Northwest Auto Conquers Last Frontier
From left, Vehicle Inventory Manager Nick Ossenkop, Inventory Personnel Kevin Goodwin, CEO Kris Ossenkop, Production Manager Scott Mattison and Operations Manager Ryan Ossenkop in the yard.
Kris Ossenkop is used to working in the dark. As an auto recycler based in Anchorage, Alaska, it comes with the territory. “If you work based on the light or the weather, you wouldn’t be working very much here,” he jokes.
His family’s business, Northwest Auto Parts, is one of the few based in this challenging environment where there are months of darkness and mountains of snow. That’s in addition to the normal challenges of the auto recycling business — sourcing and selling parts, and surviving in an increasingly competitive marketplace. But Northwest is not only surviving, it’s thriving, and that is a testament to this hardworking and resilient family, pursuing a dream begun two generations ago.
The idea for the business came from Kris’ grandfather, Charlie Ossenkop, who was the first State Farm Claims Agent in Alaska back in 1963. He noticed that it was a lot easier to get parts to repair vehicles in the lower 48 states, and mentioned that fact to his son, Chuck.
“My father was a comptroller for a bank,” says Kris. “Everyone thought he was crazy to leave a pretty sweet gig to open a salvage yard. But he wanted control of his life. He had always wanted to be an owner and self-sufficient; that was his dream.”
In 1981, Chuck purchased an existing scrap / salvage business that sat on five acres of land. He built a heated warehouse, bought a computerized inventory system, and slowly built the business. His three sons grew up in the business, helping out during the summer. They joined their dad full-time after going away to school and earning their own credentials and experience. Kris and Ryan have degrees in accounting from the University of Washington. Kris is now CEO and Ryan is operations manager. A third brother, Nick, handles inventory. Chuck is semi-retired, but as Kris acknowledges, “he’s not the type that can really retire.”
The first years were difficult, made even more so by the location’s inherent challenges. “In the wintertime, the sun comes up around 11 a.m. and goes down around 2:30 or 3 p.m.,” explains Kris. “Your late hours are in complete darkness. So we have a lot of lighting around the building and throughout our facility. We also have head lamps for our employees. We give them fresh headlamps every fall when it starts to get dark.” The business maintains the same hours year-round. “Working in the dark causes some issues, but people here are used to it,” he says. “You just keep going.”
Then, there’s the weather. Northwest Auto is based just a few miles from the ocean, which helps to keep the weather more temperate, notes Kris. “Usually, we have a stretch somewhere around -20 degrees for two weeks to a month every year, and sometimes it gets a little lower. It can get up to 75 or 80 in the summer for two to three weeks, too.”
“But we get a lot of snow because of the mixing of cold and warm air by the ocean,” he adds. He estimated the annual winter snowfall at 100 inches. “We get in here early and plow,” said Kris. “The nice thing is that we’re on a flat surface. All the forklifts have wire chains. We have snow rakes, which are giant long rakes with a foam rectangle end. They can reach over a car, grab the snow and pull or push it off. We have to clear the snow before putting a car in the shop to dismantle it. A lot of times, the guys will put the cars inside to thaw the night before so they can drip and be nice and dry when they get in in the morning.”
As a result of the weather, most of the power train parts and other parts susceptible to weather are stored inside. “We have a lot more inside warehouse space than other places I’ve visited,” says Kris. “We have five warehouses with a total of 22,000 square feet.”
The business delivers locally by truck for a 20-mile radius, ships throughout the state, and flies parts by air to remote villages in Alaska as far as 1,000 miles away. But it’s more of a challenge to ship to the lower 48, which they also do.
“Anything of size goes by a giant barge to Seattle,” explains Kris. “It takes seven to 10 days to get anything from me to you if you’re in the lower 48. In the winter, when there is ice or heavier storms, there are times that the barge is delayed.”
But the business is progressive and continues to reinvent itself. It was one of the first to bring barcoding up to the region, and one of the first “green” yards. By the end of the summer, Northwest will have an additional four acres, which they’ve been developing. They also have a successful warranty program that helps get customers past the concept of used parts. “I think it elevates us,” says Kris. “We stand behind our parts almost to no fault.”
“We have a good name in the community,” he adds. “We try to offer people savings in an increasingly inflated market. A lot of our guys take pride in what they do. They’re doing something positive for the community and the environment.”
Kris notes that Northwest has the lion’s share of the market in Anchorage. “We try not to take that for granted,” he says. “We really try to be a good neighbor, and to do right by our customers. After all, they’re the reason for our success.”