Auto Recycling World speaks to Shan Lathem, President of Cocoa Auto Salvage, Inc., based in Florida, US, about her company’s history, her position, role at the ARA, and her thoughts on the future of the auto recycling industry.
Cocoa Auto Salvage has a long history over several generations. Can you provide a brief background and also explain how you are involved in its operations?
My family owned several different automotive-related businesses. Growing up, I worked in different areas of the businesses. Once I turned 16, I worked as a delivery driver for CAS. While attending college, I worked part-time at the yard alongside my dad, learning the business. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 1997 with my Bachelor’s degree in Business Management, there was a conversation that we all had as a family about my role in the business. My brother, who was seven years older than me, thought it was a good idea for me to oversee the accounting and finance department, where all the bookkeeping was done for all our businesses. I was willing to help in whatever way they thought would be best, even though that meant leaving the yard for an offsite location where the bookkeeping staff were located. Looking back, that was a mistake for me. This decision literally set me back in my own personal career path – it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I did it anyway, as women so often do – putting others needs, wants and desires ahead of our own. I look back at that decision and wish I would have voiced what I wanted then instead of being assigned a more typically female role.
As you grew up surrounded by salvage, was it always your intention to be involved in the company, or did you intend an alternative route?
I really wanted nothing to do with the family businesses! It just didn’t seem like the lifestyle I THOUGHT I wanted. I planned to go to law school. I re-routed once I was in college and understood that the lifestyle I truly wanted could be achieved even more easily by working with my family. I did not understand the potential with automotive recycling as a career choice. I think this is one of the reasons we have a difficult time attracting people into our industry – it is misunderstood. We need to do a better job of explaining who we are, what we do and the career opportunities that exist.
Can you please explain your role and bring us up to date with the company’s current operations?
I’m at my facility working with my team daily. My role as President is to make time to look beyond today and make plans for our future, to make sure we maintain our focus and achieve the goals we have set for our team.
Since taking control of Cocoa, what changes have you undertaken to keep the company at the forefront of the industry? Why did you make these changes, and would you say the US industry has experienced a growth spurt of late as it adapts to its role in the 21 century; how has technology made it available for these changes to take place?
Some of the things we have done – we are one of six founding members of Recyclers Cross Dock- a repark yard for a better organization that minimizes damages (large undertaking for 2,500 vehicles). We have expanded data tiering and duplication, installed a closed-loop wash system, we utilize electronic ordering platforms with body shops and insurance companies, we have a deeper inventory on units to maximize revenue, and provide hard to find/unavailable parts with better/more pictures (pictures tell the story), we sell online through our eBay store, we have implemented 401K along with existing benefit programs to attract and keep a better employee, plus we have made major investments in equipment.
I participate in quarterly meetings with Profit Team Consulting, an accountability group in the industry. They keep me in check by doing a deep dive on my numbers. Numbers always tell the true story. Accountability is key for me. With the growth over the last few years, I have promoted a long-term employee to the role of GM. We work closely together and have a wonderful relationship. Sandra has been with my company for 19 years. She understands me, the company and has a clear vision for what we are working toward. We have 23 employees, of whom six are women.
Because of the death of your father and others in your family, you may not have had a more traditional support group as you took over the business. How did you learn to run the company, and where did you go to take advice?
Having a good support network is critical. Our industry is so multi-faceted. Things change quickly. If you’re not plugged in, you will likely miss out. Being involved initially in my state association, FADRA, and then in ARA has been paramount to my long-term success. When you get involved in these associations, you go to the meetings, volunteer for committees, sit on the Board of Directors, and you make valuable lasting friendships. I lean on these relationships heavily. You find the people that are at the meetings are usually very driven, smart and looking outside of their own boxes for better ways. There is a synergy being together that a facility owner can’t experience alone. We are better together. Always.
You are heavily involved in the ARA; how did this come about, and what is your involvement? The auto recycling industry is forever evolving. How do you think it will progress, and what advice would you give to those wishing to keep up to date and be at its forefront as it moves forward?
I had been on the FADRA Board for several years before going into leadership and becoming President of FADRA 2016-2018. Chad Counselman would participate in our state conventions and hill days, and we were glad to have him! He was a Regional Director for the ARA. He was going to be moving into a different role on the ARA Board and suggested my name for replacing him as the Regional Director, which the Board approved.
After serving as a Regional Director for a few years, I was asked to move onto the Executive Committee. This means that I have dedicated five years to leadership for the ARA, eventually becoming the 4th woman president of the ARA in 2022. I am currently First Vice President.
We volunteer our time to the industry. I’ve had people ask how I can spend so much of my time working with the ARA. I ask them back, how can I not? If not me, then who? We have to have a voice have representation, and be heard. They say if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. I’d say that’s accurate.
To find out more about Cocoa Auto Salvage, Inc., please visit www.cocoaautosalvage.com