Starting with a gas station in 1975, the son of a Bucks County Quaker farmer now owns 20 dealerships, plus
The Beans family has set up its own AutoExpress retail shop (“Better than Pep Boys,” Beans says) and Autorent vehicle rentals, and franchised Driving Brands’
But Beans knows electric cars -- where the big design money is going -- need less service and fewer parts.
New electric car makers like
All of that challenges the familiar regional auto sales-service-parts model. “Dealers are operating increasingly in a disruptive environment,” a team of analysts led by
There is “risk of a dramatic shock to the system,” as well-financed digital-auto brands threaten “the century-old bond of ownership between Americans and their means of transport,” analyst
Dealers may delay the shock of radical disruption, they conclude, by hooking up their own digital services and customer communications, granting return-customer discounts and other benefits.
Beans celebrated is 80th birthday in April with his usual 100 pushups, plus an extra 25 to mark the decade. Still, even as he diversifies the Beans auto kingdom in hopes that some pieces will thrive in the changes ahead, Beans is transferring more responsibilities to his daughter, Beth, son in law,
Detroit’s idiosyncrasies continue to puzzle him. “Why didn’t
Buying generic parts “is not as safe. But the average consumer doesn’t know any better,” warns
Auto parts are still a surprisingly analog business, with hundreds of thousands of parts you won’t find in online catalogues. After 2010, Beans started paying people to move its own inventory online. Specialty businesses like
But the Beans group found online mass-market parts didn’t pay. “It’s very time-consuming. You are always answering questions. We found it wasn’t the best return on our investment,” said Loux. It made more sense to act as a"fulfillment center," moving car parts to shops for Rock Auto, sometimes Amazon, and other online giants.
“Our business was built on wholesale to repair (shops). But I think the collision business is getting tougher,” said Beans. So his parts business has shifted its focus, to larger-ticket items -- he ships an average 600 engines and transmissions a month, at roughly
Internal-combustion vehicles have hundreds of moving parts. All-electric cars “have about 20,” says Beth. You’d think that would make electric cars easier to fix. “But body shops (are reluctant) to fix those cars,” in part because electric makers like
So parts chief Loux expects fewer repairs for collision shops -- albeit with higher bills per repair -- along with electronic order systems to replace human ordering.
Finding people to staff today’s operations is a challenge. “No one goes to college to be in the car business,” says Beth. “You maybe fail at something else, you like cars, here you are. It’s sometimes our job to take people who are bouncing through life, from split homes,” polish them a bit, give them a new career.
“It’s getting harder. It’s like parenting,” said her father.
Beans tells his managers to read more, learn about the fast-changing world, think about how to apply electronics or social media to the daily problems of matching car with driver and bringing them back to Beans.
He could retire and let the younger people work it out. But “I’ve gotten to be one of those old men who plant trees whose shade you will never sit under,” Beans concludes. “It’s part of [psychologist Abraham] Maslow’s theory of hierarchy: When you get to the top, unless you’ve got a corrupt soul, you want to give back.”
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