People of the Industry
Barb Utter is an industry leader with a heart as big as the Great Lakes and who is all about family, friends, and faith. Chad Counselman and Kevin Fullerton also share how they live by the same priorities. By Caryn Smith
When you talk to Barb Utter, the Executive Director of the Automotive Recyclers of Michigan (ARM), you immediately feel like you’ve known her forever. Her warmth is genuine. She makes you feel important and values your opinion, especially when it comes to the industry she loves.
“She is the benchmark or standard to which we should all aspire when we engage with each other, whether it be in a business or a social venue,” says Cheryll Lambright, Executive Director of Texas Automotive Recyclers Association, Barb’s valued friend and colleague. “She never hesitates to light up your moment with a smile and lend an ear or a hug. Barb is forever teaching us, guiding us and inspiring us to be the best of the best in the automotive industry. I am one of hundreds that have been graced by her charm, knowledge, encouragement, loyalty and genuine friendship.”
Barb’s passion for the industry is primarily driven by one thing: the people. “When this industry is in your blood, it’s because of the people. Go through our history; there is a strong family heritage unlike any other industry. Nothing has really changed through the years. We have the same issues, the same people with same last names, just different generations,” she notes.
Putting people first, she says, “I value the friendships I’ve made. Many started as work-related, and spill over into being personal relationships. My family lives by ‘Family, Friends, Faith’ as the standard. That is what is important to me. ”
In fact, it was this philosophy that caused Barb to miss an important moment in her career at the 74th Annual ARA Convention & Expo last year. For 22 years she has been at the helm of ARM, and was recognized by then-President R.D. Hopper as his pick for the 2017 President’s Award. “Barb Utter brings credibility to automotive recycling,” says Hopper. “She is the type of person who makes others want to be their best. Through all of the ups, downs, and challenges of this industry, it is good to know that there are people like her out there to keep things going. Barb is family to those of us who have been around for a while and she is a valuable presence to help guide the next generation. She does an excellent job in keeping an eye on her state association membership, encouraging them to stay involved.”
Now, Barb has never been known to miss anything, but she and Cheryll had bowed out of the 2017 ARA Awards Dinner a little early to catch up before Barb caught a plane home in the morning. Valuing their relationship, it was important that she spend that time with her friend and colleague. Barb missed her President’s award moment doing exactly what she was being awarded for – extending care and compassion for the industry and its people.
“The award was such an honor. I wasn’t there because I had to say goodbye to Cheryll. These industry friendships I have are personal and professional,” Barb says. “They have made me who I am.”
Always working to understand and bridge the generational gap, she believes that a good group consists of people of all ages and backgrounds. “As an executive director, I can work with the next generation. My college-age grandchildren help me see the world in a different way through their eyes, and I appreciate that perspective. I understand where they are coming from. Yet, they need to also understand our generation, too, we are not all wrong. We have to work together, we cannot forget from whence we came.”
Representing ARM, Barb is a member of the ARA Affiliate Chapter Committee. “Our committee has worked hard. We rely on one another. We pick up the phone and share resources. Our affiliate chapters are the pulse of industry and great ideas come from them,” says Barb.
“Barb Utter is always someone I have looked up to in the auto recycling industry,” says Steve Fletcher, Executive Director of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC). “She is wise, kind, humble, and deeply knowledgeable about the industry and its members. I always look to the great work she does with the association in Michigan to see how I can get a better handle on a problem or opportunity in Canada. While I was co-chairing the Affiliate Chapters Committee, I think she participated in every call and meeting we ever had – and not idle participation but actively providing guidance, insight and asking those fundamental questions of how we can make this a better industry for everyone.”
“When we go to industry meetings, I pick up things in the sessions, find trainers for my Chapter, network with all our vendors to see what can we do for our members. In the last two ARA conventions, I’ve especially loved the ARA Recyclers Roundtable. The format allows people to loosen up and have the opportunity to speak up,” says Barb.
Always taking ideas back to utilize, she says, “We did a roundtable at our annual Road Show. It was for the employees and was facilitated by employees. They had great ideas about quality control, sales, and production. We always think it has to be owners and managers. We forget about the every day production people.”
In her leadership role, she knows the times are changing and works to help her members manage it. “My members are worried about acquiring product; they can’t get enough vehicles. It is a difficult time with diminishing relationships and loyalty from customers – social media and the internet has taken that away. The automated car is coming; our industry changes so fast. It seems they are working twice as hard to retain market share. And hiring people, period, is an issue, let alone to find qualified help who want to work. Most facilities are working with skeleton crews and owners are working on the line or counter. It is a busy life.”
“Yet, you just have to embrace change. ‘I have always done it this way,’ won’t work. Be resilient. Listen to one another. Integrate the historical with the current generation. Provide quality service, parts and price. Take care of employees and take care of customers. Provide good quality parts. Be honest with one another. Times are changing, but with that comes great opportunities. We need to tell our story better. ”
Set in Motion
Barb never set out to be in the automotive recycling industry. It found her through unforeseen circumstances; she might say through heartache.
The story goes, she married Kent Utter after meeting him at Michigan State University, and settled in as a stay-at-home mom, raising four sons. Kent ran his auto recycling business, Baker Auto Parts, that he bought from his father right after college, and did that for 30 years. With a degree in education, Barb worked as a teacher for a year before her first son was born, and then was content to be a mom. “I did things in the community, and was busy, but I never worked in the business until my sons were in college.”
At that time, Kent needed help at the business managing all the pressures, and Barb did what she could to help out. They encouraged their sons to do what they loved, and ultimately after college none wanted to go into the family auto recycling business, so they sold it. “Kent was very active in the ARM as a recycler. The executive director was retiring, so he was asked to take that role. I joined him there, monitoring the voice circuit that was popular in the industry at the time.”
Then Suddenly …
At an ARM event in 1995, Kent, then 57, had a medical emergency, “We thought he had the flu,” says Barb, “but he needed a heart micro-value replaced and the procedure didn’t work. At that time they didn’t know what they know now. It was quite a month. Kent died on Oct. 1, his burial was Oct. 4, my son had his first child on Oct. 6 and my oldest son got married on Oct. 14.”
Not sure she could endure, her mother and others continually reassured she could. Her priest said, “Don’t waste your energy on the whys, you will never know the answer.” Advice she encourages others to follow.
“The love of people got me through,” says Barb. “When Kent was in surgery, there were 30-40 auto recyclers in the waiting room to support me. When my son got married, he walked me up the isle, but I wasn’t sure I could get back down by myself after the service. At the rehearsal, my new daughter-in-law’s father put an arm out for his wife, and then one out for me and we all walked out together. It was a beautiful gesture.”
“You learn to keep going. One of the ARM members, when I was still at home, called and said when he lost his wife that he learned the best thing you can do is to get back to people that love you. Stay busy,” says Barb. Soon after, the association offered Barb the executive director job, which she turned down. Instead she returned to her role as voice circuit monitor. “A year later, the new person they hired didn’t work out, so I took the job.”
R.D. Hopper commented in the award presentation, “To quote Skip Weller [owner of Weller Auto Parts in Michigan and an ARA Past President], ‘Barb’s husband was the backbone of the ARM. When he passed away, we all thought that would be the end of our state association. Barb did not let that happen. She picked up the torch and made our state association bigger and closer than ever. Barb is a classy, hardworking, caring, Christian lady and she loves this industry.’ I couldn’t say it any better and that is the reason I chose Barb to be the President’s Award recipient for my term.”
“I know I don’t have the answers for everything, but I surround myself with great people and I can find the answers for them,” says Barb. “Right now, some resist change. But, it’s almost as if we have come full circle. History has a way a way of repeating itself.”
“In a way I miss the voice circuit days. It was recycler-to-recycler communication. They could talk on a daily basis; ask how is your business doing? Am I on the right path? What are you doing to sell parts? The interesting thing is the successful ones were always willing to share their ideas, and they still do that to this day.”
Her secret to success is, “You put people first. I start each day with a prayer, and a commitment to make someone else happy along the way.”
In the end, her advice is simple. “Be resilient and adjust. There isn’t anything you can’t do if you try. Continue to surround yourself with positive people. Positivity is contagious.”
Fulfilling your purpose sometimes requires balancing life and work. In the life of Chad Counselman, who knew that this would also be good for business?
Chad, the owner of Counselman Automotive Recycling, LLC in Mobile Alabama, is a successful automotive recycler, a member of the ARA Executive Committee serving this year as Second Vice President/Treasurer, and he is an active member of Redemption Church.
Always one to take risks and challenge status quo, he pushes his leadership team and staff – that consists of 65 employees processing 2,600 cars a year – to challenge his big ideas. “I am the type person that always has the wild ideas. John McWilliams, my righthand man, tends to be more of a pessimist, where I am complete optimist. I know he will shoot down my balloons, which really gives me more audacious courage to go with bigger balloons. He keeps me from crazy ideas.” John provides the balance as Chad pushes the envelope on his ever-changing business, whether it be processes, staff, or other things. “We go by GEAR. It stands for Grow, Evaluate, Adjust, Repeat.”
About six years ago, Chad was personally challenged with what he considered a crazy idea. He felt the need to help an executive pastor at his church, Scott White, raise money, about $50,000 to help less fortunate members of the community. “We went to lunch and I offered to give him $5,000,” says Chad. “He told me, ‘I don’t want your money, I want you to go with me on a mission trip to Indonesia.’ I thought he was crazy, and replied, ‘There are those that go and those that send.’”
“He was very insistent, so I told him I’d pray about it. He told me to agree to go, and to pray that if I wasn’t supposed to go, God would close the door. When I called my wife Rachael about this crazy idea, she agreed with Scott!,” laughs Chad. Needless to say, Chad went to Indonesia and it changed his life.
“I went to Medon, Indonesia, which takes 36 hours to get there. Once I arrived I was reacquainted with two single ladies who grew up in our church, who literally had sacrificed their lives – marriage, the comforts of home, and more – and had been there for 16 years working in missions. I thought, if they can sacrifice that, then the least I can do is give one week of my life a year to help them.”
This led to four more trips to Indonesia each year after, until two years ago. The Director of Missions job at his church was becoming vacant when that person went into full-time missions. “I felt led to fill that role, and now every Tuesday I work at Redemption Church as a volunteer Director of Missions,” says Chad. “I participate in the church staff meetings and I have brought a business mind to the creative group of the 13 pastors on staff. I help facilitate 21 mission trips a year, with the help of a fulltime assistant, Denise Fillingim who is the administrative manager of missions. I provide leadership, recruit missions trip leaders, and deal with the financial aspects of the trips.”
“I am proud that our participation has increased since I have been doing this. We saw a 51 percent increase, sending 137 people on missions trips to Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Lebanon, Uganda, Tanzania, and domestic trips to Las Vegas, Cleveland and Houston, among others. Participants have the opportunity to be funded one-half by our church and we help them fund-raise for the rest of the money. Most people don’t use personal money, as they are already sacrificing a week of their vacation to do this.”
Of course, you’d think Chad’s recycling business is suffering because of this, but in fact he said he’s seen significant increases instead. “First of all, without John I could not do what I do. He runs the business like he owns it. His leadership allows me to take the time to do this role and also fulfill my ARA Executive Committee obligations. Additionally, we made the change to now convey much of leadership to our managers,” says Chad.
Also, in combination with this, Chad started collaborating with two other businesses in different cities with weekly phone calls, sharing information and ideas that has changed the way he is running his business in many areas. The combined efforts of empowering his team and collaborating with other owners have produced high measurable growth, to where his business was recognized on Inc.’s Top 5,000 Fastest Growing Companies 2011 and 2017, and most likely 2018. “We are the only salvage yards on the list,” says Chad, “and I am proud of that. God is pouring out a blessing on our efforts so I must be on the right path.”
Piecing It Together
Texas wide open spaces and big skies provide the perfect environment to dream up new ideas, work with your hands, drive fast cars, and make something of the land. In the small rural town of Graham, Texas, in north central Texas with a population of 8,850, auto recycler Kevin Fullerton, owner of K & K Motors Inc., has made the best of this Texas lifestyle. His business, which sells salvage auto parts and used cars, was built literally from the ground up and came from his own need for spare car parts. Through the years, he has created other niche businesses that have stemmed from his personal interests and passions.
“I was in the half-day work program in high school which gave me a great excuse to drive instead of riding the bus,” explains Kevin. “I always had an interest in cars and pushing them to the limits, so I broke a lot of parts.” Kevin went through so many parts that instead of buying them piecemeal, he would buy another car just for its spare parts, “because I most likely would tear up something else and need more parts,” he jokes.
Kevin started drag racing in the early 1980s, which also required a lot of more expensive parts. “I started buying other people’s race car collections for parts and sold off what was left. Eventually, we built a pipe frame building to work on ours and the neighbors’ cars, along with selling parts, and just kept hustling up more cars.” And that is how K & K Motors Inc. began in 1980 in Loving, Texas, a crossroads town with a population of 150. “My dad and I first set up a used car lot. A year later, I opened my first official salvage yard, Loving Auto Salvage. We operated separately for a few years until we decided to combine them into one operation.”
Now, Kevin is president of both operations, with the salvage yard as the main business, processing about 1,000 cars a year. K & K has 8,000-9,000 cars on their 77 acres, and is a huge presence in the area that attracts buyers from far and wide. It serves retail clients and other recyclers, primarily. “These days, the business seems to be trending to be more about price and parts than relationships, and I miss those days,” notes Kevin. “The used car lot is still operating, and we sell a limited number of cars; really help those who need a vehicle. I take about anything for a trade in.”
Fast forward to 2013, Kevin was looking for a way to squeeze a few more dollars out of this inventory without a lot of effort, and researched ways to do it. In the end, he created what he could not find. “PartingOut.com is a dual-sided marketplace. People that have parts for sale meet people seeking parts to buy. So my job is to attract people to post there from both the selling and part needs side of the deal.”
PartingOut.com, as Kevin describes, is an online visual marketplace for used auto parts. “For the customer who has a yard management system, as we do at our yard, PartingOut is more of a place to expose your car parts to a new set of buying eyes, mostly retail buyers, but we are attracting more commercial buyers,” he says. “We are filling the niche for all those parts that you may not want to take the time to inventory.” For the seller who does not use a yard management system PartingOut is a great tool to put your cars online without having to list each part.
On the site, the deal is recorded from first question to final invoice. An auto recycler posts a photo of a parts car they know still has valuable parts that are not inventoried. A buyer comes to the site to search for a particular parts car. Once found, they directly message the seller to negotiate a deal on a part they need, inquiring if the part is available, and to specify the timeframe that it is needed. The seller can then accept, counter, or deny the offer. If a deal is made, the buyer is directed to PayPal where seller is paid and deal is completed. PartingOut receives a four percent commission on completed sales and the first ten thousand cars are free to post, a pretty fair deal in Kevin’s eyes. To date, about 40 salvage yards have posted on the site.
“My point of view was that I was crushing too many good parts, but I didn’t want to put a bunch of time in taking parts off a car to inventory that I wasn’t sure would sell,” he says. “But if I had a buyer, and we negotiated a fair deal, it was worth it. Recently someone paid me $700 for a pair of bumpers. Not bad for just posting a photo of a car that had parts. If I can even make just $100 to $200 on a car, it is like crushing it twice.”
Kevin’s next venture began much like the salvage yard, out of a passion project. In 2006, a piece of property nearby caught the eye of Kevin and his wife, Linda. For her birthday, he purchased it. In the rainy winter of 2011, his daughter Kalli, who helps Kevin with his PartingOut business, said she wanted to have her wedding reception on the property.
Kevin started building a barn from recycled materials to host the festivities. The wedding in May 2012 was a short 5 months away. With help, he accomplished the task, but he has not stopped building. “Now, I am working on the second floor space.”
The barn’s outside tin covering was originally a part of an old barn that was being torn down, and the remaining tin and beams are from other decaying buildings – even the roof of the high school gym that was being rebuilt. Rail cars, shipping containers and an old bridge serve as subfloor, ceiling joists, and other elements. “The doors, lighting, bathroom elements and everything else was re-purposed material, giving the entire barn a feeling of history even though it was ‘finished’ in May 2012,” says Kevin. The property is now called Sparrow Creek Ranch
“After Kalli’s wedding, family members asked about renting it for their weddings. I guess we shouldn’t have been so surprised. After a while, we began renting it to the public as a wedding venue. At first, we were purely word of mouth and locally based. Now, we host couples from all over the state and even from across the country! We have one couple coming from New York City to have their country wedding,” says Kevin. “We host about 30 weddings a year. Kalli helps to grow this business, as well.”
Whether it is salvage, used cars, spare parts from salvage vehicles or a bride’s dream location, this entrepreneur is always thinking of ways to deliver on customer experiences and make a profit along the way.
Caryn Smith is the editor of Automotive Recycling magazine and has been covering the industry for over 20 years.