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Highway 54 Salvage: Success Comes in Small Packages, Too

Highway 54 Salvage in Trenton, Tennessee is small by some standards, but big in all the ways that count.
For nearly 60 years, this ARA Gold Seal recycler – the only one in Tennessee – has been a force in the mid-Southern recycled parts market.

The company’s six decades of success is remarkable, considering its hometown of Trenton has a population of fewer than 5,000 people. On a more trivial note, the town’s somewhat funky claim to fame is the world’s largest collection of teapots -– more than 500 of them, from the 19th century, valued at several million dollars.

In the mid-1950’s, about the same period when Trenton native son Frederick C. Freed, MD, was contemplating donating his teapot collection to the city, Bill Kirk and his father James were picking up old cars in the Trenton area and chopping them up for scrap. What started as a scrap business quickly morphed into a used parts business, with Bill and James selling directly to their friends and neighbors.

By 1958, Highway 54 Salvage was branching out to a wider market and the focus was shifting from scrap to recycled parts. From that modest beginning, “The business blossomed to 25 acres and shifted to the wholesale side,” according to Highway 54 Salvage President Tony Kirk, and Bill’s son.

Location, Location, Location

In any genre of real estate, success starts with location. Highway 54 Salvage sits in western Tennessee’s sweet spot, a one-and-a-half-hour drive south to Memphis and a two-and-a-half hour drive east to Nashville. With nearby access to major north-south and east-west routes, Kirk has been able to build on his father’s success by building a solid customer base across four states and beyond. The company’s four delivery trucks, three of them equipped to transport transmissions and engines, are busy five days a week delivering to the dozens of body shops and repair shops that now form the core of Highway 54’s customer base.

From back in the day, when Bill and James would chop up vehicles of any year, any model, Highway 54 Salvage has evolved into specializing in late-model Ford, GM, Chrysler, Jeep and Asian vehicles. Annual dismantling volume runs between 400 and 500 vehicles. The team is relatively small, with 11 total employees, comprised of three salespeople, two dismantlers, three parts order specialists and three part-time delivery drivers. Kirk is responsible for buying salvage and overall operations, and his daughter Jennifer Browning handles the books.

Stay Ahead of the Pack

Bill Kirk was owner and president of Highway 54 Salvage for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1991 and then passing control of the business to Tony and his sister. “After my father retired in ’91, one of the major changes we made was the conversion to computerized inventory with Checkmate in the 90’s,” Tony recalls. For a business that had been operating with an index cards and paper inventory system – like all auto recyclers once had – adopting technology was a difficult but essential move.

Although there are only 18 ARA members in Tennessee, there are literally thousands of used parts dealers in the state, including several big yards within a few miles of Kirk’s business. He always is thinking of strategies to position Highway 54 Salvage ahead of its competitors. Kirk believes that computerization and the efficiencies it brings to operations have helped Highway 54 Salvage stay competitive in a tough, constantly evolving recycled parts market.

For basically the same reason, he put Highway 54 Salvage through the rigorous ARA Gold Seal accreditation process in 2012. The yard has been an ARA member for decades, so Kirk was familiar with the Gold Seal program when he made the decision to go for certification. “Gold Seal is another way to set us apart,” he says. “I elected to do it to stand out and make an impression on customers.”

Go the Extra Mile

Highway 54 Salvage’s Gold Seal certification reflects Kirk’s obsession with quality. His father ingrained in him the fact that quality and the customer experience go hand in hand. “My dad always said to treat the customer the way you would want to be treated,” Kirk explains. “I have always done that and try to do whatever we can to make sure the customer is happy.”

In an era when numerous recyclers have transitioned to buying online almost exclusively, Kirk is willing to go the extra mile, literally, to satisfy his customers. He travels to two or three live sales a week in pursuit of quality salvage and buys very little online. “I want to see the cars. Pictures can lie,” Kirk explains.

He is always in the hunt for clean, late model salvage at a good price. “Customers in the past were more loyal,” Kirk notes. “Today, people are looking for the low-dollar item. I’m working on giving them quality parts and low dollar.”

Knowing that he’s buying quality salvage gives him the confidence to offer a six-month warranty on all parts. Highway 54 Salvage was the first recycler in western Tennessee with such a generous warranty. Even though others have since followed his lead, Kirk believes that being the first sets his yard apart from the competition.

Kirk also is big on having the right parts available for customers. “I have learned over the years that this business is all about volume,” he says. To be able to fulfill customer orders quickly and with parts that meet Kirk’s stringent quality requirements, Highway 54 has an extensive inventory in two 140,000-sq.-ft. warehouses.

Looking to expand the yard’s sales and access to parts, Kirk participated for a time in two of the recycling industry’s larger buying/marketing groups. He eventually withdrew from both, citing the cost as too high for a smaller yard like his. He says he would like to start a buying group specifically for smaller yards, but for now he is content with being part of Eden Parts trader and “Through those we have been able to sell all over the country,” Kirk says. In fact, the farthest location he has shipped to is Alaska, 4,000 miles away from Trenton.

Be an Environmental Superstar

Highway 54 Salvage’s environmental record is a point of pride for Kirk. Being environmentally responsible is a long-standing company value, and the yard has earned an A+ rating from the EPA for decades. Kirk works with a Texas-based environmentalist to ensure that his yard is in full compliance with all EPA regulations and meets all EPA standards.

“He comes in and does the inspection and makes suggestions if he sees something we could do better,” Kirk says. “He knows our business and knows the regulations. If we were to have a problem at any time, he can get on a plane and be here.” He believes that the benefits of hiring an environmentalist to ensure the yard stays on the right side of the EPA are worth the investment. For Kirk, maintaining the company’s good name and reputation is as important as avoiding the penalties that come with noncompliance.

As the yard approaches its 60th anniversary in 2018, Kirk is thinking about its history and its future … Computers, huge warehouses, EPA inspections. In some ways, Highway 54 Salvage has come a long way from the days when Bill and James were chopping up vehicles for scrap. But some things never change. As Kirk contemplates the next decades, he plans to stay true to the father’s proven secret to success:

“Keep your customers happy.”

Lynn Novelli is a freelance writer based in Ohio and a longtime contributor.