Johnson’s Auto Wrecking Thrives For Three Generations
Some auto recyclers find success by specializing and cornering a small niche. Johnson’s Auto Wrecking has found success by taking exactly the opposite approach.
The company, based in Mandan, N.D., carries a little bit of everything. Customers will find parts for a wide variety of makes and models going back decades. They might even find a variety of other vehicles, such as school buses, fire trucks or farm equipment.
And this approach is certainly working: Johnson’s Auto Wrecking is still going strong after more than 60 years in business.
“We’re more diversified,” said owner Allan Johnson. “We don’t pick any certain one car or any certain years. We handle parts for older cars and light trucks, parts that go all the way back to the ‘50s. We’ve got a little broader selection. We don’t pick a certain year and say nothing under this. Our customer base is a little different than places that just do newer cars.”
“We do try to keep a good variety of stuff,” agreed Brian Johnson, who is Allan’s son and the company’s general manager. “We have probably more of the older auto and truck stuff. Other yards have more of the late-model, so we’re different. Not specifying a certain range of years really helps. We also do light trucks, so around harvest time we do a fair amount of business with farmers.”
In Business 60-Plus Years
Allan’s father, Eugene, founded the company in 1956. He owned a welding shop and had been collecting parts to fix his own vehicles. He soon discovered there was a demand for his small inventory.
“People started coming in to ask for parts,” Brian said. “It just kept going from there.”
Allan began working at the company in grade school and watched the business flourish.
“It was all family at first,” he remembered. “Then we had one, maybe two guys at the most. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think my dad ever expected it to get this big.”
Brian also grew up in the business. He began pulling parts when he was in his early teens and came on full time in the 1980s.
“I’ve been here all but one year of my life,” he said. “I have always been here hanging out, working when I could.”
Eugene passed away in 1971 when he was only 57 years old. Allan took over the business, always mindful to run it the way his father would have.
“He was a good guy,” Allan said. “We miss him. He was hardworking and honest. When he said something, he did it. He was a man of his word. He was very talented. He could fix anything and was a good family man.”
Keeping Eugene’s commitment to honesty is especially important when dealing with customers, Allan said.
“We treat people fair so they’re going to come back,” he said. “We have a lot of repeat customers.”
“Customers are what puts food on the table, so you have to go out of your way for them,” he said. “We want to find them what they need as quickly as we can. If we don’t have the part, we’ll find out who has it and get back to them as quick as we can.”
Despite the fact that Johnson’s Auto Wrecking is located in a fairly remote part of the country, Brian says they encounter walk-in customers from across the country and around the world. He recently met a couple – the man was from South Africa and the woman was from Russia – who was driving across the United States, and their vehicle happened to break down in Mandan.
“It was really interesting to talk to them and visit with them about where they’re from,” he said. “I always find it quite fascinating if a customer sounds like they have a different accent or are speaking a different language. I’ll always ask where they’re from. It’s so interesting to talk to people and help with their vehicle projects.”
In fact, the variety of walk-in customers is what keeps the day-to-day business interesting for Allan.
“There’s never a dull moment,” he said. “Every day, a new person walks through the door. We’ve seen everything. We’ve heard every story. I could write a book.”
North Dakota Location
The company’s North Dakota location does have one downside: the long, cold winters.
“Last winter was really rough,” Brian said. “I don’t know how many inches of snow we got, but you couldn’t even tell what color the cars were.”
The snow is not nearly as bad as the cold, though, with temperatures reaching 25 or 30 degrees below zero.
“At least you can brush the snow off, but when it’s really cold, it’s hard to do anything,” Brian said. “You need to bring the cars inside to work on them.”
What’s next for the company? While Brian has two sons who both enjoy working with cars, they likely won’t become the fourth generation to run the business. One is a doctor and the other is a lawyer.
“Their mom and I always encouraged them to do whatever it is they like to do,” Brian said. “The door is always open if they’d like to come here.”
Allan says the business will only continue to expand.
“The business will be here for years to come,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for the business to get any smaller. If anything, it’s going to grow.”
“I wish I was about 20 years younger so I could go faster,” he laughed, “but it is fun. We have to have done something right or we wouldn’t still be here.”