The story of Tri-States Automotive Warehouse, Incorporated spans many generations and locations. In fact, it is among the businesses with the longest history in Marianna.
“It’s kinda funny, but I would bet that a third of the town has worked for our company,” Kelly Connolly shared. “They are all part of our Tri-States family.”
The Tri-States story began with Fred and Mary Henson. Fred was a Marianna High School graduate. Mary Henson had a degree in Chemistry from the University of Alabama. “My grandmother learned that, at that time, she could earn more money working as a school teacher than a DuPont chemist,” she explained. After the couple was married, they lived first in Anniston, Alabama where Elizabeth (Libby) was born. They later moved to Montgomery, where Fred was an outside salesman and Mary was a Home Economics teacher, who made home visits.
The couple decided to return to Fred’s hometown, Marianna, and in 1946 opened the first independent parts store in this area, where Ume is located today. The store was named Marianna Auto Parts and Supply Company and shared common walls with two other businesses. The building faced Lafayette Street and customers were able to park in front of the store. “My grandmother was a good ‘Parts Counter Woman’,” Kelly added. The family story passed down through the generations is Mary took baby Libby with her to work and used paint boxes behind the counter for a playpen.
A few years later the business moved to where the Supervisor of Elections’ office is located today. There were stables located behind the store that later burned. The fire spread to the building that housed Marianna Auto Parts and Supply Company. However, the Henson family had moved again, this time to what is commonly known today as the Marianna Appliance Store on Lafayette Street.
When their second daughter Cathie was only seven, Fred Henson was tragically killed by a drunk driver while on a sales call. Mary later married Jim Rule, a salesman from Tennessee, and they had a son, Jimmy. Jim was an expert in sales and store expansion and during this time the number of auto parts stores owned by the family increased to four. By the late sixties it became apparent that a warehouse was needed for closer distribution of family owned stores and possibly other independent businesses. To this end in 1970 the family established Tri-States Automotive Warehouse.
Over the next few years the sister companies experienced a growth explosion. Ronnie Stevens, Bill Stevens and James Lash were with the companies in the early days. Ronnie worked at Service Auto Parts on the counter, Bill worked for Mary, and James Lash was the main salesman. “James would go to other parts stores and convince the owners to give Tri-States Automotive Warehouse their second call, because no one believed the warehouse could handle their parts needs,” Kelly continued. The company grew quickly from the 6,700 square foot original warehouse to a 40,000 square foot structure built only four years later.
Meanwhile the family was growing. Libby and her soon-to-be husband, Walter Spence both graduated from Marianna High School and attended the University of Florida. Libby became a teacher and Walter was a pharmacist. Walter joined the United States Air Force and they moved to Okinawa, where their children Steven and Kelly were born. Cathie grew up in Marianna Auto Parts and Supply Company. After briefly attending Florida State University she returned home to Marianna and married Ronnie Stevens. Walter decided to leave the Air Force in the early 1970s, and became President of Tri-States Automotive. He and Libby managed the warehouse while raising Kelly and Steven. Ronnie became President of Marianna Auto Parts and Supply Company, and he and Cathie managed the stores while raising their three daughters: Angie, Julie and Kim. The Tri-States facility grew into the current 100,000 square foot warehouse that exists today. Marianna Auto Parts and Supply Company grew to thirteen parts stores in the region, representing twenty-five percent of Tri-States business. The other 75% was from providing parts to independent parts stores.
Over the next 30 years, the companies prospered and the third generation grew up. Kelly, and Steven attended the University of Florida together. Kelly earned a Bachelor of Science in Finance, and three Master’s degrees: A Master’s in Business Administration and Finance, a Master’s of Science in Accounting and a Master’s in Health Care Administration. She met and married Sean Connolly, who had a Bachelor of Science in History from UF and a Master’s of Science in Military Studies. The couple moved around the country, as Sean was an Infantry Officer in the US Marine Corps for nearly 21 years, and Kelly worked in health care finance. Meanwhile Steven and Jennifer Payne both attended UF and studied in different areas. He obtained a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Medical degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine.
Jennifer earned a Bachelor of Science in Marketing. After completing their undergraduate studies, the couple was married.
Breaking from the University of Florida tradition, Angie earned a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from Troy State University, and is now the owner of Southern Traditions. She married Jeffrey Singletary, who became a salesman with the Tri-States family. Julie earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Florida State University, a Master of Science in Nursing from the University of South Alabama, and a doctorate in Nursing Practice from University of Alabama Birmingham. She married Chad Harris, who is the paint salesman for the company. Kim earned a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education Mathematics. She married Dave DeFelix, who is a local farmer, and taught eighth-grade Algebra for many years before leaving teaching to work in the family business.
In 2013, Walter Spence passed away unexpectedly and the family decided that the 3rd generation was ready to join the companies. Kelly and Sean moved back to Marianna as the VP of Finance and VP of Operations at Tri-States Automotive Warehouse, while Kim joined the management team at Marianna Auto Parts and Supply. Tri-States Automotive Warehouse supplied the now thirteen Marianna Auto Parts and Supply Company stores and sixty additional parts stores.
Change is difficult. However, the family realized that a merger was necessary in order to move forward. In 2018 the sister companies decided to come under one consolidated and united family-run business called Tri-States Automotive Warehouse, Incorporated.
Great minds with diverse backgrounds make great decisions. Over the 6 years since 2013, the company was updated and computerized to compete in a modern market. The inventory was expanded to $15 million dollars of products consisting of more than 100,000 different part numbers. Not only was the inventory expanded, but the personnel increased to 175 employees with a payroll exceeding $3.9 million dollars annually. Distribution continues to extend across the Florida Panhandle, and into south Alabama and Georgia.
Now, there are 19 company stores and 60 independent part stores served: Pro Parts, located in Tallahassee, Dothan, Panama City and Albany; Auto Value of Eufaula; Auto Value of Florala; Altha Auto Parts; Bristol Auto Parts; Decatur Auto Parts in Bainbridge; Chattahoochee Auto Parts, Chipley Auto Parts; Cottondale Auto Parts, Graceville Auto Parts; Marianna Auto Parts; Quincy Auto Parts; Service Auto and Heavy Duty Truck Parts; Sneads Auto Parts; Auto Parts of Port St. Joe; and United Auto Parts of Blountstown. The Pro Parts stores are primarily commercial, selling to other businesses. All the others are a combination of retail and commercial. These locally owned and operated stores give back to the schools, colleges and communities. All the money stays within the community.
After the merger the Chipley store was moved to a new location and expanded, and the Albany store was changed to the Pro Parts model and expanded (inventory and footprint). This year the company purchased the Decatur store in March. The Altha Auto Parts store, which burned in October 2017, was rebuilt and reopened in April. The heavy duty truck parts product line was added in 2017. In January Service Auto Parts expanded to become a full line Auto and Heavy Duty Truck Parts Store. Also, in June this year the business was annexed into the City of Marianna.
“Kim and I are excited about the future for our family company. We look forward to more expansion opportunities, while continuing to provide the same service our customers have grown to love,” expressed Kelly, who is now Company President. Kim is now Vice President of Company Stores. “We are thrilled to be a part of the City of Marianna and to be able to enjoy the benefits the City can provide, while giving back to the community,” she added. Other executive team members include: Vice President of Operations and Marketing, Sean; Vice President of Information Technology, Michael Crews; Vice President of Sales and Business Development, Ken Hancock; and Consultants, Bill, Ronnie and Cathie Stevens.
Tri-States Automotive Warehouse, Incorporated is part of a national buying group called Auto Value. The group provides the company with volume purchasing power. One of the next moves toward expansion includes rebranding and renaming stores. “Customers will begin to see home town ‘Auto Value Stores,’” Kelly explained with excitement. In fact, you may have already heard the new radio announcements that include the rebranding.
Yet, the physical and inventory expansions, and rebranding do not compare in Kelly’s eyes to the employees. “Our employees are awesome” she continued. “They are truly family.” Kelly elaborated, “Some of our employees have been working for us for more than 42 years.” She continued to explain how many students have worked for the company while attending school and during summer vacations. “The employees in our parts stores are truly some of the most knowledgeable parts professionals you’ll find anywhere,” she added with a smile. “The essence of our success is the quality of our people and services they provide.”
When Hurricane Michael came through the area, Marianna Auto Parts, Service Auto & Heavy Duty Truck Parts, Auto Value Parts in Port St. Joe, and United Auto Parts in Blountstown had some damage. However, without water, telephones, Internet, and electricity, Saturday morning following Hurricane Michael, the warehouse, and many of the stores, were open to the public to provide supplies for recovery. “We feel extremely blessed that our Tri-States family, which includes customers and employees, are able to recover and move on,” Kelly expressed gratefully. “With all the extra people, FEMA trucks and extra work taking place, sales are up and we are able to help the community recover.”
Remember to visit your local, home town Auto Value Parts Stores. If you have an account with a store in one location, you have an account with all locations and will experience the same great pricing, service and people. For more information call 850-526-2331 or visit www.tristatesauto.com. What a wonderful family and business to have in Marianna! Visit the City of Marianna’s website at http://www.mariannafl.city/335/New-Businesses-and-Other-Community-News to learn more about businesses in Marianna.
Kay Dennis, MBA, MPA, A.I.C.P., is the director of Municipal Development for the City of Marianna.