What's Cookin'

Hi-Way Auto Finds Recipe For Success



PHOTO: MARK DUMAS - BROWNWOOD TX

Hi-Way Auto, Inc. caters to its customers - literally.

The owners of the Brownwood, Texas company regularly host cookouts for their customers. Up to 300 people show up every other month to enjoy free, home-cooked food, such as pulled pork, chicken, or burgers.

“I have lots of buddies who come and mooch meals,” laughed co-owner and cook, James Cooley Jr. “But the cookouts do get us a lot more one-on-one time with the customers.”

James, who co-owns the company with his brother, Dalton Cooley, his mother, Ann Cooley, and his nephew, Christopher Cooley, became serious about cooking for crowds about 10 years ago. Since then, he and Dalton have acquired five barbecue smokers, and the brothers have cooked for up to 600 people at a time. One of their big events was the Texas Automotive Recyclers Association’s (TARA) annual conference, where they cooked chicken and prime rib for the vendors and attendees.

“We had no complaints at all,” James said. “One guy said it was the best prime rib he’d ever eaten, so I guess it was OK.”

Although James regularly cooks for community events, fundraisers, and even weddings, he doesn’t like to call what he does “catering”, because he doesn’t charge for his cooking services. “If you furnish the food, I will cook it,” he said.

James has cooked for numerous fundraisers, including an event for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a volunteer program that helps abused and neglected children in the foster care system. When a Hi-Way Auto employee’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, James cooked for a fundraiser that brought in about $1,500.

“When you give back to the community, you have a lot better relationship with people,” he explained.

James believes these strong relationships with customers and community members have helped drive Hi-Way Auto’s success. The company has been growing since 1975, when it was started by James’ father, James Cooley Sr.

“My dad had a repair shop, a little garage, and he liked working on cars,” James said. “There wasn’t a big yard in Brownwood. The man who owned Hi-Way was ready to retire, so my dad purchased it.”

The company started out “real, real small”, explained James, with just three employees, plus James Sr. After James Jr., graduated from high school in 1979, he came to work at the company full time, and his younger brother Dalton followed just a few years later.

“I loved it,” James said. “I loved messing with cars. They always say you need to enjoy your job, and I do. I get up every morning, and I like what I do. In our industry, nothing is ever the same every day.”

By 1986, Hi-Way Auto had outgrown its location, and the company moved to its current location on 47 acres. Sadly, James Sr., passed away seven years ago, but he remained very active in the business even in his final years, James said.

Today, Hi-Way Auto specializes in trucks, pickups and SUVs. It processes about 1,000 vehicles a year, employs 26 workers and has an on-site scrapyard. James and Dalton also co-own a second company in Brownwood with partner Gordon Bearden, called Central Texas Auto Recyclers.

“We’ve been very, very blessed with the way it has worked out,” James said.

James believes Hi-Way’s customer service sets it apart from the competition.

“We take care of the customer,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for a long time, and it seems like it still works.”

For example, Hi-Way Auto employs a representative who will talk with each customer to learn about his or her experience.

“If a customer has any kind of problem, he’ll find that out, and the salesman or myself will call that customer,” James explained. “He’ll hand out his business card and say, ‘If the salesman didn’t take care of you, you call me.’ Very seldom does he get a call, but if he does, we take care of it.”

Connecting with other auto recyclers is also important to the company’s success, James said. The company belongs to TARA, ARA, URG and PRP, and James - a past TARA president - is a regular at industry conferences.

“You meet people, and you find out ways that others are doing things,” he said. “You need to stay on top of the game and not be left behind. You can talk to someone who will say, ‘I had that happen, and here’s how we addressed it,’ and you say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

In fact, James believes going to industry conferences is one of the most important things a yard owner can do.

“Some people give excuses why they can’t go, like, ‘I’ll have to take time off work,’ or ‘I’ll have to pay for a plane ticket,’” he said. “I think you get more bang for your buck out of these conferences than anything else you’ll ever do.”

What’s next for Hi-Way Auto? James said his goal is to create a third-generation business.

“My oldest daughter is beginning to show quite a bit of interest,” he said. “I’m trying to get her aboard.”

For now, James is happy with what he and Hi-Way Auto have achieved.

“I’ve only ever lived in one town, gone to one school, had one job, gone to one church, and had one wife,” he said. “That’s the way it’s going to stay. I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, as far as the business I went into, the business I helped my father build. I love coming to work every day.”

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