Army Veteran Chases Second Dream: Owning an Auto Parts Franchise | Spotlight on business
Donald “Donnie” Sanford always knew he wanted to stake his future on two things: cars and the military.
But after spending nine years on active service in the US military, he felt lost and without any sense of direction.
âThere aren’t a lot of calls to move, shoot and communicate in a civilian world,â he said.
Over time, Sanford made a career out of pursuing the other option. He opened a parking lot under his own name while serving an additional 11 years in the Missouri National Guard.
Today, Sanford has moved on and co-owns a Carquest Auto Parts store in Ashland with his wife Tara.
Carquest is a national franchise, with each location independently owned. The store sells a wide variety of parts for agricultural vehicles and equipment, from windshield wipers and car accessories to brake pads and hydraulic hoses.
Sanford is Automotive Service Excellence certified, and two of its employees are in the process of receiving their certifications to ensure the store offers professional knowledge of the service it provides.
âI want professionals who really know what they’re doing and who have gone the extra mile to hone their craft,â Sanford said.
Join the army, see the world
When he enlisted in the military at the age of 20, he was determined to see the world. After joining, he had a choice: be stationed in Kansas or Korea. He chose Korea and lived there for a year.
âI have always been very fascinated by being surrounded by other cultures,â he said. He then served as a tank commander in Iraq and was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington.
When he left the military, he was 30, divorced his first wife, and was selling cars at a friend’s dealership in Columbia. Eventually he realized that he preferred to work for himself, so he went to college to get a business degree.
He then got his dealership license, and in 2007 he opened Sanford Motor Co. in Clarence. The used car dealership operated out of a vacant lot and shed.
Around the same time, Sanford joined the National Guard to continue his service and receive tuition assistance to enroll in Columbia College.
Because he was pursuing a degree in commerce, he decided to work in human resources for the National Guard, believing it would help him in his future endeavors.
He said he often draws on this experience to this day when communicating with Carquest customers and employees.
Clarence’s fleet was doing quite well financially, and Sanford still fondly remembers the experience. But he was forced to shut down the store permanently when it was deployed to Tel Aviv, Israel.
He lived in Israel for a year and completed his studies abroad. He then spent time with the National Guard in Egypt.
“The hardest part of being in the military is being away from your family,” he noted.
Retire and find a new direction
In 2014, after 20 years of service, it was time for Sanford to withdraw from the military altogether. He had recently moved to Ashland and found that the city was in desperate need of its own auto parts store.
To ensure the success of the store he was planning to open, he had to make it a priority without significant distractions.
âThe last time I had a business I got deployed and it was awful. I decided that if I want to do this, this is what I do. And then I went ahead and retired, âhe said.
Sanford applied to all the auto parts franchises he knew of, hoping to move to Ashland. Almost every company rejected his proposal, believing the city was not big enough to support an auto parts store.
Sanford eventually convinced a representative for the Carquest franchise to come to Ashland, showed him the community, and described his planned growth. He cashed in all of his existing capital, and on March 1, 2018, opened the city’s only auto parts store.
âI have been truly blessed,â said Sanford. âIt wasn’t an easy streak by any means, but the shops and businesses in town really supported me.â
Within months, the business began to show signs of success. Sanford’s wife quit her job at Veterans United to take on her role as part-owner of the store.
Work together, divide the load
Together, the two distribute the workload equally. While Sanford primarily focuses on day-to-day sales within the store, his wife manages accounts, inventory and paperwork. Both will often drive delivery trucks for the business on short-staffed days.
âEveryone always thinks, ‘It’s hard to work with your spouse,’ but it’s not. We see each other but kind of do our own thing, âsaid Tara Sanford. âIt doesn’t look like a job. They always said it’s not a job if you like what you do.
Despite the pandemic, the couple have seen steady growth in sales over the past three years. Although they had to reduce store hours for a while, they were able to maintain a staff of eight without letting anyone leave. Last month, Carquest Ashland recorded the best month of sales to date.
Sanford said he enjoys helping customers find what they need for their automotive projects. He said he would rather profit from loyal customers than score large one-time purchases.
âI feel like I am providing this service to customers,â he said. âI really believe in karma. I would have a hard time sleeping at night if I felt like I was selling someone something and selling it to them.
Carquest still faces competition from large distributors like Amazon, and Tara Sanford talks about the difficulty of gaining wider local recognition despite widespread publicity.
There are plans to open a second store in another location, possibly south of Jefferson City.
âFor Donnie and I, it’s like a mom and a pop shop. It depends on our community for us to be successful, âshe said.