It would be hard to find a person more enthusiastic about the auto parts industry, and particularly being part of the Uni-Select group, than Neil Browne of St. John’s, N.L.
Browne, who heads up the Browne Group of Companies, has five automotive supply stores and one off-road division in the province, with more locations planned for down the road. All will soon be operating under the Bumper-To-Bumper flag.
“I am in the process of switching all my stores over. I’ve been a member of Uni-Select for over 30 years,” Browne said in a recent interview.
Bumper to Bumper, owned by Uni-Select, is Canada’s homegrown automotive distribution network.
Browne has deep roots in the sector.
“I’ve grown up around it – literally. The business is as old as me. It’s all I’ve ever known, since I could walk. “
His 14-year-old son has already started working in the company’s warehouse, he added.
The Browne Group of Companies began 41 years ago, under founder John Browne, the father of Neil, who passed away last year. The group is diverse, with real estate and investment holdings as well a graphic design business.
Today Browne’s Auto Supplies is a leading automotive company in Newfoundland and Labrador, and maintains a $3.5 million inventory at its 12,000 square-foot warehouse in St. John’s.
That location and main store, at 1075 Topsail Rd., is about 75 per cent wholesale, while the branches are about 50-50.
Among the customers are tire shops such as Goodyear dealers, car dealerships and large repair shops with up to 10 bays, Browne said.
“Our primary business is ‘under car.’ Being with Uni-Select makes life a little easier.”
He said he orders everything directly from the manufacturers because of the longer turnaround time due to distance and reliance on ferries.
“I am a week-to-10 days away from everything. We really have to keep an eye on our inventory,” Browne said.
“In the winter, in Newfoundland, with the weather and the ice, the ferry could be shut down for five or six days. There could be storms on the other side of the island. I’ve waited three to four weeks on freight before.
“Those types of circumstances are challenging, he says.
“You get used to it , though. It becomes the new normal.”
The company also has about 20 vehicles making deliveries to its customers.
Brakes and brake parts are one of the company’s highest volume items, “in excess of $1 million, just in brake friction,” Browne said.
That type of product and service -” the under-car portion, which is 85 per cent of our business” – will remain constant, he said, even with electric and driveless cars.
One of the attractions of being part of the Uni-Select family is the flexibility and brand name choices it provides, Browne said.
“I have many, many options to choose from. I have the ability to get whatever my customer needs within the program.”
Browne, a native of Newfoundland and Labrador, who grew up in Mount Pearl, says he wishes more people had his passion for the automotive supply industry.
Another one of his challenges is finding young people who want to work in the sector and making them aware that there are good jobs to be had.
“I have been actively trying to get more people involved inthe industry,” Browne said, attending job fairs and speaking to students.
“This is a trade. These are well paid positions. But this isn’t looked upon as a prestigious industry. I just want to get the word out that there’s a lot of opportunity for growth.”
With average age of Uni-Select members being over 60 years old, it’s crucial to attract young blood, he said.