Olympic 4×4 Supply

Dec 2, 2009

In the Seattle satellite of Snohomish, Wash., there is a business founded and built by a man who has had dreams of owning an automotive business since he was a small child. However, while most may have dreamt of owning a race team or manufacturing company, Carl Niebuhr’s dream was a little different.

“Even in when I was a little kid, I dreamed of owning a wrecking yard. I don’t know why,” says Niebuhr.

It took a little time, but Niebuhr eventually got his wrecking yard and a booming 4×4 business to go with it, a business which is as unusual in its products and services as the name of the town in which it’s located. That story is below, but to get started, let’s just say that Carl Niebuhr does things his own way.

In A Roundabout Way

Now something of an off-road entrepreneur, Niebuhr once made a living as a meat cutter, where his 4×4 habit earned a nickname, Mr. Jeeps, from his coworkers. It was a catchy name, but one that would later bring about a little trouble for Niebuhr.

“We originally named our company Mr. Jeeps,” says Niebuhr.

A good name, but one which Chrysler took issue with, because it was a trademark. So, the automotive giant came to the little town of Snohomish and the name was dropped.

As for his business beginnings, Niebuhr says, “I started out of my home in 1976. Actually, I started in our little, teeny garage.”

He was 23-years-old at the time, and back then, it was just a hobby. “I was working at a tractor dealership, and I did gear work for them,” remembers Niebuhr.

Since he was already doing the work during the day, he decided to use his skills to make a little extra money doing gears for vehicles he enjoyed, Jeeps, during his time away from work. Over time, he decided to sell parts as well.

“Right around 1978 is when I got pretty serious about it, and I started stocking items. I got a separate phone line and I had a regular clientele, but I still didn’t really know what I was doing. Sometime in 1980, we became more serious and moved the business,” recalls Niebuhr.

That move, from the teeny garage, was to a larger location, one with much more room. While the garage was a close fit allowing only for necessities, in the new location, there was so much extra space that if he had wanted to, Niebuhr could easily have made room for other things completely unrelated to his business. For example, hay and farm animals, such as cows and horses, would have felt quite welcome.

“I started working out of a little barn that my parents had. I actually own that little barn today,” says Niebuhr.

Barn though it may have been, and for that matter, still is, it was the first independent structure for the business that would become Olympic 4×4 Supply. There were, however, a few more stages to its evolution.

“About ’82, we built a shop at our house. It was a pretty good sized shop, 50-feet by 50-feet. It had a lot of room, enough anyways, and I was parting out vehicles at my house. Of course, none of that was good, because it’s against the law in this state,” tells Niebuhr.

See, I told you that Niebuhr did things his own way.

“Then one day,” he continues, “the state patrol rolled up the driveway and asked, ‘What are you doing?'”

Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“And so,” Niebuhr finishes, “then I moved to downtown Snohomish to a little building on a little lot.”

Little Building, Little Lot

At his little building on his little lot, Niebuhr eventually increased his company’s personnel and hired a counter guy named Rob, and then he hired Roy, a pair of longtime employees who still work for Olympic 4×4 Supply.

Together, the three of them worked out of the small shop, selling new parts as well as parting out what Niebuhr describes as, “Oh, 50 or 60 rigs.”

As a self-proclaimed “gear guy,” Niebuhr also early on developed a reputation as the guy to take a T90 transmission to.

“That was Jeep’s big transmission from the 1940s clear up to the end of the 60s. I think they stopped using the T90 in ’67. But, we built a lot of those and sold those pretty much on a daily basis and shipped them all over. We still ship nationwide,” says Niebuhr.

Business went well for the next several years, and Niebuhr and his employees were able to fall into a somewhat of a daily routine, with consistent customers and no big surprises … except that one time.

“We were flooded, and everything I owned was underwater,” he explains. “That was in ’87. We’re close to the mountains here, and any time that there’s torrential downpour in the middle of the winter and at high tide, the valley floods.”

It didn’t flood the entire town, just a good bit of it, says Niebuhr. “Loads of lumber were coming down from the lumber yard up the street. Pumpkins, tires, etc., were all floating down the street and into the river.”

Fortunately, the damage done to the “little building on the little lot” wasn’t as destructive as it could have been. By this time, Niebuhr had already begun to build another structure for Olympic 4×4 Supply-a larger building on a larger lot: four acres.

“We were already under construction of our new location, where we’re currently located today, only it was just a pole building with a roof. If it had sides, I probably would have moved in that night,” says Niebuhr.

But it didn’t, and at that time, they didn’t even have a cement floor for the 48-feet by 72-feet building. Soon after, however, walls were put up as were other buildings, but the weather wasn’t done with its mischief.

“We had a flat-roof shop that was next to it, and in 1996, we had a huge snowstorm. It snowed about four feet in 24 hours, and then it turned to rain. And since the shop was flat-roofed, it just took the structure and shoved in right into the ground. The roof caved in,” says Niebuhr.

About now, one might wonder if Mother Nature had it out for Niebuhr. But if she did, she certainly didn’t try hard enough. Niebuhr simply shrugged off the loss and rebuilt-with a slanted roof this time.

Strength In Numbers

In fact, after rebuilding, Olympic 4×4 Supply became stronger than ever before. With a new footprint of 72-feet by 72-feet, the replacement building is larger than its snow-buried predecessor, and it’s certainly more productive. With four bays, plus an alignment rack, Niebuhr has plenty of room for his equipment as well as another area of growth: The company now employees 19 people, many of whom have held a long tenure.

With their hard work and his perseverance, Niebuhr put himself in position to pursue his childhood dream. And along the way, he found that having a dream to own a wrecking yard is one thing, but building a wrecking yard is another.

“It’s a pretty hard process. You can’t just go open up a wrecking yard anywhere. It’s got to be in an area that’s correctly zoned. And, obtaining the license is pretty hard these days. Buying an existing yard and keeping it as an existing yard is the way to go,” says Niebuhr.

Helping him to keep the yard and everything else going at the shop are those 19 employees. Niebuhr says that he likes to hire really involved 4×4 junkies whenever possible, but he notes that his staff actually has a variety of backgrounds.

“Cindy, the secretary and bookkeeper, came from the lumber yard, and she’s been here for 24 years. Roy worked at a glass shop and a wrecking yard, and he’s been here for 22 years. Rob worked as a wholesale parts manager for a distributor, and he’s been here for 24 years. Rob runs the service; Roy is the general manager, and he really runs everything,” says Niebuhr.

Those three are perhaps the longest tenured employees of his business, but Niebuhr notes, “I’ve got another couple of them who have been here for more than 20. Another guy has been here for at least 12 years…

And he goes on like that, making it clear that either Olympic 4×4 Supply is a really good place to work, or Snohomish has a high percentage of off-road enthusiasts or both.

Parts New and Used

Olympic 4×4 Supply might be unique in their business model: selling and installing new off-road parts while simultaneously operating a wrecking yard isn’t exactly an industry standard. Yet Niebuhr has found a way to make it work, though it does present challenges.

“First of all, selling new and used is really hard. I don’t know how the repair shops do it, but if a customer has a vehicle that needs a 30-cent clip, well, they can just walk out into the yard and grab it,” says Niebuhr.

On the other hand, “If they need a vacuum canister or a tie-rod clamp-items a lot of shops won’t stock-if we don’t have it new, we have it used. A lot of people shop here just for that reason. They know that if they’re coming here for a new part and we don’t have it, they can come away with something used and vice versa. If they’re coming here for used and we don’t have it, we’ll usually have it new.”

That’s part of the reason Olympic 4×4 Supply offers both, but in further explanation, Niebuhr says, “Originally, we were buying vehicles just for transmission parts. I was a gear guy, and I needed front ends, rear ends, transfer cases and transmissions.”

He needed them, because at that time, he couldn’t easily buy ring and pinion gears for Dana 44s. Niebuhr credits Randy’s Ring and Pinion as filling a huge gap in that area. It’s located in Everett, Wash., and it resells nationwide.

“We used to box up all of our old ring and pinions and carriers and put part numbers on them and put them on the shelf. We still do that, but we don’t put them in boxes and keep them inside anymore; we have outside warehouses that we keep axle components and items like that in,” says Niebuhr.

Commenting on what sells best for him, he says, “It’s a hodge-podge, but there’s always trendy stuff that’s hot. Poison Spyder is very hot right now, as are all of the lift kits.”

Overall, 60 percent of the shop’s total sales are from new parts, 40 percent comes from used parts. Noting that they likely do more volume in new parts than most shops that strictly sell new parts, Niebuhr says he stocks more than any four-wheel drive business for many miles around-with the exception of warehouse distributors.

Inventory and Pricing

Niebuhr keeps close track of all of those parts with a detailed inventory.

“By law, because we’re a licensed auto wrecker, we have to keep track of all of the used parts. And, we have to put stock numbers on it so they can track it in their system. Let’s say we sell a rolled-over Jeep, and the customer is going to fix it. We don’t sell it to them on a title, because we can’t. We have to sell it on a bill of sale, and then he takes it to the state patrol for re-inspection, but he has to keep his receipts. If we sell that same guy a windshield, frame, hood, grill and a fender, each with stock numbers on them, the state patrol can actually look into their system and see where the parts originated from. It’s theft prevention.”

Whenever another used vehicle comes into the yard at Olympic 4×4, it’s put through a process-not only to properly inventory the parts but to price them as well. Commenting on his pricing procedures, Niebuhr says, “We try to price everything half of new. So, if the Jeep dealer says a new hood is $900, then we try to sell a used one for $450. Most wrecking yards work off of that.”

As for their inventory system, Olympic 4×4 Supply uses a regular wrecking yard computer system, which tracks its entire inventory.

Snohomish

Olympic 4×4 Supply’s home is the small town of Snohomish, population 6,000. Thirty-two miles north of Seattle, it’s a satellite to the big city and close to towns such as Everett.

Snohomish is also one of those diminishing number of small towns large enough to have nearly all of the amenities that people expect, and yet it’s small enough to allow for certain freedoms not to be found in cities.

For example, residents can go to the grocery store for all of their food needs. And then, on special occasions such as the 4th of July, most of those same residents have the privacy and distance between neighbors to, let’s say, set off some fireworks … even the usually-just-the-fire-department-gets-them variety of fireworks – not that anyone referred to in this article does that. It’s just that in a town like Snohomish, if someone wanted to, they could…

This aspect of the town gives it something of a personality, one that meshes well with Carl Niebuhr and Olympic 4×4 Supply. All three do things their way.