RIGHT TIME

Blaze Drives Upgrades At County Line



County Line Auto Parts owners Joe Roederer, Don Morris and Dennis and Krystyn Roberts turned a crisis into a positive.

PHOTO: KRISTINA WOODSMALL

When the Robertses set out their Super Bowl spread in 2009, little did they guess they would miss much of their own party. But at 4 p.m. on Feb. 1, just as their pastor arrived with his family, the fateful call came in.

"Our alarm company called," said Krystyn Roberts, co-owner of County Line Auto Parts (CountyLineAutoParts.com) in Kingsville, Mo. "They said there was a fire in the main warehouse."

There was little choice but for Krystyn and husband Dennis Roberts to leave the party and have Krystyn's mother assume hostess duties.

"We live about 25 minutes away from the business, and that was the longest 25 minutes of my life," noted Dennis. "I think we hit every stoplight. On the way, I called an employee who lived nearby, who verified there was indeed a fire. Then, the calls started coming in from customers who knew us. They called to tell us County Line was on fire."

By the time the Robertses arrived, there were at least 25 firefighters and several fire trucks. For safety, Krystyn and Dennis weren't allowed near the building.

"There was nothing we could do," acknowledged Dennis. "It's something that's really hard to watch; your building is burning and you can't do a thing.

Bad Timing

"The timing was incredible," he added. "It was Feb. 1 and we had just had our best month ever in January. Now we were watching it go up in flames."

It took awhile to control the fire. Krystyn and Dennis watched and waited. They wanted peace of mind to know the fire was out. For safety reasons, the power company shut off the power for the night.

"They treated it like a crime scene at first," noted Krystyn. "They didn't let us do anything until the fire inspector had his report. But they did escort us in so we could bring out the two cats that lived in the warehouse. One was on pure oxygen for a week, but both survived the fire."

With nothing else to do, the Robertses returned to their Super Bowl party. The Arizona Cardinals made an amazing comeback during a riveting third quarter but no one in the Roberts' household could focus on the game. As the Pittsburgh Steelers secured a record sixth Super Bowl victory, the Robertses were formulating a plan without knowing damages.

"We had to put a plan in place to deal with the fire," said Dennis. "We still didn't really know the extent of the damage. But Krystyn talked to a good friend who gave us some valuable advice. He said, ‘Don't waste a good crisis. Turn it into something positive.'"

Back To Work

The next morning Krystyn, Dennis and employees were at work at 6 a.m., a full hour and a half before people usually show up and two hours before the business usually opens.

"Our employees just rallied," said Krystyn.

"Everybody stepped in and got this place going," added Dennis.

It turned out the fire had started in the production area where, according to Krystyn, "all of the action happens." The oil-burning furnace was the cause. Luckily, there was minimal loss of actual product.

The Robertses and staff pitched in and cleaned up. They moved the whole production operation into a dismantling bay. By 11 a.m., they were up and running, albeit without the production system computers. For the most part, the customers were unaffected.

"We went back to doing things manually," explained Dennis. "We lost the way employees take job numbers. But we managed. We couldn't have gotten there without our employees. It was the toughest on them."

There were 20 people working in a 15-by-45 foot temporary space, doing production, shipping and receiving.

"We were packed in there like sardines," noted Krystyn. As it turned out, it would be nine months before the employees would move production into permanent quarters.

"The insurance company sent a structural engineer," recalled Krystyn, "who told us the fire had gotten hot enough to twist a structural beam. That meant the integrity of the building was compromised. The whole building had to come down. It was inevitable that we'd have to expand at some point in the next couple of years. We had a choice. We could renovate now and rebuild in a couple of years or we could do it all at once. We decided to do it now, and do it right."

Major Transformation

It was a labor of love for the Robertses who had invested countless hours in County Line Auto Parts since they purchased it in 2003 with partners Don Morris and Joe Roederer. The major transformation would effectively take the business to the next level. It would be state of the art.

"We really hadn't gotten to the point of redesigning the business," said Krystyn. "The fire made us step back and look at how to optimize the space and the flow. It gave us the opportunity to get more efficient. That was the approach we took. The design came from there."

Krystyn and Dennis hired a general contractor to manage the project so they could focus on day-to-day business.

"It was pretty much business as usual during the renovations," noted Krystyn. "Of course, there were blips. We had to revert to things manually because we lost some computers. We were short a dismantling bay since we had turned that into production. We worked a few more hours to keep that rolling. We also hired some employees, some of them temps, just to cope with getting the product out without compromising our standards."

The Robertses tore down the warehouse and rebuilt it. Now it is nearly double its original size with a second floor. A separate production building was added.

More Improvements

By September, the new 8,600-square-foot building was ready for occupancy. They added energy-efficient lighting and heated floors to reduce the amount of heat needed for the building. There are separate work areas for specific processes, such as a headlight refurbishing area with its own paint booth and a separate area for quality control.

County Line Auto Parts hosted two yard-tours to show the improvements: one for the QRP-Midwest meeting in September, plus an open house for local customers in October.

"It doesn't look like a typical salvage yard," acknowledged Dennis. "It looks like a big parts warehouse dealership. When people come through the facility, they're impressed."

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