Four years ago when Don Keeling walked into various warehouse distributors’ offices and explained that he worked for Sunsong North America Inc., it wasn’t uncommon to see blank looks on their faces. “They were like a deer in the headlights for those first sales calls,” he said. Keeling explained that Sunsong aftermarket brake-hose assemblies are sold under the Sunsong brand, but also by a wide variety of brands through various channels of the aftermarket including warehouse distributors and retail outlets.

“When someone told us they were already buying a known brand, I would ask them to open a brake-hose box and look at the hose,” said Keeling, who is director of sales and marketing for Sunsong. “DOT (the Department of Transportation) requires the makers name to be printed on the hose, so the Sungsong or Harco name is on all of the product we make, no matter who sells it.” He further explained that Harco is the name of the brake-hose manufacturing plant that Sunsong bought early on and is now the company’s North American distribution center.

“It’s amazing how all of that has changed in such a short period,” Keeling said. He notes that the company’s first sales of brake hoses, power steering hoses and sets, and engine and transmission oil-cooler hoses, took place in June of 2015. “Next year, according to our projections, we will sell over 2.4 million units. That’s pretty exceptional growth.”

“Selling the brand was a challenge that we overcame very quickly,” he said. Right now, I would say we probably have 40% of the aftermarket.”

“I joined Sunsong North America in 2014,” said Catalog Manager Brian Hoover. “At that time we didn't have any North America market visibility. I built the catalog data from zero to full-line, based on years of factory research, OEM data and category management. In addition to accurate vehicle catalog data, we strive to have excellent imagery to represent the product, along with complete packaging, interchange, and PIES data.

“I've been involved in Product and Catalog/Content management since the late ’90s. While speed to market is important, the most important aspect is accuracy.”

“I started my aftermarket career in retail, which has given me a great perspective of the counter person’s needs.” How can a company grow so fast? Dan Lewis, Sunsong director of product management, who works out of the company’s Raleigh, N.C. office, said the answer is quite simple. Sunsong products, including the power-steering complete sets, are designed for exacting OE form, fit and functions. He added that Sunsong is the North American aftermarket branch of Qingdao Sunsong Co., Ltd., a Chinese Tier 1 and Tier 2 automotive OEM with headquarters in the Shandong Province. All of the parts manufactured for North American sales undergo the same as OE.

“Our reason for doing this is not to convince the executive at the largest retailer that we have a better program,” Lewis said. “The purpose is to convince the technician to say ‘Wow! This is really great. This is much better than what I am use to,” and to create a brand preference at the technician level.”

Customers soon learn that:

• Pressure hoses exceed original-equipment performance standards (SAE J2050) with a max working pressure of 1,500 psi a burst pressure rating of 8,700 psi and a tensile strength of 1,600 pounds. This provides exceptional durability and long life

• All tubing is manufactured from high-grade steel and electroplated with a zinc coating (chromium III), delivering superior corrosion and rust resistance against elements such as high humidity, road salt, water, and grime

• Each hose is precision-engineered to exact fit and includes brackets, grommets, switch ports, heat shields, bushings, and protective sleeves as required for to ensure that all wearable parts are restored to original condition

• Every hose is subjected to a high-pressure quality-assurance test before leaving the factory, ensuring trouble free installation and operation of your new hose

• Hoses are made from multi-layer reinforced rubber and have a synthetic rubber coating that is highly resistant to oil, ozone, and heat. Hoses have an operating temperature range of -40 to 310° Fahrenheit, exceeding original equipment requirements.

“The products produced for us in China are housed in the same buildings, and the equipment and production lines use virtually the same methods of assemblies as the OE product.

Independent shop owners and their technicians are now demanding the product, he said. Even though it means the parts store will stock more applications, their sales and profits will improve as well.

Sungsong is an all-models, all-makes manufacturer, Keeling said. With 99% coverage for nearly every vehicle dating back to the 1965, the company’s coverage continues to grow to meet the needs of the technicians as newer vehicles reach the replacement-part stage. Pre-1965 coverage in about 80%. He added that Sunsong’s competition often offers piecemeal applications that make it more time consuming for a technician to complete the job within a normal length of time. Currently, Sungsong offers more than 4,100 brake and clutch hoses, close to 3,000 power steering assemblies and kits, and more than 320 oil-cooler lines. For this year alone the company has introduced more than 650 power-steering hoses, 135 brake hoses, 100 oil-cooler hoses and 35 power-steering rack kits. On average, Sunsong can engineer, manufacture and introduce a brake hose within 60 days and do the same for power-steering components or sets in 80 days.

“One thing that we outshine our competition on is the import power-steering set side of the business,” Keeling said. He explained that on a nationwide basis only about 20% of the complete power-steering kits are sold through the aftermarket. The lion’s share is sold through new car dealership parts departments. However, Sunsong’s own share of the aftermarket on import parts is about 45%.

“So Sunsong is capturing sales from the OES market, as well as its aftermarket competition,” Keeling said.

Lewis provided an example of the impact Sunsong has made. Before taking on the Sunsong line, one warehouse distributor who sold power-steering assemblies had sales that averaged 80% domestic and 20% import vehicles. After taking on the Sunsong for only a few months, his sales increased dramatically on the import side, with the mix changing to 60% domestic and 40% import, which is much more in line with the percentages of the number of domestic and import vehicles in the country.

“It’s not only the import coverage we provide, but also because the method that we choose to build our import car parts is drastically different than our competitors,” Lewis said.

 “It all has to do with the form, fit and function,” said Eric Goodwin, Sungsong product manager. “Using Sunsong allows the technician to replace old parts with minimal labor. You don’t have to match up grommets, brackets that would take any extra time.”

“At a show last year Sunsong took several products so customers could compare them. Brake hoses are not as feature rich,” Lewis said. “It’s a simple product. The big question is, do you include an accessory bracket or not, and we do on most applications.

“Power steering is the exact opposite. There are a lot of ways you can sell a power steering hose,” he said. “When we started putting together our North American power-steering program, early on we had a chance to deviate away from our competitors to more of what the OEM was doing. For example, popular Honda pressure hoses have very similar configurations and use cast fittings and they have bushings for brackets that are glued to the tubing in three or four different spots. We not only include the grommets, but they are glued just like OEM does it. Instead of using machined fittings on the port switch and head, we use cast fittings just like the OEM. As a matter of fact, a lot of our volume is so high now, that our cast fittings are ordered from the OEMs that manufacture those fittings.

“We frequently include the bushings, where the competition doesn’t, and we frequently do assembly work that the competitor doesn’t,” Lewis continued. “One of the other items we had at the show was a return hose that consisted of two pieces of steel and three pieces of rubber, and it was all assembled and each hose is bent and molded into a certain clock position so that when you install it you just put it in, bolt down the brackets and you’re ready to go. And that’s the way it comes from the OEM. Ours is identical to OEM. With our competitor, it’s basically a kit. It’s two pieces of metal with three rubber hoses in a bag. There are no clamps and there are no grommets for the brackets. It’s basically a bag of spaghetti that you have to put together.

“We have a lot of features in power steering that we believe will create a brand preference with the technician,” Goodwin said.

“Typically what is traditional in the North American market is that when you buy aftermarket power-steering parts, you will buy the pressure hose and/or you buy the return hose,” Lewis said. “A lot of those complete steering assemblies are very complicated and they are routed all the way around the engine compartment and bolted to different things and the return and pressure hoses are all intertwined. The OEMs will sell the pressure and return hoses that are coming off the rack and back as a single set with one part number as a kit. Up until three years ago nobody sold those except the dealerships. We chose to sell them too. We have about 180 assemblies now and the advantage for the technician is that it’s just like the OE. With the others, you have separate pieces. When pull them off the car, you have to take them apart, replace the hoses and put it all back together in the same configuration. The bracket has to be in the same spot, the parts have to be in the same clock position, and you hope you put it all in the same position as the old one.”

As complete sets, Sunsong goes through a variety of checks that include testing each set, making sure it fits in an engineered jig for that specific application, he said.

Using the direct-fit set makes it more profitable for the technician and helps the shop owner keep vehicles running through the bays.

Goodwin explained that some of the flat-rate manuals use an hourly rate based on replacing the part with an identical OEM complete kit. If the technician is fixing the unit by replacing separate components, the job could take twice as long. If the manual uses an hourly rate that considers the piece-meal approach, the technician and the shop still come out ahead.

Distributors are a little harder to please until they understand this, Keeling said. “They might say, ‘I already carry the pressure and the return hoses, I don’t want to carry the sets.’ We understand that but that’s not what the technician wants. We don’t expect them to carry the sets and not carry the individual hoses. They need to do both, but they will sell more product.”

Keeling noted that Sunsong does not recommend on how to price the individual hoses or sets, but notes that the cost of a shop buying a Sunsong set from an aftermarket distributor normally costs substantially less than buying a set from a new-car dealership.”

Tim Morris, Sunsong’s national sales manager, and his team of independent reps continue to make field calls with distributors and parts dealers throughout the United States and Canada to show off their product lines to shop operators and it continues to pay off for all of those involved in the distribution channel, Keeling said. “Many of the shop owner and technicians didn’t know that power-steering sets existed unless they were purchased from the new-car dealer service departments.”

All of Sunsong’s product lines are inventoried at its Morain, Ohio, distribution center near Dayton, Keeling said.

“Its central location makes it possible to offer next-day delivery in many states and a maximum of only three days to the West Coast,” noted Kelsey Summers, operations support manager. She and her team members are on hand five days a week to answer any questions customers from the distribution channels may have.