Retail Spotlight: University Auto Parts Models Successful Turnarounds and Expansions

SEMA News—September 2017


By Mike Imlay

Retail Spotlight

University Auto Parts Models Successful Turnarounds and Expansions

  university auto parts
Twelve years ago, siblings Cole Shaffer and Kellie Pitre purchased and resurrected the NAPA-affiliated University Auto Parts outlet in Boulder, Colorado. They have since added four additional outlets throughout the state, successfully turning around sagging stores while serving extremely varied customer demographics.

Teaming up 12 years ago, siblings Cole Shaffer and Kellie Pitre set out to buy and resurrect University Auto Parts, a NAPA outlet in Boulder, Colorado. Pitre’s role in the rapid parlaying of that store into a $10 million family business of three successful locations earned her 2016 recognition on the annual SEMA News “35 Under 35” roster of up-and-coming industry professionals. Since last year, that collection of Colorado locations has grown to a total of five.

Clearly, Shaffer and Pitre know a little something about acquiring and turning around stores. So what’s their secret? They credit high-tech inventory and market data tools, the right employees, and a genuine effort to become trusted problem solvers for an incredibly diverse array of customers.

SEMA News: Your business has quite a growth story. What’s the history?

Cole Shaffer: We bought our first store 11 years ago in Boulder. It was a successful store that slid a little bit, and then we came in and picked it back up. Five years later, we had [another] opportunity: The store in the neighboring market had closed down, and we were able to go in and reopen a NAPA store that had been closed for several months. Obviously, the desire to grow and the geographics were the biggest factors. It’s kind of a Phoenix; it’s really risen from the ashes and become a really strong store.

Based on our success there, we were looking to expand and decided to extend out into northeastern Colorado and had an opportunity with our store in Sterling. It was a good store, and we were able to go out there and empower the crew to do what it takes to take care of people and sell everything they can. We took a good store and made it better.

In November of last year, we purchased two stores out in eastern Colorado—in Yuma and Wray—and we’re working to get those two back and going after some struggles.

SN: For those unfamiliar with the NAPA model, can you explain your affiliation?

CS: NAPA is sort of an old-school setup—a handshake agreement of sorts, but a little more formal. We agree to buy parts from NAPA, and we get the use of the signage and branding. We incorporated that into University Auto Parts. We’re a NAPA jobber, and it’s a great program. They provide us with a tremendous amount of support and give us all the tools in the world to work with.

SN: You say you’re working to turn your two new stores around. How do you do that?

Kellie Pitre: I think the first key is inventory. We’re definitely not afraid to stock product, change product, bring product new to the market. That’s something Cole does a great job of.

Well-calibrated inventory has remained central to University’s success. Shaffer and Pitre rely on several modern data and tracking tools to keep an exacting eye on what’s best meeting customer needs and eliminate hunches.

CS: The inventory proliferation in the past decade has been insane, so it’s more critical than ever to have the right parts on the shelf. From there, I think the most important thing to us is developing relationships with our customers. We really pride ourselves on partnering with our customers, whether wholesale or retail. We want to be a partner in whatever they’re doing, whether they’re restoring a hot rod, fixing a tractor or they’re a shop trying to make a living. That’s how we feel you grow a business. You partner with someone, they grow and succeed and, in turn, you grow and succeed. Being part of the community, developing relationships, that’s paramount for us.

SN: What does that partnership look like? How do you establish it?

CS: Exceptional customer service is no longer the differentiator; it’s the standard. There are a lot of people out there providing a lot of good service. If you’re not doing that, you’re not even in the game. The key is making sure you have people in the store who are solutions-oriented. Let’s say a guy comes in and he’s doing a build. He has to come in having faith and thinking, “I’m going to NAPA because they’ll take care of me.” That involves doing things outside our normal, everyday business. Different things, being multifaceted.

KP: I think this is what’s going to set us apart from the Amazons of the world. It’s not just about sitting on the computer and saying this is the part I need. We’re going to help everybody and give guidance as well.

SN: How do you go about finding the right staff to make that happen?

KP: It’s a struggle. I’m going to be honest: Boulder County has the lowest unemployment rate in the entire country right now, so there aren’t a lot of people out there looking for jobs. But we basically look for service-minded people. You can always train people with knowledge and whatnot, but they have to have the right personality—be outgoing, driven. We use the internet and other resources to find them.

I do a phone interview prior to bringing them in. I get a lot off the phone, just the initial back-and-forth conversation—how comfortable they are and how well they talk over the phone. We look at written communications, too. Do they respond quickly? Are they on time? We’re old-fashioned in that aspect.

University stores serve customers representing every segment from light automotive to industrial and agricultural, so it’s no surprise that tools of all sorts are big sellers.

CS: We [actively] look for good people. When we see them, we try to hire and add them to the team, whether we have a spot at that moment or not.

KP: We do a lot of growing of employees within the company, as well. We try to keep people and give them new opportunities.

SN: You also speak of having the right inventory. What’s selling? How do you manage it?

CS: I think you have to pay very close attention to your market. We service everything from Boulder, which is 80% import, to the plains of eastern Colorado, which is less than 15% import and is very agricultural and farm-and-industrial driven. You have to have a critical eye toward your market. You can’t make assumptions. You have to take the data for what it is, and nowadays there’s so much data available as far as registration, what’s in the market, and the complex stuff to determine when parts fail and what parts are available. You have to pay attention to all that, make critical decisions, and not go off personal feeling or personal belief. You have to look realistically at the hard numbers and facts.

SN: So what does your demographic look like? Who is your customer?

KP: It’s all over the place. It’s the soccer mom; it’s the farmer; it’s the shop owner.

CS: What we like about our setup is that, between our five markets, we touch almost anybody who’s working on something industrial, mechanical or automotive. We get general repairs, light-duty import, domestic, truck, heavy-duty truck, agriculture, farm, oil and gas—which is a whole other industry in and of itself—fleets, municipalities, all that stuff. It makes us very diverse, because our customer is as diverse as it gets.

KP: We cross train our stores. If there’s an agricultural question on the Front Range, they can reach out to our stores on the east to get that customer handled. It works
out well.

SN: How do you know when it’s time to take the next step and expand a business?

Executive Summary

University Auto Parts (NAPA)

3550 Arapahoe Ave.

Boulder, CO 80303

Owners: Cole Shaffer, president; Kellie Pitre, human resources manager

Number of employees: 75

Locations: Boulder, Broomfield, Sterling, Yuma and Wray, Colorado

Average Facility Size: 9,000 sq. ft.

Keys to Success:

  • An independently owned group of NAPA-affiliated auto parts stores catering to vastly divergent customer markets.
  • Rapid and successful expansion from one to five stores in just over a decade.
  • Leverages internet and other modern data tools to guide solid inventory, hiring and marketing decisions.
  • Actively recruits outgoing, service-oriented employees, providing them with training and growth opportunities.

CS: I think you know you’re ready to expand when you’re truly committed to the idea of it—definitely not something you go into lightheartedly. The more you add, the more work it is, and the more complex it gets, the more issues and challenges that arise, so you really have to take a critical eye to it. But at the end of the day, if you’re passionate about what you do and passionate about how you do things, then expansion is just an eventuality. It’s the next step in continuing to make yourself better and prove yourself.

SN: Looking back to when you first expanded from one store to two, what was the biggest challenge?

CS: Not having everybody under one roof anymore. When you don’t have everybody under one roof, communication becomes vital and “over-communication” becomes a necessity. Before, we could walk over to the other side of the store to talk to someone. Now we have people in different stores dealing with different situations, different challenges and different customers. Just getting that all running together was our biggest challenge. Communication is as important as it gets when you start to expand.

SN: Your business is highly data-driven. What sort of high-tech tools do you rely on?

CS: There are so many tools at our disposal. For inventory modeling, we have a new system from NAPA called Pulse that helps us make critical inventory decisions we’ve never been able to make before. It includes more inputs and data sets than we’ve ever had. The more tools we have like that, the better able we are to critically analyze our business decisions, making us more efficient and more productive.

KP: On the efficiency side, we are going to be testing some new tools for deliveries, tracking and logistics, which I think will be hugely beneficial as we see that technology grow. We aren’t afraid to use
new technologies.

CS: One of my favorite sayings is from a CEO of a major U.S. corporation: If you embrace technology, you’ll always have a tailwind. That’s a very apropos quote, and we try to keep that in mind.

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