Sanel Auto Parts says becoming Sanel NAPA won’t end a fourth-generation local firm

  • Twins Robert (left) and David Segal stand in their offices at Sanel Auto Parts on Manchester Street in Concord on Friday, May 18, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The photo on the left is from the old Sanel Auto Wrecking Co. and the photo on the right is of Henry Sanel, who helped drive the post-WWII expansion, on the left; Edward Sanel Sr., one of the founding family members, on the right. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 5/28/2018 10:55:13 PM

When a big change comes to a local fourth-generation business, like the announcement earlier this month that Concord’s Sanel Auto Parts would join forces with the national NAPA cooperative and change its name to Sanel NAPA, there’s always fear that it marks the end of an era.

Don’t worry, said the twin brothers who run a company started by their great-grandfather in 1920. For one thing, they’re not leaving Concord. For another, eras are always ending – and starting – at Sanel.

The company began as a scrapyard; morphed into selling auto parts; grew by purchasing the assets of one of Concord’s most iconic businesses, carriage builder Abbot-Downing; added and dropped product lines, including tires and wholesale auto parts, as times changed; split into three separate companies when family members had different plans; merged back together again; and have even joined other national auto parts cooperatives.

Now, with more than 600 employees at 38 stores, which will expand after the June transition to 44 stores, and with more than $75 million in annual sales, it’s time for another switch.

So the birth of Sanel NAPA shouldn’t be seen as the end of local Sanel.

“It’s an evolution,” company president David Segal said.

Identical twins

There’s a confusing aspect to the upper management team at Sanel: Its president, David Segal, and chief operating officer, Robert Segal, are twins. In fact, they’re identical twins, especially when they wear the same shirt during an interview.

“Sorry. We didn’t mean to,” David Segal said apologetically.

Both men say their position running the company, which is owned by a family trust, wasn’t always in the cards, although it was their father, George Segal, and their father’s uncle, Henry Sanel, who had led the company for decades and who drove its modern expansion.

“Our father did not bring work home with him. We had no idea what was involved, what was going on in the business,” said Robert Segal, who admitted he was the less interested of the two.

“We used to come in when we were younger. I remember counting nuts and bolts,” David Segal said.

Neither said they planned to go into the family business. David Segal wanted to be a journalist in college but had second thoughts after then-Channel 21 in Concord, where he was interning, fired everybody after deciding to stop covering news.

Robert Segal went to business school and had his eye on banking, but for a variety of reasons he ended up back at the family business, where he stayed after an admittedly slow start. His first day on the job was rough, he said.

“I had no idea about anything. I didn’t know parts or anything,” he said.

Starting with a scrapyard

The Sanel family – the name rhymes with “panel” – came here from Kiev, which at the time was a part of Russia, around the turn of the last century, although neither brother is quite sure why they ended up in Concord.

The business began when Benjamin and Edward Sanel Sr. started a scrapyard, the Sanel Auto Wrecking Co., in 1920 as the young automobile industry was heading into a huge expansion following World War I. Years before that, the new industry had helped sink Abbot-Downing when sales of its iconic Concord Coach fizzled out, and part of Sanel’s expansion involved buying the remaining assets from the company.

In 1933, Ed Sanel and his brother, Henry Sanel, acquired Linscott Auto Supply Co. and began something different: selling new car replacement parts. Their two sisters were also involved, including Bella, grandmother of the current management, who married a man surnamed Segal.

Sanel Auto Parts remained a strong and successful family business through two generations, making it past World War II, when a shortage of material made life difficult for automobile-related retailers.

As America entered its post-war boom, the third generation took over from George Segal – Bella and David’s son and father of the twins – as well as his uncle, Henry Sanel. They decided that they needed to step up the game, making the business more professional and driving an expansion that began with the first branch store in Laconia in 1948. Sanel now has stores throughout New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.

In 1961, George Segal and Henry Sanel also established Automotive Supply Associates, which wholesaled auto parts to other retailers as it served as the warehouse and distribution center for Sanel. This proved a smart move.

“You know us as Sanel, but in the industry, we’re known as ASA,” David Segal said.

The passage of time meant a growth in generations, and for a while, there were three different Sanel companies run by different family members. But they have since recombined. In 2011, Henry Sanel and George Segal handed over operations to David Segal and Robert Segal.

End of ASA

There is, the brothers say, one big change that is coming with the NAPA move: ASA, the wholesale distribution business, is ending as the auto parts industry consolidates.

The firm, which makes up about 10 percent of company business, sells parts to retailers stretching from northern Maine to New York state. For some, the change won’t be easy.

“We have ASA customers who been doing business with us for 34 years,” David Segal said. “We have a couple of customers that won’t talk to me.”

NAPA also means big changes are coming to the corporate headquarters on Manchester Street (near the airport). Although this has been a warehouse for the company since 1960, the building has always been something of a kludge, starting as an old barn and growing in fits and starts. Now it has too many interior walls and floor levels that aren’t quite aligned.

As part of joining NAPA, the brothers said, the company will be revamping the system and over the next year or so may replace the building.

“We need a true distribution center, not running around with shopping carts,” David Segal said.

Joining NAPA will also involve a revamping of their stores, including the Concord branch on South Main Street that the brothers admit is not exactly the most elegant of buildings, inside or out.

“Some of our buildings are tired-looking, no doubt about it,” said David Segal.

Robert Segal said that expertise in store design and appearance will be one of the benefits of joining NAPA.

“We plan on using their services and packaging, exterior building plans, more consistent (layout),” he said.

The firm has hired a project manager for the transition to redeploy people and change the organization as needed.

The previous generation, Robert said, “went from very entrepreneurial to very structured. Now we’re trying to get it back to entrepreneurial.”

Change in the industry

Hanging over all this is a consolidation in the industry. Retail and wholesale auto parts remains a huge business – an estimated $130 billion or more in sales last year – but large national firms like AutoZone, O’Reilly, Advanced and Federated are putting the squeeze on smaller, independent chains.

Then there is pressure from online sales, which affects all bricks-and-mortar retailers. That’s another area where the brothers say NAPA’s expertise and backing will allow them to improve service.

And looming behind everything is the slow arrival of electric vehicles, which have far fewer parts than internal-combustion engine vehicles. Many believe those vehicles will shake up the business model of auto service departments and the whole auto parts industry.

“For retail stores, it’s going to be more challenging,” David Segal agreed. But he noted that many of the company’s products, from accessories to paint, won’t be affected no matter what happens.

Sanel is owned by a family trust, and there are 10 family members in the next generation who might eventually take over, including two children for each of the brothers.

“We don’t pressure them. We want them to work somewhere else before they decide whether to come here,” said Robert Segal, noting that the company board of directors has a say. “We might be a family business, but we run it as professionally as we can.”

Amid all the change, however, both brothers say that Sanel Auto Parts will keep its eye on customers.

“We want to be people-centric. You come in and there’s somebody to help you,” David Segal said.

Robert Segal agreed: “If you don’t like to help your neighbor, this is the wrong business to be in.”

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


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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