For more than 80 years, Southern Armature Works has been a fixture in the Historical Automotive District on Birmingham’s Southside. But that is about to change. The company is moving to a new location a few blocks away, thanks to a changing business model and displacement by breweries and eateries.
For those of you who wonder what exactly an armature is, it’s the rotating coil in an electric motor — the starter in a car is a great example. And while armatures are still a large part of the company’s business, it also does all sorts of other automotive work in its five bays.
Southern Armature Works is the epitome of a family business. The walls of its tiny “office” are covered by religious artifacts — crosses, photos, rosary beads and children’s art, and on one recent day a Catholic priest occupied one of the rundown chairs. A newer computer and a security system are minor concessions to modernity.
Charles A. Rumore Jr. is one of the company’s principal owners, along with Terry Rumore Jr.
“Ross Rumore was the founder in1931,” Charles Rumore says. “He went into business with one or two of his brothers and then he worked here until the early ’90s. My dad came to work here. Terry Rumore Sr. came here in 1976 after a stint with the military. He was the second generation and then my brother and I.
“We both came here respectively after college, in 1995 and 1997, and now we’re into the fourth generation with our children that are working here. One of them has come full time. He’s Charles Anthony Rumore Jr.”
The family is unabashedly Catholic. “We went to St. Francis Xavier church, John Carroll High School and the University of Alabama,” Rumore says, adding that his brother earned an accounting degree and he earned a marketing degree at UA.
He says the late Dr. Morris Mayer, a well-known marketing professor at UA, became a close friend and mentor.
“I got frustrated, like when people would come in in their three-piece suits, and all this, and tell us they’re working for Deloitte and whatever. And Dr. Mayer would always lean in and say, yeah, what they’re doing really is they’re stocking shelves at Home Depot.
“So I asked him, when I graduated, ‘Dr. Mayer, can I come down here and give a lecture to the marketing association and call it, ‘tell it like it is working for a family business?’ I said I get up every morning and put on my, you know, $8 polyester shirt and my Dickies and shoes and pants and I’ll go out to my dumpster and I’ll jump up down in my dumpster because if I don’t have to pay for a second load that’s $100 that actually stays in the company.”
Rumore says his experience working at Southern Armature Works through high school and college helped him earn his marketing degree because “I had a context when we were talking about things theoretically in college. And this is what most guys are missing. I was actually applying it to everything we were doing back at the shop.”
Like the church, family is an important part at Southern Armature Works, Rumore says.
“Look, my uncle’s a millionaire in Nashville and offered me a job as a junior in college to go to work for him for a $100,000 a year. And I turned it down because there are these intangibles about a family business when it’s done right. Not many are. Usually there is a generation that exploits it and our goal is to not do that. Our goal is to keep passing something on that creates opportunities. You know, the priest gets to come down, your friends get to come down here, your family gets to come down here. I wouldn’t trade any of that away.”
But things are changing in the neighborhood.
“This is the Automotive Historic District of Birmingham,” Rumore says. “And not many people remember that or even knew that. But we were perfectly situated,” adding that the area once had several auto dealers and auto supply and repair businesses. “And we were surrounded by all of the automotive intensive industries that used to be in this area.”
Located just south of downtown Birmingham, the Automotive Historic District features buildings from the early 1900s. But now it’s bordered by Regions Field on one side and the Avondale entertainment district on the other.
Says Rumore: “We just find ourselves needing a location that is more suitable for what we do, rebuilding starters and alternators and radiators, but also do car work, too. So, we’re moving now to Seventh Avenue North and 28th Street.”
Today’s cars, with front-wheel drive and other changes, just aren’t compatible with the current facilities.
According to the marketing firm HIS Markit, the average age of vehicles on U.S. highways rose to a record 12.1 years last year as new car prices rose and vehicle quality improved, and Rumore says the average age for the vehicles his company repairs is 8 to 25 years old.
“An alternator job, which used to take 30 minutes, now takes six hours because you have to pull the whole front out,” he says. Changes like that or adding a radiator shop or dealing with commoditized parts all require constant adaptation — but that’s nothing new for the company.
“My dad tells the story that in 1976 or ’77 when he came to work for his father, his father insisted we were not going to work on foreign vehicles, we are going to do Fords, Chevrolets and Chryslers. But dad said, ‘we have to adapt’ and his dad said, ‘well, that’s going to be your project,’” Rumore says.
“We supply starters and alternators and generators for everything, but aircraft — mining and heavy equipment, boats, cars. A lot of people want to hold on to their vehicles or their tractors. The average age of the tractors that we work on is probably 50 years old.”
Rumore says the company employs between 13 and 19 people, most of whom have been with the company from 20 to 25 years. “We had one who retired a few years ago who was here 47 years. I have one who has been here 42 years. I have one that’s been here 35 years because when they are working for a family business, you treat them like family.”
Rumore says business is steady but “there are ups and there’s downs and there are years and decades that are better than others. Most recently, the supply shortage has helped us tremendously because people are looking to return to us. It’s been nice revisiting with a lot of customers. We sold a ton of product in the ’90s and early 2000s. Business was actually still good for us because of the stimulus, but then it’s dropped off in between. We were able to remain steady through COVID, believe it or not.”
With the increased interest in electric vehicles, the outlook is good for the business, right?
“It does two things,” Rumore says. “Initially, it’s devastating because electric vehicles don’t have starters or alternators on them. They simplify and that eliminates a lot of the necessary rebuilding. But what you’re alluding to is a future opportunity in that a lot more electric motors will be created. It’s bringing us back to where we began. We were originally an armature rewinder, which, of course, is the inside of any electric motor.”
Rumore says the firm’s founder in 1931 saw the electrical end of the automotive industry as being the place to dedicate most of his efforts, so he focused on starters and alternators. “Now it’s going to be an opportunity for us to kind of see if we can just get back into electric motors in general because now the power steering is going to be electric, the compressor is going to be electric, the water pump is going to be electric, so potentially down the line it could be good for company,” he says.
Rumore says the days of rebuilding components are fading and “unfortunately so are the people who know how the inside of things work. I would say 80% of rebuilders are out of business.”
The move to the new building will be “a nightmare,” he says. “We’re literally going to find stuff that has not been moved probably for 40, 50, 60, 70 years. When I came out of college and came here, I had this idea I was going to get everything organized but it was impossible because of the limitations of space. The building we’re moving into is significantly larger.”
Rumore is staying true to his grandfather by driving a 2016 Ford pickup truck. But, he says, “what my delivery guys drive are 10-year-old Toyota Tacomas with an average mileage of 500,000 miles.”
Bill Gerdes and Joe De Sciose are Birmingham-area freelancers for Business Alabama.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.