An extended family

Monday, November 29, 2004

In 1909, Barrett Cottner found it difficult to acquire parts locally to maintain his Model T Ford, one of only 12 cars in Cape Girardeau. His solution was to open up his own auto parts store.

Ninety-five years and 30 stores later, Auto Tire and Parts is one of Southeast Missouri's most enduring business institutions.

When it first opened at Broadway and Spanish Street in the Cahoon Building, Cottner's store was the only auto parts outlet between Memphis and St. Louis. But soon after Cottner sold part of the business to Pat Tlapek in 1948, the business began expanding all over Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois and western Kentucky. There are currently 30 stores in the region, but the original Cape Girardeau store -- now at 212 S. Kingshighway -- remains the business model. The company will celebrate its 95th birthday Friday at the Kingshighway location.

"We've served several generations of customers in this area," said president and co-owner Greg Stroup of the Cape Girardeau store. The other owners with Mike Himmelberg and Tlapek's sons John and Bob.

Stroup said the company's success is rooted in the happiness of its employees.

"Long-term, highly satisfied employees lead to long-term, highly satisfied customers," Stroup said. He said that especially in the smaller cities and towns, people like to know who they're dealing with. They trust the company's local employees because they know them personally.

In many cases customers know employees' families too. Just as the company's ownership has largely stuck to its hereditary roots, so has part of its work force. The company has more than a dozen employees who've been with them for more than 30 years.

Store manager Bart Carr has worked for the company for more than 30 years. In 1985, he replaced his father as store manager after his 35 years with the company. Carr's three children have worked here, and his 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, still works there as a delivery driver. He said the employees at Auto Tire and Parts are an extended family that reaches out to the customers, many of whom have fathers and grandfathers who have done business there for years.

"We just treat everybody like we'd like to be treated," Bart Carr said. "They're not just customers, they're our friends."

Machine shop manager Bud Barks has been working at Auto Tire and Parts since 1970, and he echoed Bart Carr's sentiments. He said that although his company may not be the cheapest, customers know that they're getting the most for their dollar.

Excelling and expanding

When Auto Tire and Parts first opened, it stocked wagon parts and well as auto parts and tires. In 1920, the store made its first move to Middle Street, leaving behind the wagon parts and the tire business as well -- by that time Cottner believed the business' reputation was established enough to warrant keeping the name.

But when Cottner brought Pat Tlapek on board in 1948, the company set its eyes on expansion. By the end of the 1950s, there were Auto Parts and Tires stores in Sikeston, Charleston and Perryville, with Chaffee and Advance soon to follow. Each store was staffed with hometown people.

"In a world filled with big national chains, it's nice to know you can count on a hometown store," Stroup said.

Despite the expansion, Auto Tire and Parts has no desire to go national. Stroup said the focus is to improve its services to local customers.

"We don't want to be the biggest, we just want to be the best," he said.

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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