The owner of Pete’s Auto Parts has been a familiar face in the industry through the years.We asked her to give us a run down on the business and introduce us to some of her team members.
Pete’s Auto Parts was founded by my grandfather, Pete Elenbaas.
My grandpa Pete was farming on this land, and struggling to make ends meet, so he started towing at night while farming during the day, and he ended up with a motley collection of cars from his towing operation. He got into the salvage business because he had these unwanted vehicles and people kept coming around trying to buy parts off of them, but he continued towing for years.
Eventually the vehicle business took over the farm, and the yard took over the towing. My dad, Ron Elenbaas, bought the business from him, and I bought it from my dad. I had the pleasure of working with my grandpa Pete for many years before his passing this last October. We currently have 8 acres, 30 employees and process 1,500 cars per year.
Like many in our business, I was born into it. But, there were some years where I didn’t want anything to do with auto recycling. I grew up working odd jobs at Pete’s Auto Parts, and I really didn’t latch onto any of them, so I didn’t think I had a future with the company. I was an English major in college and had dreams of writing; after graduation I got a job in condominium management and I fell in love with growing a small business. I surprisingly enjoyed the accounting and budgeting side of it. It wasn’t long before I came into the family business in the office.
As a woman automotive recycler, what about your career or your business are you most proud?
Implementing and then expanding paid maternity and paternity leave in my business made me extremely proud. We have someone out on paid maternity leave right now. I’m working on paid sick leave for 2022. I think I’m most proud of the way Pete’s provides employment – from our matching retirement fund program to our free health care, to the way we calculate bonuses. We try really hard to be a great place to work and to take care of people so they want to come to work and do their best.
Who are your mentors in the business who directly or indirectly impacted you during your career?
I’ve been so fortunate to have so many mentors in this industry. I had the incredible opportunity of doing some consulting work a few years back and I got to tour so many different yards. I met unique owners and operators and many of them opened their facilities to me and shared their best practices. I think it is so amazing and wonderful how people will help each other in this industry. The accountability groups I have been part of, led by Robert and Chad Counts and also led by Mike Kunkel, have been instrumental in my success over the years and have introduced me to countless heroes and mentors. I’ve always looked up to women in the industry and try to learn from them whenever I get the chance.
What unique or significant changes have you made to improve your business and what compelled you to make these changes?
When I first bought the business in 2016, I ramped up production considerably, buying more cars, turning the inventory over faster. We did 2,400 vehicles in one year, on our 8 acres, up from 1,700 the year before I bought the business. But we found we were doing so much more work for not that much more money. So we scaled it back down, and evaluated where are we the most efficient, and where can we make the most amount of money. Instead of trying to process as many cars as we can, now we try to maximize profits.
How has your experience as a member of the ARA and other industry organizations benefited your business?
I’ve always been a big believer in “better together,” because my dad taught me that our fellow recyclers are not our true competition, the aftermarket/remanufacturers/OEM are our competition – when recyclers are strong, we all win. That is so true in West Michigan. There are so many quality recyclers all servicing the same small area with less than a million people!
I have learned so much from my fellow recyclers and much of it has been through ARA and other industry organizations. I love going to conferences and gaining knowledge from other operators, not just in the seminars but also in the hallways, bars and tradeshow areas.
How are you balancing work and life in this time of global crisis? How have you led your team to navigate these times?
I am really blessed to have such an incredible team; I can really lean on my people. I have really strong managers who have been in the business for a long time. One thing we all value is time with family. No one at Pete’s Auto Parts works more than 50 hours a week. People regularly work 40 or 45 hour weeks, but it’s pretty rare anyone goes over that.
When the pandemic closed down our front office and we were forced to do curbside pickup, we had pickup hours from 9am to 4pm. It worked so well to serve customers for those hours that we never went back to our old extended hours for the office, even when we reopened. We realized we didn’t really need to have people available for customer pickup from 7:30am to 5:30pm. There have been little blessings that have come out of the pandemic and that is definitely one of them.
What is one goal you are currently working towards for your business?
I am working to pay off the business. I am hoping to do that this year or next year. I also have a goal of hitting 25% brokered sales. Pete’s Auto Parts has always been a “feeder” yard, about half of all of our sales are to other automotive recyclers, and our brokering numbers have always been low compared to a lot of other yards. The year before I bought the business we averaged 8% brokered sales; we’ve doubled that now and brought it up to 19%. We’ve broken into 20% but never hit 25% before. I would love to see a quarter of our business come from brokering.
What is one failure that defined a turning point in your business?
The year 2017 was full of painful but important lessons that have had ripple effects through the following years. We had a huge disaster at Pete’s in October of 2017, when a neighbor parked their vehicle on our property, and it caught on fire. It burned down one of our warehouses full of engines and transmissions. Although I had requested that exact building be added to our insurance the year before when I bought the business, the contents were added but the building was not. I unfortunately signed off on the insurance paperwork without reading the fine print and I missed that the building itself had not been added to the insurance.
This was a devastating loss. We had to rebuild the building to uphold the terms of our lease to maintain the property, and you can’t just get a loan to build a building on property you don’t own, because you can’t use the property as collateral. As hard as the situation was, my team all rallied around and we found a way to get through the catastrophic loss of almost half of our engines and transmissions, which are our number one and number two selling parts, and we came out stronger on the other side.
We have seen you transform personally in the last few years. What did you do to make changes in your life and how have they benefited you, and your work?
I was always a big drinker; I liked to think I worked hard and played hard. But in 2017 when we had that fire, I started using my drinking to try to cope with the stress I was experiencing; and when 2018 brought even more stress, I spiraled pretty hard into depression and anxiety.
In July 2018, I quit drinking and right away a lot of things got a lot better, a lot easier, just because I wasn’t going through life with a hangover. But I was still physically and mentally sick. I was obese and a nervous wreck; I was estranged from my parents and struggling with suicidal thoughts. I finally made a doctor’s appointment for the physical side of things, and I discovered that I had diabetes, PCOS, stage 3 chronic kidney disease, and metabolic syndrome. All diseases of insulin resistance. I read everything I could get my hands on about diabetes and insulin resistance, I got a continuous glucose monitor, and I worked really hard to get my health back.
With the help of my grandpa Pete, I also started a 12-step program. Although I had done therapy before, for me, the recovery program made all the difference in the world for my mental health. Now I take time to meditate and pray every day. I do recovery readings, I practice yoga, I attend 12-step meetings, and I spend time with others in recovery, and I do still go to therapy.
For my physical health, I am super particular with my diet (focusing on tight blood sugar control). I work really hard to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night. I use stress and anxiety reduction techniques like tapping and four-square breathing. I try to move my body every day.
My grandpa Pete really inspired me to learn to live in the present, and to stop obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. Instead I embrace today for what it is, to try to live this life today on life’s terms.
What does it mean to you to operate with excellence and how is that reflected in your business?
I think in the past there was a sort of badge of honor for owners who worked long hours and took a lot on themselves, they were invaluable in their business, and their knowledge was vast. But many of us have moved away from that model, and now I measure my success as an operator not by how much I am needed in the business, but by how NOT needed I can become; how well things can run without me. I can take a two-week vacation and I’m hardly missed. Everyone just handles things with ease while I am gone.
I was given room to make mistakes, and I must give my people room to make their own mistakes and learn from them and change from them, which makes them better people and makes the business better.
How do you contribute to your community or to the auto recycling industry that is rewarding to you?
I’m a CASA volunteer (court appointed special advocate) in the foster care system, which is something very special to me and close to my heart. I get to know these kids and then give them a voice in court. It’s been amazing to me to see the resilience and strength of kids going through so much.
What is your advice for the next generation of auto recyclers?
I have a friend that likes to say “change is inevitable; either go along with it or prepare to be dragged.” It’s taken me a while to learn how to really change and go with the flow. I was always good at implementing the changes that I myself dreamt up – it was much harder to accept changes that weren’t my ideas. But embracing collaboration and change has brought better results. So my advice is to go with the change and embrace other people’s ideas!
Any other thoughts you’d like to share? Since this is for the women’s issue… I love that there are so many women in the industry today, many more than there were 15 years ago when I started working full time at Pete’s Auto Parts. Sometimes customers will call and say, “Oh I don’t know who I spoke to, it was a woman,” and we have to laugh, because there are six of us right now: the owner, the general manager, the office manager, the accounting person, and two salespeople. And we’ve had more – at one time we had more female salespeople than male, and we’ve had women delivery drivers and shippers, too. I love seeing women succeed in the industry.