Career of a Lifetime
Ron Sturgeon, ARA’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement recipient, and recent subject of an episode of CNBC’s Blue Collar Millionaire,
shares his secrets to success and his wild ride as an icon in the industry.
Interview by Caryn Smith
Ron Sturgeon has a lot to say. In fact, he has recorded his thoughts into nine books and countless magazine columns, including one in our own Automotive Recycling magazine. He is known for his honest Texas candor and common-sense business advice – and his extensive car collection. We caught up with the 2016 ARA Lifetime Achievement recipient to talk about his success, passions and purpose.
Automotive Recycling: What brought you into the industry? Tell us about your early experience.
Ron Sturgeon: When I was in high school, my father died in 1971 and my twin brother and I became homeless. I inherited a small sum of money and half interest in a VW Bug from my father and taught myself to repair the car out of necessity. While I was still in high school, I began repairing cars for friends and gradually started buying, fixing and selling cars. When I discovered that I was making more selling parts from my boneyard than turning a wrench, I entered the auto salvage industry with one yard. By specializing in parts for imported luxury cars, I grew from one location with a single employee to six locations with more than 150 employees, over the course of 20 years. When Ford was seeking cradle to grave control of the automotive sector in the late 1990s, they purchased my yards. Later, when Ford was ready to sell GreenLeaf, their auto salvage division, four partners and I re-purchased it. We then turned it around and sold it a few years later.
AR: How many facilities did you own?
Ron: At the time I sold to Ford, I had six.
AR: What was your biggest asset or strength that made you successful?
Ron: I came from difficult circumstances and was especially motivated to be successful. I have a strong work ethic and am good at knowing where to focus my efforts to get maximum results. My mantra of continuous improvement, reading a book per month on topics from marketing and finance to leadership made me much smarter. I also credit much of my success to being active in recycling industry associations and being part of one of the very first peer benchmarking groups in the recycling industry.
AR: What was the biggest hindrance or weakness that you see today but didn’t see at the time that hampered you?
Ron: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For example, when I was growing my first recycling business, I had a bookkeeper. As the business grew beyond one or two million in sales, I was slow to make the transition to a true comptroller and that cost me. Also, then, as now, people were afraid to share and work together, so were weaker as a result.
AR: How many years (if any) were you involved in the corporate world of auto recycling?
Ron: I was in corporate recycling from 1999 to 2001 with Ford, and then from 2003 to 2006 when I was part of a partnership that purchased GreenLeaf. At the time that my partners and I purchased GreenLeaf, it had more than 30 locations in 17 states and more than 1,000 employees. My focus during those years was operations, licensing, legal and environmental issues, but I was very active in sales and best practices across sites.
AR: What was the difference, if any, in the two styles of business – pluses and minuses – of independent operations and corporate operations?
Ron: I have always believed in the Pareto Principle, that 20% of the effort produces 80% of the results. I think my years spent growing a recycling business and running it made me have a bias toward starting and adjusting course. Sometimes corporate operations move slower than they should. Many of the executives that I worked with in corporate operations were amazed at how quickly I could get an initiative underway and how fast I could get results.
Independent operators have fewer resources and have to move faster and smarter. Corporations have lots of resources, including money of course.
AR: Did you actively build your business to sell it to a corporate entity or was that an open door of opportunity you discovered?
Ron: No, it was an opportunity that came along because the business that I had built was among the best- run at the time Ford was seeking yards to buy.
AR: What is your key to success in general?
Ron: Work hard. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are and who can do those things that you won’t do, can’t do, or shouldn’t do, delegate, and be an honest, transparent effective leader. Also, it sounds silly, but you need people to like you. You can’t do it by yourself.
AR: What is the biggest change in the industry since you left actively recycling?
Ron: The internet has changed the way inventory is purchased and way that shops and consumers buy parts. The yards that don’t do a good job with e-commerce won’t be around for long. Capital requirements have increased, barriers to entry have increased, and those that aren’t willing to improve, change and learn at breakneck speed are going to be left behind.
AR: What was your biggest business challenge of all-time in Auto Recycling?
Ron: I am not sure about all time, but one challenge the industry faced during my time as an independent operator was ADP’s attempt to create a monopoly in yard management software by buying Auto Info in the early 1990s. I helped to interrupt that, testifying at the FTC hearings which helped to unwind the transaction. We brought more than 300 recyclers together to create URG (United Recyclers Group) and spearheaded efforts to create new yard management software so that recyclers had a choice. We were successful in getting the FTC to intervene to force ADP to divest itself of Auto Info.
Also, I was one of the first to learn how to value inventory and then borrow money, which allowed me to grow much faster.
People think the biggest challenge is finding good people, and though it’s difficult, I tell them to look in the mirror if they are having trouble finding enough of the right people.
AR: What drew you to consult for the industry that you worked in when you could easily retire and do other things?
Ron: I love seeing people do better, and there’s a lot of room for that. Unfortunately, most don’t have the energy to change fast enough. Hopefully as one generation passes to a younger generation, that will improve, but it’s a painful and long cycle. I love my work. I’ve written nine books, and have a few more left in me, including a new book on the roadmap to become wealthy. My mantra has always been to go slow and build wealth, not income. (You can hear more from Ron about this at the 74th Annual ARA Convention.)
AR: What does membership in the ARA mean to you and why should others be members too?
Ron: ARA membership offers automotive recyclers an excellent opportunity to make friends and network with other recyclers. When you are growing a recycling business, nothing is more valuable than being able to pick up the phone and talk to others about the business issues you are facing. Those friendships and relationships come from being active in ARA. Make time to go to the ARA convention. There is no better way to learn, especially at the conventions, in the classrooms, but also in the mixers and social events.
AR: What is the best advice you can offer a recycler today in these turbulent times?
Ron: One of the best decisions I ever made was to become active in the association and to join a peer-benchmarking group with a dozen or so operators from across the country. I wish our association could offer peer- benchmarking like NADA does for the new car dealers. They have excelled as a result, and it has made their association a driving force in that industry. Many of my best business ideas came directly from our group’s twice-yearly meetings. Find and join a peer-benchmarking group for recyclers.
I am personally not facilitating them right now, but there are many good ones out there. Other than being a member, my advice hasn’t changed for 30 years. Read a book per month, and in two to four years you will be on the leading edge, if you work hard enough. The one thing that has changed today is I believe you must also have good computer skills. If you don’t want to learn these, get out of the way and let someone else go for it.
AR: What is your prediction of where the automotive recycling industry will be in ten years?
Ron: The corporate and large independent operators will get larger. There is no reason the average recycler can’t be a part of that success, but they are going to have to be willing to accept constant, fast change.
AR: How many cool cars do you own (I’ve seen photos of your garage). What is your favorite of the cars?
Ron:I had 56 at one point, today I have 12. Cars are my vice; I don’t drink or smoke, so I reckon its ok.
I suppose the Lamborghini Huracán is among my current favorites. I also have a Ferrari Italia, a new NSX, a Rolls Royce Wraith, a new Mercedes G550 4×4-2, a Revero (Fisker reincarnated, electric) and a smattering of old cars. I still own a 1971 Mercedes 280SL I bought that was damaged. I’ve owned that and a 1959 Mercedes 190sl for 30 years. One of my favorites is still my 1959 VW Bug Convertible. My girlfriend Linda Allen drives a Ferrari California convertible.
AR: How many dogs do you have? What is their breed?
Ron: I am a dog lover. I have three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels; Dixie, Willie, and Lance. They are the Spoiled Cavaliers on Facebook and have nearly 27,000 likes. They’ve been on HGTV, Good Morning America, CNN, and featured in over a dozen dog magazines.
AR: What has been your favorite trip you have been on?
Ron: I have traveled all over the world with Linda; we’ve made 173 trips in a little over nine years, so about 20 trips annually. My favorite places are Amsterdam, Prague, Budapest and Istanbul.
AR: How did you get on the TV show recently (who discovered you? How did that come about?).
Ron: I get a lot of pitches from media including TV shows, and have actually filmed a show for NBC that didn’t air. It would have been fun. It was a reality show that we did what they call “sizzle reels” – one to two days to produce five minutes of film – that the networks ordered but then chose not to produce ultimately.
Recently I filmed a segment for CNBC Blue Collar Millionaires, which aired in January of 2017. They usually find me for my dogs or my success.
AR: You have a real estate business and other interests. Which one are you spending time on lately?
Ron: I have been an investor in commercial property in and around Fort Worth, TX for many years. I am currently expanding and developing a commercial property that uses 150+ shipping containers. I am still a little crazy I guess. I have eight great employees, and have a little over 1,000,000 square footage of commercial space with about 250 tenants, a self-storage with over 700 tenants, nine salvage yards for which I am a landlord, and a chain of nine suite rental salon & spas with over 250 stylist tenants.
AR: All in all we’d say Ron keeps pretty busy and still finds time to help others. He will present a session at the ARA 74th Annual Convention & Exposition based on information from his upcoming book, From Homeless to a Hundred Million Dollars – An Entrepreneur’s Experiential Road Map to Building Wealth.
Caryn Smith is the editor of Automotive Recycling magazine.