Tom Crittenden, owner of Gulf Coast Parts Supply, has been in the business for about 50 years. At age 21 he was one of the youngest people to ever open his own NAPA AUTO PARTS store, buying the property and building his first facility in 1971. Today, Tom has nine Gulf Coast NAPA stores and 80 employees. It’s one of the preeminent parts supply entities in the entire Big Bend (north central) region of Florida.
What is the secret to success at Gulf Coast NAPA? According to Tom, “Our customers know we always have the part – and it’s in stock. Our inventory is immense: We carry almost a quarter of what the entire NAPA Distribution Center has in Jacksonville.
“Our customers need fast turnaround. For instance, if they have a logging machine down or a car that is all prepped and ready to be painted, they can’t wait to get the right parts or products. They need to stay productive and they need service now. It creates problems if they have to send someone miles and miles to get that replacement part or another quart of paint they hope is exactly matched.”
Tom began learning everything he could about the parts business at an early age. While in high school, he worked at a gas station. He raced cars starting as a teenager and had good mechanical knowledge.
“From the beginning, I’ve always believed in stocking heavy in starters, alternators, and water and fuel pumps – parts that customers are always looking for,” he said. “Although they may stop at other places, by the time people get to us and see what’s on our shelves they keep coming back. At Gulf Coast NAPA we have what they need when they need it.”
When it comes to market penetration, Gulf Coast Parts Supply has been among the top 2-3% of NAPA stores in the nation over the last forty years. That’s one of the reasons they have also been a 5-Star NAPA award winner more than a half-dozen times.
This Family Business Puts Customers First
Brandy Horne, Tom’s daughter, handles the company’s finances. She said each store is tailored to its specific community’s needs. If a market has fewer DIYers, the stores in that area cater to professional shops and delivery is key.
“We run a regular shuttle to all our stores several times a day and that includes direct delivery to our professional customers,” Brandy said. “Being in a coastal community, we stock a number of marine parts, some of the largest inventory in the state. We are also in an area with heavy-duty lumber industry and trucking centers, so those customers require a different yet strong service commitment.
“In addition to the volume of parts we have, we’ve developed a unique customer service culture over the years. In other words, we specialize in hard to find parts. So, we’ve diversified to meet all our customers’ needs. Take trailer parts, for example –for boat trailers, horse trailers, equipment trailers, you name it. Almost everyone down here seems to have some kind of a trailer.”
Despite all the growth, Gulf Coast remains a family business. In addition to Tom who mans the flagship Chiefland store, and Brandy who handles the finances, Tom’s son Tommy handles various store activities and is constantly on the move making sure all the operations run smoothly.
Tommy is also responsible for changeovers. Whether the company purchases a new store or is moving to a new location, he oversees every phase of the transition. This gives Tommy intimate knowledge of each location so he’s able to stock the stores with a finely tuned inventory.
Brandy’s son, Matt, is now the third generation to work in Gulf Coast management. He came back to the organization after attending the University of Florida and now oversees the company’s paint operations.
A Paint Store in a Parts Store
Tom recalled, “I put paint in my first store back in 1972; had it ever since. It made sense just to get into paint. It provided decent margins, particularly with factory direct colors.”
Tom’s grandson Matt grew up in the family’s NAPA stores. “We have employees who knew me as a toddler,” he said. “As a kid, I would dust aisles and do small chores. After graduating from college I came back to work in the business.
“We sell paint to everyone, customers doing full car restorations, industrial and ag repairs, collision shops. Ironically, business has been busy – actually picking up after COVID. After the initial downturn, people around here have been repairing their old vehicles, mud trucks, boats, and trailers. And they all need paint.”
Matt added, “But it’s not just DIYers who are our paint customers. Most businesses, small machinery, logging, and agriculture – especially farmers – are not going to let machinery go to rust. Many have generational farms and heritage farm equipment.
“A lot of the paint we have through Martin Senour is really easy stuff – Premium Commercial Coatings (PCC) goes on all types of machinery. With Finish 1, there is little to no mixing, and along with other PBE products including polishing, buffing, and sandpaper – you know we pride ourselves on having inventory – all make for a number of complete sales tickets.”
Recently Gulf Coast added the Valspar refinish line, which, as Tom loves to say, “works great and can do everything.”
“In the past, when you would go mix a paint, there might have been a risk of error, but with this new Valspar system, you can correct and/or recalculate ratios, so you don’t have bad batches – the safety net is key to providing good service” he added.
“Just three years ago I knew nothing about paint – but I got right down in the shop with techs and painters, did a lot of hands-on mixing and I must say, the new Valspar refinish system is easy to learn. Thanks to our reps, right from a painter’s standpoint, we understand the product and can respond with educated answers, even when asked specifics like, ‘What’s my drying time on this?’”
It’s All About the Employees and the Community
After establishing his first store in Chiefland, Tom said when he expanded to Williston, Cedar Key, Dunnellon, Bronson, Trenton, Inglis, Newberry, and Cross City, it was important to work with people who were already established in those markets in order to tap into their existing customer relationships.
“We sent in experienced people to assist, but also to groom the employees’ potential in those new stores,” he explained. “And most important, we gave them more resources. That meant utilizing our inventory, doubling, and tripling the store’s on-site inventory. Now each store has the parts their markets need. As a result, we’re doing five times as much business in some of them now.”
In addition to working together, the Crittenden family hosts a Christmas party every year for all their employees. There’s a chance to win prizes and each employee gets one additional raffle ticket for every year they’ve been with Gulf Coast.
“We prepare and serve the food for all of them,” said Tom. “Sometimes we all get so busy – it’s important to look them right the eye and say ‘thank you.’ We also provide an annual bonus for all, and a special birthday notification every year for all team members that comes direct to them on the daily parts shuttle.”
For several years the company has also provided an annual scholarship to an area student to assist with automotive vocational school.
“We provide money raised from our annual car show held at Chiefland Speed and Machine, a former parts house,” said Tom. “The Car Show itself is a big deal, with 80-120 show car contestants and up to 700 attendees that include families and employees. It’s really an event about customer appreciation, food trucks, and some really cool cars. But I must admit, it’s probably the burnout contest that really draws them in.”
What did Tom count on when he started the business? Tenacity. “Back when I started as young man, I had nowhere to turn to, so failure was not an option,” he explained.
“In addition, I have had great family support and help from everyone in the company. I would tell other NAPA store owners to just look for talent, honesty, and intelligence. When we hire, I always like to ask– why do you want to work here? Why would you tell a customer to buy from us? I have found you get some pretty good answers from people just by doing that. And, in turn, you get some pretty good people.”
More than 90 years ago, the National Automotive Parts Association ("NAPA") was created to meet America’s growing need for an effective auto parts distribution system. Today, 91% of do-it-yourself customers recognize the NAPA brand name. We have over 6,000 NAPA AUTO PARTS Stores nationwide serving all 50 states with a unique inventory control system that helps you find the exact part that you need.