Interview by Caryn Smith
One to watch, Eric Wilbert is a third-generation family auto recycler taking the family business into new places in the self-service arena. Wilbert’s Inc. is no stranger to diversification, with their two successful full-service operations and Christmas tree farm. Now, the business boasts three self-service locations under Eric’s leadership.
About the Business
Wilbert’s Inc. has been a member of the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) since 1952, received the ARA C.A.R. Award in 2020 and is a respected industry leader at the local, state, and national levels. So, it is no surprise that Eric Wilbert is an involved member of the automotive recycling community, following in the footsteps of his father and uncles. He is currently ending five years of service in the Automotive Recyclers Association of New York, with a unique two-year run as its president due to the freezing of executive committee roles because of Covid-19 in 2020.
In 2013, Wilbert’s U-Pull It of Williamson, New York opened for business, with the Bath location following in 2018. The Wilbert family expanded into self-service to separate the retail traffic they were receiving at the full-service locations. What they found was a healthy demand for self-service ROE–Recycled Original Equipment®, so much so that they’ve added a third location this year in Buffalo. “The self-service model allows us to directly serve the retail customer and in turn, provide an opportunity for the full-service to better focus on its wholesale clientele. As a result, our quality of service has increased tremendously overall in the past several years, and continues to do so,” says Wilbert. “The same can be said at the U-Pull-It facilities, as we better understand our customers’ needs and get direct feedback to their wants.”
To attract customers, the Wilbert’s U-Pull-It team utilizes social media and online advertising. “New and relevant content is what we strive for in our online efforts,” says Wilbert. “Our Facebook and Instagram are highly active. Google business listings are utilized tremendously. Our website, www.wupi.com, has frequent new blog posts under the ‘News’ section, and we are constantly tweaking the website. We also use Google Ad Words for a few different campaigns throughout the year.”
Their website is also mobile-friendly with live updates on inventory. “Our site has live vehicle inventory search and recent arrivals notices from past seven days.”
Serving with a Smile
As Wilbert becomes a past president of the ARANY, he was introduced at the 78th Annual ARA Convention & Expo as the newest member of the Executive Committee, as Secretary. He is very happy and energized to serve the industry and is ready for the challenge.
“Eric Wilbert’s drive for quality and improvement makes him the perfect person to join the leadership at ARA. I am so excited to bring him into the fold,” said Jonathan Morrow, chairman of ARA’s Nominating Committee. Echoing the sentiment, “I look forward to working with Eric in his new role on the ARA Executive Committee,” added ARA Executive Director, Sandy Blalock. “As a dedicated industry advocate, he will be a fine addition to ARA’s Executive Committee.”
Wilbert is father to three young daughters and has the support of his wife of seven years, Eileen, who is a busy professor at a local college. Automotive Recycling magazine caught up with him to get his take on the industry, the ARA and other things.
What led you to become the newest member on the EC?
Coming from a family with predecessors that have been very active with many associations, I am incredibly honored to be nominated as the incoming secretary for ARA in 2021. As my presidency for the Automotive Recyclers Association of New York winds down, I am excited to continue my focus on working for the industry that has supported my family and employees for nearly 70 years.
There is no better time than now. I called on ARA past presidents to get an idea of the job ahead. I realized that the knowledge and education potential for myself and family of businesses was invaluable.
I have a close-knit business family, and this opportunity would not be possible if I didn’t have such a strong team and the support of my family.
What are you passionate about when it comes to automotive recycling?
My passion lies in the operations side of the business.
I grew up working with my hands and I also enjoy working with the staff, from improving operating procedures to encouraging a strong team culture.
When we launched the self-service operation in 2013, it was completely foreign to me. But I dove in headfirst, learning everything I could. My family recognized the self-service need. The discussion on who would run it never happened – I just picked up the ball and ran with it. When the time came, I just packed up my things and set up shop at the new location.
We eventually bought neighboring properties to create a large u-pull-it. Williamson has 38 acres with approximately 30 employees and 3,000 cars total. Bath has a generous 60 acres, with approximately 20 employees, and 1,000 cars. The new Western NY location, in Buffalo, was added in May this year and requires a gut and rebuild and will hold about 1,200 cars and a staff of 30 once fully operational.
As a long-term ARA member, how has that helped your self-service business launch and growth?
As a family of recyclers, we have always had a strong attendance at trade shows and conventions and are very active participants in industry organizations. We believe in building your network – it is not what you know as much as who you know. We also have strong connections to recyclers in our local area, such as former ARA past presidents Gary Beagell and Bill Tolpa. What draws you into ARA and state industry associations is the comradery and sharing of valuable information. There is a willingness to collaborate that is like no other industry.
What is the significant value that ARA brings to the industry and to members from your perspective?
First and foremost, the legislative support is a tremendous strength on a national level. I also love the ARA University and training tools, and continued expansion on the focus on training. ARA ensures automotive recyclers have necessary tools available for members and their teams to learn and grow, especially regarding safety. For instance, the electric vehicle is a whole unknown to our industry. But foremost, we must be able to process an electric vehicle safely. The rest will work itself out in the marketplace, and ARA is advocating for our place at the table in that regard.
Why did you decide to join in the family business, were their other options you explored?
My career path was not expected. I never anticipated to come back to work for the family. When my grandfather passed away, I changed my mindset.
I grew up across the street from our original business. I worked in the family business growing up. If we did not have schoolwork to attend to, we were expected to be assisting across the street. Typically, I would be helping my father, learning all I could about tires and wheels. Ironically, that is the #1 item seller for our U-Pull Its.
College taught me life lessons living away from my family for a couple years. It gave me an outside perspective.
What obstacles or advancements do you think the next generation will encounter in coming years?
I am incredibly excited for EV and hybrid vehicles. The manufacturers, profit, and commodity market will change drastically on the self-service side. It is a little bit concerning on full-service side, providing a decent stable of vehicles. There is always going to be a need for our industry; yet it will evolve tremendously in the next decade. It is exciting. It might be scary to others. How you adapt and change with it is the defining factor.
There will be more technology, more education, more understanding needed for these electronics. We need to discover ways to reuse the battery packs. Dismantling a vehicle will change. Parts we reuse will change.
What do you expect to get from your experience on the EC?
Knowledge. Experience. Working with different personalities. Learning from others with differing perspectives is exciting. Networking, traveling, bringing my family along to enjoy the experience, having these new opportunities. I look forward to it all. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity. I am glad for our family’s active participation that has given me the opportunity to be a part of national and state leadership teams.
On the topic of vehicle acquisition, what is your strategy in sourcing vehicles for the facilities?
Vehicle acquisition strategy is rather simple. We purchase our vehicles from two sources, the individual or “street” seller as we call it and the commercial businesses or “vendor” vehicles. The street sellers comprise two-thirds of the vehicles we buy in our model and the vendors are the balance of that. Street vehicles are sourced via phone or many online platforms that are all directly sourced through Wilbert’s. We do not use third parties for leads, our philosophy is we can do it better and more cost-effective ourselves. As for the vendor vehicles, these are all organically sourced through short and long-term relationships that we continue to develop each and every day. These relationships take time to develop but are worth dividends when the market shifts, as it has over the past year and a half.
Anything else unique to Wilbert’s that you'd like to share?
We enjoy focusing on the customer. While this sounds rather contradicting at a self-service facility, it is almost the most important step. Not only do you focus on the customer, but we also attempt to think like them. As the adage goes, walk a mile in their shoes and you gain a different perspective. While we are making “improvements” we attempt to utilize the customer’s perspective. This goes for all public facing material such as the website, social media platforms, brochures, signage, free yard resources and, most importantly, the customer experience.
Additionally, yet the most important aspect is the Wilbert Family. This extends beyond the active second, third and young fourth generation and into the inactive family members as well. We all, in some ways, are actively supporting each other which supports our incredible family of employees and businesses. I cannot thank my family enough for all the sacrifices we have made and the devotion of time and energy we continuously pour into each other. I am incredibly fortunate and grateful for the support network I have in place to allow the time to devote to this industry that supports so many.
To learn more about Wilbert’s U-Pull It operations, watch their new four-part Facility Tour at ARAuniversity.org/facility-tours/ to explore their purchasing, retail sales, and processing departments.