Veneklasen's Had Great Ride

October 14, 2004
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HOLLAND — He never doubted his career path.

Howard Veneklasen always knew he would work in the family business. The summer before he graduated from college cinched it.

Veneklasen spent the summer months conducting an inventory of all the vehicles on the lot at the family's automotive recycling business, Veneklasen     Auto Parts Inc. in Holland

"I guess that was indicative of what I would be doing after I graduated," said Veneklasen, who joined the family business after graduating from HopeCollege in 1970 with a degree in business.

Two years later, he bought the business that his father, Howard M. Veneklasen, founded in 1946 "in my grandmother's backyard" in Zeeland, a site known locally at the time as "brickyard hill." Buying the business had long been a "foregone conclusion" that was driven by the challenge of coordinating the systematic dismantling of thousands of vehicles annually and salvaging and selling their parts.

"I always thought I would do that; always. And it's been a great ride," Veneklasen said.

"It offered a tremendous organizational challenge, which is what I'm really into. It's one of my fortes," he said. "The business lent itself pretty well to that. It was kind of a slam-dunk decision."

In the 32 years since, Veneklasen has taken automotive recycling to new heights, developing his own computer systems to manage the business and the logistics to keep control over a large rolling inventory of used vehicles and parts, as well as the automotive recycling and fluid-recovery equipment needed to dismantle a vehicle and recover its parts and materials. He's also opened an adjoining self-service retail business, U-Wrench It Auto Parts Inc., which sells low-cost auto parts that customers salvage themselves, and has since expanded to new markets in Michigan and other states.

His success in business earned Veneklasen the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Small Business Person of the Year Award for 2004, an honor Veneklasen said he was "overwhelmed" to receive.

Today, Veneklasen Auto Parts dismantles and recycles some 9,000 vehicles annually — which he terms EOL vehicles, or end of life — and re-sells some 50,000 salvageable parts and materials wholesale and retail to customers in western Michigan and across the United States

In the recycling process, the company recovers more than 9,000 gallons of antifreeze a year, 45,000 quarts of used oil and 50,000 gallons of gasoline.

The gasoline, he said, is given away free to employees.

"Some of our folks never go to a gas station," he joked.

The two businesses sit alongside the well-traveled

Chicago Drive
corridor, east of Holland, on a 12-acre site that stretches northward to
Lakewood Boulevard
, easily drawing the attention of passing motorists.

At any given time, Veneklasen Auto Parts has a rolling inventory of about 650 vehicles that turns over every 18 months. The self-service U Wrench It Auto Parts has a rolling inventory of several hundred more vehicles, averaging 13 to 14 model years old, which remain on the lot for 45 to 50 days.

"People always say to me, 'that pile of cars, does it ever go away?' In a sense, it doesn't," Veneklasen said.

In 2004, U-Wrench It Auto Parts will serve more than 150,000 retail customers alone in West Michigan through its Holland and Kalamazoo locations that sell "very low cost" used auto parts salvaged from vehicles that may otherwise end up as an eyesore in somebody's backyard.

"We think of ourselves as an auto-parts supermarket," the 56-year-old Veneklasen said. "We are proud of our accomplishments and our role in West Michigan as not only a supplier of low-cost replacement auto parts but also contributing by keeping the streets and backyards clear of unsightly and unwanted vehicles."

Sales have nearly doubled since 1998 from strong local demand for used auto parts and the opening of a U Wrench It store in Kalamazoo. U Wrench It, founded in 1987, has six stores in four states, with out-of-state locations in St. Louis; Kansas City; Columbus, Ohio; and Virginia Beach, Va., that Veneklasen owns with partners.

Veneklasen said he stays on the lookout for new business opportunities.

"I'm always open for whatever opportunity presents itself," he said. "Everything's open for negotiation."

The company acquires vehicles from a variety of sources: Individuals getting rid of a rundown car, charities that receive a vehicle that was donated, and vehicles damaged in collisions.

Quite often those vehicles yield some surprises or items left behind.

The company annually cleans and donates to charity the piles of clothing that are left behind in vehicles and workers often find money that has fallen down into the seats. Veneklasen recalls one vehicle that came in one day that was still filled with empty pop cans, which the company returned a store to collect the deposit.

At 10 cents a can, the stash of cans "exceeded what we paid for the car," he said.     

Name: Howard Veneklasen

Company: Veneklasen Auto Parts

Title: Owner

Age: 56

Hometown:Holland

Residence:ParkTownship

Business/community organizations: A member of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce for more than 30 years. He also has served as president of the Automotive Recyclers of Michigan and an international trade association, the Automotive Recyclers Association. Veneklasen supports a number of local charities and provides vehicles to local fire departments to use in extraction exercises and for anti-drunk driving exhibits at high schools.

Biggest career break:"Having the business available to me in the family. I didn't have to go look for the business. The business was there. I just had to sign up."

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