East West Auto Parts Has Been Green For 25 Years
Ken and Gale Freeman (center) operate their classic facility with the help of employees Scott Bias and Brandon Carpenter.
Being green isn’t a fad for Ken Freeman, owner of East West Auto Parts, Inc. in Tulsa, Okla. It’s a lifestyle. So when Freeman decided to build an auto recycling facility from the ground up, he knew he wanted it to be efficient, use recycled materials and have a minimal impact on the environment surrounding it.
“I’m big on the environment. I always have been,” he said. “My own home is built like this.”
The buildings, designed by Freeman himself, are as green as it gets. They were built with an envelope construction design, which is like building a house-within-a-house. The buildings utilize natural heating and cooling sources to regulate temperature, similar to a thermos bottle, Freeman explained. The walls are insulated with a 2.5-inch foam. Greenhouses in the front use the sun to passively heat the buildings in the winter and are cooled in the summer by shade trees. Freeman said it only costs $150 a month to heat the 3,500-square-foot office and it basically costs nothing to heat the 10,000-square-foot warehouse, which has been equipped with a waste oil furnace from the beginning. The furnace uses stored oil taken from the facility’s vehicles, he explained.
The building is also wrapped in recycled brick, sourced from a nearby brick factory. That same recycled brick was also used to build the facility’s fences.
“We were green before the buzzword ‘green’ came about,” he said.
Freeman’s green sensibilities spread to outside the buildings as well. He makes it a point not to spray pesticides in his yard. He admitted that it makes it more difficult to get around to the vehicles - especially when the weeds are high - but he’s thinking about all the wildlife, like geese and deer, around the property.
“I just don’t like putting that stuff on the ground,” he said.
East West Auto Parts has won several prestigious awards for its environmental efforts. It was awarded ARA’s “Most Beautiful Yard” award in 1991 and a local Tulsa environmental award in 1992. The business also received the Sierra Club’s “Friends of the Earth” award in 1993. Freeman stated that he didn’t know of any other yard to ever receive this award. The Sierra Club, the national’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization (www.sierraclub.org), noticed his facility from the local press it received.
“We were on two major news channels,” Freeman explained. “We got a lot of attention. We spent a lot of money to build a nice facility.”
Freeman designed his environmentally-efficient buildings based on his own construction experience. Freeman is an Oklahoma native, but spent time as a general contractor building solar houses in the Pacific Northwest before returning to Tulsa and his roots in auto recycling.
Freeman has a long history with the auto industry. His grandfather started a salvage yard in Tulsa, Okla. that is still in operation today, although it is owned by someone else now. Freeman was also a GM mechanic.
“I’ve been a car guy all my life,” he said. “This is what I wanted to do.”
East West Auto Parts (www.eastwestautoparts.com) is a classic specialist that focuses on General Motors and European vehicles from 1934 to newer. But that hasn’t always been the case. When Freeman first started the business he sold late-model parts. He also had a large walk-in clientele. But both of those business aspects changed in 1995. Freeman decided to reorganize the business to focus only on classic vehicles and operate as a retail mail-order company.
Now he and his wife Gale run the business with just two employees. The facility houses 1,500 classic vehicles - all of which Freeman personally bought - on 17 acres. There are about 80,000 parts inventoried in the business’ Hollander system. Freeman said he warehouses engines and transmissions, plus any extra parts that have to be pulled to complete an order, otherwise the vehicles stay whole. The acres are closed to the public. “We consider our yard our warehouse,” he explained.
He said his biggest sellers are plastic parts, sheet metal, trim and brackets, and moldings. East West Auto Parts ships everything from bolts to nuts to entire vehicles. Freeman said he has kept the business focused on GM parts because reproduction parts for a lot of its makes just aren’t as good as the original.
There are some struggles to operating a classic yard. For one, Freeman said it’s harder and harder to find inventory.
“When scrap went up a couple years ago, a lot of those old cars disappeared,” he acknowledged.
And, Freeman has to compete with unlicensed individuals who sell parts out of their garage and don’t have to deal with overhead, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and permits.
“We run an honest business but it costs more to do it that way,” he said. “I also believe in giving people what they pay for.”
There are positives to just selling classic salvage as well. Since Freeman rarely crushes vehicles, the down market value of scrap hasn’t hit his business. And, while the classic restoration industry (which drives his business) also goes up and down, those peaks and valleys usually aren’t severe. It’s has helped keep his business steady.
“The classic car industry is still huge. I don’t think it is going away anytime soon,” Freeman commented. “It is 90 percent nostalgia. That preserves the industry.”