Talkin’ With Lou: Paul Van Woensel

Nov 12, 2010

I had the chance to get to know Paul Van Woensel riding around in a golf cart with him at the Phoenix golf resort, Ocotillo, this fall. It took me nearly three years to sell Paul on our line of products and another three years to get him to ride around in a golf cart with me.

Paul, much like his steady and consistent golf game, sets the precedent for careful and practical business decisions by monitoring analytical data on his company, the overall market as well as his customers and vendors. He and his management team, including EPWI’s marketing director, Dusty Dodge, keep such a close on eye on all metrics, you might wonder if these guys are just another group of investment bankers experimenting in the automotive aftermarket.

Truth is, Paul is a family man first and foremost. You really come to understand this when you meet his children, as I did at this year’s annual EPWI Attitude Enhancement conference in Vail, Colo. His close-knit family resembles the close-knit family at EPWI.

Paul, Dusty, John Clark, Terry Kirby and the rest of the gang at EPWI feel like family after working with them for over seven years now. A friend of mine at another manufacturer once told me, “EPWI is a relationship account.” It’s true. Some of the kindest and hardest-working people in this industry are employees at EPWI. And it all starts at the top with Paul Van Woensel.

LJ: Thanks for golfing with us in Phoenix. It was nice to catch up with you. We talked briefly about the consolidation or compression within the sales channels in Vail, but going further, what do you see going on out there with retailers, jobbers, etc.? 

Paul: Consolidation is continuing in all segments of the aftermarket. At the manufacturer level, with program groups, at the WD level and certainly among jobbers and many retailers.

Closer to home, we have seen significant and continuing consolidation among our principal customers including engine rebuilders and machine shops. The larger players have continued to grow larger as they capitalize on the economies of scale. The smaller players have struggled in the current economy and will continue to be at a growing disadvantage to their larger and more enabled competitors.

LJ: You mentioned the current economy. How has that impacted the engine parts business? 

Paul: Interestingly, the engine parts business is somewhat recession-resistant. When the economy is good we see a lot of discretionary spending in high-performance including hot rods, racing, classic car restoration, etc. When the economy is bad, folks tend to repair, instead of replace, which relates to a strong market on the stock replacement side.

LJ: Is engine parts a pretty tough category?

Paul: Oh yes, but that is part of our strength and success! Rampant growth in engine part SKUs, traditionally slow turns and the expertise and investment needed in the category have created opportunity for the specialists as the generalist WDs, and even the major retailers, have largely abandoned the category.

Our expertise and dedication to the engine parts category has allowed us to prosper and to grow, and in many respects, to develop relationships with the generalist WDs and large national retailers who now look to us as a primary engine parts and engine kit supplier.

LJ: What does a retailer need to do to not just stay in business, but thrive in business in the coming years?

Paul: In a few words, “get aggressive.” And, from what I see, many are doing just that! At the end of day it is about selling your service and outperforming your competitors. Retailers must stay focused on understanding and meeting their customer’s needs and a step ahead of the competition. It’s a full-time job.

LJ: What should organizations like SEMA, PWA, etc. be doing to help these retailers grow their business? 

Paul: Quite simply, anything that we can do better as a collective association than we can do individually.

Training is a perfect example. Recent SEMA and PWA training initiatives have been very effective. The association-supported training programs and platforms have proven to be a very efficient and effective method for member manufacturers and suppliers to deliver important product and technical training to WDs, retailers and other member organizations.

Lobbying and advocacy program efforts are also critically important. Legislation has the potential of impacting us all in many ways. Much of what we see happening in Washington simply doesn’t make sense and even more so than in the past. Too much government and too much debt! With member support, our industry and trade associations can be a very effective voice.

LJ: What’s this I hear about EPWI’s “Million Parts Contest?” 

Paul: We have just recently sold our one-millionth part online. We had a customer contest to pick the date and time, which occurred just a few days ago. We awarded a prize to the customer who guessed the correct date/time and another prize to the customer who ordered the millionth part.

LJ: A million parts sold online? That’s quite an accomplishment!

Paul: We think so!! We have been active on the Web for a number of years. Our website, www.epwi.net, is a fully enabled business-to-business website with tremendous capabilities. The site provides 24/7 real-time interactive online kit building, stock checking, electronic ordering and other customer account functionality.

Today, a very significant portion of our total sales is completely electronic and literally from the Web to our warehouse pick ticket printers.

LJ: Are you guys doing anything with social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to reach your customers?

Paul: While we are not presently active on any social media sites, they are certainly on our radar. Our focus, if any, would be on developing customer communities, forums and networking opportunities as opposed to developing any consumer-direct activities. This is in keeping with our longstanding commitment to support a traditional three-step distribution channel and respecting our customer’s customer.

LJ: What are your thoughts on the government’s increasingly anti-auto-enthusiast policies and laws and what should we be doing to protect and preserve our passion?

Paul: It seems like there are more enthusiasts than ever! It is a large industry and somewhat unique to the U.S. We must remain diligent.

As before, industry associations and trade organizations can be an effective and impactful voice on behalf of their members and all automotive enthusiasts. Get active, support your organizations and their legislative efforts.

EPWI is, and has been, an active industry supporter/contributor maintaining longstanding membership in various industry organizations including SEMA, PWA, AAIA, AERA and other national and regional automotive associations. We’re also active with Engine Parts Group Inc. as an owner, and charter member of the Engine Pro program distribution group. These affiliations are very valuable in the furtherance of our common goals in support of the industry where we all earn our livelihood.

LJ: What will guide EPWI’s direction for the future?

Paul: We have built our reputation through hard work, diligent attention to our customer’s needs and by fostering open, honest and trusting relationships with customers, suppliers, and employees alike. Our success has been guided by our mission statement, which articulates our goals and guiding principles. In a few words, “We will stay the course.”

More With Paul

Last book read? Books? Who has time to read books? Frankly speaking, I can’t say that I do a lot of reading. It seems that attention to the business requires my fulltime attention.

Favorite place to vacation? I do enjoy traveling. I guess my favorite spot is anywhere where I can be with my wife, Irene, our kids, Heidi, Tracy and Luke, and especially my first granddaughter, Maya. I cherish the vacation time we have enjoyed together, regardless of the destination.

Person you’d most like to have lunch with? Oh, that’s a tough one. I think that the person who fascinates me the most would be our former president, John F. Kennedy. I cannot imagine a more interesting figure, and would really enjoy meeting him.

Favorite place to drive? We live west of Denver in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. My favorite place to drive is just about any of the mountains roads, given the appropriate car and, of course, favorable roads conditions!

What was your first car? My first car was a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Now had you asked me about my favorite early ride, I would have said my 1961 Chevrolet Impala that I drove in high school. That was my first real love. I have a fully restored 1962 409 that is my frequent driver!