Managing misfortune

By Gideon Scanlon

To the observer, Frank Serravalle of Thorold Auto Parts and Recycling seems like a man fortune has taken a shine to, inheriting an established business set and primed for the future. Rarely seen without a warm smile on his face, the 44-year-old is, by any measure, happy and successful.

His business, which now employs 50 people, occupies 23 acres of the Niagara region, is thriving. He is also the father of two girls—Sofia and Audrey—and recently celebrated his 16th wedding anniversary with their mother, Vanessa.

Yes, Frank Serravalle sure does seem like a lucky man. But the truth is that Frank’s luck ran out a little more than twenty years ago. He’s just learned to make do without it.

In 1997, his then 48-year-old father Lenny Serravalle suffered a life-altering injury, and Frank—then still in university—was forced to take the reins of the family business.

Shortly after taking over, Frank realized that the once-profitable business model, which was based primarily on the resale of rebuildable vehicles, had to be radically transformed—a reality he had no choice but to face while in his final year of university.

Like many members of the industry, Frank fell in love with auto recycling as a child, looking forward to the summers he would spend in different roles throughout his parent’s business.

“I began working in the yard dismantling parts. From here I became an inventory clerk writing cars and putting parts away, before moving on to delivering parts and picking up cars,” Frank recalls. “I also spent some summers upstairs with the ladies as my mom taught me the bookkeeping end of the business.”

By the time he had left school, he was intent on building a life-long career at Thorold Auto Parts and Recycling. His plan was simple: after studying business at Brock University, Frank would learn all there was to know about the day-to-day running of the business from his parents, Lenny and Marcella Serravalle.

Frank knew that no amount of academic instruction could beat their nearly two-decade track-record of success. After all, by the time Frank was headed to university, his parents had long made sure that the business had found its rhythm. The auto rebuilders side of the business remained a steady earner for the company, and it had forged a sterling reputation within the Niagara region.

Not only had their team grown to 12 full-time staff members, but the business loan used to buy the facility had been paid off—in large part, thanks to Marcella’s judicious book-keeping.

The good times, however, were not to last. The Serravalle’s lives were turned upside down and Frank’s careful plans for the future were about to fly off the rails.

“It was the moment my life changed completely. I was in my third year of university when I got a call from my mother,” Frank says. “‘Your father has been in a serious accident.’”

A fall had left the 48-year-old Lenny with a serious spinal injury and with brain damage. While his mind would recover over the course of several months, Lenny would never again be able to walk. The injury would not just put an end to Lenny’s career—Marcella would now have to serve as his full-time caregiver.

“Thorold Auto Parts was without my father’s attention for a couple of years, and had drastically declined financially as our primary focus was his health, situating him in a home and coming to terms with him as a paraplegic.”

During those two years, his parents made it clear that Frank’s job would be to finish school and take care of running the business.

“It was a sink or swim situation. The only objective was survival, and looking after my parents and two brothers,” Frank remembers. “My father and mother worked extremely hard to turn the business around and made it profitable again. I was terrified. I did not want to be the one who sunk it!”

Without the support of his parents available, Frank could only do his best to live up to their example. There was just one problem—Lenny and Marcella never had a unified approach to running the business. Where Lenny was eager to make bold business decisions, Marcella had a more safe and pragmatic approach, favouring steady, reliable growth.

“My dad is more of a do-er. He took out the loan to buy an auto recycling facility when interest rates were at their highest,” Frank says. “My mother was terrified of the enormous risk and didn’t really agree with the decision”. However, she supported him and was a big contributing factor in its success, managing the company’s finances. Unlike my father, she was educated in Canada and could read and write in English.”

Frank suspected that this push-and-pull dynamic in his parent’s business relationship was the key to their business success. But without a partner to serve as his foil, Frank felt uncomfortable making his first major business decision—and he had a big one to make.

“Like many auto recyclers of the time, the lion’s share of profits came from the resale of rebuildable vehicles. The sale of parts were secondary. I felt that was coming to an end and realized we would need to build a stronger parts sales system and to establish multiple revenue streams,” Frank says. “I started out by developing processes and investing in equipment and facilities to increase our parts sales.”

Concerned by the weight of responsibility, Frank approached his parents and explained his concerns. With both of them entirely focused on Lenny’s recovery, they decided against making any decision, instead choosing to let Frank know he had their absolute support.

“You’ve got to trust your instincts and run the business, don’t be afraid to make mistakes” Lenny had told him, with Marcella adding: “Just do it—we trust you and we know you’re ready.”

By the early 2000s, Frank had the business model undergo a transformation, no longer focussing on selling rebuildable vehicles, increasing parts sales, and also offering a number of tertiary services—including a service centre, full-service tire shop, certified car sales—to customers. As a result, Thorold’s enjoyed a period of comfortable, organic growth, with his staff eventually expanding to employ a 50-person team. While the company’s growth rate under Frank’s stewardship would turn many Wall Street executives green with envy, he is steadfastly humble about it.

“Yes, we have been fortunate to have some growth and success—but I don’t think that comes down to any single decision I made. We’ve endured many struggles but I owe a lot of it to the great team of managers and staff, and my parents built a business that had a huge amount of potential. All it took for us to grow was for me to keep making the same kind of decisions my parents made.”

Thorold Auto Parts didn’t just thrive as a business. With its financial success, Frank decided to make the facility a flag-bearer for the auto recycling industry as-a-whole. In the early 2000s, Thorold Auto Parts became a flag-bearer for the environmentally conscious auto recycling movement. He has also invested in the latest technology and equipment to responsibly recycle vehicles minimizing their footprint on the environment.

In fact, when the International Roundtable on Auto Recycling was held in Niagara Falls, ARC chose the facility to serve as a model of Canadian recycling efficiency, with delegates from around the world touring it and discussing workflow questions with the Thorold Auto Parts team.

In 2013, the team found itself championing an entirely different cause—raising awareness about the dangers of texting and driving.

“A vehicle that had been mangled beyond recognition arrived at our facility. I found out that the driver had been killed because he was sending a text, not focusing on the road,” Frank says. “I feel a responsibility to the community to educate and warn people of the dangers of texting and driving. We display the vehicle out front and we mount it on a truck and display it at public parades.”

While the misfortunes faced by Frank and the other Serravalle’s give them every reason and excuse to be pessimistic about the future, they are not so easily cowed. Like his father, who put everything on the line to make a better life for his family, Frank is a steadfast optimist.

“Hey, life is going to throw challenges at us and we, unfortunately, got dealt a big one. It was a difficult time, but I just kept my head up, stayed positive and just tried really hard!” Frank says with his familiar grin.


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