The automotive aftermarket is huge. Lyle Burgess, founder and president of Rare Parts, Inc., a distributor in Stockton, Calif., understands that first-hand. While major auto part chains continue to grow and independent shops strive to compete with them, Burgess has found a way to fulfill a need and create a niche all his own.
As the owner of a wheel alignment service, Burgess needed the right parts in order to complete a job. But he often had problems getting the steering and suspension parts he needed from the major distributors. At an industry advisory meeting, he expressed the need to stock older parts and others in the industry agreed. The following week, he started Rare Parts, Inc.
In the beginning, Rare Parts bought up a lot of other distributors’ chassis parts and built up their inventory as quickly as possible. Burgess found that people were receptive right from the start — there were literally thousands of other people facing the same problem. And not just people in his backyard. Customers came from all over. It was then Burgess began thinking about adding to the line.
“Twenty years ago, there were a couple thousand warehouses and they would stop carrying a part when demand got down to about 2,000 pieces per year,” says Burgess. “The warehouses would drop them, but there was still a need for replacements for those parts.”
Currently, Rare Parts stocks about 2 million pieces. “It’s not because we need it, but because we may need to build a five-year supply,” he explains. “You have to buy the parts when they’re available and stock up in anticipation of future business. It’s the nature of what we do.”
They currently buy parts from virtually every supplier. When the company first started, Burgess thought they would simply buy and redistribute old stock. But demand exceeded stock, and they started having parts manufactured specifically for their company. The manufacturing process was brought in-house in 1986 with the addition of a machine shop, and Rare Parts has continually added to the facility, bringing in more processes and new equipment.
“When we had things done outside, it would take too long — especially for small quantities — and we couldn’t retain the quality. That’s one of the reasons we moved things in-house. It’s not really economical, but it solidifies our service with the customer. We’ll do the things no one else is crazy enough to do. We can get most parts out in a day or two; very seldom does it take longer than a week.”
Rare Parts also has a complete testing facility — the same as any major automotive company — and Burgess says the quality of parts they manufacture surpasses OEM standards.
“When we manufacture, we always improve over what was made in the past. Old parts were built on less sophisticated machinery. Now, everything is done on computerized machines. The technology today is so much better. And the mere fact that we’re running smaller quantities, we are able to hold tolerance and have better quality control,” says Burgess. “The part line we can produce for a vehicle now is much more complete than when the car was in its prime.”
The parts made at Rare Parts are regularly evaluated against competitors’ parts. “It’s a personal thing. There are weaknesses in products out there. We have the advantage of seeing how these parts held up 20 or 30 years ago. We can see what the major manufacturers did and either copy them or take advantage of the experience they’ve gone through. We’re not reinventing the wheel. Also, from my experience in the alignment shop, I was able to see weak points in some parts. And now we can improve upon that.”
Rare Parts builds more than half of the parts they sell, including both custom parts and older parts. By not putting a limit on what they can handle, Rare Parts has developed a loyal customer base around the world. They have every chassis part from the 1930s to present, and will go back as far as a customer wants. One of the older projects was for 1914 Packard king pins.
“We’re the last source. I don’t feel like we can say no to anybody,” says Burgess.
Although they don’t work directly with customers on pet projects, Rare Parts does work with restoration shops. They have supplied parts for Jay Leno’s cars, have recreated some of Richard Petty’s racecar parts and have created early Cadillac, Lincoln and Packard parts that were never even offered.
But Rare Parts doesn’t stop at older cars. They consistently take on special projects for large and small companies outside the traditional automotive industry. Recently, a small company that loads bombs on airplanes for the military contacted Rare Parts to build steering linkage for a mechanism that takes the bombs from storage to the airplanes for transportation.
Rare Parts is in a unique position in the aftermarket — they have no direct competition. Although there are large parts stores everywhere, none carry the breadth of inventory or have the level of specialization that exists at Rare Parts. By specializing in suspension and steering parts, the company has been able to buy up the slow moving or obsolete parts at the warehouse distributor and jobber level and help repair shops service their customers quickly, regardless of the type of vehicle.
“If three people did the same thing we’re doing, we’d probably all go broke,” adds Burgess. “The customer base would stay the same size; we’d all just be dividing up the business.”
As for his future plans? Burgess says he would like to develop a network of referrals for other older car parts, such as carburetors, in order to furnish customers with referrals and help them complete their car.
“The same problem exists now as when I started. If I needed five parts and two were obsolete, I’d lose the sale. If someone can find some, but not all parts they need, they can’t restore the car and we all lose the sale. For any one person to do it all is too much. Inventory demand is too high on older cars.”
Many are familiar with the expression, “You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Well, Rare Parts has taken it to heart and built a business on it. By focusing on what they know and do well, they have been able to consistently fulfill a need for thousands of customers all over the world.