Pandemic, new name and structure, moving after a half-century – life’s interesting at Sanel auto parts 

  • Twins David (left) and Bobby Segal outside their new warehouse at the former Company C site on Old Turnpike Road in Concord.

  • The former Sanel distribution center is now going to be a parking lot for Bank’s Chevrolet on Manchester Street. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/24/2020 5:07:01 PM

Company transformations don’t get much more visible than this: The warehouse that was the heart of family-owned Sanel Auto Parts for six decades is gone and will soon be a parking lot for Chevys.

“I’m asked all the time, do we miss the building? I miss the memories of walking into my dad’s office and Bobby and I talking to him. But it was time. It was not an efficient building,” said David Segal, who with his twin brother runs the company that was started by their great-grandfather in 1920.

The building that stood on Manchester Street next to Banks Chevrolet started life as a barn for a chicken farm. The Sanel family bought it in the mid-1950s when Sanel Auto Parts was riding a post-World War II boom, and expanded it into their central warehouse for parts and tools as well as their corporate offices.

With un-level floors and erratic wall placement, the building was never perfect as a logistics warehouse and the brothers had been thinking about upgrading for a long time. The 2018 decision to join forces with the national NAPA cooperative and change the company name to Sanel NAPA was a spur. NAPA operates under a hub-and-spoke model for logistics, rather than via single central warehouses.

Sanel was looking to build or buy a new warehouse/office site when the brothers got into a conversation with another Concord business in transition, Company C. That design and decor shop moved downtown last year, leaving its Old Turnpike Road facility available, so Sanel bought it, selling their Manchester Street site to the car dealer next door, which needs more space for parking vehicles.

“It was great for Company C, great for Banks Chevrolet, great for us,” said Segal.

Sanel NAPA has 47 stores in New Hampshire and the three adjacent states, and now operates four hub-and-spoke facilities. The Concord site is the biggest, serving 25 stores.

Many transitions

This is far from the only transition that Sanel NAPA is undergoing. The immediate problem, of course, is the pandemic.

Sanel NAPA shut its stores when the lockdown hit, switching to curbside service, but since auto parts were considered essential services, some competitors stayed open, Segal said. Some customers complained.

“Business-wise, wasn’t the best decision perhaps, but for our employees it was important. Their health, the health of customers, was important. None of our people got sick because of COVID through our business,” he said. “There was no book on how to run a business during a pandemic. There are some things we might revisit if, god forbid, this happens again. … Now we have to earn back that business from our customers.”

Some aspects of the auto parts business have improved – lots of people are working on their cars while stuck at home – but many have not, since companies have cut back on use and maintenance of fleet vehicles. Paint sales have also plummeted. Even after opening up, Sanel NAPA has cut back on store hours, although Segal said that is only temporary.

On the plus side, the need to create a “buy-online-pick-up-in-store” system should help Sanel NAPA as online e-commerce grows.

“Without any promotion of that, it actually has taken off and has become an easier way for consumers to do business with us,” he said, adding that he can’t imagine ever going entirely online.

“There are always going to be customers that need something now, want to come in and talk to somebody, make sure they got the right product. Or they want to shop the aisles, or bring in the old part and compare it,” Segal said.

In the longer term the auto parts business faces even bigger uncertainty around the transition to electric vehicles, which have far fewer parts than gas-powered ones, and autonomous vehicles, which could upend the entire system of private car ownership. That’s part of the reason Sanel went with NAPA.

“As the industry consolidates, it’s self-evident that NAPA will be around. We’ll be around too,” said Segal. “But we’re changing our whole business model. We’re thinking about, where are we going to be in 5 years.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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