Editor’s note: In the spirit of “Throwback Thursday,” Counterman is firing up the time machine and setting the coordinates for 2000. This feature article by former Counterman Associate Editor Melanie Deitch was the cover story in the December 2000 issue.
Kids do the darndest things. Rob Simpson’s mother, Myrna Hunsley, recalled the time Rob tore apart her brand-new Ford Falcon just to see how the parts were put together. He was only 12 years old.
But what simply began as a childhood fascination gradually evolved into a 38-year career in the automotive aftermarket.
“My father was a parts man at a dealership,” recalled Rob. “I just love cars and I’ve been hooked on automotives for as long as I can remember. Something just clicked.”
Indeed, something had clicked. Rob began working at a Ford dealership in Britt, Iowa, when he was 12. He worked there throughout high school, cleaning up new cars and then later turning wrenches as a mechanic.
Counterperson of the Year
A humble recipient of Counterman magazine’s 2000 Counterperson of the Year Award, Rob has more than proven himself in the parts industry. With a great customer-service philosophy and a smile, Rob has portrayed an exemplary image of what all parts professionals should strive to be.
“Rob deserves the Counterperson of the Year Award,” said Tom Hovland, Rob’s employer. “This isn’t a job where you get a lot of recognition. He has been with me through thick and thin, good and bad. If only I could have a few more just like him! He is a great guy and simply the best in the industry.”
And the industry agrees. During the annual Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week trade show in Las Vegas, Rob received the 2000 Counterperson of the Year Award at an industry luncheon.
Parting for the Parts Business
In 1968, Rob joined the Army. But he never wavered from his love for automobiles. In the Army, he served as a “wheeled-vehicle mechanic” before he was promoted to company clerk.
After the Army, Rob’s parts career was jump-started in 1970, when he worked at a Buick dealership back in Mason City, Iowa. In Mason City he would remain.
Standard Auto Parts gave Rob his first start as a counterman. During his time there, Rob met Tom Hovland, beginning a working friendship that would last the next 30 years.
“Rob taught me the parts business,” said Hovland. “He’s a good trainer, has a lot of patience and is a man of his word.”
Eventually, Hovland left Standard Auto Parts and would later start his own business, a speed shop. Upon opening his store, Hovland called on his mentor and friend, Rob, to manage the store. Later, the two would expand into a NAPA Auto Parts store. Today, after 25 years in the NAPA system, Rob’s reputation has become one to be admired by all in the industry, especially for his dedication to good customer service.
How Customer Service Helps Keep Customers
Rob believes wholeheartedly in giving customers excellent, reliable service. “If you provide the customers with consistent and trustworthy service, it will ensure that the customers return again and again,” he said. “I have always prided myself on going the extra mile – maybe I even get carried away sometimes.”
For Jim and Joan Connell of Manitoba, Canada, Rob literally went many extra miles. “After having a parcel of parts misdirected, which ended up at the UPS terminal in Mason City, we got directions at [the NAPA] store,” recalled Jim Connell. “Much to our relief, not only did we receive directions, Rob had us follow him directly to the UPS terminal!”
Hovland offered further explanation of Rob’s dedication. “Rob’s claim to fame is how he handles customers. People come to see Rob, even though they have to drive past many other parts stores in town. He can be up to his armpits, and still be courteous and helpful.”
Customer David Buettner commented on Rob’s work ethic. “I’m always amazed at how many hours he works, but I’m more amazed at how he always has time to say hello and ensure that my needs are being met. He is a consummate professional.”
Maintaining the Experts
Even the “consummate professionals” have to find a way to stay on top. Considering all the things a parts professional needs to know, Rob realizes the importance of keeping employees well-informed. In order to ensure anyone can handle the problems that arise, he finds that holding store meetings following manager’s meetings helps to bring everyone up to speed.
When it comes to training new employees, Rob knows that being a parts professional is a lifelong learning process. “I take pride in training my people. After training many through the years, I have always taken the time to show them where and how to look up the parts. When they make a mistake, I do not broadcast it to the world. I take them aside and show them what they did wrong and what to do or ask the next time. There is always a new situation that you have never come across before, so you need to be available when your people run into these situations.”
In order to improve the thoroughness of new employee training, Rob says his store is considering hiring a full-time trainer. The trainer will work one-on-one with the new employees, helping them get adequate training on the computer and with the catalogs, freeing Rob to do the very thing he does best – run the counter.
When he’s not training employees, Rob is trying to make the store as efficient as possible. For example, Rob has created his own brand of “Hot Shot Delivery.” Any parts needed right away go in a section of the delivery table marked “RUSH.” Rob explained: “I then instruct my delivery people that if a part is in this ‘RUSH’ area, it needs to go now! This was a simple solution to an age-old problem of the delivery people not knowing in which order to make the deliveries. Now this person saves time because he or she doesn’t have to spend time figuring out which order to take first.”
The Ever-Changing Parts World
After three decades of working in the automotive aftermarket, Rob has witnessed many changes and evolution of the industry. Rob remarked on the complexity of today’s systems: “It [the industry] has really changed. Anymore, it’s hard to tell a Mazda from a Honda! That’s one of the most challenging things about this job – keeping up with the changes.”
“Rob has always accepted and excelled at change,” said Hovland. “He has seen the company through three computer changes.”
But change has provided Rob with a better reason to stay on his toes. “I like being privy to new information,” he said. “I like working with customers – sitting and talking with them. It’s like a switch that goes on at work.”
Rob has tried to stay up-to-date on his ASE certifications. He holds both the Automotive Parts Specialist and Heavy-Duty Truck certifications. Rob feels that the ASE badge and status tell everybody he is a professional. He highly recommends getting ASE certified. “It’s a wonderful ting. It’s something you have to take with you, and it proves your training.”
But Rob will not be taking his certifications elsewhere for employment. “I want to stay [working at NAPA]. I’m comfortable here. And I will continue to do the best I can.”
After Rob received the Counterperson of the Year Award in Las Vegas, he headed back home to Mason City, where his fellow employees anxiously awaited to see his award, hear of his travels and have “Rob Day” in his honor.