Better Than Ever

Ace Auto Parts Is Stronger After Devastating Fire



PHOTO: MIMS PHOTOGRAPHY

Barb and Marcus Weyandt, the husband-and-wife team behind Ace Auto Parts in St. Paul, Minn., have lived through every auto recycler’s worst nightmare.

On a January day in 2005, the company’s dismantlers returned to work after their morning break, not realizing a gas tank had been leaking while they were away. One worker ignited a torch, creating a fireball that quickly engulfed the entire dismantling shop.

“It was like a bomb going off,” remembered Marcus, who has worked at Ace Auto Parts since 1979 and is now chief operating officer. “It was so scary. A nightmare. We don’t even like to think back to that day. We have photos of the fire, and it’s difficult to look at them.”

Thick, black smoke billowed from the building as the fire raged. Officials closed Rice Street in downtown St. Paul for the remainder of the day, and the fire made national news. Fortunately, everyone who had been inside the building that day made it out to safety.

“The week before at a safety meeting, Marcus had designated a fire meeting place, so that was fresh in everyone’s minds,” said Barb, who co-owns the company. All of the employees had been instructed to meet at a Dairy Queen down the street in the event of an emergency. Everyone was quickly accounted for. “That safety meeting was the greatest thing that happened,” Marcus admitted. “We were really lucky no one got hurt. Thank God.”

The damage was devastating. The dismantling shop and warehouses were destroyed, along with about 70 percent of the company’s inventory. Despite the huge losses, Ace Auto Parts was back in business the very next day.

“The firewall into the sales office held, preserving our data, computers, and a place from which to do business the next morning,” Barb explained. “To this day we marvel that the city inspectors let us work in that environment.”

“We didn’t ask if we could do it,” Marcus stated. “We asked for forgiveness if it was something we shouldn’t have been doing. We kind of set up shop, and there were so many people coming to say, ‘Hey, is there anything I can help you with?’”

Marcus and Barb said they never once thought of closing down the business after the fire. Ace Auto Parts - and the trademark Model T that stands on its roof - has been a part of downtown St. Paul for generations. It has operated from the same location, eight blocks north of the Minnesota state capitol building, since 1929. Barb’s father, Don Kloek, purchased the business in 1964, and Barb became co-owner in 1992.

The company is active in city events. For example, Ace Auto Parts hosts a party for about 350 community members each July before the city’s Rice Street Parade.

In fact, at the time of the fire, Marcus was heavily involved with volunteer work for the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival.

“I was so busy with that, I didn’t have time to cry,” he remembered.

The day after the fire, city officials approached the Weyandts and offered to buy them out.

“We told them, ‘No, we’re rebuilding,’” Marcus said. “In the long run, the city did help us out with a low-interest loan when it saw what we were going to put up.”

“We had no alternative but to keep going and rebuild,” Barb said, adding that employees and customers were all “kindly supportive” in the aftermath of the fire.

They soon purchased a property next door and used it as temporary sales offices. The old Ace Auto Parts was demolished in October 2005, and the company began an eight-month rebuilding process, which Barb described as “super intense.”

“Numerous snap decisions were required on a daily basis,” she said. Marcus said he visited about half a dozen of the “latest and greatest” auto recycling facilities in Minnesota and Wisconsin to gather ideas for the new facility.

“Everyone we went to was so open and willing to share ideas, which I thought was cool,” he said.

The new facility opened in June 2006. The difference between it and the old one is “like night and day,” Marcus said. Because space is limited in Ace Auto Part’s three-acre, inner-city location, the new facility is two stories high.

“We had to go higher, not wider,” Marcus explained. “I don’t know if another auto recycler in the upper Midwest has an elevator.”

The new facility, which processes about 3,000 vehicles annually, also includes overhead cranes, a sprinkler system, and in-floor heat. Marcus even improveed the “little things,” adding four additional restrooms and installing washing stations operated by foot pedals.

“It’s just stuff we wouldn’t have done if we didn’t have the fire,” Marcus said. “Now we can do so much more, and do it so much quicker. It runs way, way smoother.”

Ace did not lay off any employees during the rebuild, and no workers quit. Now, with 35 workers, the company employs three times more people than it did before the fire.

“The fire was like a blessing in disguise,” Marcus stated. “Now we have a state-of-the-art facility, and people look at us in a different light. When people walk in, they’re like, ‘Whoa, is this a bank?’ It’s crazy how it is eight years later and we still have people coming in saying how nice it is. It’s nice to hear.”

 

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