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Western Auto Building in Kansas City
|Specialty retail chain|
|Successor||Advance Auto Parts|
|Defunct||2003 (end of brand)|
|Headquarters||Kansas City, Missouri, United States|
|Products||automobile parts, firearms, tires, bicycles, lawn mowers, home appliances|
Western Auto Supply Company—known more widely as Western Auto—was a specialty retail chain of stores that supplied automobile parts and accessories. It operated approximately 1200 stores across the United States. It was started in 1909 in Kansas City, Missouri, by George Pepperdine, who later founded Pepperdine University.
Western Auto was bought by Beneficial Corporation in 1961; Western Auto's management led a leveraged buyout in 1985, leading three years later to a sale to Sears. Sears sold most of the company to Advance Auto Parts in 1998, and by 2003, the resulting merger had led to the end of the Western Auto brand and its product distribution network.
Western Auto originally started as a mail order business for replacement auto parts. The first retail store was established in 1921, and grew quickly as automobiles became increasingly more common. At one point, there were over 1,200 company-owned stores nationwide, usually located in metropolitan areas, and more than 4,000 associate stores (private franchise "dealer" locations), usually located in small towns. The associate store program was the first of its type, pioneering the way for modern day franchise operations. The company had five regional distribution centers in the United States, with the one located in North Carolina serving its stores in Puerto Rico.
Western Auto was known for its "Western Flyer" bicycle and "Performance Radial GT" tire brands. Other Western Auto private labeled brands popular with consumers included "Davis Tires" (likely named for Don A. Davis, a Western Auto president), "Tough One" Batteries, "Wizard" Tools, "TrueTone" electronics and "Citation" appliances. Western Auto was also the parent company of Auto America and Parts America stores, as well as acquiring National Tire and Battery (NTB).
Sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, or possibly earlier,[vague] Western Auto started selling rifles and shotguns in its catalogues. As with other chains at the time, such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, Western Auto's firearms were sold under a proprietary brand. Often called "store brand" firearms, they were produced by reputable name brand manufacturers, such as O.F. Mossberg & Sons, Remington Arms, Savage Arms, Winchester Repeating Arms Company and High Standard Manufacturing Company. Western Auto firearms sold under the "Revelation" brand name, and were generally models from the brands Savage, Marlin Firearms, or Mossberg.
Other than markings, Revelation models were identical to standard production models. They were the most basic models produced by the various manufacturers, and featured plain birch or walnut stocks. However, metal bluing remained good and nearly all models were provided with iron sights and mounting provisions for scopes. Once valued lower than "name brand" equivalents, store-brand rifles, shotguns and revolvers have essentially reached price parity with their more universal counterparts. Firearms were one of many lines added to the store in a product diversification effort. By the end of the 1950s Western Auto was very much like a Sears store, even equipped with a catalog order center. Auto parts comprised only a small percentage of the company's sales by the mid-1960s and had all but disappeared by the 1970s.
In 1961, Western Auto was sold to the Beneficial Finance Corporation. Beneficial retained ownership until 1985, when the company was purchased in a leveraged buyout led by Western Auto management and Wesray Capital Corporation.
Streamlining business operations
In the early 1980s, in response to the success of Wal-Mart, Western Auto Retail converted all of the company-owned stores to what it called "FLAG" stores, which sold exclusively automotive parts and accessories. These stores were largely located in more urbanized areas much like their successors today. Western Auto Wholesale strongly urged its associate stores to become at least 50% automotive, but most refused because the customer base of their locations, in "small town America", demanded a wider range of merchandise. This disagreement by the associate stores would later save the company.
Sears Roebuck & Co. purchase
In 1988, Sears Roebuck purchased Western Auto from Wesray Capital, which resulted in greater tire selections, and in Craftsman tools and DieHard batteries being sold at Western Auto stores. Sears valued the freestanding Western Auto stores as outlets for Craftsman and DieHard. The heavy competition from other mainstream discount auto parts stores, Advance, Carport, Napa, AutoZone and O'Reilly Auto Parts, proved too much for the company's lack of product focus. By the beginning of 1997, fewer than 850 company-owned stores remained. At that point, the associate stores were the bread and butter of the company, with their more diversified name-brand lines including appliances, electronics, hardware, bicycles, go-karts and outdoor equipment/parts, and their reach into small-town America. Sears removed NTW and Tire America from Western Auto, then sold the company to Advance Auto Parts.
From 1991 until the end of the 1997 season, Western Auto sponsored NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip's race team. The specialty retailer also sponsored Al Hofmann's Funny Car in NHRA from 1994 to 1996.
Advance Auto Parts merger
After weeks of speculation in 1998, parent company Sears sold the remnants of Western Auto to Advance Auto Parts of Roanoke, Virginia. The business deal was not quite what experts in the after-market automotive industry expected. Specifically in return, Sears Roebuck became "one of the largest shareholders" after obtaining a 40% stake in Advance Auto Parts, and by merging their two store networks, which included Western Auto's wholesale and retail operations. More precisely, the existing store network of Advance Auto Parts, comprising 915 stores in 17 U.S. states, merged with 590 U.S.-based Parts America Stores in addition to 40 Western Auto stores in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The merger between Western Auto and Advance Auto substantially expanded Advance's network to over 1,500 retail stores in 36 states. Additionally, Sears Roebuck received a cash payment of $175 million USD, while Advance Auto's investors provided a further $70 million USD directly to Advance. Freeman Spogli & Co. organized an investment fund that was among the group of investors that provided Advance with the $70 million cash infusion. Despite the 40% acquisition by Sears Roebuck, both companies maintained their Standard & Poor's "single-'B'-plus corporate credit rating". Analysts continued to speculate on the "financial flexibility" of Advance Auto at the time expecting the company to "take advantage of other opportunistic acquisitions".
A few of the associate stores converted to Sears Dealer stores. The remainder of the company-owned stores, located primarily in the eastern United States, were then converted into Advance stores. The remaining associate stores were promised a great and long future in the tradition of Western Auto, a promise that was not kept. Advance gave little support to the associate store operation and as a result most dealers found themselves purchasing 70%+ of their merchandise from other suppliers and simply using the Western Auto name.
Demise of the Western Auto distribution network
In October 2003, Advance Auto notified the Western Auto Supply Company that by January 2004 it "would no longer supply merchandise and services to the stores in its distribution network". This decision brought an end to the Western Auto brand name after nearly a century in business. Some Western Auto store owners knew that such a decision by Advance Auto was inevitable after noticing "a trend of discontinued brands, lack of computer point-of-sale system updates, and shipments of fewer and fewer types of merchandise". Advance Auto Parts' spokesman, Shelia Stuewe, speaking on the matter stated "that the logistics of distributing appliances, home and garden supplies, auto parts and hardware to over 300 independent dealers scattered across 33 states became too much for the company to continue."
Use of Western Auto name
Dealer stores were reportedly permitted by Advance Auto a license to use the Western Auto name until 2006. All signage and use of the Western Auto name is to be limited. Advance Auto Parts remains the owner of the registered trademarks and name "Western Auto" and enforces infringements on the name, but it is unknown if they have future plans for the name. Advance also owns the name Western Auto Supply Company which is registered in Virginia. 
The Western Auto name was used by Advance Auto Parts in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where it was the largest such chain, until 2006 when the last company-owned store in St. Croix was closed. All of the other stores in the division were gradually converted to Advance stores.
The building that once housed its corporate headquarters, located at 2107 Grand Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri, was transformed into loft condominiums; the Western Auto sign remains atop the building and is illuminated nightly.
Notes and references
- "Advance Auto Parts and Western Auto Supply Co., Subsidiary of Sears, Announce Merger Plans" (Press release). PR Newswire. August 17, 1998. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
- David, Stratford (February 15, 2009). "You Can Still Come to Western Auto". BrandlandUSA. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
- "Beneficial Corporation - Company History". Fundinguniverse.com. Retrieved 2010-06-08.
- "Western Auto Sets Buyout". Chicago Tribune. June 8, 1985. Retrieved April 4, 2012.
- Key, Janet (March 17, 1988). "Sears Buying Western Auto Supply". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved April 4, 2012.
- Podmolik, Mary Ellen (August 18, 1998). "Sears Sells Western Auto: Takes Advance Auto Parts Stake". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 13, 2010.
- "Sears Explores Western Auto Sale". Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1998.
- "Company News; Advance Auto to Merge with Sears Western Auto Unit". The New York Times. August 18, 1998. Retrieved July 8, 2012.
- "S&P Afms Advance Stores' Rtgs Re: Western Auto Merger". theautochannel.com. August 19, 1998. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
- "Western Auto Supply To End Wholesale Supply Program". Modern Distribution Management. October 10, 2003.
- Whitehead, Julie (November 17, 2003). "No More: Dinosaurs, the Dodo...and Western Auto stores?". Mississippi Business Journal. Retrieved June 8, 2012.
- Duval, Aesha (November 2, 2006). "Western Auto store closing after decade on St. Croix". Virgin Islands Daily News. (subscription required (. ))
- "Western Auto Building". Emporis. Retrieved 3 July 2014.
- Marchman, Jim (2004). The Last Western Flyer: The Western Auto Century.