A charitable cause yields many returns

Jan. 1, 2020
Quincy Automotive isn?t your typical auto parts store, mainly thanks to its third-generation owner, John Garth Elzea III. The eight-store NAPA wholesaler, based in Springfield, Ill., has a spirit of community that reverberates from the top down.

Quincy Automotive isn’t your typical auto parts store, mainly thanks to its third-generation owner, John Garth Elzea III. The eight-store NAPA wholesaler, based in Springfield, Ill., has a spirit of community that reverberates from the top down. His employees and customers respect Elzea’s charity work, leading to low employee churn and strong business ties.

Elzea, who goes by “Butch,” did not originally set out to be in the auto parts industry. He got his business degree at the University of Missouri while playing football. He spent three years in Kansas City with an insurance company before he decided to come home to central Illinois and help out the family business.

“My dad was my best friend,” Elzea says simply. J. Garth Elzea Jr. passed away in 1985 — but not before he saw the company grow to six facilities and take its auto painting business into four specialty paint shops.

Quincy Automotive made headlines this past summer by selling its paint divisions to Chicago-based Hyman Brothers. However, Butch Elzea notes that on the same day as the sale, Sept. 1, Quincy purchased two additional wholesaler outlets in Beardstown and Pekin, Ill. “So even though we lost the divisions, we added two facilities — we got back to our core business,” he explains.

But this former president of the Automotive Wholesalers of Illinois has interests that go beyond the industry. He and his wife, Chris, are the proud parents of three daughters. Their oldest, Erin, was born in 1982 with an enzyme deficiency that led her to become a quadriplegic with a brain shunt and tracheotomy. Before her death a few weeks before high school graduation in 2000, Erin lived a full life, serving as an ambassador of sorts for special-needs children in the community.

Having a child with special needs changed the Elzeas’ lives and focus. Butch, Chris and their two surviving daughters are involved in several fund-raising, awareness and illness-coping initiatives independent of the business, but Erin Elzea’s life also changed Quincy Automotive’s approach to community.

Golf for a cause

With Elzea as co-chair, Quincy sponsors an annual community golf outing for a group known as Friend-In-Deed. The organization uses every dollar raised to purchase and distribute food, toys and clothing for disadvantaged children in the Springfield area. The 15th annual event raised more than $100,000 through sponsored holes and contests. Plans are already under way for the 2006 event, and call for a cocktail party the night before as an extra fund-raiser.

“We raised more money than the (Ladies Professional Golf Association) did at their last tournament, and we pulled it all together within just a few weeks,” marvels Elzea. Two big sponsors include Pennzoil and NAPA, whose partnership with Quincy Automotive dates back to 1990. In fact, radio spots for the event usually conclude with “Quincy Automotive: Proud to be a NAPA Auto Care Center and proud to be associated with the Friend-In-Deed.”

“Going to NAPA was the best move we ever made,” Elzea says. “NAPA corporate is the most incredible, ethical company I ever witnessed. It’s truly a unique group. Erin’s funeral took place on a Good Friday, yet the chairman (Larry Prince) attended it. I feel they go way beyond business.”

Good for business

Elzea believes that approach to business works for Quincy Automotive, as well — and enhances its community image.

“Maybe it’s not so much from a retail perspective, but from how we are viewed by our wholesale customers and our employees,” Elzea points out. “It makes all feel better by our efforts. All employees and owners need to go home each night with a sense of accomplishment, or you are just putting in time — which is a poor way to live your life.”

J.T. Toft, general manager of Quincy’s NAPA Auto Parts Division, agrees with the approach, noting that turnover has been down and morale has been up since Quincy’s corporate involvement in community service.

“There’s no question that it creates a positive work atmosphere,” says Toft, who has been with Quincy Automotive for 15 years. “We have less than 10 percent turnover, which is pretty amazing in light of a competitor recently moving into our area. Typically, they tend to target NAPA employees, and managers in particular, to recruit for their new stores. I’m proud to say that even though they’ve been in town for over a year, we haven’t lost one manager to them.”

Toft attributes employee loyalty to Elzea’s personality: “It’s all about leadership by example. In other words, the boss isn’t all about the boss. He cares about people, and it shows. Even the customers see that reflected in our work ethic.”

At 58, Elzea has no plans for slowing down his business or his charity work, which includes a stint on the local school board and preparing to break ground on a Springfield park in Erin’s honor that will include handicap-accessible playground equipment and other facilities. He is not yet certain how he plans to celebrate Quincy Automotive’s 85th anniversary this year, although he hints it may resemble what was done in 2001 for its 80th: “We rented out a comedy club and had everyone — friends, customers, employees — bring a canned good at the door. At the end of the evening, we ended up with 15 pallets and loaded 100 trucks, taken by police caravan.”

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 84 years

Growth plans: They just purchased two wholesaler outlets last year.

Number of employees: 100

Wholesale/retail ratio: 85/15

Snapshot of Quincy Automotive: Established in 1921 by J. Garth Elzea, Quincy Automotive serves the greater Illinois area with eight locations.

Affiliation: NAPA

Competition: AutoZone, Advance, O’Reilly

Location/Facility size: Facilities range from 6,000 to 22,000 sq. feet. The new Beardstown and Pekin, Ill. locations bring the number of total facilities to eight. Other Illinois locations include Peoria, Morton, Decatur, Jacksonville and a second warehouse in Springfield.