Local business profile: the Duncan Family of J&W Auto Wreckers
"Local business owner profile" is a regular column highlighting local business owners, the backbone of our community and economy. Each column explores the personal stories of the owners and the businesses they built.
Jack Duncan says that the auto wrecking and dismantling business is in his blood. His grandparents owned a car dismantling business in the 1920s and 30s. Jack spent many hours there as a kid and wrecked his first car there too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a car meant for wrecking, but his grandparents’ own Studebaker.
The car was parked on the top of a hill where little Jack clambered into it and pretended to drive. Somehow, he released the emergency brake and the car zipped down the hill and into a tree. He wasn’t hurt but the car was totaled. So began his long career in the wrecker business.
At age 19, Jack married 16-year-old Jean and began working for a dismantling business managed by his uncle. Later he worked for C&C Auto Wreckers, where he became a part owner in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Jean was building a skill set that would become invaluable when the Duncans opened their own business. Jean worked for a towing service and a boatyard and for twelve years was employed in the accounting department of Suburban Ford.
Mark Duncan, Jean and Jack’s son, also has the business in his blood. While working at C&C Auto Wreckers as a teenager he learned about selling car parts and about the scrap metal side of the business (including acquiring knowledge about non-ferrous metals, such as copper and brass). Mark also learned how to buy vehicles for salvage and scrap metal.
In 1981, Jean and Jack decided that it was time to work for themselves and purchased J&W Auto Wreckers. Mark joined them and over time has done every job there is to do in the business. In 2005, Jean and Jack semi-retired and sold the business to Mark.
J&W Auto Wreckers now has 10 acres of Jeeps, including Wranglers, CJ’s, Cherokees, Wagoneers and Grand Cherokees. Over one million used Jeep parts are in the inventory.
The dismantler industry has seen huge change over the years. Thirty years ago, a totaled car would be sent to a salvage pool where local wreckers bid on it. The winning bidder took it off the lot, drained the fluids, dismantled the car and sold the parts. Mark says that it is now harder for dismantlers to buy cars from the salvage pool because there are more people wanting to buy and restore them for driving. These buyers are willing to pay more for the cars than dismantlers can pay.
It is also harder to dismantle and sell the parts these days. The industry is highly regulated.
“Just about every agency you can name regulates us,” Jack says.
In addition, insurance companies want people to buy new, not used parts, for repairs.
Another challenge in the business is the “bad actors," car buyers who are not taking care of the environment, says Mark. Mark noted that J&W closely monitors its own operation to ensure that their practices meet all regulations, including properly disposing oil and antifreeze and testing the quality of the water in the yard after it rains.
A few years ago, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency sent college students studying Environmental Toxicology to the yard to monitor the site.
“They came looking for the sludge, but went away disappointed,” Jean said.
J&W has received awards for their waste reduction and recycling. After every possible part has been recycled, the remains are sent to a metal crusher/shredder and then sent to China and Japan to make recycled metal, rebar and other products.
The advent of the internet changed the face of the industry. People looking for parts used to go to a local wrecking yard and comb through it for the desired item. Now, individuals can search the web to find parts anywhere in the world. This change has resulted in the dismantling business becoming internationally competitive.
Jean says that international customers visit J&W on their vacation.
“We have people from Denmark and Australia who come here for a week or two to roam the yard. They buy large quantities of parts and ship them back home where they can sell them at a profit.”
Jack says that J&W has remained competitive because they specialize in Jeeps and recycle every part.
“We’ve shipped seats, doors, motors and the smallest nuts and bolts to buyers in all corners of the world.”
Jean cited an example where they sent a $15 part to France with a shipping cost of $185, “The customer was willing to pay as he wanted it the next day.”
Mark adds that J&W offers warranties on their parts and guarantees the correct part, “You can’t get that from eBay or Craigslist.”
In an ever-changing industry, it appears that flexibility is a key to remaining competitive. Mark plans on meeting the challenge by expanding the inventory beyond Jeeps to include all makes and models. With his hands behind the wheel, Mark intends to keep the family business moving forward.
Can-Gro, Inc., doing business as J&W Auto Wreckers, Inc., is located at 8626 Antelope N. Road in Antelope, Calif. The yard is open Monday through Friday and on Saturday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m.