Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2001   by Andrew Ross

COVER STORY: Down on Main Street

The story of a man, a family, and the road.

Charlie Main, 2001 Jobber of the Year, founder of Sussex Auto Supplies Ltd., and just some of the family that have made success possible, gather outside the main store, on Main Street, in Sussex, New Brunswick.

Family means a great deal to Charlie Main–which is fitting, because he has a great deal of family.

Residents of the New Brunswick regions where they have made their home for 30 years, the Main family has spread their name and made their mark in the communities around the shifting Bay of Fundy.

Born just outside of Saint John in Lingley, N.B., Charlie Main and wife Betty moved their young family to Apohaqui (pronounced appa-hawk), just outside of Sussex, in the mid-1960s and none have gone far afield since. “It’s not like we planned it,” says Main, now in his 75th year, “but when we moved here about 30 years ago, I had five kids and none of them were married. They all settled down right around here. I think it’s really great.”

Having three sons–Stephen, Billy and Geoffrey–and two daughters–Deborah and Julie (who has taken up a life in farming)–has meant that there has been no shortage of family to help out in the business. It also means Christmas dinner for 31.

The concept of family is even more entrenched with the Mains than with many family operations. While it is common for the head of the family to take the helm of a business and have the next generation learn the trade at his knee, family participation takes on a whole new meaning when you look at the history of Charlie Main and the UAP Associate stores he and the family run.

From the beginning, rather than spend every day in the confines of the stores, he was on the road selling for what was then called Hayes-Dana while trusted employees and his growing sons took on increasingly responsible roles.

Charlie loves being on the road–a fact that is clear in the ease with which he slipped back behind the wheel for the first time in two years to tour the stores for this story–and he estimates that he has put 2 million miles behind him since he hit the road half a century ago. He says it was an unusual way to run a jobbing business.

“But then just about everything I’ve done has been unusual, I guess. When I started Sussex Auto Supplies in 1969, I had the idea that I’d be an absentee owner. It didn’t quite work out that way.” Instead, after two years of fledgling growth, he was forced to the realization that he needed to take greater control.

“I told Hayes-Dana that I didn’t think I could stay on, that I thought it was a conflict. They asked me to stay anyway, but I told them my mind was made up.” Still, he agreed to find a replacement.

“That was Don Reed. He was a really good man and I thought he’d do a great job and he did. He would come by my place all the time and we’d talk about accounts and whatnot. But then in about two years, he died. He was a young man, so it was really unexpected. Jim Robinson, the sales manager, called me up and asked if I could help them out.

“I figured I had things running pretty good at the store–with Kenny Powell running the machine shop and my son Stephen running the store–so I said okay, I’d help them out for a while.” Helping out for a while turned into nearly 10 years, but he was never too far from the stores.

He enjoyed having regular meetings that were designed to remind staff where their priorities should lie. Management meetings were a weekly affair. “I always said that the two most important things that will ever happen during the day are when a customer calls on the phone and when a customer walks in the door. You should roll out the red carpet and treat them like royalty.” He admits that his ideas about customer service, “putting a smile in your voice,” and building enthusiasm from within–a concept he picked up from the Licks chain of hamburger stores during a trip to Toronto–may seem old-fashioned, but he’s not so sure they don’t apply today.

The family has picked up on Charlie’s work ethic–something he says he picked up from his father, Dr. Wilmot Main. Everybody works hard and it’s nearly impossible to tear them away from the steady flow of customers. Most seldom take a lunch break. This attitude has helped to create a strong bond with the staff.

That bond became increasingly important as Charlie segued into retirement three years ago. Charlie began succession planning early–it was really a foundation of the business. Shares in the business were distributed as the sons grew to working age, and long-time employees were included in the ownership plans. For a long while it was Stephen, as the eldest of the three brothers, who took the lead.

Stephen, who had joined Kenny Powell at the Sussex operation in 1973, moved to the Peticodiac store in 1974 to help brother Billy there. When Peticodiac was sold in 1979, Stephen joined Powell back at the Sussex operation.

While Billy worked in various locations before settling in to run the Ultramar service station in Minto, Geoffrey, the youngest, worked in Peticodiac before moving to Sussex and taking over there after succession plans took hold. Under that plan, Stephen has shifted his attentions to the Hampton Auto Supply store–which he started in 1984–while A-1 Auto Supply in Chipman, acquired in 1983, is being transitioned to long-time counterperson and manager Ron Bustard, who also oversees the nearby Minto store, which the group started in 1989.

Each store is as different as the towns they serve.

Sussex features a well-maintained town center with a train station-turned-ice-cream stand and a parkette at the former site of one of the first Irving gas stations. Curiously, that park was officially opened by Charlie Main, as the president of the local Rotary Club at the time. The Sussex trade was largely agricultural when the first store opened there, but today the potash mine just over the crest of a hill from downtown dominates. There is hope that the natural gas find nearby will also boost the economy.

The other towns where the Main family has built its holdings are much smaller. Chipman is a semi-rural mill town, and the smell of fresh-cut pine fills every breath. In these parts the smell of wood is the smell of money. The combination of prosperity and tough conditions keeps the vehicle population young and pushes the need to have full inventories for logging equipment as well as cars and trucks. “We have developed a reputation for being able to get anything,” says Ron Bustard. Bustard says that the parts for much of the equipment are seldom cataloged, so they keep their own card files on the special equipment’s filters and so forth.

“And customers know that, so when they get a new truck or piece of equipment, they bring us in the list of service parts so we can have it in stock when they need them,” says Bustard.

Minto is different again. Built on coal mining, Minto inhabitants work hard, play hard, and watch every penny–“It’s a tough little town,” says Charlie. The Minto store, a small, efficient operation, gets a purposeful stream of customers. It is clear from their demeanor and their dress that these people work for a living.

The Hampton store is located on a rise within sight of the new RCMP detachment building that is the latest big addition. Walk-in customers are varied–from truck owner-operators to the young performance enthusiast. “It is a growing community,” says manager Allan Perry. “Everybody who lives here has moved here from somewhere else and most of the people work in Saint John.”

It’s been a long road from 1969 to today, and one not without a few bumps and dips.

During the time they worked together, Kenny and Stephen–who both held equal shares in the Sussex operation–developed a bit of a management rivalry that was sometimes civil, sometimes not quite. “It was really just store management issues,” says Stephen.

“We had different ways of looking at the business,” says Kenny Powell. “Charlie, with all his experience on the road, was able to bring it all together.”

Charlie doesn’t like to talk much about conflicts–it’s all water under the bridge–but the situation rectif
ied itself when Kenny agreed to buy the machine shop, which is what he loved best anyway, and which Stephen did not have an affinity for. That was in 1988, 15 years after they were first paired up, so any conflicts couldn’t have been all that bad. Today, the two spend a lot of time together, riding their Harleys and boating at their adjacent cottages.

Besides, Kenny had a reason for making things work out. He had, after all, married Charlie’s daughter Deborah.

Today, Kenny and Deborah operate Sussex Engine Rebuilding–located just down Main St. from Sussex Auto Supplies–and the business has developed a strong reputation in the performance marine market. Their daughter Jamie works in the Sussex store.

Which brings us back to the subject of family. Today, some 15 sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews work for the stores.

Throughout my visit, Charlie Main maintained steadfastly that none of the success would have been possible without the unflinching support of the family. It hasn’t been all sweetness and light–he’s too down to earth to pretend that–“But the important thing was that we always talked things out.”

He is a man of considerably devout religious beliefs. He is a lay preacher at the local church and was the co-chairman of the Bethany Bible College fundraising drive. He thanked the Lord for his many blessings many times during my visit. Twice, he says, it might have all ended years ago. Once, as a young man in the early 1960s, his car was hit by another head-on. He survived with scrapes and bruises; the other driver was killed. The incident affected him profoundly and stays with him to this day. Later in the 1960s he went off the road and flipped his convertible, but was unhurt.

Most recently, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and was operated on to remove it two years ago. He is feeling much better now and is hopeful that the incident is behind him.

A great believer in Dr. Norman Vincent Peel’s theories of positive thinking, he has infused that philosophy in his family and staff. “Charlie would say that when it was raining, it may be lousy for you, but it was good for the farmers,” says Stephen. “Some good comes out of everything.”

Charlie, his outlook freshened by the opportunity to get on the road again for this story, mentions that he might just keep it up. He says the boys have asked him to start giving his talks to staff again. He likes the idea.

“We built our business on a strong foundation.” He knows that allowing his sons and long-time employees to grow into positions of responsibility and make their own mistakes along the way has paid dividends. “When you do that, they become more efficient and smarter when they’re taking the lumps themselves.

“I’ve enjoyed working with these guys and I’m proud of our guys who have done so well.”

It pleases him to see what has resulted in 30 years of building, but does so without a hint of pride. “To see how it’s multiplied in 30 years . . .,” he trails off. “Well, the good Lord’s looked after me.

“If and when I’m on that heavenly train, I couldn’t ask for another thing.”

A sign in Charlie Main’s office says “If You Think You Can’t, It’s a Cinch You Won’t,” evidence of his belief in positive thinking.

Middle brother Billy, shown with son Chuck, now runs the Ultramar service station in the tough town of Minto.

Ron Bustard, long-time counterperson and manager, is gaining ownership of A-1 Auto Supplies (top) in Chipman and also oversees the Minto store.

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