’s why we made it a priority to strengthen our field sales teams last year, and even though we’re told we live in a digital world, this increased face time has paid some great dividends for us in the past year.

Q. What is ACDelco doing to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change in the automotive aftermarket? 

A. There’s been a lot of talk about the rapid pace of technological change recently, but in our opinion, it’s nothing new. When our industry launched more than 100 years ago, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the time and many thought the automobile itself was a disruptive technology.

So for many years we’ve embraced this change as a given to make sure technicians have the tools they need to stay ahead of the curve. For example, earlier this year we introduced an all-new version of the Multiple Diagnostic Interface (MDI) scan tool to the aftermarket. The MDI 2 adds a number of technical enhancements and easy programming for GM vehicle model years from 1996 to today.

We’re also working with our PSC program participants to make sure they have the right digital marketing assets and facility enhancements to help them attract and retain young and digitally savvy employees and customers.  

While we consider keeping up with technology as an essential part of our brand, we still believe the aftermarket is a people business, and our success or failure will hinge on the relationships we build with our customers.

That’s why we made it a priority to strengthen our field sales teams last year, and even though we’re told we live in a digital world, this increased face time has paid some great dividends for us in the last year.