In February 1923, Norman Heinzelman opened Falls City Auto Supply in Falls City, Nebraska, a small community located halfway between Omaha and Kansas City. The Falls City website describes the city of 4,325 people as “strategically located at the center of America’s heartland,” two hours away from Omaha and Lincoln as well as Kansas City and Topeka.
In the early years, the store did a brisk business selling spare parts for the Ford Model T.
“He started out buying direct from all the manufacturers that were available at the time,” says current owner Denny Heinzelman, Norman’s grandson. “I’ve got some check stubs from 1937. Our first DuPont paint stock order was $46.77. Can you imagine that? That would barely buy a quart of paint now.”
Norman passed away “at a fairly young age,” according to Denny. In the late 1940s, after going to college and serving in World War II, Denny’s father, Don, and uncle, Bob, took over the business.
The next milestone came in 1953, when Falls City Auto Supply and a group of other jobbers in the Midwest formed a co-op buying group called Cornbelt Automotive Warehouse. In 1997, a similar buying group – Automotive Warehouse Distributors Inc. (AWDI) – acquired Cornbelt Automotive Warehouse, “and we still belong to that group,” notes Denny.
The 1997 acquisition of Cornbelt “was a natural fit and beneficial to the member of both groups,” AWDI states in its profile on the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Chamber of Commerce website.
According to the website, AWDI – a member of National Pronto Association – currently has 68 shareholders, who own 80 stores in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“It’s quite a deal,” Denny says of AWDI. “It enables us to compete with the big chains. It’s been very beneficial for all of us to be a part of that.”
Denny got involved with the family business in 1972. Prior to that, he served in the U.S. Army and then lived in the San Francisco Bay Area with family for several years. His time in the Bay Area made him yearn for the simpler lifestyle of the nation’s heartland.
“Too many people for me,” he says of the Bay Area. “I’d rather be here where I can walk down the street and know everybody I see.”
Falls City is the type of place where you can park your car uptown, leave it running “and it’s still there when you come back,” Denny says. And that’s the backdrop for Falls City Auto Supply’s 97 years in business. Denny estimates that 70% of the store’s business comes from repair shops, while the rest comes from farms and walk-in customers. The two car dealerships in Falls City are among the store’s biggest customers.
Relationships are the backbone of Falls City Auto Supply’s business. That’s why the store has been able to stay busy even as a national chain recently opened up in town. When one longtime customer found out that a big-box auto parts store was coming to town, he reminded Denny that Falls City Auto Supply has been providing him a line of credit for years.
“He said, ‘Throughout the years, your dad has carried me when we needed help,’” Denny says. “And we’re doing that same thing. I carry some people for two or three months at a time if I have to, and they remember that kind of thing. They always come in and pay up.”
Denny’s store also has a good relationship with the other independent auto parts store in town.
“They belong to the same buying group that we do, and we trade parts back and forth,” Denny explains. “We get along just fine.”
Denny doesn’t spend as much time in the store as he used to. His son, Bryan, is the general manager, and Bruce Stevicks is the sales manager. “They pretty much run this place for me,” Denny adds. The store also has a part-time secretary who handles the books.
Stevicks spends a couple days a week on the road making sales calls. However, the store doesn’t deliver parts. About 50 years ago, Don Heinzelman made a deal with the other store in town that neither store would deliver.
“We’ll deliver if somebody is in a bind, but for the most part, we don’t deliver,” Denny explains. “That saves us a body and a truck.” Falls City Auto Supply held an all-day barbecue to celebrate its 75th anniversary. With its centennial right around the corner, the Heinzelmans haven’t decided exactly how they’ll celebrate, but Denny emphasizes, “We’ll do something big.”