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The Amalfe Doctrine: Momentum USA Marks 75 Years

When John Paul Amalfe started working full-time at Momentum USA in 1977, he had big ideas for the family business. From the time he was a young boy, Amalfe had been sweeping floors, unloading tires and doing other odd jobs on a part-time basis. The third generation of the family to join the fold, Amalfe in 1977 was fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance, and – with the confidence of a 20-something-year-old – he was ready to conquer the world.

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“I had many aspirations about what the company should or shouldn’t be doing,” recalls Amalfe, now president and CEO of the Richmond, Virginia-based manufacturer of aftermarket brake-friction, exhaust and filtration products. “I quickly learned that you had to check your ego at the door. You had to buy in to the common good of the company. And even though I had been working part-time there, I still had to learn the business from the ground up.”

It was the same for his cousins, Anthony Amalfe (now vice president) and John Joseph Amalfe (treasurer), who, along with John Paul Amalfe, are co-owners of Momentum USA.

“We did every single job that any of our companies do today,” Amalfe says. “ … And I would not want to have done it any other way. It was the best way to give us the foundational skills to run the company.”

As Momentum USA marks its 75th year in business, “check your ego at the door” is one of the company’s enduring mantras. Considering Momentum’s humble beginnings, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. John Paul Amalfe’s grandparents – John and Clementine Amalfe – were Sicilian-born immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life. They settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where his grandfather opened a one-bay Cities Service gas station and repair shop in July 1945.

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John and Clementine Amalfe had three sons, and all three of them joined the family business during their high school years.

“They were an Italian family that stuck together and worked hard to make ends meet,” Amalfe says. “They worked long hours, and over the years they developed a reputation for high-quality repairs, honesty and service to the local community. People enjoyed going there because they knew they would get their car fixed correctly, and [the shop] would only repair what needed to get repaired.

“ … They built the business on the back of hard work, integrity, customer service and always trying to exceed the customer’s expectations.”

As a youngster, John Paul Amalfe would take the No. 8 bus from his family’s home in Union, New Jersey, to the city of Elizabeth, and walk the last two miles to the shop. From an early age, he learned “what it was like to be part of a family that was trying to build a business from the ground up.”

“My grandfather was the kind of visionary who really understood what it took to make a family business successful,” Amalfe says. “My dad and my uncles never had a cross word between them, because my grandfather would never stand for it. Growing up with my cousins, we all learned the same valuable lessons about working together and getting along.”

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A Better Way

In 1955, the Amalfes moved the business to a two-bay facility down the street, at 339 Rahway Ave. in Elizabeth, where the shop still stands today (it’s now known as Amalfe Bros. Auto Repair & Exhaust). Later, they expanded the shop to six bays.   

As time went on, the Amalfes realized that if they continued sourcing their replacement parts from local auto parts stores, they’d have a hard time competing against the Goodyears and Firestones of the world. In 1964, they built a 6,000-square-foot warehouse behind the repair shop, marking the start of a new chapter for the business.

The Amalfes began buying replacement parts directly from the manufacturers. In addition to using the parts for their repair business, the Amalfes began supplying independent garages in the area. Their pitch to prospective distribution customers was simple: Buying from us will help you compete against the large national repair chains.

The move into wholesale distribution provided another revenue stream for the business, and it was a catalyst for growth. In 1978, the Amalfes moved the distribution center to a new 28,000-square-foot facility nearby, and decided to run it as a separate entity – Amalfe Bros. & Sons Warehouse Distributors – with John Paul and one of his uncles overseeing it.

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As the business grew, the Amalfes saw vertical integration as the next phase in the company’s strategic development. In 1986, the company acquired an exhaust-parts factory in Toronto. With an eye on national distribution, the Amalfes purchased 15 acres of land in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and built a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility there to house its new subsidiary, Original Exhaust Manufacturers. They moved the plant’s equipment from Toronto to Hopkinsville, where they’ve been producing welded exhaust assemblies ever since.

“We went there because of its centralized location,” Amalfe explains. At the time, he adds, the state of Kentucky was aggressively courting manufacturers due to the downturn in tobacco production, so there were incentives to sweeten the deal. “We knew we could get to 80% of the United States within 10 hours.”

Original Exhaust Manufacturers supplies pre-bent pipe to muffler shops and the distributors that service them. Its customers include Amalfe Bros. Auto Repair & Exhaust in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

“That really was the start of our vertical-integration strategy, where we control the destiny of the product from manufacturing to wholesale distribution to the retail location where it’s put on the consumer’s car,” Amalfe says.

The acquisition of Original Exhaust Manufacturers spurred the company to broaden its distribution footprint. Since then, Amalfe Bros. & Sons Warehouse Distributors has acquired 11 distribution facilities along the Eastern seaboard, giving the company a total of 13. Today, Anthony and John Joseph Amalfe run the distribution operations, headquartered in Edison, New Jersey.

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As part of its vertical-integration strategy, the company made two more acquisitions in 2004: Novatek Manufacturing (now New World Friction), a Cambridge, Ontario, manufacturer of brake pads; and Qualitee International (now AutoPartSource), a Richmond, Virginia-based distributor of aftermarket undercar parts. That same year, Momentum USA Inc. was established as a holding company for the new subsidiaries, with its headquarters in Richmond, where John Paul Amalfe works today.

As part of Momentum USA, AutoPartSource has evolved from a global distributor and procurer of aftermarket parts into a manufacturer of cabin air filters and – beginning this year – surgical and N95 face masks for the PPE market. The acquisitions were about more than vertical integration, though. When Amalfe took over as president of the family business in 1988, he realized the company needed “a toolkit for the future” – a blueprint for differentiating the company in a crowded marketplace.

For Amalfe, that meant making parts in North America.

“I knew that I had to create something other than a commodity – because a commodity is just a part for a price,” Amalfe said in June 2018, while accepting his award as EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in the Family Business category for the New Jersey region. “I had to create added-value products that had a story that I could sell. On top of that, I had to have a vision that we could execute and outhustle the competition.”

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Today, Amalfe estimates that Momentum manufactures 80% of its products in North America. The company’s goal is to make 100% of its products in North America within the next three years. It’s a compelling story for a company founded by hard-working Italian immigrants who came here to pursue the American dream. And it’s a strategic advantage for a company that prides itself on being “the speedboat in the marketplace.”

“We believe in just-in-time service to our customers,” Amalfe tells AMN/Counterman. “And you really can’t accomplish that with a global supply chain.”

‘Never Forget Who You Are’

From its humble beginnings in a one-bay garage in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Momentum USA today is a leading manufacturer and distributor of aftermarket parts, with 600 employees. The company manufactures branded and private-label products in the brake, exhaust and filtration segments, and counts NAPA Auto Parts, FRAM and O’Reilly Auto Parts among its major customers.

Through its subsidiary New World Friction, the company’s portfolio of brake pads provides coverage for more than 98% of all vehicles in operation. The company was one of the first to launch a commercially accepted 100% copper-free brake pad, and its environmentally friendly formulations already exceed the industry’s target for copper content in brake products by 2025. 

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Even as the company has grown, it has stayed true to the ideals of its founders – which the family affectionately calls “the Amalfe Doctrine.” That’s especially important as the company looks ahead to a fourth generation of Amalfes taking the reins someday. It’s been estimated that only 3% of family businesses make it to the fourth generation. Amalfe believes the company’s loyalty to its guiding principles put Momentum USA in a good position to buck that trend.

“Everybody in the family buys into that doctrine, which is, ‘Check your ego at the door,’” Amalfe says. “It’s ‘Team first, company first. We’re all in this together, working together. No one person is going to make or break the company. It’s about we, not I.’

“That type of thought process has been instilled into us as a family. And when you come to work for us on Day 1, you are welcomed as an extension of our family. You become a part of our family. You buy into the common goal of trying to be the best we can be each and every day. My grandfather set that tone from the very beginning.”

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Amalfe Bros. Auto Repair & Exhaust – where it all started – continues to serve customers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just as it’s been doing for 75 years. Momentum has never considered selling the shop, as its provides a valuable proving ground for new products under development. But that’s not the only reason the company clings to the modest repair shop.

“It’s been a great R&D center for us, and it also reminds us about where we started, because my grandfather always preached to us, ‘Never forget who you are,’” Amalfe says. “So that grounds us day in and day out to know that’s where we started, that’s how the business evolved. It’s a great teaching lesson and it reinforces our core values of who we are as a family, and who we are as a company.”

It’s been a challenging year for most businesses in the
automotive aftermarket, even with the industry designated as “essential” during the pandemic. While Momentum’s 75th year in business hasn’t gone exactly as planned, Amalfe is proud to say that the company hasn’t closed any of its facilities, “even for one hour.” In March, Momentum’s leadership team developed a crisis plan to ensure the health and safety of its workforce while continuing to exceed its customers’ expectations. 

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“We challenged ourselves that we were going to get through this without having to call one of our customers and use the pandemic as an excuse for not executing,” he adds.

In July, Momentum began making protective face masks at its manufacturing facility in Richmond. Adding face masks to its portfolio made sense strategically, as the masks are made from the same materials used in its cabin air filters, and the product is a natural fit for its filtration business. Sales have been so brisk that the company has added some workers in Richmond to meet the demand.

The addition of face masks is a prime example of how this 75-year-old company can pivot quickly when market conditions offer new opportunities, thanks to Momentum’s state-of-the-art engineering, manufacturing and R&D capabilities. But as the company looks ahead to 2021 and beyond, the wise words of Amalfe’s grandfather (“never forget who you are”) will continue to keep Momentum focused on what it does best.

“We’re going to stay within our competencies and continue to grow through acquisition and/or organic growth,” Amalfe says. “We’ve developed exciting products that we think are going to play well in the aftermarket for years to come.”

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