Don Phelps Is Driven By Passion
Don Phelps has been in the industry for 46 years, and he’s still going strong.
Don Phelps could have retired a decade ago. But when your job is your hobby, you don’t need to give it up.
At age 74, Phelps - the owner of AAA Auto Wrecking & Sales, Inc. in Kent, Wash. - still enjoys coming to work. And he still drives the tow truck. “I mainly go to get the cars from private sellers, not the auctions anymore,” he said. “I get to meet some really nice people that way, and talk to them about their cars. That’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about this business.”
Phelps officially entered the industry 46 years ago. Before that, he was in one that wasn’t so far from auto recycling.
“I starting working in commercial towing when I first got out of high school,” Phelps explained. “I did that for about six years and then went to Idaho to help my father-in-law with his farm.”
He returned to Washington and opened All City Auto Wrecking in the Seattle area with a partner. After the partnership dissolved, Phelps launched AAA Auto Wrecking & Sales in Kent. His wife Carol did the books. There were two, maybe three employees.
“I was running both yards for a while,” he said. “The White Center (Seattle) location had a store with phones and a voicemail hotline. We used Kent for storage and dismantling.”
That changed in 1988, when Phelps put up buildings at the Kent site. The first measured 40-by-130 square-feet and the second 224-by-20 feet, plenty of room to house the 14 employees that would eventually locate there. Today, the Kent site is the headquarters for the business. (Phelps still owns the White Center location but leases out the space.) AAA Auto Wrecking & Sales processes 1,000 to 1,200 cars a year or about 100 a month, according to Phelps.
Manager Barry Fleming has worked side-by-side with Phelps for the last 39 years. “Don’s one of my best friends,” he admitted. “I closed my service station to come work for him. He’s always been involved in the industry, and that’s helped business.”
Phelps served as regional director for the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) for two terms. He’s also sat on the ARA Insurance and Government Affairs Committees, and was president of the ARA Scholarship Committee. In addition, Phelps has twice served as president of the state association, Automotive Recyclers of Washington (AROW). He and his wife shared treasurer duties until her passing in 2002.
“I made up my mind a long time ago that if you’re going to be in the industry you should be active,” Don explained. “Otherwise, you can’t complain that someone didn’t do something about this issue or that.”
As a result, Phelps has served as industry spokesperson on a variety of issues from mercury switches to Cash for Clunkers. He’s been in the business for so long that he’s also keenly aware of the changes over the years.
“Of course, there’s been the Internet and computers,” he said, though he admitted to leaving that to some of his younger employees. “And there’s been the changes on the vehicles themselves with all the electronic technology. But there have been continuing challenges too. In 1998, there were 458 licensed yards in the state. Now there are only 240. Salvage acquisition has been a problem.
“I often said that I’d retire if I could get a pass that ensured auto recyclers and dealers would be the only ones who could buy salvage,” he added. “That hasn’t happened yet in this state.”