Article > Tech

Keeping Your Independence

By Gary Garberg

In a world of thousands of big box retailers, people tend forget about the independent guy down the street. But it’s that entrepreneurial spirit that has fueled our country’s growth for decades.

There was a time when independent import specialists flourished all over the country in the automotive aftermarket. Just the other day, I was going through some old customer files and was amazed to discover how many import specialists were no longer customers, because they simply went out of business.

The files I was going through were pretty old, so I’m assuming many of the companies went out of business before import vehicles became so popular. At least that’s one possibility. Another reason might be that they fell victim to poor management practices — we see that happen in all kinds of industries. Then of course, there’s the possibility of good old mother nature swooping down and destroying a business with a single flood or tornado. As we know, that can happen too.

Without knowing the reason for each individual closure, I can only imagine the interesting stories behind each and every situation. I’d love to hear the owner’s experience of his store closing, but it would be even more interesting to hear some customer versions, don’t you think? I’ll bet that’s where the real nitty gritty stuff would surface.

The one thing I hope I wouldn’t discover is that these businesses failed simply because they were independent. Small, independent businesses in America have always been a very important part of the fabric of our nation. The dream of owning a business probably preceded the dream of owning a home for some people. It’s that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that fueled our country’s growth for decades and it is from those independent beginnings that many of our large corporations were born. And what about the values independent businesses have inspired throughout the history of our industry? Are they still important? You bet they are!

One of the advantages of independent businesses is that they provide a newcomer to an industry the opportunity to learn every aspect of the enterprise. The owners of many independent auto parts businesses, domestic and import, started on their road to ownership as a delivery driver. As time went on they learned the counter, outside sales, purchasing and finally, store management. Each step contributed a valuable piece of experience and added to the knowledge of a career that became someone’s life work.

Being independent also demands that individuals accept the challenges of making almost all of their own decisions. In a franchise environment, goals are provided, procedures are well documented and established and there is not a lot of need for thinking outside the “big box.” Managers, first assistants, second assistants — all of the positions — are very regimented and although each position comes with additional responsibilities, within each position the perimeters are fixed.

I became a licensed pilot in my early twenties and I learned to fly off a grass strip. The owner of the small airport firmly believed that by the time you earned a private pilot’s license you should be able to fly at least several different types of single-engine aircrafts. By the time I received my pilot’s certificate, I was able to fly six different types of airplanes. Let me tell you, there is a huge difference between an airplane with tricycle landing gear and a tail dragger. That diversification provided me a wide variety of experience, a more well-rounded knowledge of the flight characteristics of different aircraft and ultimately, made me a better pilot.

I got the same diversification early in my career by working for an independent auto parts company, a warehouse and many branch stores. Working in these independent systems allowed me the opportunity to learn at my own pace, never limiting my ability to tackle new things. And, thinking outside the box was not only encouraged, it was rewarded. The only person I competed against for more responsibility was myself. For me, it was a real challenge to always be given enough rope to hang myself.

Independent businesses, especially in the automotive aftermarket, challenge individuals to be their very best. As the big get bigger and the really big develop their franchises to numbers in the thousands, don’t forget about the thousands of independently owned auto parts businesses across the nation. Every day they hire people, train them and grow them to become some of the most enterprising individuals in our business.

If you are the type of individual who works hard, thrives on responsibility, never backs down from a challenge and loves it when someone walks up to you and asks if you have a better way to do something, you have the characteristics necessary to thrive in an independent business. Don’t miss an opportunity to stretch your abilities and your imagination because there are lots of independent businesses out there, looking for someone just like you.

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