Auto Recycling World speaks to Amber Kendrick, owner of Pete’s Auto Parts, a used auto parts supplier based in Michigan, in the US, about the company’s background, her experiences before joining the company, as well as overcoming tragedy on the site, and the benefits of having work/life balance.
A little history
I am the third generation of Pete’s Auto Parts (Pete’s). My grandpa, Pete Elenbaas, started the business, and my father, Ron Elenbaas, grew the business before me.
I started full-time in 2006, just a year and a half out of college, working first in the office, then in shipping and production, and finally rising to the general manager position. I hired and trained many of my key people back in 2010 and 2011, including those who run the business with me now, but back then, they were working in shipping and the yard.
In 2012, I left Pete’s to run American Auto Parts in Omaha, Nebraska, where I learned much about brokering.
The owner of American Auto Parts, Peter Fink, also owns Certified Transmission (a company with over 400 employees. They remanufacture over 50,000 transmissions annually and have 14 repair facilities where they install their own products). It was a great learning experience working for a larger company. I also did a brief period (six months) working for H&H Loveland Auto Parts in Colorado, which was really neat working for a multi-site yard. At the time, they had three locations. H&H Auto Parts has now added a fourth Denver location, which is also a PRP hub. After that, I worked as a consultant for two years – sometimes for individual recyclers but mainly for Rebuilders Automotive Supply (RAS). I was able to help them develop a new website and core buying tools, and I got to travel all over the US and Canada, going into businesses to teach recyclers how to get more money out of their core programs.
When my dad was ready to sell the business, I moved back to Michigan with my husband Andy, who had never been in the industry before, but he joined the team pricing our incoming inventory.
My management team and I aggressively grew Pete’s as soon as I took over, increasing vehicle throughput and sales (1600 vehicles in 2015 to 2300 vehicles in 2016, and we were on track to do more in 2017 when we pumped the brakes). We figured out we were doing a lot more work for not that much more money.
We operate on eight acres, and we can hold 800 cars in the yard when we squeeze them in, so keeping the cars an average of four months before crushing rather than six months meant we were crushing a lot of salable parts. We decided we wanted to try to find the sweet spot for our business to buy a nicer, newer car for a little more money and keep it around longer, to employ fewer people but pay them more and expect high performance, and to keep repeating our successes and learning from our mistakes.
Benefiting from experience
From Peter Fink, my mentor at American Auto Parts, I learned so much about written handbooks and rules and about requesting results rather than micromanaging.
Peter hosts a monthly manager meeting where he holds his managers accountable for their profit and loss statements, and he’s not afraid to delve into the details of why things are going well (or not). He allowed me the freedom to drive the data markers he desired within the bounds of the company structure. I had clearly printed rules of engagement to work within, and I think it’s also invaluable for me to give that to my people. For example, my salespeople have a 27-page sales manual that details what is expected of them.
Overcoming fire in the yard
It was a terrible and difficult time, and we went through a Michigan winter with a burned-down warehouse, which was incredibly challenging. Still, my team rallied around the challenge, and in some ways, it brought us closer together. It was very labor intensive, not having that warehouse. It meant we had to plastic wrap every engine. Then we were storing engines outside underneath building overhangs, three deep. We got over 80 inches of snow that winter. So much extra work.
After that experience, we realized we needed a ‘war chest’. My management team and I sat down, and I said: “We don’t know what it’s going to be; it could be a tornado or a flood, it could be another fire, or we could have someone sue us, but something eventually will happen, and we will need a cash reserve.” So we started saving money every month, putting money away for the next disaster. We had no idea it would be COVID. But when that happened, when sales dropped off suddenly, and the whole world was shutting down, we were able to pay everyone and continue without too much worry or stress because we had our war chest. That was pretty cool, and we would not have been in that position without the fire.
Working smart or working hard
We try hard to re-evaluate workflow and choose smarter ways these days. We now have 27 full-time employees. 15 of them have been at the company for over five years, and 20 of them for over three years, which I think helps a lot.
When you have a majority of long-term staff members, you have to have time for cross-training and promotions. You go through good times and bad times, and they know how to do everything in their immediate job so well that they are comfortable bringing new ideas to the table. Plus, they have more time off, so they are better rested and recharged after their vacations, they see the company’s big picture and how they are integral to it, even in the little things they do.
Another element of finding the ‘sweet spot’ has been learning about the right mix of vehicles to buy for our market and the right quantity of vehicles with our dismantling staff and distribution staff to keep vehicles and parts rolling through quickly.
I am a big believer in always being able to process what you purchase. We want to be able to inventory, dismantle, and pull the parts off these vehicles; there is nothing more frustrating for sales staff than having to tell a customer they can’t have a part for them for ten days because the dismantling department is so backed up. We’ve tried really hard to grow with intention and thoughtfulness and make sure we can process what we purchase. I think it’s also important to find the right partners to purchase brokered parts from to fill the gaps in our inventory with solid partners that purchase older and newer vehicles than we do, partners we can trust.
Creating a work/life (life/work) balance
I practice yoga five days a week. I take a Pilates class once a week. I ride a horse once a week. I love to go hiking, and I go to recovery support group meetings several times a week… it’s important to me to take the time to care for myself. I know self-care is a buzzword these days, but I really am a better boss and a better person when I spend time exercising, praying and meditating. I practice habit stacking: I make a gratitude list every morning while I brush my teeth! I meditate every single day. I meal plan on Saturday for the week to come and meal prep every Sunday so I can easily fuel my body all week without having to think much about it during the busy work week. I quit drinking in 2018; I had always been a “work hard, play hard” kind of person, but after the warehouse fire, I was using alcohol to escape my stress and life, spiraling into depression. I finally “put the plug in the jug”, as they say, and it’s been incredibly helpful for me to quit drinking and spend less time at work. I rarely work more than 40 hours a week these days. During COVID, we shortened our customer pickup hours and never re-expanded them. I find we can get just as much business done. In fact, we are making more sales than we ever have before. We’ve set a ton of sales records with fewer people on staff and fewer hours of operation.
In 2015, we sold 5.7m in sales; 450k of that was brokered with 29 people. In 2022, we sold 8.9m in sales; 2.1m brokered with 27 full-time staff members, and those people are working fewer hours. Pete’s pays less than half the overtime we did back then.
I think many of our people have a better work/life balance than we used to; it’s not just me. We all want to spend more time with our families and friends, time volunteering, traveling, or whatever people are into. And, of course, I still want to grow my business and work full time and see people retire from Pete’s Auto Parts and be a good neighbor and community member, but I think we can do all of those things and find balance. It has certainly been a lot of fun learning and trying!