From the time he was a kid, Rocky Gragg has been tinkering on anything with a motor.
Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, Gragg honed his mechanical skills out of necessity. His dad served in the military – including two tours in Vietnam – which often left Gragg to fend for himself around the house. “He wasn’t around a whole lot, so I kind of had to learn how to do stuff,” Gragg says.
Gragg remembers starting a “neighborhood fix-it business for lawnmowers” when he was 12 or 13.
“I was always working on cars, motorcycles, lawnmowers,” Gragg recalls. “I could fix just about anything back then, unless it was something major.”
Little did Gragg know that he was laying the foundation for a long, productive and award-winning career in the automotive aftermarket.
Gragg, today a senior market specialist at Parts Authority in Norcross, Georgia, has been an in-demand counterman for more than 40 years. During the 2021 AAPEX show in Las Vegas, AMN/Counterman and WIX Filters recognized Gragg as the 2021 Counter Professional of the Year, sponsored by WIX Filters.
“The thing I’ve always tried to do is treat people just the way I want to be treated,” Gragg says of his approach to customer service. “Working on cars is hard enough as it is, and from doing it a lot myself, I know all the trials and tribulations they go through. I just want to get people the right stuff, the first time.”
Gragg’s first big break in the business came when he was in high school: A neighbor, who happened to own an auto parts store in Augusta, offered him a part-time job. Gragg worked at the neighbor’s store for several years, coming in after class, and established himself as a capable counterman during that time.
Still, Gragg had aspirations of becoming a lawyer, and he enrolled in Augusta College after graduating from high school in 1976. But, he already was building a reputation as an up-and-coming parts specialist with a passion for automotive and a knack for customer relations. When another parts store in Augusta tried to recruit him for a full-time position, Gragg initially said no, because he was planning to finish his college degree.
However, the owner of the store made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I think it was like $300 a week,” Gragg chuckles. “As a kid, that was a ton of money. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try and see what happens.’”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Gragg gained valuable experience as a counterman and manager at several Augusta parts stores before Johnson Industries in Atlanta came calling. Chris Bolden, now general manager for Parts Authority’s Georgia region, recruited and hired Gragg in 1993. (Parts Authority acquired the Johnson Industries Atlanta operation in 2014.) During the recruiting process, Bolden asked several repair shops to name their favorite counter personnel in the area.
The name “Rocky Gragg” seemed to be on every shop’s short list.
“[Shops] told us that he knew the automotive trade, he had a lot of experience and he invested the time with customers to get them the right part at the right time. He wasn’t just looking to make a quick sale and get off the phone,” Bolden recalls. “That type of quality customer service is what really piqued my interest at the time – and that’s certainly something that Rocky has lived up to over all these years.”
‘I’ve Been Very Fortunate’
Gragg has been at Parts Authority’s Norcross call center since 1993. Over the years, he has built up “a tremendous following” of DIFM customers, according to Bolden, and many of them ask for Gragg by name when they call. As for what makes Gragg so endearing to his customers, Bolden describes Gragg as “honest, straightforward and forthright with information.”
“He does a lot of sharing best practices,” Bolden says of his approach to customer service. “That may sound odd as a guy who sells auto parts, but you can get into some tricky applications and tricky fixes, and he does a good job of ascertaining information from various shop customers and passing it along to others when the repair is not just a straightforward fix.”
Gragg, a self-proclaimed “Mustang guy,” is happy to share his decades of automotive knowledge with the Parts Authority team as well. For a number of years, Gragg has served as a mentor/trainer for new hires in Georgia.
“He’s just a library of information,” Bolden says, adding that Gragg has an insatiable “thirst for knowledge.” “I don’t think Rocky is ever satisfied with how much he knows about the car parts and the repair business.”
When Gragg accepted the 2021 Counter Professional of the Year award in Las Vegas, he offered a heartfelt thank you to Bolden, his longtime manager, for hiring him.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Gragg says. “I’ve had a lot of good bosses, a lot of people who took time with me and showed me all the ropes.”
Gragg also expressed appreciation for all the support from his employer, Parts Authority.
“They’re a great company. They give me everything that I need to do my job right,” he says. “If we need extra training, we get it. We keep way more parts than these other places. We have a huge warehouse – and it’s quality stuff.
“They do everything they can to make me feel at home, and I appreciate that. Them being from New York [Parts Authority is based in Long Island] and me being from the South, you might expect there to be a little bit of turmoil. But there never was. It’s been great from the beginning.”
A New Lease on Life
For Gragg, it was “business as usual” during the pandemic in 2020 – with an asterisk. While Gragg worked his usual hours, he did it in what he describes as “a plastic cocoon, where people couldn’t come into my space unless I let them in.”
He compared the arrangement to the 1976 made-for-TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” starring John Travolta.
“John Travolta was the boy in the plastic bubble,” Gragg says. “Well, I was the old guy in the plastic bubble.”
There was good reason for taking extra measures to keep Gragg safe. In 2018, Gragg suffered what’s known in the medical world as a “widowmaker” heart attack. Gragg was told that only 10% of people survive a widowmaker (hence the name). But Gragg, now 63, beat the odds.
“I had great doctors and they pulled me out of it,” Gragg says.
Much to the chagrin of his medical providers and co-workers, Gragg wasted precious little time getting back to work.
“I only stayed out of work 10 days,” he recalls. “My doctor went nuts when he found out, because he wasn’t going to release me for a month. And everybody was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘No, but I’m going crazy sitting around the house.’”
Still, the whole experience has had a profound effect on Gragg, as it would for anyone else in his situation.
“My life’s been different since then; it’s really been different. I got a new lease, and I’m really happy. I always treated my customers well, but I’m especially nice now. And every day that you’re on this planet is a blessing. Every day.”