Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2000   by Andrew Ross

COVER STORY: The Salt of the Earth

A lot has changed in the past 30 years, for both Kelowna and Miller & Wyatt, but Dennis Wyatt shows no sign of losing touch with the community, or his past.


“Look,” says Dennis Wyatt, idly kicking at a cracked floor tile, “you can still see the black and yellow tiles underneath.”

Those tiles, revealed during a minor renovation of Miller & Wyatt’s main store in Kelowna, B.C., serve as a reminder of just how the business began. Dennis Wyatt and then-partner Deane Miller laid those tiles themselves in 1970, when they first prepared to open the store.

The way that Wyatt tells it, it was anything but a solid beginning.

“Deane and I were both working at Mitchell Auto Parts. That business was growing and we figured that if we could pull in what they were growing by each year, we could run a business on it.” Deane Miller’s father-in-law gave them their backing, but that was only the beginning of the journey. Getting to the next step required a fair bit of stealth: working by day, and looking at possible locations by night.

The crucial moment came when Bill Mitchell found out about their plans and politely told them both that he simply couldn’t continue to employ the two while they worked on plans to become his competition. It’s an understandable position to take. Unwittingly, it also guaranteed the birth of that competition. Mitchell knew Miller and Wyatt were looking to open a store. What he didn’t know was how much trouble they were having.

“We had been working on it for five months and, to be honest, it didn’t look like we were going to be able to do it.” The pair was running into all kinds of difficulties in finding an appropriate location for a store and getting zoning approvals, and were about to give up on the whole idea when they got their marching papers. Without a regular income, they took a gamble that they would be able to get all the approvals in time to open the store, and went forward.

And go forward they did. Over the next three decades, branches were added in Rutland and Westbank. Over those years the company moved through a period of independence before joining Allied Wholesale Distributors, later becoming one of the most devout members of Uni-Select Pacific.

Those three decades also saw many changes in Kelowna itself, and Wyatt speaks with pride, and more than just a little wonder, at the development of the town he calls home.

The population has grown from 35,000 to nearly 100,000–with an above-average proportion of retirees–and is now to the point where there is concern that housing will begin to choke off the farmland that has made the Okanagan community a prime agricultural center. During a tour of Dolphin Park, he looks across the lake that bisects the valley and describes how development and construction has changed the vista. The growth has also brought investment, and Dennis proudly shows off the Skyreach Place sports and entertainment arena, across the street from Dolphin Park and its man-made lagoon and boatway condominiums. Georgina Wyatt says that the completion of the Coquihala Highway, which has made it possible to travel from Vancouver and the Lower Mainland in just four hours, has really changed things too, turning a partly isolated community into a mecca for wine tours, recreation, and new competition.

The growth of Kelowna and the neighboring communities isn’t all bad, but it has certainly made the Okanagan a different place.

Nevertheless, Miller & Wyatt’s roots remain at the corner of Leon and Ellis where it all started. The building is like a time capsule of the past 30 years.

“When we moved here, this was the back wall,” he says, pointing to the carved-away edge of a cinderblock wall in the stock room. “Then we added this part,” he says walking a further 20 feet. “At the time we thought this would be enough, but it wasn’t long before we had to add some more,” he continues, walking through yet another extension. “Looking back, we should have done it to here the first time.” Then again, who would have guessed that the company would grow the way it did?

Every business is a product of its past, and nowhere is it more evident than at the main store. In addition to the scars it bears from successive expansions, it also serves as a talking point for Wyatt. His voice takes on a nostalgic tone when he talks about where the door used to be when part of the store was rented out to an 8-track tape store, or those five long months when he and Deane Miller papered over the windows and began remodeling the store. Five months of working, waiting for the zoning approval from the city, five months of hoping they would get it. Five months they thought they would still be working for Mitchell Auto Parts.

During that time, a strong connection was forged between Miller and Wyatt–Miller working behind the scenes on purchasing and finance, Wyatt taking the brunt of sales and counter duties. It was, by all accounts, a successful partnership.

“Deane and I got along very well. It was a tremendous relationship. We occasionally had our differences, but we never let anything boil. We always sat down and solved the problems immediately.” Wyatt says that it wasn’t uncommon for the two to be complimented on how well they worked together.

Two years ago marked a transition for the partners, with Wyatt purchasing Miller’s share in the business, allowing the latter the opportunity to pursue many of the things there was little time for while they built the business: travel, vacation, and play a lot of golf. He still keeps in contact with the business, dropping in regularly.

For Wyatt, the change has been a good transition, too. Family is important, particularly in places like Kelowna, where borders are more than just lines on a map. So Wyatt had ample resources to draw from in planning for the future. Son Brian and son-in-law Rick Anderson as well as daughter Barb are all in the business.

“They’re a breath of fresh air. Rick started in shipping and receiving and is now managing the business. Brian’s accounting background is really helping in the credit department and purchasing.”

Wyatt says that, while he does not have a firm timetable for retirement, he has eased up some.

“I work the counter more than anything else; it’s really what I like best, dealing with the customers. I always said that I would retire when I stopped having fun and I’m still having fun.”

He knows that changes are in the future for the business. Notably, the main store in Kelowna is reaching the limits of its ability to hold enough stock for the volume of business. It’s still a few years off, but Wyatt knows that a move will happen. And, while competition will continue to get tougher, he believes it is important to stick with the company’s traditional approach to the market.

“If you look at our company, we have survived on service and expanded on service. I always tell the boys that you have to remember what made you strong in the beginning.

Treat customers honestly and quickly and look after them the way they want to be looked after, and it will pay off.

“Price means a lot, but service still means number one and I think it always will.”

It’s a personal approach that has helped Miller & Wyatt build a solid foundation over the past 30 years, due in no small part to the fact that Dennis Wyatt’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.

Miller & Wyatt Ltd.

Kelowna, B.C.

Founded 1970

Dennis Wyatt, Owner

Georgina Wyatt, Secretary

Rick Anderson, General Manager

Brian Wyatt, Comptroller & Purchasing Agent

Staff: 25 full time

Branches:

Kelowna: 5,000 square feet (7,000 including mezzanine)

Manager: Rick Anderson

Westbank:

1,800 square feet

Manager: Ted Careless

Rutland:

2,500 square feet

Manager: Ken Matsuda


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