Heckenast Family Sticks Together
Frank Heckenast Sr. built an empire in Chicago, Ill., sold it to LKQ Corporation, then started another one in Indianapolis, Ind.
During his 40 years in the industry, Frank Heckenast Sr. has contributed to the creation of eight auto-recycling facilities, and has provided advice in the building of several others. While that may appear to be a sufficient body of work for many businessmen, Frank insists he's not done.
"My biggest passion is building the facility, as opposed to the day-to-day management," he explained. "I'm always looking for more facilities; once a week I'm flying somewhere to look at something. If it's the right situation, I'd buy it in a minute."
Frank learned the ins and outs of vehicles and auto parts at an early age because his dad owned a scrap business. So at 16, he dropped out of high school and started running tow trucks. After three years of towing vehicles, Frank bought A-Reliable Auto Parts in Blue Island, Ill., which he later sold to LKQ Corporation, based in Chicago, Ill.
Currently Frank owns two automotive-recycling facilities - Pic-A-Part LLC in Indianapolis, Ind. and Pull-A-Part Self Serv Auto & Truck Parts in Phoenix, Ariz. Both locations specialize in self-service, which is the type of business he prefers.
"Self service is a win-win for everyone," he said. "It's a great deal for customers. When I worked in full service, sometimes we would charge people so much for parts I'd feel guilty. Allowing customers to get their own parts keeps prices low."
Harry Hansen - owner of United Auto Recyclers (UnitedAutoRecyclers.com) in Omaha, Neb. and six other auto-recycling facilities in Prescott, Ariz., Kansas City, Mo. and Omaha, Neb. - motivated Frank to specialize in self-service.
"I started in the business in 1986 and met Frank in 1990," said Hansen. "We got together and became friends. We shared ideas because we weren't competitive; he was working in Chicago and I was working in Omaha. I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to get into self-service, and he took [that suggestion] and ran with it."
Frank said the strategy was ideal for A-Reliable Auto Parts.
"On a Saturday, for example, we would be so busy with customers at the counter," he explained. "So we just decided to fence off about four acres of the yard. If a customer came in and wanted a radiator or something, we just sent them out there to get it."
Six years after Frank bought A-Reliable Auto Parts (AReliableAutoParts.com), in 1981, he changed the business' name to A-Reliable Auto Parts & Wreckers, Inc. and expanded, adding 20 acres. Frank added four more locations in the Chicago area between 1981 and 2007, when he sold the business to LKQ Corporation (LKQCorp.com).
A Brief Retirement
When he sold A-Reliable Auto Parts & Wreckers, Frank and his wife Michelle Heckenast - who also worked at the auto-recycling facility - planned to retire from the industry.
"When I sold to LKQ I said I was retiring," admitted Frank. "My wife took it seriously, but in the end, I guess I did not."
Unable to stay away from the industry, Frank moved to Indianapolis, where he opened Pic-A-Part (IndyPicAPart.com). While Michelle remains retired, other members of the Heckenast family continue to work for the business. Frank's children, daughter Sherri Heckenast-McMartin and son Frank Heckenast Jr., work at Pic-A-Part.
However, the younger Frank's passion is racing. He races in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, which the elder Frank - who also has experience in racing - has attended consistently throughout the year.
"Racing for me was always a hobby," explained Frank. "[My son is] trying to make a living doing it and he's doing a pretty good job. He's a good wheel man."
In 2010, the younger Frank qualified for 43 feature events, scoring one feature victory in Illinois at the Peoria Speedway (PeoriaSpeedway.com). During his rookie year - in 2004 - he won rookie of the year at the Crown Point Speedway in Indiana and rookie of the year at the Kankakee Motor Speedway in Illinois.
Frank raced in 2010, but currently has no plans to get back behind the wheel.
Sherri has been involved with the family business since she was young. At 21, she left college to take over as sales manager for the wholesale division of A-Reliable Auto Parts after Frank had a quadruple bypass. She is currently co-owner of Pic-A-Part, and has a lot of experience on the racetrack as well. Frank noted he appreciates the fact that Sherri has good administrative skills.
"The office isn't my cup of tea," he declared. "I'm hands on. My daughter is the opposite; she loves paperwork. We're a good team."
The Heckenasts hold an annual Pull-A-Thon at Pic-A-Part, an event previously held at A-Reliable Auto Parts & Wreckers. On the second weekend of July, customers stand in line to gain admission to the facility. Once inside, participants begin pulling parts off vehicles. Anything the customer can carry 20 feet is theirs for a flat price of $39.99. All Pic-A-Part employees are on hand for the exciting event. The staff is essential to the event's success, as well as the business' daily operations, noted Frank
"We have very good employees," he said. "They are the key and I wouldn't ask them to do anything that I couldn't do myself. I think they respect me for that."
Pic-A-Part employs full-time welders for metal fabrication, which allows the business to manufacture a lot of the equipment used at the facility. Admission to the yard - which rotates its vehicles every day to ensure fresh inventory - is $2.
Between Pic-A-Part and Pull-A-Part Self Serv Auto & Truck Parts (PhoenixPullAPart.com), Frank employs 33 people. He employed 107 people when he sold his Chicago business to LKQ Corporation. But he didn't always know his business would grow as much as it has.
"If you asked me if I planned on getting this big, I'd say not at all," he added.
But auto recyclers who have seen Frank at auctions and industry events throughout his career noticed his drive.
"Frank was always focused on what he was going for," said Tony Catalano, co-owner of Bionic Auto Parts & Sales, Inc. (BionicAutoParts.com) in Chicago. "Although we had different types of businesses, like us, he was helping to move our industry forward. He kept things simple and productive. If someone was trying something new, he was in his truck driving to look."
Devotion to the industry is a big reason Frank has been successful.
"It's hard to beat someone when they have a passion for what they do," he said. "I don't ever feel like I'm working any hours; I love what I do. And I've always been in the right place at the right time."
Frank has noticed several changes in the auto-recycling industry since he began his career 40 years ago, however.
"It's very competitive," he said. "The way technology has come in and changed things, I don't know how the brand new guy can come in and be successful."
Although Frank has his hands full managing two businesses in Indianapolis and Phoenix, he still hopes to come across an opportunity to own one in his old neighborhood; the Chicago area.
"I am definitely looking to go back there," he remarked. "I miss it; it is home. And Chicago has good demographics. A self-service facility has to be in a heavy populated area."
Whatever business endeavors Frank embarks on next, he knows he has the full support of his family behind him.
"We're a family that works and races together," said Frank. "Mom and dad may be the owners, but it's all about the entire family."