Adaptive Leadership

Mar 1, 2024 | Interview

Kristi Werner’s career has led to this moment: where knowledge, technology and leadership intersect. As the new CEO of United Recyclers Group, she is well-prepared to use these key ingredients to move the industry forward.

By Caryn Smith

United Recyclers Group (URG) has long been laser-focused on bottom line solutions to help automotive recyclers raise their potential for profits. This has occurred primarily through the development of technology and resources that deliver recycled original equipment auto parts to customers of URG member companies quickly and efficiently.

For Kristi Werner, the nerdy-techy part is where she entered the industry scene. She has spent her career since 2011 at URG, rising to chief technology officer before being promoted to CEO last August.

She has earned respect as the trusted industry leader that wisely uses her expertise to play a pivotal role in cultivating cutting-edge resources for the purpose of improving an automotive recyclers business potential.

Automotive Recycling magazine caught up with Werner in her office in South Dakota to find out what is in store for URG under her leadership.

Automotive Recycling magazine: How are your first months in this new role? Obviously, the industry is not new to you, but leading one of the largest groups of auto recyclers is!

Kristi Werner: I am really enjoying it. I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous when I started just because I didn’t want to let the Board of Directors, our team, or our members down. I wanted to make sure that I was ready for the position. Every day that goes by, I love it more and more.

I work hard every day because failure isn’t an option. I don’t think there is anything that necessarily surprised me in this role because I was heavily involved, but the reaction from our members sure did – how excited they were about my new role and how confident they are in me to lead URG to the next level. I was really happy about that.

Even our team at URG is so supportive of me in my new role. Don put together a great team and I am so happy to lead them. We work extremely well together, and everyone is always helping each other succeed. I’m really excited to see what we can accomplish in the coming years.

AR: How many are on the URG team now?

Werner: With our warranty department, we have 28 employees right now. Most of us are remotely located, and there are about five employees that go to the Georgetown, Texas office as needed. Since URG moved to Georgetown, everyone that I have managed has worked remotely. Therefore, managing the whole team in this way has been an easy transition.

AR: You worked under former CEO Don Porter for a number of years. What did you learn?

Werner: I learned a lot from Don over the years. I would say the biggest thing was being included in board meetings, contract negotiations and working closely with our attorneys. Being involved at an early level in project development really helped me to confidently move into this new role because that’s a big part of this job. We are continually evaluating what programs we are going to build or integrate with, and then finalizing contract relationships to implement them. I also already had a great understanding of how our Board was run and what they wanted to see from this position. 

AR: What other lessons have prepared you?

Werner: I do think our past and current board members have really pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone, acknowledging what I was capable of. I also have relied on input from many industry mentors, too many to name here. They all led me where I’m at today, so I must give them credit. Even now, I can call any one of them and bounce ideas around, or have them help solve a problem. I owe a lot to many people, for sure. It is a very cool industry that comes together and helps people, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s very unique.

AR: What is it that has kept you with URG and the automotive recycling community?

Werner: URG has changed a lot over the years but what kept me with them was the interaction with our members and building programs to help them succeed. As URG grew throughout the years it just enticed me to work harder. Don and the Board trusted me to run with ideas for our members and I really respected that. That is what helped me thrive and want to stay with URG. Also, all the friendships I have made and the family-like feeling kept me in the recycling community. 

AR: What is the process to get a program developed?

Werner: It depends on the program. There are projects that we work on for over five years before we launch. As we’re working on them, we’re also working on smaller projects. It helps that we’re a small company. Based on where the industry is heading, if it turns, we can shift our focus and tackle the issue quicker than other organizations that may have more hurdles to cross to address it. We don’t have roadblocks to new ideas. I think that’s what helps URG really turn the products faster than what most companies can do.

“I’m really hoping by the ‘We are One,’ URG Annual Training Conference on April 4-6 in St. Louis, MO, co-led with Team PRP, that I can announce some big programs that we’re working on, and some that have launched.”

AR: Do you have any that you’re working on now that you can share?

Werner: I’m really hoping by the “We are One” URG Annual Training Conference on April 4-6 in St. Louis, MO, co-led with Team PRP, that I can announce some big programs that we’re working on, and some that have launched. Also, we are working with a few different

organizations to get recycled parts out to more avenues which will be beneficial to the URG members.

AR: What are your strategic goals for URG?

Werner: My current strategic goal is to work more closely with other organizations. With our partnership with Team PRP, I really think that’s just the beginning of what we can do. I really want to partner with ARA more; I think there’s an overlap that we both share together. We can work together for the better of the industry. That’s what I’m hoping for moving forward – organizations that are collaboratively working together. And we’ll continue to strive to promote recycled auto parts everywhere.

AR: What is it that you bring to the job that’s unique to your perspective?

Werner: I believe it’s my IT background. A lot of people like to call me a ‘tech nerd.’ I can speak tech talk and make sure that everyone in the room can understand the details. My forte is understanding the back end, and then being able to accomplish the business side – bringing all that together.

I can answer the in-depth questions of the technology and then discuss the ROI, which I think is a huge benefit. My career track in URG has been technology, business development, CTO, and now CEO.

Being such a small company, I was able to operate in so many different roles following a project to completion. This included working with an organization to brainstorm integration with our product program, creating the specifications, working with our programmers to build and release the product, testing, training sales and support staff, and ultimately helping to market it. Being heavily involved in past projects will benefit URG on future decisions, as we look to partner with new organizations. I know exactly how to get it done, quickly, efficiently and to the benefit of automotive recyclers.

AR: What do you see happening in the next five to 10 years?

Werner: We will see more integrations outside the collision industry – with the mechanical side, aftermarket retail stores, and even the dealers. I think that’s going to be a big change. I think we all know that access to complete OE data and the ability to inventory more parts is huge. Someone will come forward with a solution to resolve the issues with this in coming years. Also, the latest buzz with auto recyclers is the need for yard management systems to provide critical enhancements, and listen to their customers’ needs. If that doesn’t start to happen there will likely be another solution that presents itself to auto recyclers.

AR: What plans do you have for URG moving forward?

Werner: URG must be prepared to integrate with any opportunity that presents itself. Don did a really good job representing URG to CIECA, CIC, and the National Auto Body Council. I believe there is even more opportunity to pursue other industry conferences, to create new relationships.

I’m working closely with Jarret Hann, Executive Director at Team PRP, and together we are connecting with other industries like the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association, as an example. We will be presenting at the upcoming BHPH United conference to educate attendees on recycled OE parts. I think these new industries will allow us to make new contacts to bring new business to our members. 

There are still a lot of misconceptions about recycled original equipment auto parts. Overall, automotive recyclers are doing a much better job with part quality and shipping. Yet, we have general education that needs to be done; others outside our industry do not know other recycled auto parts suppliers even exist outside of LKQ. They don’t know about PRP, URG, and ARA. We are focused on how best to collaborate on next steps.

AR: What is your focus to adapt to future changes?

Werner: Our plan is to continue to make our products better, and tie in more information that will allow us to tap into these new and different markets. A key thing that we need to do is be able to get data more frequently in close to real time. That’s a big thing that we’re going to be working on with our systems to allow us to do it. I’m hoping to be able to have more to say on this soon.

AR: How do you see the role of the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) in your plans?

Werner: First, I see ARA as the legislative front line for automotive recyclers. Neither ARA nor URG can survive without each other is my belief. Without ARA handling the legislative side to help ensure a consumer’s choice to have recycled parts options, and insurance supporting their use, our industry would be frozen. If that legislation wasn’t in place to protect the industry, then we couldn’t feed the data to the different avenues. Making sure that all our members understand that we need both associations is going to be key to moving forward. 

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