Getting to know CRW Parts
By David Willis, president
Please briefly describe the history of CRW Parts.
CRW Parts, Inc., formerly Chesapeake Rim & Wheel Distributors, opened for business on March 12, 1962, specializing in replacement wheels and brakes for passenger cars and trucks. The company began with fourteen people, all veterans of the automotive aftermarket. Each had worked for R.W. Norris & Sons, a wholesaler with roots going back to the 1850’s. Due to the death of several of the principals of that firm, the decision was made to liquidate the 112-year old business that had spanned through five generations, thereby, opening the opportunity for CRW to select the most promising product lines and personnel from the liquidated firm.
CRW opened its first branch in Landover, Md., in 1967 and subsequently others in Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke, Va., following later with Salisbury, Md., Wilmington, Del., and Jessup, Md.
In 1996 we changed the company’s name from Chesapeake Rim & Wheel Distributors, Inc. to CRW Parts, Inc., to more adequately reflect the wider range of products offered. In 1998, we acquired the assets of Standard Wheel & Rim Co. Our company currently employs approximately 105 people in eight locations.
Over the years, CRW has expanded into related lines of exhaust, suspension and drive line products, but always attempted to maintain its specialization in exhaust products, wheels, brakes and undercar parts.
We currently have over 150 sales categories supplied by roughly 250 vendors. Our sales are to fleets, exhaust shops, tire dealers and installers, automotive jobbers and miscellaneous industrial accounts in the Mid-Atlantic States.
It is the continuing goal of CRW to furnish our customers with dependable parts and service at competitive prices. Our industry is an extremely competitive one, but we are optimistic in the outlook for the future of our business, provided we listen to the needs of our customers and work to efficiently serve those needs.
Please briefly describe your company’s distribution structure?
We are an unusual company that generates 50 percent of our sales from the automotive market and the other 50 percent from the heavy-duty market. With warehouses in every large city in the mid-Atlantic region we sell to municipalities, fleets, garages both auto and heavy-duty, tire dealers, and exhaust shops.
Our largest vendors are AP Goerlich, Accuride, Meritor, Federal-Mogul, Jones Exhaust, Alcoa, SKF, STEMCO, Baldwin, and Trucklite, just to name a few. We do sell over 200 different lines of product.
What separates CRW Parts from competitors in its marketplace, and why have customers remained loyal?
I think the first thing that separates us from the competition is our longevity. Few businesses in any industry have been around since 1850. That longevity gives CRW a certain amount of credibility and stability our customers rely on.
Our people is another differentiator. To be in business over 150 years requires good people who know the product, know the marketplace, and know the customers, and are willing to do what it takes to satisfy our customers.
Finally our overriding principle is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” Customers who are treated fairly and equitably tend to stay loyal.
How do you believe customers perceive your business?
I would like to think CRW is viewed as a dependable provider of parts and service both by our customers and our competition. What we do we do well!
What do most customers not know about CRW?
While they know CRW has been around for a while, I am not sure they realize we have been around for six generations and started in 1850.
What makes CRW Parts a great place to work?
Again CRW operates under the Golden Rule and that applies to our employees as well as our customers. We are a family business and our employees are our family! We do a lot to train our employees and offer them a chance to promote and grow based on their performance.
When times are tough we stick with our employees and work with them to weather the storm. We have an open door policy that anyone at any time can come talk with me about whatever may be bothering them. It means a lot that they can talk directly with the owner without fear of repercussions.
What are the pros and cons of working for a family-owned business?
Working in a family owned business is a double-edged sword for both family and non-family members. For family the pressure to be better is always there. And for the parent the need to be patient is critical! The desire to see your child succeed and not make a mistake, is offset by the need to have them branch off and try things even though they may fail. We tend to learn more through our failures than through our successes.
For employees it means maybe accepting a little less pay than the big corporations offer. Knowing that you are not just a number, but a valued person who will be looked after when tough times hit.
What does CRW Parts mean to you, and the Willis family?
CRW has allowed me to work side by side with my father (Bo Willis). Meet and work with wonderful people from all sides of the distribution channel. Travel and see wonderful locales. And finally support my family and those of my employees.
Do you have any advice for the next generation, as they work in this industry?
- Be a team player. Work hard for your company’s success and personal success will follow.
- Develop relationships not only with employees and manufacturers, but other distributors as well.
- Don’t be afraid to get involved and ask for help! Pride cometh before a fall.
- Learn everything you can and become a problem solver. Anyone can point out problems it is a person who can solve them that gets promoted.
- Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your career.
- Live by the Golden Rule. This industry is too small and if you do wrong it will haunt you for a long time.
Why did CRW Parts join GenNext? How can GenNext help CRW Parts’ employees?
The need in our industry (as in all industries) to bring in young talent and train them is vital to the long term health of our company and our marketplace. Many of the young today have no idea how wonderful the heavy-duty and automotive aftermarket are. Distributors need to be proactive when it comes to recruiting new talent in our businesses.
CRW joined GenNext because it helped fill a void in our industry as it relates to recruiting, training, and developing the next generation of aftermarket leaders. Better to lead from the front than from the rear.
What are your goals for the long-term future of CRW Parts?
To simply hand it over, in good working order, to the next generation of the Willis family!
What are the three most pivotal moments in your career that you either learned from and/or that got you where you are?
- Marrying my wife
- Moving to Buffalo for four years
- The day my dad passed
Are there any industry leaders that have influenced you/mentored you? Who were they and how has their knowledge assisted you?
- My father – Need I say more?
- Ray Renehan – Taught me the need to show up and be counted on.
- John Minor – Great example of class and dignity.
- All the old NWRA crowd – Taught me this industry is filled with people who will help you and share information if asked.
- Marc Karon – A great communicator whose tireless efforts on behalf of the aftermarket distributor is awe inspiring. He is also a wealth of knowledge who shares freely his opinions if asked.
- Angelo Volpe – Whose love for this industry and the people in it is infectious.