The Friction Specialist

by Larry Bernstein


We live in a throwaway society. Most people have little patience for repair, but prefer to replace instead. However, some businesses, such as Rochester Clutch and Brake, make a living from individuals and businesses that choose repair/reuse — whether by choice or necessity.

Founded in 1927 by Phillip Damico, the business was known as Phil and Al’s. The Damico brothers wrecked vehicles for parts and sales, sold the used auto parts, and rebuilt transmissions. When the 1930’s rolled around, the company began rebuilding clutches and brakes and later changed their name to Rochester Clutch and Brake. Phil’s sons, including Sam, took over the business in 1958. By the late 90’s, when Sam’s son, Sam Jr., was running the company, Rochester Clutch and Brake stopped selling auto parts. “Other big companies started selling auto parts and we could not compete,” says Sam Sr.

Today, Rochester Clutch and Brake focuses solely on rebuilding clutches and brake shoes. They do not do mechanical work on the clutch. They rebuild or remanufacture clutches, disks and brake bands that have driving force or stopping force which is needed to operate the machine. They only work on parts.

Types of Work

Imagine going to work in order to repair a 1934 Rolls Royce. Sam Sr. worked on classic/antique cars for years. In the 1970’s, he also worked on racecars for Mario Andretti and Paul Newman. Since the early 2000’s, Sam Jr. has been doing this sort of work. Besides automotive, Rochester Clutch and Brake also has clients from the agricultural, construction and industrial sectors. They have worked on railroad equipment, ski lifts, elevators, tractors, bulldozers, earthmovers and other heavy equipment.

The times are changing for those who do the type of work that Rochester Clutch and Brake does. “Our niche is small, and it’s not going to get bigger,” says Sam Jr. Besides the small industry market, those who are skilled at the trade are few and far between. Sam Jr. explains, “This is something you learn with time and experience, and kids today are not interested.” In terms of background, Sam Jr. is an A&P licensed mechanic. Sam Sr. learned basic physics, which he uses to deduce problems. However, both father and son were brought up in the business, and their skills come primarily from experience.

Rebuilding a clutch is a unique process. Particular products are required in order to work on clutches. These products include raw friction material in roll or sheet form, specialty adhesives for thermal bonding and custom jigging for the bonding process. Friction ranges from 0 to 1.0 — and everything in the world has a different coefficient of friction. The lower the number, the more slippery the material; a higher number indicates more adhesion.

According to Sam Jr., the focus these days of their business is industrial. “Industrial — such as manufacturing, vehicles and big equipment, require friction materials and that is where the business is,” says Sam Sr. This is true because this type of equipment is particularly expensive which leads business owners to be more open to remanufacturing their equipment rather than buying new.

Custom work is another area that keeps Rochester Clutch and Brake busy. “There are machines that have obsolete clutches and brakes, so they are not mass produced. We are able to fabricate news ones,” says Sam Jr. He points to a couple of cars including the 2004 Sebring Convertible Chrysler (only a few thousand were made), a Mark V Scarab (only three left in the world), and a 1916 Hudson as examples.

When a business has their equipment rebuilt by Rochester Clutch and Brake, they get a product that is specifically geared towards them and their requirements. “The advantage of having your product geared is that we can do it so it fits the particular need to the consumer,” says Sam Sr. This type of personalization along with the savings that come from repair rather than replace are what drives many of Rochester Clutch and Brake’s customers to choose them.

Personalization is also a reason why Rochester Clutch and Brake has so much repeat business. Sam Jr. estimates that 75 percent of the business is repeat. “People come back because I’m honest,” he says. “I’ll tell people what they need to hear not what they want to. And people respect that. I get more business that way and have built up quite a reputation over the years.”

Customer Stories

Davenport Machine — part of the Brinkman International Group — was having a problem. The screw machine manufacturer had an issue with oil contamination. Sam Sr. came up with a different material and custom machined it for them according to their specs. Rochester Clutch and Brake has been selling to them ever since, and today, they are the OEM for their clutch units.

New York State DOT came to Rochester Clutch and Brake because they were having problems with their fleet of grass cutters. The brakes could not keep the grass cutters on the hills. “We changed the friction materials, so the fleets could do the job,” says Sam Sr.

Another satisfied customer is a Boston-based company that drives piles in the harbor as well as engaging in other heavy construction. Prior to turning to Rochester Clutch and Brake, they used local people, but they couldn’t get it right. They sent the part that was getting burned out to Rochester Clutch and Brake and Sam Jr. was able to find a material that suited their needs. “We did it for them and they ended up giving us the account,” says Sam Jr.

So how does Rochester Clutch and Brake maintain its hold in the small niche market of clutch and brake repair? It ultimately comes down to the quality of service they provide and the experience they have. “When a customer comes in with a problem, we don’t give them a blank stare. You can’t think in the framework of what the industry says is right — think outside of the box,” says Sam Jr. They also take risks and rely on the knowledge they’ve gained from their many years in the business.

Rochester Clutch and Brake has been providing a valuable service for many years. They are one of the few companies in America that do what they do. For those who want and need to repair the clutch and/or brake on their equipment, they can be confident that Rochester Clutch and Brake will find a solution.