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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 214: The Evolution of the Auto Parts Industry with E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.

February 15, 2023  |  By Matt Waller

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This week on the Be Epic Podcast Matt sits down with E. Fletcher Lord, Jr., Chairman of the Board for Bumper-to-Bumper/Crow Burlingame Company and 2023 inductee to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. During the episode, they discuss the history of the company that Fletcher’s grandfather founded with J.G. Burlingame in 1919 along with their growth across a 12 state market area. The company started in Little Rock, Arkansas and continued expanding across the state and then to neighboring states even through the Great Depression and World War Two. They wrap up their discussion with a focus on the technological evolution of the automobile industry including their company focus now on data just as much as auto parts. 

Episode Transcript

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  0:00  
The only way you're gonna be successful is you got to be involved. You got to get in it. You can't just stand around and ponder it and worry about it and think about it. You got to get in it and do the best you can to get all of it you can and and figure out what's going on.

Matt Waller  0:16  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business, and the lives of people we meet every day, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be Epic Podcast. I have with me today Fletcher Lord Jr., who is the chairman of Replacement Parts, Inc. He has a very interesting career but most noteworthy. He is being inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in February, and we have been running the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. Since 1999, inductees include many names you would recognize like Sam Walton, Don Tyson, JB and Johnelle Hunt, you know, Warren Stephens, many, many, many others who Bill Dillard, many very successful people. Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the purpose of it really, is to celebrate the achievement of business people in business, celebrate their achievement, recognize it. And we pick people who not only have had huge impacts on industries in Arkansas and business, but also are great role models in terms of integrity and ethics and so forth. And so Fletcher, congratulations on being inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  1:51  
Thank you, came as a big surprise.

Matt Waller  1:54  
Well, well deserved. I remember reading your background and all you've accomplished and it's so, so remarkable what you've done in the automotive accessories business as a privately held firm. Would you tell us a little bit about the company?

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  2:13  
Well, we are a Little Rock based auto parts distribution company. We operate both warehouses and store operations. We're in the 12 state market area, from west of Atlanta to the east or west of Tulsa and down to Beaumont, Texas. We have 210 of our own stores, and about 180 independent parts stores that are owned by independent individuals, but buy their products from our warehouse. They use our signage, our marketing, our computers. And they are, for all practical purposes, an affiliate of ours. This business was founded by my grandfather back in 1919.

Matt Waller  3:07  
So that is an unusually long time for a firm to be around. Fletcher, how did the company start 102 years ago and what was it actually doing back then?

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  3:19  
Well, it was started by my grandfather who moved from Arkadelphia to Little Rock, and he came to town and got a job as a traveling grocery salesman. And back then there were no roads between towns so ever, all the commerce was done on the railroad. And he traveled the state selling groceries and on his travels, he ran into a fellow that was a competitor of his and they became friends. Ultimately, they became business partners. And he was also a grocery salesman. His name was JG Burlingame. And they continue to be in the grocery business and my grandfather Elderwood became a salesman for a candy company, the Karcher Candy Company. But they became friends and one day Mr. Berlingame invited my grandfather over to his house for Sunday dinner. And he accepted and the next week on the train, he invited him to move in with him. He was older than my grandfather, and he didn't have anybody at home with his wife and big ole' house and nobody in it and my grandfather was living in the boarding house and so he moved in and lived together for about six or seven years before he married and they remained competitors and they remained friends but like a lot of people do at that age they were rattin' around for some way to make some extra money. And Mr. Crow started going to St. Louis to the National Automotive Show and they would go up and he would go up and he would look at the cars that were on show there. And back then there was about 102, or three four car manufacturers in the country. And he would pick up cars that he thought would sell in Arkansas, and he would buy some cars and bring them home. And ultimately, that's the way a lot of car dealers started. And they did that for a couple of years. But in 1918, he went up and came back and said they weren't going to stay in the car business, they were going into the accessory business. And back then when the Detroit built a car, they shipped it in a box. So it arrive without tops and seats and wheels and lamps and all the stuff that went on it. And it was up to the dealers to locate that stuff, put it on the car and make it roadworthy. And so they founded a company to do that ran a big ad in the paper and said, if your call main 464 will get your order off on the next train. So they did that till about 1922. And about that time the car manufacturer started to, to ship cars that were complete. And their business had to shift and they became a supplier of replacement parts. And at one point in time, they had a large machine shop because the engines in cars didn't last very long. It had to be rebuilt constantly. And they had to rebuild the wheels. Remember the wheels, he said wooden spokes and they would break and they had leaf springs that had to be retorqued. And there was a lot of effort made to keep cars running. And they did that for a long time. And in 1928, they bought a competitor down in El Dorado, Arkansas, and they became a branch operator at that point in time. And then the next several years, they opened branches throughout the state. They, I think of the stores as numerically as where we opened. Number two was El Dorado, and number three was Pine Bluff, number four was Hot Springs, number five Stuttgart, Texarkana and so forth. So they continued to open stores during the course of the Depression. And my grandfather always said that, if somebody had a car and it wasn't working, they were going to fix it, they weren't going to go out and hook up a team of mules to go to town anymore. Pretty much right about that so. The depression made it hard for people to afford it, but they weren't going to do something different. And so the business continued to grow and expand. And then after the depression, the war came along and everything went on allocation. They didn't make very many cars, they made jeeps and tanks, and tires weren't available and fuel was on allocation. So people who've had cars continued to get them repaired and keep them maintained because they couldn't afford not to. And then at the end of the war, when all the GIs came home, there was all kinds of people availability to go into the business. And they opened 19 stores in a year during that era, with the GIs coming home, and that was in essence what we did for a long time. And then back in the early 50s they formed a holding company and and merged with a group in Memphis and one in Fort Smith. And it was called OCY. And OCY at that time was the largest buying group in the country. And we had one of us had nine stores and one of us had 12 stores, another one had 10 stores. So being great big didn't mean anything back then. But they they merged and continued to grow and open branches. And in about 1953 the government sued them and said that keeping your own goods for redistribution doesn't cause you to be eligible for discounts from factories. And if you're going to stay in the distribution business, you've got to sell 40% of what you sell to somebody beside yourself. So at that point the industry started to sell to independent operators. And so we started trying to establish and sell to people who ran their own part stores. And we did that for a number of years due to the requirement that we had to sell a certain percentage of our stuff to somebody else.

Matt Waller  9:47  
And that sounds like a very significant change in the business.

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  9:52  
It was it was a significant change. And it was the formation of what became known as the warehouse distribution business. And that's it. We are an unusual business in that we are a multi step distribution business. We ship to the vendor ships to the warehouse who ships to the stores, who ships to the installer, who is basically the retailer, the fellow who bolts the parts on.

Matt Waller  10:20  
what's really a that's, that's a huge change. Were there any other types of big changes? That was clearly a change? Were there any big changes that really affected aftermarket from maybe, maybe like technological?

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  10:38  
Well, the the major thing that was changing was the dynamics of the automobile. You know, when we first started selling parts, there weren't many parts. You didn't have starters, and alternators, and air conditioning and transmissions and all that sort of thing, you go out and grab hold of the crank and crank the car up and started that way. And that was replaced by starters and batteries. And the technology just continued to evolve and cars became more complicated and, and so the parts required to keep them going became broader and broader and broader of course today, they're astronomical in the number of units required to take care of the industry. That's the way they started. We didn't really get into the technological stuff very often until way up into the when a computer age started to come along. Way back in the 70s, we put a IBM 34 into our office to manage accounts receivable. And that was when we first started seeing some computer technology changed the business. And of course, it's dramatic and changed everything since then.

Matt Waller  11:56  
Fletcher, what would you say, is your most important formula for success?

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  12:02  
I was at a cocktail party a number of years ago, for some of the older fellows in the industry. And we were standing around this and I was talking to several of the guys that run Genuine Parts Company NAPA. And one of them said, I'm the guy that opened the distribution center in Little Rock. I said, really? He said, you know, it's the most unsuccessful distribution center we ever opened. And I said, why do you think that is? And the other ones that I know why it is he said, because you never left. You most people when we come to town decide they're gonna sell out, and they call us an want to see if we will buy the company. And you never did. And you're still here. So I think our formula was, don't quit. Whatever you have to do you just stay in there and keep plugging away and do what you got to do. Nothing particularly fancy about it. It's just surround yourself with good people and do what you got to do.

Matt Waller  13:03  
Fletcher, there's so many things going on in the world right now that are changing rapidly. How do you see these changes and so forth, affecting your industry in your business out into the future decades from now?

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  13:21  
Well, there's a lot of changes going on, which are a challenge for everybody, not just privately held, but publicly held companies that are in this business as well. One of them is the challenge of trying to find the kind of people that would do well in the industry. When I was growing up and first got in this business, every boy around knew something about automobiles, and was interested in em, in finding somebody that wanted to be in the parts business was pretty easy. That's not true today, the vast majority of young people grow up without ever looking under the hood of a car and don't really have a lot of interest in what's under there. Another challenge that's that's significant is the parts proliferation problem that, that is dynamic, the number of cars on the road, or the number of parts to service them is growing geometrically. In addition to that, the stuff that we used to sell, it gave us a lot of turnover and a lot of solidity in our business is going away and it's been replaced by things that you used to sell 200 of, now you sell none of and you sell a lot of items that are expensive, but you sell one or two of them at a time and not in mass. So you got to have a lot more coverage that cost a lot more money. And you've got to have that to be able to be able to service the business and there's just a limit to how much dollars and money you can throw at a problem because it's past a certain point. It doesn't make any sense, no matter how much money you got, there's just not enough statistical evidence to support how much inventory you could put in, in the field and be successful doing it. The other thing that's that is a challenge. And this continued to be a real challenge is the fact that we're really not in the parts business. We're in the data business. And having the right part in the right place at the right time at the right price is a challenge. And that was always what we had to do. It's just harder today. And we spend most of our time talking about things that don't have to do with auto parts they have to do with data and how to determine all the things that we need to know so that we can go to the street be profitable and successful.

Matt Waller  15:52  
Fletcher again, congratulations on your induction to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame and congratulations on your amazing career and your successes. We're really proud of you.

E. Fletcher Lord, Jr.  16:05  
Well thank you, it's an honor to be sitting there talking to you.

Matt Waller  16:10  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be Epic B E E P I C

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.