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Spalding family helped pioneer business of used auto parts

Russ Spalding and his father, Max, are second- and third-generation owners of Spalding Auto Parts in the Spokane Valley. (Colin Mulvany)
Russ Spalding and his father, Max, are second- and third-generation owners of Spalding Auto Parts in the Spokane Valley. (Colin Mulvany)

Today marks the 43rd celebration of Earth Day, an annual reminder that we can do more to protect the planet.

Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson is rightly considered a pioneer of the modern environmental movement.

So, too, Rachel Carson, whose 1962 best-seller, “Silent Spring,” inspired widespread debate about pesticides.

And if you subscribe to the “think globally, act locally” philosophy, Dolph Spalding was among Spokane’s earliest environmental pioneers.

Thirty-six years before the first Earth Day, Spalding began recycling on a scale that would put most modern environmentalists to shame.

His specialty: cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors … even airplanes.

“You know that saying, ‘I was country before country was cool’?” said Dolph Spalding’s son Max. “We were recycling before recycling was cool.”

The business began in the midst of the Great Depression on two city lots. Today, Spalding Auto Parts covers 50 acres in the Spokane Valley, making it one of the country’s largest independently owned salvage yards.

Max bought the company from Dolph and ran it for four decades before turning it over to his son Russ three years ago.

Max and Russ Spalding discussed the evolution of automobile recycling and the challenges ahead during a recent interview.

S-R: How did your family get into recycling?

Max: My dad started out driving the sawdust truck for the Davenport Hotel – they heated the hotel with sawdust. He didn’t want to be a sawdust driver the rest of his life, so he went to work for a salvage yard on East Sprague. A year later, he owned it. That was 1934, and we moved the business out to the Valley in ’39.

S-R: How old were you when you started working here?

Max: I was riding in a wrecker when I was 18 months old, and running a torch and pulling parts by the time I was 12.

S-R: How about you, Russ?

Russ: I grew up here, and one of my first jobs – when I was about 8 – was feeding the guard dogs. I remember one of them, when it was lonely, would literally climb over the fence and end up at our house, and it would sleep in my bedroom.

S-R: Max, what would surprise your dad most about the business today?

Max: We used to sell every little piece of a motor, because people couldn’t afford the whole motor. We don’t sell pistons today, or rods, or camshafts – only the whole motor.

S-R: Spalding Auto has both a full-service sales counter and the pull-and-save yard for salvagers. When you buy a vehicle, how do you decide its fate?

Russ: The decision comes down to cost. Fully processing a vehicle costs us $750 to $1,000. So we decide which direction it goes based on whether we need that particular alternator, starter, engine, transmission, tires and wheels.

S-R: What’s involved in processing a vehicle?

Russ: First, someone inventories all the parts – fenders, doors, hood, windshield, seats. That information, along with pictures, goes into our computer. Then, take for instance the alternator – if we don’t have one and the computer says we’ve sold six in the past three months, we’ll pull it, clean it, test it and put it on the shelf. If it’s an unusual alternator, with no history of sales, we sell to a remanufacturer who will recondition it. Or we’ll look at its value for aluminum or copper, and it will end up in a scrap bin.

S-R: How long does it take to fully process a car?

Russ: We typically (dismantle) two a day. Trucks are harder because of their size and the number of parts we pull off them.

S-R: How long will a car sit in the pull-and-save yard?

Russ: Three months at most. There are roughly 1,300 cars in that yard, and last month we processed 500.

Max: When we’re done with them, we don’t scrap one particular car – we scrap a whole line of cars.

S-R: Where do they go?

Russ: They still have some value. Recently the Pullman Fire Department came up and practiced using their Jaws of Life tools on about 30 cars, cutting tops off and breaking windows. Afterward, we take one last pass through the vehicles, pulling anything of value – aluminum, copper. Then we crush them and they go to the Portland or Seattle area, where a shredder further separates the metals.

S-R: All together, how many vehicles do you recycle a year?

Russ: Last year, around 14,000.

S-R: Max, what important lesson did your dad teach you?

Max: To appreciate the customer. Because when he started out he was poor, and he knew when a customer came in, the kids would eat that night.

S-R: And what did Max teach you, Russ?

Russ: He taught me his work ethic – that if you want the business to run correctly and reflect who you are, you need to be here.

S-R: What’s the hardest part of this business?

Russ: Getting really good help. We’re fortunate – we have a lot of long-term employees. One has been with us 52 years, his daughter has been here 24, and her brother and uncle work here. Ultimately our success comes down to having the right people in place.

S-R: What do you look for in job applicants?

Russ: Attitude, attitude, attitude. We also look at attendance and aptitude. But if you have the right attitude, you’ll be here on time, and we can teach you the aptitude.

S-R: How has the recession affected your business?

Russ: Two ways. We don’t have as many hot-rodders who spend $12,000 to $15,000 on a V-8 engine and transmission. But we’re selling a lot more alternators, starters and taillights.

S-R: What do you like most about the business?

Russ: You meet everybody in town – from doctors and lawyers doing projects with their sons to people just looking to save a buck on an alternator. One customer may be in a rush to get something done before he leaves town, and the next guy may be working on his hot rod and wants to tell you all about it.

S-R: What do you like least about your job?

Russ: There’s not a part that I don’t like. I get to see my father every day, and we go to lunch together three or four times a week. That’s a huge value to me.

S-R: Max, what are you most proud of?

Max: I’m proud of what Russ has done since I stepped down three years ago.

S-R: What was your best idea while you were boss?

Max: Getting computers about 35 years ago. It used to be we kept everything in our heads. But we couldn’t grow if only a couple of us knew what we had.

S-R: Is there anything you don’t do that you’d like to do?

Russ: We have to get sharper at the end of the process – capturing the special metals left in a vehicle before it’s crushed.

S-R: What percentage of a typical vehicle is recycled or reused now?

Russ: I’d say 90 to 95 percent of it. There are uses for all of it, if we can just find them.

Max: The automobile is the most recycled thing in our society, by weight.

S-R: Any common misconceptions about your business?

Russ: Some people – even longtime customers – don’t realize the breadth of parts we stock. If it’s on a vehicle, chances are we have it. The other thing is, most people don’t realize the care we take to make sure a product is in good shape before a customer buys it. We just spent $5,000 for a machine that tests alternators and starters to make sure they’re working properly. Also, not everything we sell is used. About 30 percent are new parts – windshields, grilles, doors, fenders.

S-R: Any changes ahead?

Russ: We just opened a new store and 22-acre lot in Mead. It has 1,500 cars.

S-R: Do you recycle at home?

Russ: Absolutely. But I think it starts with not buying things you don’t need or aren’t going to use long term. Like bottled water.

S-R: How do you relax?

Russ: Working on cars.

S-R: Which make is your favorite?

Russ: I love them all, because they all part out the same.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at