Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’s Largest Online Auto Auction by Willis Johnson

Summary
  1. This is a story of a man who believes in hard work and treating people right. Willis always says things like, “If you take care of the company, the company will take care of you,” and “Watch your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves,” and “Don’t forget a lot of people are counting on us.” These values led to his desire to have no debt on his balance sheet, to go public on the NASDAQ Exchange, and to build a great company from the ground up.. “Barry, here’s the thing. I’m not just buying a can of soup for twenty-nine cents and selling it for forty-nine cents,” I explained. “I have ten different services that are growing all the time. Think of us like the local sewer system.” Well, that got his attention. “We’re a utility. Nothing can get rid of us—nothing. Two of the biggest businesses in the world are car manufacturers and insurance companies,” I went on. “If insurance companies don’t write insurance policies on cars, then they’re out of business. If manufacturers don’t make cars, then they’re out of business. They’re always gonna make cars, and they’re always gonna insure them. We’re the guy in between.” I looked him right in the eye and said, “As long as we’ve got the land in the right place to put the cars on, we can’t fail. We are like the septic tanks of the sewer system. You can’t have the system without us.” Barry told me later that after our meeting, he called his wife and told her he had just met the smartest man he’d ever met in business. I don’t know about that; I’d probably give my dad that title. But I do know that despite the fact Barry and I were so different and came from such different worlds, we still understood each other completely. Barry was slick, and I was unrefined. Barry was uptown; I was downtown. But he liked the way I approached business, and I liked his tenacity. We were gonna do business. And we were gonna make some money.”
Key Takeaways
  1. Embrace Adventure and Learn from Second Chances
  2. Don’t Feel Sorry for Yourself
  3. Know What You’re Paying For
  4. Be as Relentless as the Cows
  5. Everyone Is Created Equal, but They Aren’t Always Treated Equally
    1. While my dad taught me how to crunch numbers, build a business, and take chances, Mom played an important role in making me a leader. The most important lesson I learned from her was that no one was better than anyone else.
  6. Take Care of the Business, and the Business Will Take Care of You
    1. Both my dad and I also built reputations in the business world of always standing by our word and never doing business if a deal felt wrong. We both walked away from opportunities that may have helped our businesses but would have crossed a moral or ethical line. To us, the business world was black and white, and a deal you aren’t sure about isn’t really a deal at all. It never ceases to surprise me, though, when others cross that line without even a blink of an eye. I was raised to believe that cheating is the same whether you are taking ten cents or $10,000. And if you could do it once, there was a good chance you would do it again.
  7. Don’t Forget Where You Came From
    1. One of my favorite phrases is, “Sittin’ in high cotton.” It means everything is going well. The cotton’s high, which means the profits are too. But I’ve found you appreciate sittin’ in high cotton a lot more when you’ve had times you couldn’t even find the cotton. It’s those times that keep
  8. Find Something in Common to Unite Around
    1. It took me a long time to figure out what was really going on. That sergeant wasn’t all that concerned about the bed. He was just giving us something to unite around. That bed making brought us together. We all became buddies no matter where we had come from. It didn’t matter if we were jocks or hippies. It was us against that sergeant.
  9. Push through the Fear
    1. So the war taught me how to make the best decisions for the people around me, not just for myself. And the military taught me other lessons too. Having good leaders and a clear chain of command is important. And it taught me cleanliness and order. Keeping things lined up makes for efficiency.
  10. When Times Get Tough, Get Creative
    1. I also learned another important lesson that day. The reason we were able to make such a good deal was because we were the only guys who got dirty. We did our homework and knew exactly what we were buying. As a result, Dad was able to outbid the others, who didn’t know the true value of the yard or had underestimated what others knew about its value. It was also another example of why it’s important to take action and not procrastinate.
    2. All of us would take our lunch breaks in a room above the store. This was before stores commonly installed security cameras, so the room was also a great way to observe customers and catch them stealing. Boy, was that an eye opener. I found out just how dishonest people could really be sitting above that store. That little old lady that you never thought would steal was putting stuff in her purse when no one was looking, or the fat guy was putting pork ribs down his pants and walking out of the store. It made me really think of how theft can affect a business and how you can’t ignore it. Safeway also reinforced the need for order that was established earlier when I was in the army. The aisles had to be organized and clean for people to want to shop and so they could find what they were looking for. That meant paying attention to stock empty shelves, checking expiration dates, and holding specials for items that were overstocked.
  11. When You Make a Promise to Someone, Keep It
    1. Back home and back at the business I loved, I took all I had learned in the military and at Safeway and applied it to dismantling. I tripled the income at the yard by taking good care of customers and calling body shops and mechanics to tell them what inventory we had in stock.
    2. After Dad backed out of the promise he made me, I told myself I would never do that, even if it meant I would lose money. I never promised something to someone that I didn’t do, and I never made promises I couldn’t keep. My word is gold. You don’t have to get me to sign something for me to take my commitment seriously. That was a really good lesson to learn, even if there were better ways to learn it.
  12. You Need to Sacrifice to Build a Dream
  13. Ideas Can Come from Anywhere—Even John Wayne
    1. For those of you not in the business, a dismantling yard primarily deals in used auto parts and recycling scrap iron. I would buy cars—mostly the ones that weren’t drivable and had come to the end of their life—and pay thirty-five dollars to fifty dollars and then tow them to the yard. There, I’d pull all the parts off that I thought I could resell, drain the fluids out of the car (which is called “depolluting”), and then haul the shell to the smelter, where I’d get paid for the iron by the ton. If I had a motor that was cast iron, or any copper or aluminum, I got paid different rates for that as well. At first, when I didn’t have a lot of money, I relied on the scrap iron to make ends meet. As the business grew, I hoped to be able to buy better cars and build up the parts side of the business.
    2. Tammi says she and the other kids all learned how to work and about the value of work during that time. She also says I set a good example for them about how to work hard. But really, I was just doing what I had to do—working late nights and weekends to make the business work. I did make a point, however, of reserving Sundays for family.
    3. While I was building the company, that was our time because building a successful business means nothing if you don’t have your family or your faith.
    4. I did try to use the business to teach my kids some important lessons. Reba tells me I never expected anything from anyone that I wouldn’t do myself, and she’s right.
  14. The Sum of Parts Is Greater Than the Whole—at Least in Dismantling
    1. My dream to build up the parts side of the business was starting to come true. As I was able to buy better cars, Mather was able to stock more and better parts, including motors, transmissions, and rear ends. As this happened, the business relied less on scrap iron, which gradually went from the main revenue stream to a byproduct of the parts business. The better the cars I could buy, the better the parts, and the better the profits. We were also able to pay off all the money friends and family gave us to start the business.
      1. Virtuous cycles, leaping-emergent effects
    2. One other big boost was that I was the first in the industry to dismantle parts, not just cars. Typically, if someone came into a dismantling shop and asked for a 4.6 liter motor, the shop would pull the whole motor out of a wrecked car and sell the motor and everything hanging on it—including the alternator, starter, regulator, smog pumps, air breather, carburetor, and distributor. A fully dressed 318 Dodge engine with twenty-two thousand miles on it might have cost a customer about $400 back in the early ’70s and would have come with a warranty. But if the motor had been sitting for a while, the carburetor might be dried out—the water pump shot or other parts didn’t fit the car just right—meaning there was a good chance the dismantler would have to buy it back to honor the warranty. The customer might also already have a good alternator and not need another one. But they were forced to buy the whole package. That didn’t make sense to me. That’s why if the same customer went into Mather, he or she would find just the motor—steam cleaned and painted and looking brand-new. The additional parts would have been taken out as soon as the motor had arrived to the yard, restored, and sold separately so customers could buy only what they needed. I would sell them just the motor, undressed, for $275—a deal if that’s all they needed. Then I’d sell the other parts separately—the distributor for $50, the alternator for $25, the carburetor for $100. By the time I was done, I could get $700 for the same parts sold separately that were sold together by my competitor for $400. And the customer was happier. I also had fewer buy-backs because I didn’t have to guarantee all the parts on the motor. This caused my profit margins to far exceed that of my competitors.
      1. Making it easier for the customer, adding transparency/ease/velocity can have incredible returns
    3. Whatever made it look nice, we did. That way, when people walked in, it was like they were walking into a real retail store. It made it more personal. They could shop. I know that sounds crazy—shopping at a wrecking yard. But no matter what you are buying, you want it to be a good experience, and you want to find what you want easily. Up until then, people just thought of a wrecking yard as a bunch of wrecked cars in a field that you had to wander through to find what you wanted.
      1. Can use poor competition, low standards to stand out
    4. As I saw the effects Ray’s death had on his surviving wife and kids, it also made me think even harder about the real reason I wanted to be successful—so I could take care of my family.
    5. Even with the larger building to display parts, I knew that to really compete with other auto dismantlers in the Sacramento region, I would need to do something different. I just couldn’t realistically keep every make and model part stocked like the larger dismantlers with more money and space. But I knew of some dismantlers like Al Parker in Citrus Heights who was doing well specializing in only Rambler parts at a small two-acre yard. All the larger dismantlers sold their Rambler parts to him and sent Rambler customers his way because they preferred stocking only hot-selling items that had a high demand. Because Al was the only specialized Rambler dealer in the area, he could draw customers from a large geographical area.
      1. Don’t expect to get different results by doing the same things, you have to act differently
    6. I came back and told Curtis that if we were going to compete, we needed to specialize in a car the other dismantlers in town didn’t want to carry. At the time Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth were not cars dismantlers wanted to have because they weren’t hot-selling items. So we made a decision to specialize in Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth. All the other dismantlers thought I was crazy. But they were more than willing to sell us their Chrysler parts that weren’t moving and send business our way so they could continue to stock more-popular items. My friend and brother-in-law Mike James says I’m not afraid to break the mold and go where no one else has gone before. I guess I just don’t like people telling me I can’t do something. When people tell me, “Willis, you can’t do that,” it just pushes me to show them I can. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than anybody; I just always thought if you wanted something bad enough and worked hard enough for it, it would happen. And it did. Soon I was drawing on a large area of customers who needed Chrysler parts because other dismantlers didn’t have them. In any one area, there wasn’t a big demand for Chrysler parts, which is why most dismantlers didn’t want to carry them. But in the entire area including Sacramento, Stockton, Marysville, and Yuba City, there was a big demand. There were pockets of General Motors and Ford specialty yards but not Chrysler, so we were filling a need for a big area. It was also cheaper to stock Chrysler parts. At the time we were still partly in the scrap business, so we could buy all the junk Chrysler cars for thirty-five to forty dollars whereas we were paying seventy-five to one hundred dollars for General Motors junk cars. I could go to an auction and buy a wrecked Dodge Polara for twenty-five cents on a dollar compared to a Chevrolet. So I could buy parts cheaper, but the parts were just as valuable, especially since no one else carried them. Before we specialized, Curtis and I were running between $3,500 and $5,000 worth of parts a month at Mather. After specializing, we were running around $3,500 worth of parts a day.
      1. Specializing in a certain niche, even if seemingly unattractive on a standalone basis, can be very attractive when pooled and efficiencies are found – Willis found a 30x in a niche nobody wanted!
    7. Curtis remembers that other people thought I was crazy (or stupid—or maybe both) to spend so much money on a computer for a wrecking yard. But I was never afraid to spend money on technology if it could help us be more efficient. And it turned out that the whole industry would end up computerizing once they saw the benefits it gave people like me and Marv. As large and foreign as this machine seemed back then, it paid off because it gave me a complete picture of the business and the inventory, which in turn gave me more knowledge and control over the yard, which helped me make more money. For example, the computerized system could tell me in a few keystrokes not just how many of each type of make and model doors were in the yard but could also tell me how many right doors we had, how many left doors we had, and what color they all were. If we had a lot of side doors that were the same color, I would discount them to move the inventory. But if we had only one right green Volare door, for example, I could charge customers more because it was harder to find and I could justify the price, which they usually paid because it saved them time and money from having to paint it. This allowed us to move parts faster and maximize our profits. The computer also kept track of the hot-selling items. For example, after we computerized we learned that we sold a lot of right front fenders and left front doors—although I don’t know why. So I made sure we had those in stock. I also started dismantling the right front doors—which didn’t sell as frequently. That way, if a customer needed door glass or a door motor, which didn’t have to come from a specific side, I could sell them out of the doors that weren’t selling very often. This allowed us to still move these parts but not take away from other sales. The customers were happy because they didn’t have to pay for a whole door, and we were getting money for inventory that might have otherwise just sat there.
    8. I did other things that other dismantlers looked at me funny for too, although not for long. For example, all the wrecking yards around Sacramento had agreed to use the same size ad—a little tiny ad—in the yellow pages because it was really inexpensive. Well that didn’t make any sense to me, so I went and bought a half-page, color ad. Curtis jokes that all the other dismantlers were mad at me for a while because they had to do the same thing to compete. I went big—they went big. I wanted to take it to the next level, and the rest of the guys had to try to keep up.
    9. I’d also use the trip to mine other wrecking yards for ideas I could take home and implement at Mather. We’d suck in all their ideas, and they didn’t care if they told us because we weren’t direct competitors. So I would learn a lot about what they did that worked and what didn’t work, like how they were handling antifreeze and tires as environmental regulations weren’t yet developed. Their experiences helped make our company better.
    10. He taught me that you have to do your research and that if you don’t stay on top of reading about other people’s ideas, you never come up with ideas yourself. It’s good to learn from others.
    11. My sister Bonnie said she will never forget how excited Peter and I were. We were excited to buy a salvage auction and to be branching out from the wrecking business. It was a big step, one that would change my life forever. What made the U-Pull-It model unique was the high volume of cars it could turn around. I liken it to the Wal-Mart of dismantling. But it was also a little like the old days of Mather because there was a lot of scrap iron. To keep everything cheap and to be able to retain a high volume, U-Pull-It dealt mostly in end-of-life cars. It got its cars by running ads in the paper announcing, “We’ll buy your junk car.” How much we paid for that car depended on how far we had to tow it and how popular the parts on that make and model were. Popular makes and models would sit out for about thirty days while people pulled what they wanted from it. Less-popular cars would sit for sixty days. At the end of the allotted time, what was left was crushed, and fresh cars brought in with fresh parts. At $70 a ton you can get about $140 for a two-ton car. But if you can sell another $100 or $200 worth of parts out of it, you are doubling your money. Then you multiply that by one hundred cars a day, and that’s where the money comes in because it’s not about how good the parts are on it. If you have three hundred car doors that you would normally crush and you can sell some of them for $5 or $6 each, you’re that much further ahead. We could do this because the customers at a self-service yard like U-Pull-It were also different than customers at my other businesses. These were people who didn’t have a lot of money and were barely getting by. They needed to get their cars running as cheaply as possible to get to work the next day and oftentimes were fixing it themselves. By contrast, Mather dealt mostly with body shops and mechanics, people wanting late-model parts that were guaranteed and as perfect as possible. Most of the customers at U-Pull-It were driving cars just like the ones inside the gates. In some cases, customers would even sell their cars in exchange for one that was slightly better inside. They could buy a car there for $300, drive it until it barely worked, and bring it back a few months later and sell it for $50. Then they could buy another $300 one again. It was a cheap way to maintain transportation. U-Pull-It was also a popular stop for buyers from Mexico, who came with semitrucks and filled them with fenders, radiators, and other parts they would then take over the border and resell. We would give them a discount for buying more than $5,000 worth of parts. The model for U-Pull-It was simple. It didn’t matter what the condition of a part was; all parts of the same kind cost the same amount of money. That put the liability on the person buying it, not the person selling. It benefitted the customers to hunt for the best part they could because they were paying the same amount. In the end, U-Pull-It also had three revenue streams—the gate fee, the parts sales, and scrap iron. That was just three more reasons to like the business, as far as I was concerned. It also had another by-product of business. Because many of the cars were abandoned or forgotten, much of what was left inside had also been forgotten. We created a thrift store out of htese items – baby strollers, CD cases, clothing, and more. Our customers, always looking for a deal, loved the bargains,a nd it provided yet one more revenue stream to the mix.
    12. I was sittin’ in high cotton, running on all cylinders with the Mather Chrysler yard, the mini-truck yard, Today Radiator, Mather Auto Parts, and U-Pull-It. I had also decided to specialize yet again, opening up a foreign auto parts yard next to U-Pull-It under the now well-known Mather name. Foreign cars had become more popular, and I could ship in foreign parts from Taiwan for pennies on the dollar for Datsuns, Toyotas, and Fords. I also sold aftermarket sheet metal from the foreign parts yard. But I still wanted to increase business, especially at the specialized yards. I started a dismantling magazine so I could advertise and allowed all specialized yards in the Sacramento area to purchase full-page ads in it, which I then direct mailed to body shops, mechanics, and insurance companies. I didn’t start the magazine to make money but to be a tool that I, along with other specialized dismantlers, could use to get more business. At first, we just called the magazine Specialized Magazine, a boring name I didn’t care for. We needed to think of something better. Then I remembered from my days growing up on a farm how farmers would store their grain together in a co-op and how other businesses would form similar alliances for a mutual benefit. Since the magazine was a co-op of parts dealers using it for the mutual benefit of advertising, I decided to call it Copart instead.
    13. Instead of waiting for the DMV to find a better way, I went to them and proposed a solution. I would develop a way to create electronic forms and print them from a computer, thereby eliminating the need for the DMV to send out the books at all, saving them money and my business valuable time. I spent about $40,000 building the computerized system for the state of California. Now we could go to the computer and fill out all the paperwork needed and didn’t have to wait for books. It sped up the whole process and was an example of how it pays to fix something yourself instead of waiting for someone else to solve the problem for you.
    14. I got the inspiration to create new services within my companies from Disneyland. When I was younger and I went to Disneyland for the first time, Disneyland wasn’t just a theme park to me or a place to have fun. Disneyland to me was a model of how to build businesses within a business. I paid a fee just to get in the gate. And then when I went to a restaurant, I paid to eat and drink. Then I paid money at the gift shops. I paid for tickets to the rides. Everything I did was another business. I thought, Okay, I’ve got to find a business that has multiple revenue streams within it. Disneyland taught me about building other revenue streams. Every time you can add a revenue stream to the same pipeline, the profit margins change drastically. You are putting more through that pipe. That’s what I always tried to do in my businesses, and it is how we were successful.
    15. U-Pull-It grew up as my children also grew up. As each of them turned sixteen, I would find them a wrecked vehicle from one of the wrecking yards for them to fix up themselves and drive. The kids had to put up half the money—which Joyce and I would match.
    16. My work didn’t drain me; it energized me and drove me. Jay wanted to be like that.
    17. I’d tell him how much I liked a certain motor because it broke a lot. Jay didn’t understand that at first; why would a motor that broke all the time be so great? But I told him, “You’re never going to sell it if it doesn’t break. What are you going to do with a bunch of motors that never break?” It was a big learning curve.
  15. Be Your Customer’s Most Valuable Partner
    1. What if we could clean up those cars—take out the debris, vacuum them out, and make them look clean and new again (outside of the damage)? They would be more attractive to buyers and get more bids, driving the price higher, I thought. I knew I could get the insurance company more money if I cleaned these cars up, but I also knew I would have to charge the insurance companies for that service. That was a problem because insurance companies didn’t want to pay you to clean up a wrecked car. To them it was junk. I had to find another way. I proposed a deal to the Fireman’s Fund. Instead of charging fees, I would keep a percentage of the sale price for each car—20 percent on older, highly damaged cars; 10 percent on newer cars. That meant that the burned-out car I could only sell for twenty-five dollars would only get me five dollars. But I could more than make up for the losses on the badly damaged cars with the 10 percent I got off of the newer cars that could be more easily repaired—especially if we cleaned them up and drew top dollar. The Fireman’s Fund was thrilled because they no longer had upside-down cars and they were seeing their returns go up because the newer cars were getting more bids. And I was watching Copart’s profits go up with the returns. But maybe most importantly, PIP represented a significant shift in the industry. Now the salvage auction was a partner with the insurance company, with the goal of getting the best possible price for each car, eliminating any arguments over fees.
      1. Win/Win
    2. When you buy a business, you can inherit some great talent from that business. To let that talent go is bad business. I learned to really respect the people who came with the facilities we purchased, and many of them turned out to be great, long-term employees who really helped us grow and do well.
    3. Efficiency is what excites Jay. Looking at something and finding a better way to do it is his forte. And that’s something I not only valued but embraced. I’m not the kind of guy who says, “Look, kid, I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I’m not interested in changing.” I never have a problem if someone tells me something is broken. I have always wanted to do things better and improve on the model.
  16. On Going Public
    1. I had never cared about the stock market. The stock page in the newspaper was as foreign to me as the sports page and about as useful. I hadn’t a clue about Wall Street. But when I heard that IAA was making big moves that could affect my business, I decided I should start to care. Marv sent me IAA’s prospectus, and I read it. Then I read it again. And again. I didn’t understand most of it at the time, but I did understand this: IAA had not been making the money I thought it should be to go public. They were in debt. Going public allowed them to raise a ton of money, and they didn’t even have to pay it back. On the other hand, we were making money, and we weren’t in debt. Even though I knew nothing about going public, I figured if they could do it, so could I. We had a better company.
    2. I know what I don’t know. I also think it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can.
    3. I went down to the library and tried to find a book to explain it all. When you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s not easy to find it.
    4. Steve told me later that he admired my principles and the fact that failure wasn’t an option for me. But while I was driven, I was also willing to wait to do it the way I wanted, without cutting deals I shouldn’t or selling myself or the business short. John and Steve respected that, which I appreciated
    5. Sometimes people underestimated me because of the way I talked and because I looked more like an Okie farm boy than a polished city slicker. Those people usually lost out. It was a good way to weed out the jerks, though—the Wall Street types who would talk down to me, thinking I was less than them somehow. They didn’t know it, but as they were judging me, I was summing them up too—seeing if they were going to play honest or try to take advantage of me.
    6. I’ve been in business a long time, and if I don’t trust people from a conversation across a dinner table, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to trust them with my reputation or my money. And if I don’t trust them with my money, I’m sure not going to go making money for them. I told Barry, “They’re not good partners. I don’t want to deal with them.”
    7. We all met at a restaurant—which had become my favorite place for these things because deals just go better on a full stomach.
    8. I also knew Copart was mine again. At the time, I had three million shares, making me the biggest shareholder, with 40 percent ownership of the company. I could do one of two things—use my stock as currency to buy other companies or go back to Wall Street to raise more money. Now that Copart was public, raising more money would be easy.
    9. In the meantime, IAA was gobbling up facilities across the country as fast as they could. I knew from my dealings with Bob Spence that their plan was to acquire as many locations as they could and let the yards still run like they had been before they purchased them, even if that meant they ran on separate computer systems and used different business models. IAA figured they’d worry about converting them into one system later, when they had finished growing. My philosophy was much different. I felt Copart should grow slowly, acquiring strategic locations and then converting each one over to the Copart system and business model immediately. Jay had already become an expert at converting yards—taking the lead in changing things over in all the facilities I had acquired while getting ready to go public. I just didn’t want to grow to grow. I wanted to build a brand. I wanted anything with a Copart logo on it to run the same way—same computer system, same pricing, same way of treating our employees—so people started relating our name to a certain way of doing business. We spent time converting things over and converting employees over and teaching them our way of doing things because in many cases, the old way they were doing things hadn’t been working. That’s why they had to sell. That’s also why I think IAA’s approach to keeping newly acquired yards running the same way was wrong. They weren’t fixing what was broken in the first place.
    10. IAA was especially focused on big cities, so we looked at more rural areas. The good news about that is it is a lot cheaper and easier to run a yard in a rural area. There is also less competition. Copart’s board of directors didn’t agree with my approach. They wanted me to grow like IAA was growing—finding locations in big cities like Chicago. I decided what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. I told the board I would look in Chicago, but then did what I wanted to do anyway.
      1. Doing things differently, courage to stand up for what you believe is right
  17. Look Beyond Balance Sheets
    1. IAA would show up wearing suits and riding in limos. I showed up wearing cowboy boots and driving a rental car. Some owners were wooed by the flash of IAA. Some were put off by it. For other owners, it came down to the bottom line—who would pay more? I had the advantage there. IAA bought companies the Wall Street way—based on pretax or after-tax earnings. I had my own method based on how many cars the auction sold and the value of the land. I knew what didn’t show up on the balance sheet of a private, family-owned company—that many of these business owners used a lot of their profits to buy personal cars or pay salaries and benefits to their family members. Many of the businesses were undervalued as a result. I paid a little more for these businesses, but I was also able to see their potential. With my operating systems and business model, I also knew we could increase profits almost instantly. The other philosophical difference between Copart and IAA was that IAA purchased the cars from the insurance companies while Copart charged fees to store, clean up, and sell the cars. The advantage of this was Copart could limit its liability and get a greater percent of earnings per investment, since they were putting out less cash. The downside was IAA could show more revenue on its books, which people on Wall Street saw as having more potential. I didn’t care though because I knew in the long run, it was about earnings. The bottom line is: what percentage are you making on your business? If we are pulling 30 to 40 percent to their 10 percent, we are a stronger company.
  18. Consistency Is the Key
  19. Look for Leaders Everywhere
    1. Loyalty was a trait I valued. Whenever I shake the hand or meet somebody, I really size them up. After that first meeting with Vinnie, I thought, If he’ll stay with the company, he’s going to be a big leader here. Vinnie told me that his impression of me on that first meeting was that of a simple, easygoing guy with a clear vision and who was quick to react. I was a guy who had a lot to get done in a hurry, and Vinnie knew that. In that, we found a common bond.
  20. Admit Your Mistakes
    1. It was just a bad idea, so we went back to the original model. But the good thing about Copart is even though sometimes we have bad ideas, we learn from them and correct them. That’s the advice I also passed on to Jay and Vinnie: Any time you make a mistake or bad news comes and you’re really upset about it, remember there’s a lesson in it. Just chalk it up as a lesson, and don’t let it happen again. When you lose a customer because you bid wrong, don’t get mad at the customer. Ask yourself, “What did we do wrong to not get that contract?” Just like with buying cars—it didn’t work, so we learned that lesson and moved forward.
    2. Even great entrepreneurs make mistakes, but they only make them once because they learn from them. Willis was never afraid to take a risk, but when it didn’t work, it was time to course correct. Making sure you learn from past mistakes was one of the best lessons I learned from Willis over the years.
  21. Keep Your Growth Sustainable
    1. Jim Grosfeld, who was on Copart’s board, gave me some sage advice: “Willis, Wall Street doesn’t care about ups and downs. They hate that. What they like is consistency. If you just make that earnings line just move up a little bit every quarter, every year, you’ll get paid a really good high multiple because then they can figure your company out.” From then on, I concentrated on steady growth, and when I thought about buying another location, I didn’t try to buy it just because I wanted to grow the company. I bought it because it was a good fit and was in a strategic area that helped fill in our network. I learned an important lesson, and that was not to grow too fast. You have to grow slow and steady, or Wall Street will make you pay for it. They always compare you to what you did last time. If you exceed what you did last time, you’re successful; if you come in under what you did last year, they don’t like you.
    2. At one point, I asked David when it would be done. We needed it now, and I wasn’t good at waiting. When David told me it would probably take another eight to ten months, I wasn’t happy. “Well, put more programmers on it—then we’ll get it done faster,” I told him. “Willis, I’m going to give you a lesson in life right now,” David replied. “One woman can have a baby in nine months. But nine women can’t have a baby in one month. The time doesn’t change. That’s the way it is.” CAS (Copart Auction Systems) ended up taking a year to build at a cost of $3 million—huge money at the time. Now he could see how many cars we picked up that day, how many cars we sold that day. It helped us manage our business better and bring it all together.
      1. Irreducible minimums are important to identify and understand
  22. Embrace New Ideas
    1. Jay talked to buyers himself about online bidding, trying to educate them about the new web-based technology. At this time, online bidding had descriptions of cars for sale but no pictures. All the buyers told Jay it was a dumb idea; no one would bid on a car they didn’t look at first, they said. Jay told them, “I’m not asking you to not see the car. I’m asking you to come look at the car the day before the sale, and for thirty-five dollars you can submit a bid on our website and not have to stand in the auction all day or pay a contract buyer one hundred and fifty dollars to stand there for you.”
      1. Removing frictions, making it easier for the customer to do business
    2. Something else amazing with online bidding was happening too. One day, Jay saw a car in San Diego sell to a buyer in Connecticut. We had never imagined cross-state bidding, let alone cross-country bidding. Jay had David call up the buyer and find out how he was bidding on vehicles he was too far away from to come look at prior to the sale. The buyer told him he knew what he was doing, but it would be helpful if Copart put pictures of the cars online too.
  23. Fill in the Gaps
    1. Copart was still physically growing too. Now that the systems were in place, I had a goal of adding six to ten yards per year in strategic locations between existing yards to not only grow the network but also to shorten tow times and cycle times, which is the time between getting a car into a yard and having it be sold and picked up. Every time we added a dot on the map, we saved towing. This was especially important because at the time, about 70 percent of our customers were using the PIP program and we were eating the cost of long tows. Any time we saw our towing costs were too high, we’d try to put a yard between locations to improve our bottom line. If we can tow a car 50 miles instead of 150 miles, that’s money in the bank. The new yards would also free up space in nearby existing facilities, which in turn could take in more cars.
    2. It was all about making the company stronger, without any debt, and having more cash in the bank. We wanted to take care of our employees, the insurance companies, and our buyers.
      1. Stakeholder win/win mindset
  24. Make Doing Business Easy
    1. As the temperatures continued to drop, so did the number of buyers who braved the cold. With fewer buyers, returns also dropped. So I had an idea: Why not bring the buyers inside, into a nice, warm building, and show them the cars on television monitors? People would no longer have to follow around auction trucks in the cold. That’s when EVA (electronic viewing auction) was born. We brought the auctioneers inside and displayed pictures of the cars on one screen and the make, model, and other information about the car on another screen so no one had to go outside anymore. Buyers loved the idea, but to make it work, it required a lot of building. We had to build an auction booth inside the building, get chairs and coat racks, and buy donuts. We had to do more interior things than we ever had before, including wiring these televisions up on stands. It took a big capital investment to get people inside, but they loved it. While about 40 percent of people were bidding online, there were still a lot of people coming to the sale at this time.
  25. Never Stop Improving on an Idea
    1. Internet buyers still wanted more. They wanted a way to increase their bids on the day of the sale too. Jay figured if there was a way people could bid online during the sale, we would get even higher returns.
    2. I learned that from the military. You don’t leave anyone behind.
      1. As a leader, you also have to be on the frontline, facing danger head on; officers have to eat last; group size should be small and manageable (Dunbar’s number)
    3. We had also seen on the news that commercial planes all over were being grounded—not because the government was grounding them but because no one wanted to fly. On the other hand, car rental companies were booming. You could hardly find a car that wasn’t already rented. I told Jay people weren’t going to fly as much after this. Instead, they were going to drive. If that was the case, they were going to wreck more cars. That meant our business was due to grow again.
      1. Willis understood the whole system, and secondary effects
    4. I talked to one of the guys at Salomon Smith Barney and asked if he thought us doing an offering would be OK even though it had only been three weeks since 9/11. I also told him why I thought this was a good time to grow. He told me no one was doing offerings at this time. Wall Street had pretty much shut down since 9/11, and although there were people who wanted to invest and there was money out there, everything had pretty much come to a screeching halt. This made me think, Well, if there’s a lot of money out there and we have a good story to tell, this may be the perfect time to do an offering.
      1. Greedy when others are fearful
    5. We went out on the road show, which we were used to from our first two offerings. Usually you go from one investment company to another, and you only have thirty minutes at each one because their calendar is full. You have twenty-five minutes to tell them about the company and another five minutes to talk numbers, and maybe, if you are lucky, five minutes of questions. Usually there are also only two bankers in the room to make orders because they are so busy. That wasn’t the case this time. In fact, it was totally the opposite. We’d go into a conference room with fifteen investors, and they wanted us to stay because they had no one else coming in—nothing else to do.
      1. Find opportunities for contrast
  26. Ask Yourself, “What’s My Job?”
    1. Because it was easier for buyers to participate and they could do it from anywhere, more buyers bid on each car. The Internet auction also retained the same excitement as live bidding, which kept the competitive atmosphere alive. With more competition, returns went up. In fact, the sale had the highest returns of the entire year. It went over like gangbusters.
    2. It was time to make a major business decision. That decision wasn’t whether we were going to roll out VB2 to all the yards—that decision was obvious, even to the auctioneers who would lose their jobs. So we had to figure out what our job was. We literally sat in a room and wrote the words, “What is our job?” on a board. We decided our job was to help buyers purchase cars easier so we could get the most money for the sellers. That was our job—to get the insurance company more money. That superseded anything else.
    3. I didn’t see it from a seller’s perspective, though. I didn’t expect returns to go up. I wasn’t thinking that by making it easier, more buyers would use it—and that buyers from all over the world would be able to use it. With all those buyers competing over the cars, it was a natural result that the returns would go up. That was the kicker for me.
      1. “Good” decisions are those which have unintended, positive knock-on effects
    4. It goes to show you that any company today has to pay attention to technology and how the world is changing and incorporate that if it wants to survive. You can’t do things the same way and expect to be around in ten years. The world moves too quickly. The moment you snooze, you lose.
    5. Our philosophy is always to be on the bleeding edge and to never let those young kids come up behind us and do what they’ve done to so many industries. We need to hire those kids instead so we can stay ahead of the curve on all the new technology.
  27. Don’t Lose What Makes You Special
    1. It was 2002 when Jay realized something bad had happened to Copart: no one knew anyone anymore. We had gotten so big we didn’t have that mom-and-pop feel anymore. This was especially evident when Jay called up a yard to talk to a general manager one day, and was surprised to find out no one knew who he was. “Jay Adair? I don’t think I know you. Do you work at Copart?” asked the employee who had answered the phone. Copart had become a much different kind of company than when Jay first started working there in 1989. It was big. It was financially secure. It had revolutionary technology. But the vision and spirit we had built the company on was no longer reaching its employees. The employees, as a result, did not act as a team or feel like they were working together. That in turn negatively impacted the company’s progress and its relationship with its customers. So Jay decided Copart needed a revolution. It needed to get back to its roots.
    2. Another catalyst for Jay’s decision to have a revolution was when Copart disbanded its fleet of tow trucks and began to contract with drivers instead. This improved efficiency and cut transportation and insurance costs. But the decision—which meant laying off hundreds of drivers—also hurt morale.
    3. About 75 percent of our workers’ comp costs were for truck drivers. Seventy-five percent of our liability claims were because trucks were driving over mailboxes or knocking down gates. When we added it all up, it was ridiculous. It’s crazy we never thought of it before. After testing it out further, the company decided to get out of trucks altogether. But they needed to find a way to do it that would be fair to the hundreds of drivers who would no longer be on the payroll. Gerry Waters took the lead in an effort to sell all of Copart’s carriers to each driver at a discount. He put together a packet of information for all the drivers that outlined how to start their own businesses, including everything from getting a business license and insurance to lists of lenders that had already been identified as willing to finance their new venture. Copart also promised to favor the new entrepreneurs when choosing subhaulers in the future. Whatever the other local guy towed for, Copart offered to pay more if the driver used to be an employee. Only about 20 percent of the drivers took the deal, with the 80 percent choosing not to take the risk of running their own businesses. Copart found that owner-operated tow trucks worked harder. Each tow represented more money for their business, while regular employees got paid the same no matter how many tows they did in a day. All of a sudden we had people doing more loads in the same amount of time for us—because they were hustling more. They were doing three loads a day instead of two. And they were working earlier and later instead of just punching a clock because it meant more money for them. They were in control of their paycheck. As Copart progressed, the subhaul program progressed with it. Copart began offering incentives for tow companies, like discounts on cell phones and insurance, to sweeten the pot and attract the best companies. It again goes back to the lesson that when something bad happens, like the union problem in Michigan, you don’t need to panic or get mad; you just need to step back and find a new way. And more times than not, that bad thing that happened will turn into a good thing if you listen to the lessons it is teaching you.
    4. There were more lessons. Copart didn’t just learn that it could operate better without its own fleet of trucks; it also learned it needed to change the way it interacted with employees. We learned it wasn’t just enough to treat your employees nice, give them good benefits, and hope they got it. That wasn’t enough to keep the unions out. We treated the employee nice, gave them as many benefits as we could, and treated them like we didn’t want them to leave—because we didn’t. But we didn’t tell them we loved them; we didn’t show them how much they meant to the company. That’s where we had fallen short. This was another reason Jay wanted a cultural revolution at Copart. We had been a nuts-and-bolts company where as long as you got the work done, it didn’t matter if you had fun doing your job or liked the people you worked with or even knew why you were doing what you did. That made us into a place that on some levels really wasn’t a great place to work because it didn’t matter if people would rather work around you than with you. That needed to change. Jay told managers at a conference in 2002 that from then on Copart was going to be a company that didn’t just hire on skill sets or IQ (intelligent quotient); it was going to hire based on attitude—EQ (emotional quotient). We were going to be a company in which people liked their coworkers and had fun at what they did. If that happened, we knew they would probably be more efficient and productive and capable of delivering legendary service. If employees are happy, that translates directly to how we treat our customers and how we can move forward as a company.
    5. Becoming a big, public company, we decided, didn’t mean we had to sacrifice having a culture where people worked hard, had fun, and were rewarded for it. Jay remembered how in the early days he was given the freedom to disagree with me and share his ideas, which helped him grow. He wanted all employees at Copart to have that same opportunity. You should be respectful of your boss but not fear your boss or be afraid to disagree with him or her. If you have the ability to speak your mind, the company benefits too because that’s when great ideas are born. We also wanted to communicate to employees that the most important thing at Copart was keeping a clear moral direction. So many people separate different aspects of life by saying “this is life” and “this is business” and give them different sets of rules. But we look at business and life and family as all intermixing. If you are happy at home, you’re happier at work and vice versa. If you do well at work, you can provide more for your family. Jay also wanted everyone at Copart to treat each other like friends and family. Take care of the company, and we’ll take care of you. Take care of customers like you want to be taken care of
  28. Have a Clear Mission, Vision, and values
    1. To communicate some of these lost ideals and vision, Copart developed a mission, vision, and values statement to guide its business principles and employees. Its mission was to streamline and simplify the auction process; its vision was to continually offer compelling, innovative, and unique products and services to propel the marketplace forward. And the first letter of each of its values spelled out the Copart name itself—committed, ownership, profitability, adaptable, relationships, and trust. But it wasn’t enough to just hang these on the wall. The mission, vision, and values also became a key element in Copart’s training and culture. The CIC—Copart identity campaign—was also launched and introduced initiatives designed to build morale, teamwork, and customer service standards. The campaign included company-wide initiatives, such as the twenty-four-hour rule in which employees must follow up with customers within one day. A weekly cheer was also introduced to bring employees together and build company pride, and employees were also encouraged to wear the company color – blue – one day a week.
    2. I also formed the Copart Private Foundation—a scholarship fund created directly from private contributions made by me and other executives. The foundation was set up to help Copart employees’ children with the costs of college and books. No one who has applied for the scholarship has been turned down. My military background and strong love for my country also prompted me to start a program at Copart that paid 50 percent salary to any employee deployed to an active US military campaign. Positions are also held for six months for those who are deployed. This policy earned Copart national recognition from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR)
    3. Despite these improvements, Jay was still concerned that the senior management of Copart was still too far removed from the people working in the yards, as was demonstrated when the woman who answered the phone didn’t know who he was. As he was talking to a business associate one day, he thought out loud about how great it would be if he could meet every employee personally and travel to all of Copart’s yards, which numbered more than 110 at that time. His associate laughed at him and commented he would never be able to do it. Was he crazy? That was all the challenge Jay needed to prove him wrong. Jay promised all the employees he would come meet them personally at their yard over the next year. The world tour was born. Jay didn’t know what he was getting into, though. The world tour took on a life of its own, and the spirit and excitement that had been lost over the years returned as employees tried to outdo one another by staging stunts, games, and skits for Jay and other executives when they visited. During the 2005 tour, Jay found himself riding a donkey, being arrested, getting dunked in a dunk tank, and dressing up as Elvis. It was an opportunity for employees to turn the tables on executives and put them on the spot—and as a result, the executives became more like ordinary people in their eyes. More importantly, the world tour also had a powerful message. Jay talked to each yard about where the company had been and where it was going. He told them how Copart’s change-centric culture had made Copart a leader in the industry and how the company would keep embracing change and finding better ways to do things. He explained Copart needed to provide not just good service but legendary service—service that left customers saying, “Wow, how did they do that?” and telling others about the experience. He shared the strength of the company’s future with employees and talked about how the salvage industry was recession proof because people would always be wrecking cars. The world tour really brought the company together. We got to know our employees better, and they got to know us. We got back that mom-and-pop feel we had lost.
    4. Helping out in the Katrina disaster – Through the ordeal, Copart did not pass any of its added costs on to its customers. Copart chose to absorb the costs for a couple of reasons—first, because it was the right thing to do. Copart emerged as an important ally in the clean-up and recovery efforts, with many government agencies asking for and receiving Copart’s help. One of Copart’s first priorities after the storm was picking up vehicles at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, so rescue operations could be made to New Orleans. Copart also absorbed the costs because it wanted to prove to its customers it was not just a vendor but a business partner they could rely on even at the worst possible time.
    5. Finally, I decided to get a second opinion. I called Richard Reese, the CEO of Iron Mountain, who already had operations in the UK. I had met Richard at a CEO group I attended and had asked him for his advice before. “Richard, what’s the most important thing I need to do in England?” I asked. Richard’s advice was quick and direct. “You need to introduce your company’s culture there.” Richard went on to explain that in the UK, business was very hierarchical, meaning managers didn’t like to talk to people many levels below them. “That’s not the way your company or my company works, Willis,” Richard told him. “We need to have that communication between management and the employees—that idea flow—for things to work well.”
  29. Other
    1. Her gut [his wife’s] was always right. She really helped me make good decisions. Joyce always told me she liked to hear about my ideas and see me excited about the next big thing I had planned. There was nothing she felt I couldn’t do, she told me. That’s a pretty amazing thing—when you have someone on your side who feels that way. She knew how much I loved Copart and loved taking it to different places and trying new things. Neither of us really knew if I could ever give that up.
    2. I have only one regret—that I now spend more time with my grandchildren than I was able to spend with my children while they were growing up. I was too busy growing the business to enjoy them as much as I would have liked.
    3. One thing I’ve taught all the executives in the company is that while you may be good in our business, that doesn’t mean you are good in any other business. Don’t get a big head and think you know it all, because that’s when you’ll lose. You’re really good in the car business. You’re really good in the recycling business. You’re not necessarily good in everything else, and you need to understand that. Stay with what you are good at, venture out if you see an opportunity, but pull your horns in if you make a mistake.
    4. Willis didn’t come home at seven at night with his shoulders down like he had just put in another day at the salt mine. His work didn’t drain him; it drove him. I wanted to be like that.
    5. Willis used to say if you get big enough, you can make an industry behave in a particular way.
What I got out of it
  1. Humility, common sense, work ethic, admitting mistakes, being in the thick of it on a daily basis, surrounding yourself with great people and doing the right thing are all key attributes of leaders, as Willis amazingly demonstrates