COLUMBIA — There aren't many people to run to when you're looking for an alternator for a 1977 AMC Pacer. But Lynne Robertson could lay her hands on one in nothing flat.
For the past 30 years, Robertson, her husband, Don Slate, and their sons have been rescuing mid-Missouri car owners from the breakdown blues. Their parts salvage yard on East Broadway, A-1 Auto Recyclers, maintains a searchable database of over 1 million parts for over 6,500 different cars. Most of A-1's business is national; they ship parts to all 50 states.
It was a business Robertson started out renting and almost lost when her landlord let the property slide into foreclosure.
"I bought this yard on the courthouse steps when (the landlord) started keeping my rent checks and stopped paying the bank. Got wind of it the last minute," she says.
It's a bustling family business that keeps busy her three sons — Kiffer Slate, 21, Erin Slate, 24, and Chad Slate, 27 — at the Columbia site and their dad out at the warehouse in Fulton.
Robertson knows they could be busier still. "Car parts are a huge market," she says. "Out of the billions of dollars in sales, used parts are a real small part of that, like 6 percent or something. So there's a lot of room for growth."
Theirs is one of almost 8,300 salvage yards in the continental U.S., but when Robertson talks about the competition among them, that number loses much of its meaning. "Everyone has a niche," she said. "We buy from them, they buy from us. We're all in this together, not against each other, like one big network. There's plenty to go around."
"Over 80 percent of salvage yards are mom-and-pop operations, like this one," Chad says.
To be precise, it's 86 percent, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association, a trade association in Fairfax, Va. The auto salvage industry also generates $22 billion a year in revenue and recycles nearly 5 million vehicles annually. That's enough cars to encircle the globe almost seven times if lined up end to end.
Those numbers could be growing.
"Business has been great," Robertson says. "Since the economy turned, people are definitely keeping their cars longer, buying more used parts and buying parts for older and older cars."
Taking in cars and stripping them for parts takes up a good part of the day. "We get in two to three vehicles a day and it takes from 30 minutes to a couple of hours to strip it down once we get it in," Robertson says. "Except those Cash for Clunker cars."
Chad and Kiffer both moan in agreement.
"That was a really bad deal," Chad says.
Robertson explains: "It was a bad deal for used car dealers because the cars had to be destroyed. These were perfectly good vehicles that would have been traded in, or handed down to siblings, kids and grandkids. Used car prices have gone way up. It's supply and demand — figure they took out almost million cars."
The Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) report to Congress states 680,000, or about 3 percent of all registered vehicles in the U.S., went to the scrap yard through Cash for Clunkers, officially titled the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act of 2009. The program lasted for about five months last year.
It was an unusually frustrating time for salvage yards everywhere because they had only a limited time in which to dismantle the junked cars for valuable parts, Robertson says.
A-1 had contracts with dealerships from Kansas City to St. Louis to pick up the "clunkers" the dealers took in trade. When A-1 got the vehicles, the engines had all been filled with Liquid Glass, a chemical agent used to seize the engines, rendering them useless in salvage. That made it more difficult to pull the transmission. Because A-1 had a deadline to remove what they could, vehicles often went to the crusher with good parts still attached.
"A total waste," Robertson says, shaking her head in disgust.
The program also had the effect of increasing repossessions. "A lot of the people who got those new cars couldn't afford them," guesses Kiffer, who runs the towing side of the business.
According to CNW Research, the national repossession rate of people who bought cars under the clunker program is 4.8 percent, more than double the 2.2 percent of those who purchased vehicles during that time without government incentives.
Kiffer laughs about the confrontational and sometimes violent way cars are repossessed on TV shows. "It's really nothing like that," he says, glancing over at his mother with what appears to be a worried expression. "When I tow a car, I'm in and out in 10 seconds. With that auto-loading tow-truck outside, I don't even have to get out of the vehicle. Just lift it up, drive down a block or so and strap it down."
The phone rings. Kiffer answers and limps out the door on a leg recently broken during a game of laser tag. A Ford F-150 is settled into the crushing deck from the forklift, which Erin is driving.
Kiffer presses a button on the crusher, and with a series of squeals, pops and groans the truck is compressed to a height of about 24 inches. "We'll put two more on top of there and ship them out in lots of three," he says, heading back to the office.
"That's one of the clunkers," he says, pointing to a truck frame still holding its engine like a pearl in the setting of a cheap ring.
"Everything gets recycled," Chad says. Robertson and Kiffer nod in agreement.
It's an obvious point of pride.
"We are the greenest industry in Columbia," Robertson claims. "Not that anyone would point that out."
It's hard to define "green," but gauging by documentation and oversight, they may have a point.
"We fall under everybody's regulations," Chad says, "local, state and federal."
"The first things to come off a car are the mercury switches, the tires, the radiator and the battery," Robertson says. "We have to account for all of those."
The fluids get drained; all the functioning parts get removed from the engine, the body and the interior, to be sold. The "fluff" — everything non-metallic — is pulled, recycled or somehow put to use. Even padding from the seats is used to line shipping boxes. When the boxes themselves become worn out, they too get recycled.
A deep snort and a rapid huffing sound echo from behind the desk. A very-tired looking English bulldog staggers into view. "That's Chloe, the youngest member of the family," Robertson says, reaching down to scratch behind the dog's ear.
They're all smiling, comfortable — at home. The phone rings again. Kiffer takes a call for a taillight assembly. Chad heads into the back, returning with the unit in seconds. "Do they need the bulbs?" he asks his brother.
"Bulbs?" Kiffer asks and gets a classic "duh" look from his older brother. Chad doesn't say anything, just shakes his head, looks at the assembly, then back at Kiffer, finally bending down to read the computer screen himself.
Robertson laughs, "We're like any family," she says. "They get in snits, but they get over it. Overall we get along pretty good. We gotta; we work together every day."