For the cover story for the August issue of AMN/Counterman, Editor Amy Antenora spoke with several young aftermarket professionals stepping into leadership roles at their family-owned businesses.
In Part 1 of our series, “Growing the Family Business,” we share the story of Ryan Bickle, vice president of sales for Hays, Kansas-based Warehouse Inc./S&W Supply.
The business known today as S&W Supply was established during the era of the “Dust Bowl” by Claude Sutter and his wife, Helen (Bickle) Sutter. The husband-and-wife team started out small, selling a limited number of automotive parts. In 1954, as the business grew, Claude Sutter moved the business to Hays, Kansas, which offered a more centralized location. At this point, he and Helen were joined in business by Don Wells and his wife, Lyle (Bickle) Wells, and this merger created the company’s current name.
It is here in Hays, Kansas, where the fourth generation of the Bickle family helps lead the business into the next generation. Ryan Bickle, vice president of sales for S&W Supply, says he began working in the family business right out of eighth grade, at the age of 13. “I worked part-time through high school and then when I went to college. After college, I went full-time, so I’ve been in the business for a few years,” Bickle joked.
Bickle describes the best lessons he learned from family members in the business as “the basics” – those traditional Midwestern values of treating others the way you want to be treated. “I try to be available to all employees and customers,” he says. “People still buy from people they trust.”
With nine locations and 90 employees, Bickle says letting staff know they are appreciated also is key to maintaining stable employment today.
“Our employees are our family and we try our best to take care of them,” he says. “I try to work with all employees and help them solve problems within the business. I don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t be willing to do myself and I’ve done most jobs within our company.”
Bickle’s father and uncle, DG Bickle and Tim Bickle, the third generation, are the current owners of the business, and his grandfather, Don Bickle Sr., one of S&W’s original founders, still comes into the office daily at 93 years of age. Bickle is helping to train the fifth generation in the family business as well. He has two children – ages 12 and 16 – and this summer, the 16-year-old is working in the warehouse part-time. Tim also has two sons working in the business, who are fourth-generation like Ryan.
Whether it’s a family member or not, Bickle says listening and letting employees know they are valued is key. “I let them know how valuable they are to our business and I listen to them. Without good employees, we would not be here.”
He also credits Federated Auto Parts for the support it provides in maintaining S&W’s longevity: “Our business would not be here today without Federated. Being a part of Federated has allowed us to compete with anyone. The team at Federated is second to none and they are always willing to help.”