EXPERT ADVICE

Cunningham Brothers Turn Yards Around



Benny, Danny & Jimmie Cunningham use years of experience to make facilities efficient and profitable.

PHOTO: TIFFANY MARTIN

When Joey Woodfin needs an opinion, he goes straight to Benny Cunningham.

Woodfin, president and founder of EverDrive, LLC in Midlothian, Va. (EverDrive.com) said, "We've been in the same circle of business for some time and he's very sharp ... easily one of the sharpest guys I know. I've found it helpful to bounce ideas off him. Sometimes they're hare-brained and he tells me I'm crazy ... or that he thinks it could work."

Woodfin is not the only person who relies on Cunningham for expertise. In fact, Benny and his brothers, Danny Cunningham and Jimmie Cunningham, are well known for their automotive recycling acumen.

"Recyclers look at what we've done and generally speaking, they approach us," explained Benny. "We share our expertise with them, what we've learned. It's just what we do. Plenty of people helped us along the way, too. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here."

"If you do the right thing and help people, it will come back to you 10 times over," added Danny.

Strong Roots

The Cunningham brothers have acquired auto-recycling expertise by trial and error. They entered the industry at a young age, working through teenage years at a salvage yard belonging to their father [W.C. Cunningham]. They were among the youngest auto recyclers to own a business when they opened their first facility, Cunningham Brothers Auto Parts, Inc. in Rustburg, Va., right out of high school in 1981.

"When our father passed away, we were approached by a lot of his business colleagues and friends," explained Benny. "My father's best friend, John S. Meador, offered us a yard rent-free for the first year. He financed us on the vehicles so we could make payments. I remember we siphoned the gas out of the cars so we could use it. Even when we started paying the rent, I'd hand him the check and he'd say, 'if you need it, keep it.'"

"He took us under his wing as if we were his own children," emphasized Danny. "He's still always there if you need someone to talk to."

The brothers were savvy with technology. They were the 133rd facility to be on AutoInfo, one of the first computerized yard inventory systems, according to Benny and the 33rd to install the Pinnacle System. They continued to build the business and now have four full-service and four self-service auto-recycling facilities (Cunningham-Brothers.com): Cunningham Brothers Auto Parts plus its adjacent self-service facility Pick-N-Save; Action Auto Parts (Hopewell, Va.); Greensboro Auto Parts Company, Inc. (GAPCO),(Greensboro, N.C.) and its adjacent self-service facility You Pull It; Old Dominion Auto Salvage, Inc. (Roanoke, Va.); Don's Save More (Monroe, N.C.); and Woodfin's Pick & Save (Midlothian, Va.).

Symbiotic Relationships

Each of the acquired businesses shares a special relationship with the Cunninghams: they came to the brothers for help. The brothers stepped in, became business partners and helped restructure. Then they backed out, allowing the previous management to remain to run day-to-day operations. But the Cunninghams still retain an interest and oversee results. It's a win-win system for all parties.

"People come in and say, 'I've got a problem,'" said Danny. "It's not really a problem; it's an opportunity. If you get people thinking that way, that's the first step."

Danny explained the process for how the brothers go about helping other auto recyclers.

"The first thing is to look at what they're doing," he stated. "You take a good look at things, and see where they're bleeding the most. Many times, it's not that people aren't working hard. They are. It's that they're not working smart. We're guilty of that ourselves. Sometimes it takes an outside party looking in."

Benny agreed. "I was answering questions from a recycler who was tackling some second generation business issues," he said. "It made me realize that I had to take my own advice. I had to go back and change how we were doing business, because we were confronting the same issues!"

"Sometimes people are so busy working, they don't see what they're doing," added Danny. "The important thing is to recognize it. Then you can correct it by streamlining the business; get a flow with volume production and key people in all the right places."

The Cunninghams work hard to make sure everybody is on board. "People like to do things the way they've always done them," said Danny. "Sometimes you have to show them how much more efficient it can be if you change."

One efficient method the Cunningham brothers have implemented in the full-service facilities is inventory consolidation.

"At first, we were keeping separate inventories at each of the locations," explained Benny. "But we realized it could be more efficient to combine them into a common inventory. You would logically think that sales would stay the same, or even drop because we were doing cross billing. But our numbers were up significantly as a result."

Tracy Lewis, partner in Action Auto Parts, concurred. "The ability to take the entire inventory gave us a tremendous opportunity to sell a lot more parts," he said.

Proof Positive

Action Auto Parts has grown 400 percent since the brothers became partners, according to Benny. "Tracy could acquire more stock and even buy us out, but he's told me that he wouldn't want to," said Benny. "Frankly, he's as valuable to me as the business. I wouldn't want to operate it without him."

"With things the way they are, it is very difficult for a smaller company to survive anymore," noted Lewis. "Being a partner with them has helped us so much."

With Action Auto Parts, as with the other successful operations, the Cunninghams have pulled back to let management run them. Benny, Danny and Jimmie monitor all of the businesses at weekly sales meetings by teleconference.

"We're not dealing with the personnel on a day-to-day basis, but we work closely at the management level," clarified Benny.

The Cunninghams also make themselves available to provide advice to any auto recycler. On more than one occasion, that resulted in a business partnership. A recent case in point is Woodfin's EverDrive. The technology-based company supplies recycled auto parts to large automotive chains like Pep Boys and AutoZone.

"We were getting requests from our customers for small parts that recyclers typically didn't pull because there wasn't much money in them," explained Woodfin. "We were telling them no, we couldn't get these parts when we wanted to say yes."

Woodfin and Benny talked for an hour in the parking lot after a meeting about eight months ago and by the end of the discussion had struck a deal.

"The problem was that once the order for this small part came into the recycler, the clock was already ticking," said Benny. "As a recycler, I knew that if I had to pull a $35 spring, I didn't really have the time. So these requests were not getting filled, or at least not in a timely manner."

But Benny devised a way to work around it.

"I could see potential in it, because these are parts that are selling," he said. "I suggested we design a web site where we could punch in the VIN and get the sales history for that particular car's parts at 5,000 retail outlets nationwide. Then when the car first comes into the yard, the auto recycler can pull all of the parts, including the small ones. They would be ready as soon as the request came in to buy them. That would meet their price point and my schedule."

Woodfin is in the process of implementing Benny's idea and is a business partner with Benny in the venture.

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