Lew’s Auto: A Driving Force in Recycling



PHOTO BY PATTI BUTTRAM BROOKS FREDERICKBURG, VA

Lisa Street grew up around cars. Her grandfather was a mechanic; so were her father and uncles. That’s why she didn’t think twice about joining her family business, Lew’s Auto Service & Salvage in Spotsylvania, Virginia. “It was second nature,” she said. “It’s something we all did.”

Owning a salvage yard was a dream come true for Lisa’s father, Lew Elliott. When he had the opportunity to purchase an old salvage site in the late 1980s, he couldn’t pass it up. His wife, Fay, and son Eric joined him in the business. Lisa worked weekends and became full-time in 1996.

At first, the yard specialized in used parts, specifically for Chryslers. But it soon expanded to other makes and models — and other services. “We would start accumulating cars, and my dad would say, ‘this looks pretty good; let’s fix it up and sell it,’ said Lisa. “Now we also do mechanical repair, and sell used cars, and do towing. Pretty much anything that has to do with vehicles, we will handle.”

Today, Lew’s Auto Service & Salvage employs 20, including Lisa’s three sons, Jonathan, James and Stephen, representing the third generation. Lew and Fay still own the business and, according to Lisa, “they show up every day working as hard as anyone else around here.”

The staff processes 400-500 cars annually, taking care to recycle as much as possible. For example, they reuse the oil in the business’ oil heater, and they recycle the gas in their delivery trucks. They also recycle the anti-freeze, or have it pumped out if it can’t be reused. They give away the extra washer fluid to their customers. “Auto recyclers were the original environmentalists,” noted Lisa. “We do everything we can to recycle every part of the vehicle, and to protect the environment.”

Lisa is now the general manager at Lew’s, and has literally done every type of job there is to do there. But being a woman in a man’s industry still has its challenges. She remembers a time when a customer called, wanting to purchase a part. “I can help you,” said Lisa. “What do you need?”

“I need someone to talk to,” said the man. Lisa paused, realizing the meaning behind the comment. “If you want to talk to a man, you’re out of luck,” she said. “If you want this part, you need to talk to me.”

“Men are getting better about it,” she acknowledged, “especially with some strong female voices now in the industry. But I think women were always there, in the background, and they were the driving force behind some of the growth and improvements. Men just happened to be the ‘mouthpiece’ of their businesses. But more and more women are finding their voices. With Sandy Blalock as head of the Automotive Recyclers Association, I think that’s going to make a difference.”

Lisa herself is an industry leader. She’s currently finishing her term as president of the Virginia Automotive Recyclers Association (VARA). “My mom was on the board of directors for several years, and when she came off, I got involved,” said Lisa. “We’ve been members for ages, but for the last four years, I served on the board, first as secretary / treasurer for two years and then for a two-year term as president.”

She sees real value in the association. “Through VARA, we have built a relationship with our local DMV agency,” she noted. “When you’re dealing with salvage vehicles and titles, you need someone you can talk to. I can pick up the phone and call DMV and get a person, which is so helpful.”

The association has also helped to foster relationships among recyclers, according to Lisa.  “Many times, I had my delivery driver out on the road and had an issue,” she said. “And I’d call up a fellow recycler, and say, ‘you guys are close to my delivery driver; can you help me?’ They have picked him up off the road, changed a tire, or whatever was needed. And we’ve done the same. We are like a family in a lot of ways. Even though we’re competitors, we help each other out. I don’t know how many other industries that do that anymore.”

As president, Lisa is doing things to increase membership and get people more involved. “Our membership has dwindled because many of the smaller yards were not able to change, and so they have gone out of business,” she explained. “It is important to get involved because this industry is changing so fast. If we’re going to survive as auto recyclers, we need to make sure we’re on top of the legislation, what the OEMs are doing, what the aftermarket parts industry is doing, and so on. We need to stay together as a group, so that we have a larger voice.”

“If we don’t get involved,” she added, “there are other interests that will run over top of us. The auto recycling business might cease to exist or be a totally different business if we don’t drive that vehicle.”

As for the future of Lew’s Auto Service & Salvage, Lisa said that she wants to complete the official environmental certifications to make the business more marketable to the people who are doing the repairs. “My sons would like a second location, and I would like to get to that point where we could expand. My parents are looking at retirement and we need to put a succession plan in place, for them and for the upcoming generation. We’re looking at the future of auto recycling and we want it to be strong.”

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