Fletcher Lord III represents the fourth generation of the Crow family to help lead Crow-Burlingame, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based parts distributor that celebrated its 100th anniversary in April. Lord III, a great-grandson of co-founder Bob Crow, was named president during the company’s centennial celebration in Little Rock, coinciding with several other executive appointments that signal the next chapter for the venerable parts firm.
The company’s rich history isn’t lost on Lord III, who says he feels honored to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, along with the thousands of others who’ve helped make Crow-Burlingame what it is today. In this Executive Interview, Lord III reflects on the past 100 years, looks ahead to the future and talks about the company’s longstanding relationship with Bumper to Bumper and the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance.
As you look back on 100 years of Crow-Burlingame, what have been some of the company’s proudest moments?
There have been a lot of big moments internally, such as personnel changes and growing the company. When my father, E. Fletcher Lord Jr., took over the company, we had 46 stores, and during his tenure, he wanted to grow. He grew that store count to 170 stores.
Another important move was joining the Alliance in 2000, when Auto Value Auto Parts and Bumper to Bumper Auto Parts and Service merged to create a significantly larger organization: the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance. That was a strength that we needed in our marketplace, to be able to identify ourselves as a nationwide parts house and program group. With the Alliance, we’re part of a network of 2,400 parts stores and more than 3,800 certified service centers throughout North America.
What are some of the key components that have enabled the company to thrive for so many years?
We’ve changed our business a little bit over the years, but I think one factor is our versatility. We’re in the farm and agriculture business, and we’re in the paint and body business. We’re also in the auto parts and heavy-duty businesses. When a portion of one of those is slow or soft, we’ve been able to keep moving forward because other pieces of the business are stronger. I think it also has helped our customers view us as more of a one-stop-shop.
Our core values have always been important: We’re a small, family-owned company, and we look at our employees as family. We try to take care of and look out for them because it’s in our best interest and theirs. We know what’s important, and that’s our people, our employees.
When the Alliance announced, “Service is the Difference” would be its motto, we immediately identified with that and pushed it forward. It’s something we like to hang our hat on. Lots of our competitors have similar parts and stores in the same locations that we do, but we like to say our people and our service are what stand out, what push us forward. If we continue to take care of our customers with service, they’ll take care of us by buying parts from us.
Looking forward, what does the company have planned for the future?
We’re always looking for the next opportunity. We tend to see slow and steady growth, but we’re trying to embrace the future. We have a lot of great leaders in upper management who have gotten us to where we are today, so the next step is making sure we can continue to grow with the next generation of leaders. We have a strong wave of younger-generation leaders coming up who are working with the company in key, very important roles. Everyone’s learning at different levels, but we’re all continuing the same method of taking care of our customers and understanding that service matters. And we have a forward-thinking mentality – not just looking ahead to the next five years, but to the next 20, or even more.
As the new president of the company, what are some of your goals?
We’re always looking at growing our footprint. Additionally, our goals are maintaining and trying to grow our management team to make sure we’re capable of taking on the next chapter and managing our needs versus our wants. We’ve got to make sure we’re working our inventories, etc. to be able to grow and better ourselves.
Your father recently received the Auto Care Association’s Mort Schwartz Award in Education. Could you elaborate on why he was such a worthy candidate?
I’ve known for many years that I will never be my father. He’s an icon in the industry, so if I could just accomplish half of what he’s done, I would take pride in that. I’ve always been able to pick his brain – and I still can – and he’s always made it possible for me to have a life outside of work as well. I’m very fortunate and blessed that I have a father like him to guide me and help me through things.
He always has been committed to education, which is probably partly due to his history with Automotive Warehouse Distributors Association and his classes and training there. But it’s not just him. It’s the strength of the company and the department overall as well.
As an Alliance shareholder whose chairman (Lord Jr.) is on the board of directors, what do you see as some of the advantages for shops that partner with Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper?
The Alliance is the strongest group in the industry; simply being a part of it makes us and our shops successful. From a warehouse-distributor standpoint, it provides us long-term relationships with similar companies around the country, so we can call them and ask certain questions about business and best practices. We can ask how the farm and agriculture business is doing in different parts of the world, or whether or not sales are up this quarter. It’s about those lasting relations – being able to help each other out and pat each other on the back.
For our shops, there are a number of very tangible benefits.
• CSC Program. The Alliance’s Certified Service Center package is second to none. We strive to grow this program out in our territory and to make sure our customers are on this program and are able to realize its benefits, which help them market and better themselves to succeed in their territories.
• National Accounts. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s exciting to be a part of the national account program, which the Alliance has helped us do. We never had been able to get our foot in the door prior. Steps that enable us to really talk to our customers are huge, and we can credit the Alliance for them.
• Promotions. Frequent promotions are also a big benefit. Our customers can order parts from us using the online portal and e-commerce system MyPlace4Parts, and that allows them to win free trips to places like Branson, Missouri, for the Ultimate Outdoor Adventure, or Indianapolis for one of the biggest events in the racing world. We wouldn’t be able to do that by ourselves, but the fact that we can provide that benefit to our customers really helps us.
• MyPlace4Parts. MyPlace4Parts is our online ordering system, and we push and drive continuously because the program is so strong. It’s really nice that the Alliance has developed this system that allows our customers to place an entry by using an online portal. We’re trying to spread the word to our rural market that times have changed, and farmers don’t have to go all the way out to their parts store to order a part. They can just plug that in online.
Education and training always have been a critical part of Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper’s mission. In light of Crow-Burlingame receiving the Auto Care Association’s Career and Education (ACE) Award this year, how do you keep your customers (the technicians) as well as your staff educated and invested in their work?
We have a strong training team and an excellent training director here, and we offer more than 30 training sessions per year, from store operations to new-manager training to heavy-duty programs. We like to use the Alliance’s guidance and their Alliance University training system so our stores and staff members can take these courses and tests, and then we provide incentives based on their training. If they help educate themselves, it will help us better understand the customer’s needs and wants in the field.
Crow-Burlingame has been a bellwether for the Alliance as the group plans its Alliance Takes the Hill 2021 Convention. Can you elaborate on your passion for this political cause?
If our customers don’t participate and don’t fully understand what’s going on in the industry, it could eventually hurt us all. We need to have the Right to Repair, and we need to be sure we’re not locked out of the VIN codes. We want our customers to be able to take their cars anywhere they want for repairs. We’re passionate about ensuring the parts store, the repair shop and the customer all succeed in a fair playing field. That’s why our call to action in 2021 will take us from auto parts to advocacy.