Industry Newcomers Buy 70-Year-Old Yard
Like most young parents, Larae and Dereck Van Der Brink spend most days juggling multiple responsibilities. Between running Lems Auto Recyclers in Doon, Iowa and raising two children who are involved in sports and other activities, the schedule always seems packed.
“There’s always something to do,” Dereck said. “Some weeks, we look at the calendar and say, ‘Well, I’ll see you on Friday.’ But we seem to balance it out.”
The Van Der Brinks purchased Lems Auto Recyclers over three years ago. While Larae and Dereck are relative newcomers to the industry, the business has been a part of the Doon community for over 70 years. Garrett and Jeanette Lems founded the company in 1947 and later passed it down to their children, Clyde Lems and Audrey Plasier. The business occupies 14 acres in the southwest corner of Doon and has around 1,400 vehicles on site.
Dereck and Larae both grew up in Doon, and Dereck worked at Lems when he was in high school. He then worked at his father’s farm and ran his own custom hay grinding business for 10 years, while Larae ran a salon. Dereck kept in touch with the Lems and knew that the next generation of the family didn’t want to take over the business. When the Lems family was ready to sell, Dereck and Larae saw an opportunity. They purchased the company in August of 2016.
Because the Van Der Brinks didn’t have a background in the salvage industry, they spent the first year learning and observing.
“When we purchased the business we told the employees we wouldn’t make any changes for the first year,” Dereck said.
In fact, the Van Der Brinks say the company’s long-time employees have been key in helping them learn the ropes.
“Our employees are the glue that sticks the business together,” Dereck said. “If they’re doing their jobs and doing them well, the business takes off. If everyone knows their job and knows what they’re supposed to be doing, it just makes it easy.”
“Every person has a talent and a gift they bring to the business,” he continued. “If we can highlight that, that ability, that talent, that’s important.”
About half of the company’s 24 employees worked at Lems before the Van Der Brinks took over. Members of the sales staff have over 60 years of experience between them, and two of the dismantlers have been there for over 10 years. Most of the employees also grew up in Doon.
“Retaining them in the purchase was huge in helping us learn,” Dereck said. “Very often we’re the ones asking them questions. It’s been good. We both work in the business ourselves. We work side by side with the employees every day.”
The staff at Lems Auto Recyclers.
The couple’s children, Cole, age 9, and Kiah, age 13, also spend time at the business.
“Our youngest, our son, Cole, he’s very eager,” Dereck said. “He’s down here a lot, and he’s very eager to work on cars and tear things apart.”
As for Kiah? “She’s just eager to drive the cars,” Dereck laughed.
Doon is a town of just 700 people in the northwest corner of Iowa, and “everyone knows everyone,” Dereck says.
“We’ll find out what our kids are doing before they get home,” he said. “It’s just a nice, quiet, peaceful town.”
The Van Der Brinks stick to their small-town ideals. The company’s motto is, “At Lems Auto, our business is based on a heritage of moral values.”
“When we do business with a customer, we want them to trust us,” Larae explained. “Our salespeople are as honest as they can be. They’re not going to sugarcoat it.”
The Van Der Brinks are also active in the local community. They’ve donated vehicles to local fire departments for training, have held a car show as part of a town celebration, and have sponsored high school events and sports programs.
“If you want your community to support you, you have to support the community first,” Larae said. “We couldn’t run our business without the support of the community.”
Dereck says the advantages of a small town far outweigh the disadvantages. One advantage, for example, is the low theft rate.
“When I talk to yard owners in more populated areas, that’s something they really have to fight, where we don’t as much,” he said.
How does the company thrive in such a small town? Three delivery trucks regularly reach bigger towns nearby: Sioux City and Spencer, Iowa and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The Van Der Brinks have also focused on bringing new technology to the business, such as a grading system to classify cars, and have opened an eBay store. The eBay store and other online sales now account for 20 to 25 percent of the business. The company has expanded to provide other services, such as windshield and glass installation, the installation of some parts by appointment, and a towing service.
A positive image is also important, Dereck said.
“One of the big things we pride ourselves on is a clean facility,” he explained. “We want to get away from the junkyard image. The Lems family worked on this before us, too. The customer feels confident that we’ve taken the time to represent the business well.”
What’s next for Lems? Dereck and Larae say they want to continue to expand, to become more efficient, and to keep up with technology.
“It’s over 70 years old and has kept customers happy,” he said, “but it’s not done growing yet. I just want it to keep growing. We really don’t consider ourselves a success yet. We’re still trying to prove ourselves.”
Lems Auto Recyclers, Doon, Iowa.