Working smarter, not harder, is key

Jan. 1, 2020
John-John Auto Parts was started in 1986 by the late Johnnie Ward and his son, John Michael Ward, who goes by Mike. For a long while, they were the only parts store in their small town.

John-John Auto Parts has come full circle.

The Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., store was started in 1986 by the late Johnnie Ward and his son, John Michael Ward, who goes by Mike. For a long while, they were the only parts store in their small town.

But by 1988, Johnnie Ward got out of the store’s day-to-day operations. Six years of too many 100-hour workweeks later, Mike Ward decided to “retire” as well. As a 30-year-old running a one-man store, he was growing tired of the pressure. Little did he know he’d be back — but on his own terms.

Working less, earning more

During his five-year hiatus from the industry, Ward ran his own trucking company. He was on the road in a tractor-trailer in February 2000 when the person to whom he sold the business called to entice him to buy it back.

“That same night, Walter Spence, president of Tri-States Automotive Warehouse, called me and encouraged me to give it a lot of thought,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Well, fine, I’m back in town this weekend and maybe we can discuss this.’ Two weeks later, I was back in the store.”

This time around, Ward had a better perspective on the balance of work and life. These days, as he looks for an additional employee to help mind the store, he sets aside time for his family and even manages to squeeze in a vacation now and then.

“One thing I just started doing in the last six months is closing on Saturdays,” he says, adding that rather than impacting profits negatively, it has helped him be both more productive and profitable.

The previous owner had hired two employees but was down more than 25 percent in sales. It took Ward only six months to get the business back on track and double the sales numbers.

“When I purchased the parts store, I made several calls to old customers and got their business back,” he explains. “They had gone elsewhere as a result of the customer service they were getting with the ‘interim’ owner.”

Diversified growth

Business was good for Ward, but leasing a storefront bothered him. “I had a gut feeling that real estate prices were about to take a large jump in our area, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor, owning as opposed to paying escalating rent,” he says.

Opportunity knocked in late 2000, when the owner of a repair facility was looking to retire. Ward negotiated a deal to acquire the repair business along with the land and the building. He bought the facility in January 2001 and moved his auto parts inventory there. His gut feeling has paid off, too, because the local market has gone up more than 200 percent since 2001.

Although located under the same roof, the companies are independently operated as John-John Auto Parts and John-John Automotive. About 25 percent of Ward’s parts sales stem from his repair shop. And while he doesn’t formally track it, he believes that because the DIYers trust him at the parts counter, they’re more apt to call his shop when they have an automotive problem.

In fact, Ward says the best advice he can give to other independents is to offer a service with their supply. He estimates his auto parts business has been steady for the past five years, but his garage business has quadrupled in the same period.

“If I were independent in a large town, especially, I don’t see how I could compete just on auto parts these days,” he says. “I do it all, service-wise, because I’m just about the only game in town. But in a big city, I’d pick something I’d like to do and go with it — maybe do only brakes, for example.”

Investing in technology

Ward’s not afraid to make use of the latest technology for both businesses. “All the other shops know that we specialize in tough jobs. We can do stuff the dealers can’t do.”

Ward believes that owning both the shop and the store has given him a unique perspective in managing each of them.

“To effectively sell parts, you have to know what the part does and have an idea of the steps necessary to replace the part in order to increase related sales. Having service under the same roof ensures that even if the parts counterperson doesn’t immediately know that information, one of the service technicians will,” he explains.

Every employee is cross-trained to an extent, he says. For example, Service Manager Doug Hendler can easily operate the parts counter if the need arises, and Ward can work on the repair side.

But it’s not without its own challenges, including the issue of wholesale customers perceiving the shop as a competitor.

“I knew when I bought the shop that I would take some hit on my dealer business,” he admits. “But the decision to lose a small amount of business in favor of the larger profits from the shop was fairly easy. Because we are the only parts store in town, we have managed to salvage at least some relationship with all our dealer customers, just as a matter of convenience for them. The only way they can get parts more easily than buying from us is to purchase from a store that delivers. Of the three stores that deliver to our area, two deliver only once a day and one makes twice daily deliveries. We can still get the ‘in-between’ business — and we do.”

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 19 (total)

Number of employees: 2 (another seven in repair shop)

Wholesale/retail ratio: 55/45

Snapshot of John-John Auto Parts: John-John is one of its own best customers, being both auto repairer and parts supplier in Santa Rosa Beach, located in the Florida Panhandle. Its biggest market right now is dealers, although it does fleet and retail business as well. John-John is near Eglin Air Force Base, but Owner Mike Ward says he doesn’t get much military business.

Affiliation: Auto Value (part of the Alliance)

Competition: CARQUEST, O’Reilly

Facility size: 10,000 sq. feet (including the repair shop)