© auremar / stock.adobe.com

What started as a family-owned scrap yard in southern Ohio has transformed into a multifacility business with two locations in Ohio and three locations in southwest Florida, including a self-service auto recycling facility in Fort Myers, Florida.

In 1989, Rob Weber followed in his father, Earl’s, footsteps, opening a Garden Street Iron & Metal location in Florida. His brother owns and operates the original location their father founded in Cincinnati, as well as a yard in Harrison, Ohio.

In his 30 years operating the Florida business, Weber has grown the company’s Metro Parkway yard in Fort Myers to 49 acres. Just two years ago, he expanded into the used auto parts business, opening Garden Street U-Pull-It at 2804 Hanson St. in Fort Myers. The location is adjacent to the Garden Street auto shredder yard.

Weber says he had to battle to open the self-service auto recycling business. Blocked by lawsuits from competitors and scrutinized by members of Fort Myers City Council, he says the reputation of the auto recycling industry kept him from getting the initial support he needed to open his facility. After winning the four lawsuits and three appeals filed against his company, Weber managed to bring Garden Street into the used auto parts business, upholding the company’s longstanding tradition of cleanliness and dedication to the community and customer care, he says.

Taking stock

Photo: Garden Street U-Pull-It

Weber owns two feeder yards in Florida, as well as the main facility in Fort Myers that includes the recycling yard, the company’s shredder and its U-Pull-It yard. The main yard opened in 1989 as an 8-acre facility. About a decade ago, the facility expanded with the addition of an auto shredder, paving the way for Weber to bring Garden Street Iron & Metal into the used auto parts business.

Weber says Garden Street U-Pull-It gives him an outlet for parts that he can’t normally shred. “When I buy [the cars], I’m able to sell parts off them, and I still have the scraps I’m able to shred. It just kind of gave me another avenue of income off of the scrap,” he says.

While most auto recycling facilities crush or log cars that are too picked-over to remain in the yard prior to transporting them to a shredder, Weber says that’s not necessary at Garden Street U-Pull-It.

“With having the shredder [and] having the auto parts yard right here on-site with it, it’s like a perfect marriage,” he says.

Because the process of stripping cars for the U-Pull-It yard is similar to stripping cars for the shredder, Weber says he didn’t have to hire a whole new staff. Instead, the cars get stripped at the recycling facility before being sent to Garden Street U-Pull-It, which has fewer than 10 employees. His small team is mainly responsible for turning over vehicle stock and working with customers.

When cars arrive at Garden Street, Weber’s team drains the fluids and strips the cars so they’re safe to pick and to shred. Sometimes employees will pull parts themselves, including high-performance engines that can be sold whole. Other than parts removed for safety reasons and for separate sale, customers have free reign to pick any parts off the vehicles on the lot.

The U-Pull-It yard has roughly 1,000 cars on-site at all times, he says. To keep inventory fresh and to keep customers coming back, the staff rotates approximately 30 cars per day.

Weber says between 8,000 and 10,000 people per month buy parts. “Considering we’ve only been here two years, it’s been very impressive,” he says of the growth of the company’s auto parts business.

Weber says his team has a good eye for spotting vehicles that are ready to leave the yard. Auto Department Manager Marcie Kolbusz selects the cars that look the most “picked over,” or lacking a bulk of removable parts that are ready to go to the shredder. Kolbusz marks cars ready to be removed and typically replaces them with newly purchased cars of the same makes and models.

“We always try to keep it fresh by putting in the one that looks like it’s the best candidate for that area, and we pull the weakest link that looks like it’s been picked over the most,” Weber says.

Every day, Garden Street brings in an average of 40 to 60 automobiles. These vehicles are purchased from towing companies, auto dealerships, individuals and auto auctions. Of these incoming vehicles, Weber says about half go to the U-Pull-It yard while the other half go directly to the shredder.

The cars Weber buys range in age from what he calls “old stuff,” such as a 1957 Ford Thunderbird he fondly recalls purchasing, to vehicles from 2008 to 2010. Weber says most of his cars are from the late ’90s to the early 2000s.

Standing out

Photo: Garden Street U-Pull-It

When Weber set out to open Garden Street U-Pull-It, he says a competitor tried to block his expansion with a number of “frivolous” lawsuits. Members of the city council also worried that the yard would negatively affect the surrounding neighborhoods.

The lawsuits regarded a city charter amendment passed in November 2016 that prevents scrap yards from expanding, opening new facilities or relocating without a voter referendum. However, Weber says when his yard was annexed in 1989, a code was in place that allowed his company to expand at any point. (Additionally, the amendment conflicts with a state law that prevents land developments from being subject to referendums, so it is vulnerable.)

Although Garden Street prides itself on its clean and attractive facilities, Weber attributes the battles and roadblocks he has encountered to other members of the industry who “leave messes” and do little to benefit the surrounding community.

“There’s a lot of people in our industry that don’t go that extra step, that won’t try to fix it up and make it nice or give it a nice appearance,” Weber says of some yard operators. “We’ve done that, and that’s what has really paid off for us here and over the last couple—well, it’s paid off for us over the last 30 years because we’ve always done it that way.”

One of the ways Garden Street has worked to enhance the community, he says, is by taking over brownfield sites, or former industrial sites affected by environmental and contamination concerns.

One of Garden Street’s sites was home to a lumber pressure-treating company that used arsenic in its operations. By capping the site with concrete and pumping arsenic-contaminated water out of the water table, Weber says he and his team have been able to reduce the arsenic level from 20,000 parts per billion to 300 parts per billion in just 10 years.

The site that would become the U-Pull-It yard was a former fertilizer plant with high levels of fertilizer in the ground. Again, Weber says he and his team capped the yard with concrete. They also implemented a procedure to handle stormwater at the facility.

Garden Street U-Pull-It also differentiates itself from other used auto parts businesses in the area with the arrangement of stock in its yard. The entire site is covered in concrete, making it safe and easily traversable for customers. The vehicles are raised on stands and separated in aisles based on make and model, Weber says.

The cars are arranged in a herringbone style, making it easy for customers to see and access each car on display. The arrangement also allows employees to quickly pull old stock and replace it with new vehicles, he says.

“The place is super clean, easy-access [and] safe, and we do a good turnover of the vehicles,” Weber says. He also emphasizes the clean-cut appearance of the yard, with landscaping and “nice, attractive walls.”

In addition, Garden Street U-Pull-It’s website allows customers to search through a directory of the yard’s inventory. The website’s list is updated daily. Although Weber says he has no efficient way to track which parts have been pulled from which vehicles, the website lists the dates the cars came onto the lot. If the car is relatively new to the lot, he says, customers can count on it having many of its parts available.

Weber says his U-Pull-It facility has received praise from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the governor of Florida and even one of the city councilmen who initially blocked his expansion.

“The one city councilman—two months after we were up and running—he saw me and he came over and he said, ‘I just want to shake your hand. You did a beautiful job there. I just want to tell you, I was wrong,’” Weber says. “That meant a lot to me because it was like this guy fought me all the way through, but he was able to admit when I did it.”

Serving needs

When Weber entered the used auto parts business, he had a lot of misconceptions about the industry.

“When I first was getting into the business and I had people encouraging me to get into it, I knew nothing about it, and my vision of what I would sell out of there is totally wrong,” he says.

Weber initially thought customers would leave his yard with fenders, truck lids, doors and hoods. In reality, he more commonly sees customers picking headliners, seat covers, door liners and tail lights.

“I almost hate to say it, but I’d say probably 60 percent of stuff that goes out of there is stuff that would become fluff or garbage” in the shredding process, Weber says.

In addition to benefitting his auto shredding operation, Garden Street U-Pull-It also gives do-it-yourselfers and mechanics access to old and rare parts.

He recalls a rare Maserati that came into his yard when he first opened. Weber says it sat in the front of the yard, untouched, for nearly three months. “All of a sudden, a guy comes in [and] he goes, ‘I’ve got the same car.’ And I mean he just about took the whole car apart, piece by piece, out the front door.” He says the customer told him, “I can’t afford to pass up on these parts because if I ever need them, I won’t be able to find them.”

Weber says even mechanics from local car dealerships scour his lot looking for spare parts that might be rare, old and difficult to find.

Looking to the future, Weber says he is ready to slow down, stop expanding and “enjoy the ride.”

He adds, “I’ve taken this yard as far as I really can take it by having the shredder— having everything. If there’s ways I can enhance what we’re currently doing here, I’ll probably do that, but as far as expanding to any new yards or anything, no. I’m done growing.”

Weber’s plan, he says, is to “do the maximum with what we can do with these three yards and do the best job that we can do for the environment and everything and stay focused on keeping these yards right.”

The author is an intern with the Recycling Today Media Group.