Trevor Heinze and Jayne Kelly, owners of Chieftain Auto Parts
Writer Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” It would seem Trevor Heinze and Jayne Kelly have taken those words to heart.
To them, the owners of Chieftain Auto Parts in Prince George, British Columbia, the focus on people — those around you who support your day-to-day operations, the customers who range from professionals to do-it-yourselfers and the vendors who help keep the business stocked for those customers — is what has made their business a success.
They could have done it alone, figured they knew all the answers and been cutthroat in their operations. But the brother-and-sister team chose a different route. One that has taken them to the path of joining the illustrious ranks as the 2023 Jobber of the Year.
First and foremost, it was the people around them who helped them learn the ropes of the automotive aftermarket and selling parts.
“You always learn from other people that are doing things very well,” Kelly explained. “They’ve got a lot of tips and information that if you’re open-minded enough to listen to it, it’s kind of on-hand learning all the time.”
“There’s never been any formal training for us. It’s always been learning from others that have either had the training or you’re learning together.”
The pair were more or less born into the aftermarket. Mom, Eileen, was doing the books and accounting for her brother-in-law. Dad, Peter, worked at a couple of dealerships. With no others around, the two saw a need for a parts store in town. In 1973, Chieftain opened its doors.
The kids didn’t have much of an option regarding their future. They knew the parts business was always going to be where they spent their lives.
“I don’t think we had too much choice,” Heinze laughed. Instead of getting up for hockey practice on Saturday morning, it was instead off to the store.
“It wasn’t a decision that we actually made; it was just something that we kind of grew into,” Kelly agreed.
That’s on top of the full working farm the family had going at the same time.
“We all worked after school and on weekends as kids and then came into the business full-time once we graduated,” Kelly recalled. “We’ve done everything from the bottom, entry-level job right up to where we are today.”
All of their education in the industry happened on the store floor.
“There’s never been any formal training for us,” Kelly explained. “It’s always been learning from others that have either had the training or you’re learning together.”
As a member of Modern Sales Co-op, Heinze served eight years on the buying group’s board. More learning opportunities came forward.
“I actually came on to the board of directors right when they were getting into the governance and such,” Heinze said. “So learning about all the processes and procedures and such and actually getting them rolled down and so on was a very big learning stuff for sure.”
Indeed, the pair seem to have learned from the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” By taking in opportunities to draw from others’ experience and expertise, the pair have built the go-to auto parts store in their community.
“It’s made a huge difference in what we’ve been able to accomplish here,” Heinze said, recalling his time on the Modern Sales board. “That was a big turnaround in my attitude toward business and such. With all those peers, I must say, I was probably one of the younger guys on the board of directors at that time. And the amount I learned on the board was just phenomenal. It really changed my attitude toward business.”
Opened in 1973 with just four employees, Chieftain now has two locations — one in Prince George and the other in nearby Hart — with 38 employees.
Kelly and Heinze have been involved for as long as they can remember. Heinze remembers being paid $2 every Saturday.
“I took over the finance part of the company,” Kelly said, following in her mother’s footsteps. “We’ve all done the delivery, driving and the warehouse work. But I followed my mom through the finance part of it. The majority of my learning has been through her. And once I got into the meat of it, it was kind of like, ‘This is my forte.’”
The plan always was to pass the business on to the kids. As business technology advanced, the transition became easier.
Though mom seemed to have an easier time slowing down her involvement in the business, dad had a little more trouble. In the mid-1980s, the store installed its first computer system. Heinze vividly remembers the Modern Sales binder dropped on the desk and himself taking on more responsibilities.
“Dad was old school and I think the computer age helped push him out of the office,” Heinze said.
Their father would try to veer back into the “old school” ways. But there’s no stopping the future. However, dad’s traditional ways actually ended up being a complementary piece to Heinze’s skills for the future. Dad would have a vision for how to run the business and Trevor would be the one to implement it with a forward-looking twist.
The pair took over in 1998. Their parents would still hang around, though. So it wasn’t until a few years after that the brother-sister team was running the business on their own
“It’s like any family business. There’s always some gravel roads that you have to cross it’s not all pavement,” Kelly said. “But they were very supportive.”
And it’s the people that have kept both around in the aftermarket.
“The customers, the suppliers, the employees — we are people persons. We have a lot of fun here. It’s very open,” Heinze said. “We can go talk to right from the delivery drivers to the senior counter guy. We’re very involved as far as with the people, and we have a great time here. It’s all about fun for us.”
Spencer Kelly, Vogl, Autumn Frederick and Chris Lundblom at the Hart location
As mentioned, Kelly and Heinze wouldn’t be where they are without the people who show up day after day in the warehouse, on the counter or doing deliveries. They have employees who have been around for more than 30 years — one for more than 40.
“So it becomes more like a whole family rather than employees and owners,” Kelly said. “And we all work together.”
Most staff are cross-trained. One might be driving the delivery car today and pulling orders tomorrow.
“And they have no problem doing that because they all understand that if any one position doesn’t get their job done, it affects everybody’s positions,” Kelly said. “So to all work together. It just makes it smoother. Even when we’ve got new hires, we work really hard here. But we have a lot of fun doing it.”
They pulled out a newspaper clipping from 2007 and almost 10 of the people in the group photo are still with Chieftain. The piece celebrated the store’s 24 years in business and its people, pride and growth.
Growing people within the business is a top priority for Kelly and Heinze.
“Internally, we always try to hire and have opportunity for all of our employees to move forward,” Kelly explained. “So if we end up with an opening in the warehouse and there’s somebody that’s in the driver’s bench and would like to advance up and try something new, we always try to hire internally first. And that way, it gives a lot of growth for those that are starting.”
They also do what they can to take care of their people. Staff can take advantage of a benefits package and savings plan opportunities. The pair hosts an annual golf day just for employees and their spouses.
“We don’t open that to our suppliers or customers,” Kelly said. “Because we look at it as it’s ‘our’ day and nobody’s talking shop. Everybody’s just having a really good time.”
Kelly’s son Spencer has found himself in the family business. As the third generation, he manages the Hart location.
Riley Coburn and Haylee Weibe
Of course, Chieftain isn’t immune from the challenges facing businesses across the country when it comes to talent. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Kelly noted how hard it’s been to find staff for the stores especially as some of their tenured pros approach retirement age.
“And then your biggest challenge is, because you’ve got such long-term employees, eventually they’re going to be retiring,” Kelly said. “Trying to hire new people and get them trained and up to par so that others can retire, it’s been a challenge for sure.”
They lucked out in one case where an employee moved from the Vancouver area with his wife. They were looking for a change of pace to their lifestyle. He had experience in the industry and also with their computer system, so the transition was simplified. But, Kelly acknowledged, it’s going to take more than that to solve the staffing shortage.
“You just keep trying. Some people you hire, and it works out, and some it doesn’t. But if you don’t try, you’re never going to get anybody to fill those positions,” Kelly said.
Parts proliferation also makes it harder for a new person to get up to speed on all the offerings available.
“It’s very hard to get someone to want to learn all about that, as far as the nuts and the bolts and the parts and the different vehicles — and so much stuff that we offer from hardware to chain and rigging and that type of stuff. How do you get one person to learn all of that?” Heinze observed. “Finding good counter people is a challenge right now.”
Standing out from the crowd
With competition in the area high, there has to be a way for Chieftain to distinguish itself from the crowd.
Kelly read from the aforementioned news article because their attitude then is the same as it is today: “Over the years, the name Chieftain Auto Parts has become synonymous with quality service, knowledgeable staff and an uncanny ability of being able to find and almost always have in stock, just about any part you may need for your vehicle,” it said.
“And that really hasn’t changed in all of our years,” Kelly noted.
The advantage of being independent is that the store can source from any warehouse, be it NAPA, Lordco or Uni-Select. If the customer needs a part and one of them has it, Chieftain will get it. They’re not tied down to just one option, Heinze pointed out.
“We try very, very hard to not say no to our customers. We outsource, we dig. And then of course, some of our parts guys have been with us 30-plus years — that’s knowledge you can’t buy. It’s knowledge that just gets built in. Some of our guys have got their strengths in diesel or someone’s is in four-by-fours or someone’s in marine and all of those strengths that they have complimented each other,” he said.
Chieftain is open seven days a week — not something you see all that often in the automotive aftermarket, especially among independents.
“Majority of the wholesale is Monday to Friday, but up here on Saturday and Sunday, there’s a huge backyard, do-it-yourself base of customers around here in our area that maybe isn’t so much in the larger cities. But up here, there’s a whole bunch that do their own thing,” Kelly said.
But they did cut back on Sunday hours from eight hours to five hours to help ease the demand on their staff, allowing them to be home for breakfast and back in time for dinner.
“We try very, very hard to not say no to our customers. We outsource, we dig.”
The folks at Chieftain take great pride in their extensive community involvement. The list of work feels seemingly endless. There’s the local hospice house they donate to, as well as the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation. The company prepares food hampers for Christmas. They support the local 4-H club, too.
“We’re a big supporter of that. Those are our future farmers. And we don’t have farmers we don’t eat,” Kelly pointed out.
They sponsor a classroom at the College of New Caledonia where they supply computers and software to help students learn. There’s also sponsorship of the Prince George Cougars of the WHL and two racetracks.
Then there are local community events like golf tournaments and fishing derbies, as well as working with the Chamber of Commerce.
“We try to do a lot with a lot of different things rather than just automotive,” Kelly said. “The whole community, it’s a smaller town up here. So it has a mentality of looking after each other.”
“My suppliers are all great friends; I can call any of them and they’d all be happy to hear from me. And I take quite pride in that of mutual respect and respect for the suppliers.”
A question asked of every Jobber of the Year winner is what advice they would give to their peers. Their answer, given their mantra, is probably unsurprising.
“Your people are the most important part. Look after them,” Heinze said.
“Without our staff members, without our family, we can’t do any of it. So it’s really having a lot of respect and looking after each other, not just as employees and owners, but respect for your employees and for your customers,” Kelly said. “It’s humbling because we need them as much as they need us. And in fact, we probably need them more. And when you look after each other, it does come back around.”
Heinze long ago decided he didn’t want to be an unfriendly face with his suppliers. He’s seen some be hard on suppliers and give them a difficult time. He wanted to take a different route.
“I don’t want that guy to be coming in the office going, ‘Oh, gosh, here’s Chieftain.’ I want guys to come in and say, ‘I’m going to see Trevor today!’” he said. “My suppliers are all great friends; I can call any of them and they’d all be happy to hear from me. And I take quite pride in that of mutual respect and respect for the suppliers.”