Couple of Partners
"I Do," For Better or for Worse: Couples in Business Beating the Odds
We all know couples who go their separate ways when a crisis hits as if it was the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. On the other hand, we have all seen examples of couples who pull together and support each other, no matter what. These are the couples that we find ourselves looking up to, often wondering how they do it.

In the last issue of Automotive Recycling, you met five couples who have been successfully working together in business for years. What you may not have known is that some of these couples have faced major crises in their life and business.

Automotive recyclers Dennis and Krystyn Roberts of County Line Auto Parts, based in Missouri, faced their most challenging time since they have been in business together on Super Bowl Sunday in 2009. While everyone was preparing to have a fun Super Bowl party and watch the game, a fire broke out in one of their buildings. About half an hour before game time, the oil burning furnace in the production area in their main warehouse caught fire. It quickly spread and affected their entire facility due to smoke damage. The actual fire itself was contained mainly to their shipping/receiving and quality control area within the main warehouse. The fire flashed across the ceiling and due to the high temperature, caused damage to product housed up high.

“Monday morning we all arrived around 5:00 a.m. to start the clean up,” said Krystyn. “We would have started Sunday night except the Fire Marshall had to investigate to rule out arson. Anyway, many of our employees came together with us and began cleaning up not only from the fire itself but the water damage from the fire department.

“Our immediate priority was to move our production area into a make-shift area in the dismantling bay. This meant we would lose one of our dismantling bays which slowed down vehicle processing for a while. The whole thing was a major distraction from day-to-day business, especially for Dennis and me, because we had to deal with insurance issues.”

Then in June and July of that year, County Line took part in the Clash for Clunkers program (C4C) and had to process about 1,400 cars under the tightly-mandated federal deadline. Due to the fire, they were still short a dismantling bay, which proved to be a huge disadvantage during that program.

Learning from Catastrophe

After the fire, they hired a few new people to move their inventory around and inspect each piece and clean it. With the C4C program in progress, they hired even more employees to process the clunkers. Despite the fire and working hard to get back on their feet, Krystyn feels the C4C program was good for County Line.

“Even though we were at a big disadvantage, we just did the best we could under the circumstances each day,” she said. “Once we developed a process to meet the guidelines we adapted, the C4C program was good for us overall. For the most part our regular business wasn’t interrupted due to the fire. The biggest challenge we had was having very little space to operate in so people were working in close quarters, which puts everyone on edge. However, our employees did a phenomenal job in coping during the difficult conditions.”

County Line Auto is still rebuilding their business today and finds it an on-going process. Dennis and Krystyn find themselves still dealing with the insurance companies. Despite the challenges, they found that they actually expanded their business and hit some record sales, proving that there is a silver lining in every cloud.

“When a crisis hits it takes the focus off of family and each other and really drains you,” said Krystyn. It takes so much time and energy to deal with it. You have to take it day by day and keep your perspective right.

I kept thinking about what is really important – our kids, each other, family.

“For a year it was a very stressful time, but we took the crisis and made it a positive experience. We wish it had not happened but as the saying goes, everything does happen for a reason, and we learned a lot and grew a lot!”

Illness Effects Everyone

For Bret and Dawn Givens, one the hardest times for them was losing one of their employees to cancer.

“Ray worked for us for 18 years and was one of our best friends,” said Dawn. “The three of us went everywhere together. Ray spent a lot of time doing charity events with us, and we spent many a Christmas together in the Florida Keys or somewhere else in Florida. (Bret and Dawn make it a point to take vacations from the business and travel each year).

West Side Auto Parts always closes from December 24 through January 1st so the employees can enjoy time with their families and this past Christmas was no exception.

Since Ray was alone, Bret and Dawn looked after him during Christmas. They went ahead of Ray to Florida to prepare for Christmas, and he was due to follow them down several days later. Dawn called work on December 22 to talk to him, and he informed her that he was bleeding internally and was sick.

“Once I talked to Ray I asked Timmy, another one of our employees, to have someone take him to the hospital where we found out he had stage four cancer and only had weeks to live,” said Dawn. “Raymond died on January 9, 2011, at the age of 67. Everyone here still misses him. It was hard losing him. He was very special to us. We put a picture of Raymond on the wall directly across from where he sat and it brings back memories every day – it’s like a tribute to him.”

West Side Auto Parts held a wake for him and many came to remember the Raymond they knew and loved and to pay their last respects. Although this crisis has been emotionally tough, it was hard also from a business perspective, but the Givens don’t dwell on it. They take advice from Dawn’s mother and deal with it. They do what they have to do to survive.

“My mom used to say don’t cry over spilt milk,” said Dawn. “There will always be difficult times like losing an employee and there is always something going on that makes life challenging. But things happen; you deal with them and move on. That helps keep us successful and living.”

Bouncing Back

That same attitude is one that the Automotive Recyclers Association’s incoming President Randy Reitman would agree with whole-heartedly. He and his wife Fran know first-hand what it is like when a crisis hits your family and employees – all at the same time!

“I was 55, on top of the world, and everything seemed to be going great for me – then I was diagnosed with colon cancer,” said Randy. “The oncologist said I had had it in my system for seven years, but it just showed up last year.”

Randy had an operation on June 21, 2010, to remove the tumor and then underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy starting in July last year. After the operation, Randy stayed at home for two weeks then never missed work again. He would have treatment in the morning then go to work in the afternoon.

“Attitude is everything,” said Randy. “Someone asked me why I was at work, and I said what am I going to do at home – sit and boo-hoo about it? I think – no. I know going to work helped me. Fortunately I never had any reaction to the chemotherapy or felt sick or had vomiting.”

Within three months of his diagnosis, three of their employees were also faced with cancer. Reitman Auto Parts General Manager Dennis Kremer’s wife Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer; Harry Eglain, dismantler, was diagnosed with cancer in the back; and Ed Cavins, also a dismantler, continued to deal with a persistent type of blood cancer that he has been battling for many years. All of them kept working until Ed retired this past December, having been a part of the Reitman family for 30 years. Harry took off only a few weeks to undergo treatment then was back at work. For Fran, she found the support of the staff to be an enormous source of strength.

“As a wife, I wanted to be at the treatments and doctor visits and so forth so I re-arranged my schedule so I could attend those visits,” said Fran. “That became my lunch hour. It did create a lot of chaos and put us in a bind. But there was a lot of support and understanding from our staff and that helped us to pull together as a team and pick up the slack when needed for each other.

We couldn’t have kept the business going without our employees’ dedication and support!”

Then, Randy and Fran were hit with more stunning news in April this year. Randy had to undergo open-heart surgery to replace the aortic valve. The surgery then caused a staph infection due to bacteria that got into his heart and Randy was forced to take 30 days off.

“I could cope with the cancer,” said Randy. “But dealing with this heart infection has been tough. I’m used to doing anything I’d ask my employees to do, and I couldn’t work! I couldn’t do anything, and I became like a grumpy old bear and hard to deal with. That was far harder than dealing with the cancer because I felt fine and could keep on working. In fact, it has been the toughest challenge of my life. I thought, “Oh my God, we’re at the height of our lives, and we got the wind knocked out of us – nobody plans for this.”

“It’s a scary thing when they tell you that your husband, your best friend, the one you built your business with could die, which is what we were facing with this recent endocarditis,” said Fran. “I had to ask myself – could I run the business by myself? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care to find out. It’s not a question I care to entertain.”

Almost six months later, things are getting back to normal at Reitman Auto Parts. Cars are coming in and there are still customers with needs waiting to be met. According to Fran Reitman, there are days with check-ups and tests that still cause them to multi-task and cover for each other.”

“We are now getting ready for Randy’s next round of tests for the cancer,” said Fran. “This will be his second three-month check-up and things still look good. The test will tell. He is still on daily antibiotics and doing well with that. Thank the Lord!”

Mary has had all three check-ups and all looks good so she is doing well. Harry is also doing well. He has had some residual effects of his treatments but is considered cancer-free at the present.

“Some have canceled planned events at a moment’s notice,” Fran said, “but we know what those who are dealing with cancer have to go through, and if someone needs help, then we kick in and make it work. We each know our jobs, and we do them.”

Randy is back to work full-time and claims that he is loving it … as is Harry. According to Fran, they both still need to be patient with some things as they recover and deal with on-going check-ups and tests. Randy still plans to continue his support of ARA and all the projects and affairs that face the industry in hopes to make them better in the future.

“Our future here is very bright,” said Randy. “The auto recyclers face new challenges everyday and every day we must adapt to that challenge. You must see your supporters and trust them. The more support you have the more you can get done.”

So as they continue to face challenges everyday not only in business but in their personal lives, Fran and Randy feel that this support is vital to their ability to face each day and go on.

“Here at Reitman’s, we go on,” said Fran, “because that is the way we are. The next time it might be another one of us, and they will have the support from the rest of us. When you are a family, you are a family, and families come in many ways, many shapes, and many types. You sometimes feel that you are alone, but you are not.”
Once again, these amazing couples have given us some inspiration to keep in mind as we face tough times in our businesses. They are proof that with some determination and support, overcoming a challenge or tragedy is possible and can even be turned around to help their business.

Michelle Keadle-Taylor is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.

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