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Ownership Rite of Passage
Third Generation Woman Recycler Poised to Take the Business as Next-Gen Owner
A father’s role is to nurture the talent and abilities in each of their children, providing what they need to become who they were meant to be. After pouring their time, affection, and acknowledgment of their child’s identity, into their child, they are then ready to release and empower them to their destiny.

As a third generation recycler, Kristin Allen, is an example of this principle in action. She feels she has always had a “calling” to the family business, one that was nurtured and grew over the years as she worked alongside her father.

Kristin’s grandfather, John Keller, started Grassy Auto Parts in 1959. As an insurance adjustor for GMAC, he and his family were transferred to West Liberty, Kentucky from West Virginia.  Soon he realized there was an opportunity for an automotive recycling industry in Eastern Kentucky.

One of his children Tim Keller, developed a passion for the business and started to work on cars from a young age. He worked alongside his Dad for many years until John Keller retired in 1990. Tim had just taken a major step forward in the business by computerizing Grassy Auto Parts with a Hollander computer system. Tim then went on to expand the business to two more locations; Bluegrass Auto Parts in Lexington, Kentucky and Used Auto Parts in Nitro, West Virginia.

Tim Keller managed to pass his passion for the business to his daughter Kristin Allen, who can’t remember her life without Grassy Auto Parts.

“I was looking back over my school books that my mom made me and when I was five years old, there was a question that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I wrote working at Grassy,” said Allen. “The first work I remember doing for Grassy was writing down checks in the deposit books my dad would bring home and stamping the back of the checks. I don’t know what age that was, but I remember sitting in the kitchen doing them. Then, as I became a teenager, I would work there in the summer doing anything from paperwork and filing to pressure washing the building and painting the fences.

I loved the dirty outside work; that’s just kind of who I am. Working as a teenager taught me that I had to work hard and I wouldn’t be given anything in life. Even though Grassy was already a great business, someone had to work hard to maintain it and grow it. I learned that work is never done.”

Kristin’s father also made her work for her first car – perhaps in a manner that is slightly different than for your average teenage daughter. Like other 16-year-olds, Kristin says she dreamed of her first car. Then, her opportunity arrived. At the yard, they got in a Black Chevrolet Camaro that had been in a flood but had no body damage. Her dad told her she could have the car if she fixed it.

“My Dad brought a wrecked Camaro and the ‘water dog’ Camaro to our house and set them there for me to begin my work,” said Allen. “I stripped the insides out of both cars and made mine look as good as new. I definitely earned my car!”

Allen graduated from high school in 1999 and was awarded a full academic scholarship. She entered college as a pre-med major. However, soon the family business was calling her back to her true destiny.

“When I entered college as a pre-med major, I thought that maybe I had changed what I wanted to do in life,” said Allen. “After my first year in college, my Dad had just started an aftermarket business that was having management issues so he asked me to take a year off of school and help out. Of course, I agreed.

“After that year, I decided that my place and career was at the family business. I finished college in two more years with an accounting degree and was ready to start work full-time at Grassy. During my last year of college, when I wasn’t at school, I was at Grassy.”

Allen says that one of her favorite parts of growing up in the industry is simple, “I love that we are a family business!” she said passionately. “The employees that work for us are like extended family and some of them saw me the day I was brought home from the hospital as a baby. The faces are starting to change but we try to remain close knit.

“I used to love going to ARA meetings when I was a little girl. We got to go on lots of great trips. I joke now that I went to more meetings when I was a little girl than I do now that I work in the business. But, on the other hand, my dad has a comfort level of leaving me behind at work to watch over everything.”

Allen also remembers learning to drive among the rows of cars and on the hills at the yard. She enjoys working with her father and continues the tradition handed to her by bringing her six year-old daughter to work on her days off of school. She gives her daughter jobs similar to those she helped out with growing up, such as working the cash drawer or stamping envelopes.

“It is great to have my daughter come to work and teach her about the business,” said Allen. “We work together and she learns what it means to put in hard work that is essential for building and maintaining a business. It also helps me to deal with my own internal struggle of being away from her so much due to work.”

Allen says her biggest challenge in the business as a third generation recycler and as a woman is trying to find the balance between the enormous time commitment it takes to run a successful family business and being a mom and wife. She says she realizes the hard work that her grandfather and father put into the business and finds it challenging to find the time she needs to keep the company successful and growing, without neglecting her family.

“I need to find a way to make this company stay successful without staying at the office until 8:00 p.m. every night,” said Allen. “I need to delegate more, but I struggle with feeling like if I don’t take on the whole load, I’ll let down the ones before me. My dad worked hard all of his life and I know that he has made these companies what they are today and I don’t want to lose the momentum by letting up.”

This leads to the challenge of proving herself as a woman and a third generation recycler.

“I am here to work hard and I understand that nothing is just given to you,” said Allen. “I have to work hard to learn this business and come up with new ideas to grow this business or there will not be a business in the future. Just because this is a well-established family business, that doesn’t mean it will be here in the future if someone doesn’t work very hard to keep it here.”

Allen says that what appeals most to her about the automotive recycling industry is the fast pace and ever-changing tasks that come with the territory.

“I like working with people and the public,” she said. “Probably one of my favorite things is to either work out in the yard, the counter or work order fulfillment – none of which I get to do very often. From time to time I get to fill in for those who take time-off, but then my work pile loads up!

Allen’s least favorite part of the business? She says there are actually things in the business that she can’t do.

“When I started here full-time, both my dad and I had the goal for me to work in different positions in the business to make sure that I knew all aspects of what goes on at the yard, said Allen. “But things happened and my work load became large enough that we couldn’t follow through with those plans. We do have some great employees that I can rely on when I have questions, but I would rather have the answers myself.

“I wish I could jump on the loader and move cars, but instead I try to pay close attention to everything around me so I can continue to learn. My least favorite job is paperwork, which seems to take up so much time.”

Allen says that as a third generation recycler, it’s important to stay open to learning and to take advantage of the experience of family members who have gone before you.

“I’ve learned that many people do not like change so trying to make change seem like a good thing is always a struggle,” said Allen. “People get comfortable but change is what you need to continue to grow and evolve as this business evolves in different directions. I can’t be afraid to speak up about what I think, right or wrong. I have to learn from my mistakes. We are all going to make them and my dad allows me to make them. When I do, no one is more disappointed than I am, but I learn from it and move on. I have not only learned about car parts and scrap metal in this business. I have learned some valuable life lessons along the way. In this business, it is very possible to learn something new everyday.  You just have to stay open to it.”

Michelle Keadle-Taylor is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia and a regular contributor to Automotive Recycling magazine.

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