60-Year-Old Yard Wins Top Award
PHOTOS MICHAEL HICKEY
The owner and 15 employees of Ray’s Auto Parts in Amboy, Ind., have a lot to be proud of these days.
Ray’s recently won its second Indiana Clean Yard Gold Level award, which is the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s highest award for environmental stewardship. Ray’s is also a thriving business that dismantles 700 cars a year and has eight buildings and 4,500 cars on 25 acres.
Not bad for a company that started in a chicken coop.
Owner Mike Hierholzer’s father, Ray, started the company nearly 60 years ago on his family’s farm. Ray had a long-time interest in repairing and rebuilding cars, Mike said.
“He was the youngest of seven, so anything he needed or wanted car-wise, he had to learn to do himself,” Mike said. “He learned how to do body work and to get the cars fixed up so he had something to drive.”
Still, rebuilding cars remained more of a side business for Ray as he helped out at the farm and worked as a tool and die maker. After spending time in the Army in the late 1950s, Ray returned to the farm and to his job, but he continued to rebuild cars and found he was accumulating leftover parts.
He converted an old chicken coop into a mechanic shop, where he worked nights and weekends. Ray’s wife, Ann, served as his bookkeeper.
“Dad started to accumulate quite a few cars, and of course, Grandpa wasn’t real happy with him putting cars on his farmland,” Mike said.
Ray decided to buy the 80-acre farm: the same location the business occupies to this day. Ray sold parts, while his business partner, Leonard Barker, did bodywork. The pair parted ways in 1971, and Ray decided to focus exclusively on selling parts and rebuildable cars. By then, he’d accumulated five acres of cars and had one employee.
By the time Mike was 12, he was helping his father every day.
“I’d get off the school bus and help until the end of the day,” he remembered. “I was always out there. When Dad was rebuilding at night, Mom would have to call two or three times to get me to come in. It was quite a fight every night. I just wanted to be out there with the guys.”
“It’s the only job I ever had,” he added. “I knew where I wanted to be.”
When Mike graduated from high school in 1976, he joined the business full-time. Ray would be on the road buying cars two or three days a week.
“He was the buyer, and he hauled most of the cars in,” Mike said. “I was kind of the main counter guy when Dad wasn’t there.”
In 1978, Ray hired Greg Foster out of high school, and he is now the company’s assistant manager.
“He is still with us 41 years later,” Mike said. “When you leave, you know he’s going to run the business the same way you would. He runs it like family. He’s like the brother I never had.”
The business continued to grow into the 1980s, when Ray added several more buildings and expanded to 10 acres. Then the unimaginable happened: Ray was diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away in February of 1988.
“It was a short, quick illness, and of course it turned us upside down,” Mike said. “We had to regroup.”
Mike remembered that he made it through those difficult days thanks to help from others in the industry.
“Back in those days, at the auctions he’d go to, everybody knew everybody,” he said. “The auctioneers helped guide me, and fellow recyclers wanted to help and give advice. Our industry is different from other industries. Auto recyclers all want to share information if somebody needs it and to help out. We were able to keep growing from that point.”
Mike’s mother, Ann, however, who still does the company’s bookkeeping, gives all of the credit to Mike himself.
“The business wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for Mike,” she said. “Some sons wouldn’t have been able to handle it.”
While the business has grown, it has maintained its commitment to the environment. Ray’s Auto Parts first achieved Indiana Clean Yard status in 2012 and was recertified in 2014. It received the Indiana Clean Yard Gold Level award in 2017 and 2019. This year it tied for the number-one spot with Northlake Auto Recyclers in Hammond, Ind.
“A lot of customers look for places that care about recycling and the environment,” Mike said. “When people come in and they see there’s no oil on the floor, the floor is all swept, and everything is nice and neat and it looks like your house, it gives them a good feeling.”
Mike says the staff at Ray’s takes the time to get to know every customer, whether they’re one-time walk-in customers or large accounts. That friendly attitude and “old-time” service has paid off for generations.
“We’ll have customers come in and say they knew my dad or that their grandpa used to come here to get parts,” Mike said. “It makes you feel good when they have enough trust in you to tell their grandkids about you.”
What’s next for Ray’s Auto Parts? Mike’s son, Kevin, has been working at the business since 2005. While Mike is hopeful that Kevin will take over some day, he’s in no rush to retire.
“I’ve been here forever,” he laughed. “I just like the work. I like to be with the guys and the customers. It’s not really a job when you enjoy it so much. It’s where I belong.”