‘Everyone is entitled to respect’

Proline auto owner Thomas May considers employees and customers alike to be an integral part of the NAPA family

By Kristen Lipscombe

For Proline Automotive Supply, Ltd., owner Thomas May, going to work every day for the past 40 years has been just as much about spending time with his second family as it has been about selling top-of-the-line vehicle parts.

“I’ve been there 33 years this year,” said the 63-year-old owner of the National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) supply shop located on Spencer Street in the heart of Saint John, one of two New Brunswick-based auto parts stores he’s run over the course of his four-decade-long career.

The NAPA shop usually has about 10 employees on the payroll, with office manager Gail Bagley also reaching the 33-year mark this year and store manager Thomas Parsons rising the ranks for more than two decades to help run the business.

“I think we offer a pleasant workplace,” May said. “Everybody gets treated with respect, which I think is important. Everyone is entitled to respect.” That sense of mutual respect extends to the store’s customers, which range from local businesses in need of specific supplies for vehicle fleets to individuals looking for both quick and quality fixes for their cars and trucks. Proline Automotive quickly finds exactly what their customers need, which more often than not means meeting – and exceeding – expectations. The NAPA-supplied store has unique access to a selection of more than 50,000 parts ranging from batteries and brake pads, to alternators and starters, and everything else in between needed to keep drivers on the road safely.

“We really are focused on keeping our customers happy, so it keeps us all focused on the same goal,” May said. “We’re mainly auto parts with a little bit of industrial (supplies) that we sell.” Those sometimes include specialized parts and tools for more heavy-duty farming and marine equipment, but for the most part, his shop’s clientele consists of smaller repair shops and those behind the wheels of small- and medium-sized trucks and cars.

“We concentrate on what we do well,” said May, who started his auto parts career as a 23-year-old stock boy in the commercial equipment industry, but had started to answer phones and handle the parts counter within a matter of weeks.

“Then I became a part-time salesman, and then a part-time purchaser, and then I became a full-time purchaser, and then I became a full-time manager, and then I came back and managed the parts counter, all within seven years,” May said. “It was like a training course for me.”

May wanted to keep learning about the auto parts industry beyond commercial equipment so started networking with salesmen within the industry. He jumped at the opportunity to manage the United Auto Parts (UAP) location in Saint John, which specialized in light-truck and car parts, and before he knew it, the owners offered to sell him their shop. Eventually, UAP became a subsidiary of Genuine Parts Company (GPC), operating under the NAPA brand, which prides itself on “best in class service” across the entire supply chain.

“There are a lot of things that we offer that the rest of the industry can’t, so it differentiates us,” May explained. “I always like to offer the best and NAPA enables me to do that. I think if I was selling for any other banner, I’d feel like I was second best.”

So what makes NAPA so special in such a highly competitive industry?

“We lead the way in warranty programs and incentive programs,” May said. That includes vacations every couple of years for thousands of loyal customers to destinations ranging from Hawaii in the U.S. to Buenos Aires in Argentina to Panama, which borders Central and South America, along with several European tourist hot spots such as Italy, Portugal, and most recently, Ireland.

“Those programs are just fantastic for customers to be able to go on and we go as a group, so we form really good relationships,” May explained. “It’s not just business.”

The special trips are part of the unique NAPA Rewards program, which allows customers to rack up points just for choosing to provide their business to a company that built itself on honesty, integrity and reliability. 

“If they choose to enroll in the program, they get three per cent of their purchases back over two years towards the cost of a trip, and then they pay whatever else is left, or if they earned enough, they get a credit back and they’ve earned more than the value of the trip.”

The company literally welcomes its loyal customers to become “part of the NAPA Family,” according to its website.

“We socialize together when we’re on the trips,” May said. “We spend a lot of time together.”

May believes that’s why many customers – and employees – stick with the company “for so long,” including himself. 

“The industry is a great industry; there are so many opportunities” said May. “It’s amazing.”

Another one of those opportunities for May has been his decade of involvement with the Automotive Industries Association (AIA) of Canada, where he even served as chair for three years before recently passing the torch as he readies himself for retirement.

Although he’s going to miss “the people” in his automotive parts family, May said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his adult children Evan May and Andrea Zaionz, along with his granddaughter Amy, in addition to finishing his brand new home on the river, hitting the golf course more often and scuba diving down south with his fiancé, Darlene Mattina.

“I have only respect for this organization,” May said of both his AIA and NAPA families. “Particularly to be respected are the many volunteers who work on behalf of the association and donate their time and experience to promote the industry in each region across Canada.”

May emphasizes his genuine respect for his colleagues across the country in the automotive parts industry, “who are in it to help people, for the most part. They will do almost anything for anybody and I just find they’re very down to earth people that are doing a tough job.”

That willingness to ensure customers are fully satisfied with their high-quality services sometimes even comes at the costs of the success of individual businesses, which value their long-term reputation among loyal customers over making money and immediate profit. “They’re very under-valued for what they do.”

For May, that feeling of his business truly feeling like a family culminated when his company – and their customers – were able to fundraise enough money to buy a mobility bus for Kennebec Manor, a local nursing home where his late wife, Pamela May (Steeves), had volunteered for several years.

“We had some of our customers involved and they chipped in,” May said, “and it was just kind of a good sense of community.” Pamela’s mother had been a resident at Kennebec Manor so she spent a lot of time there helping and “going out with residents on their outings,” May recalled. “And then their bus died, and they had no bus so the last few months that she volunteered there, there were no outings anymore.”

Pamela passed away in April 2013 after a five-year battle with breast cancer at just 56 years old. The store’s committed community, however, was able to come up with enough cash to purchase and outfit the new wheelchair-accessible bus, and use it to pick Pamela up from Bobby’s Hospice care so that she could participate in the dedication ceremony at the nursing home – where she had spent so much time caring for others – before May and the rest of their family had to say their final goodbyes.

“I am (grateful) to the automotive industry as a whole,” May said. “It is filled with great people genuinely trying their best to help people.”   

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