Sunday, February 20, 2000

Wrenchead.com is gold mine for old auto parts




BY PHIL WAGA
Gannett News Service

        WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — At 10, Gus Conrades built a minicar. At 17, after mowing lawns and working summers in a gasoline station, he got together $4,500 for a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and then spent endless hours rebuilding it.

        “Cars have always been so much more to me than something that takes you from one place to another,” he said.

        With his love affair of cars intact — and an eye toward the booming Internet — Mr. Conrades now heads a new Web site that sells auto parts to car enthusiasts and tinkerers.

        Wrenchead.com was started last spring and has already attracted corporate and venture capital, along with about 20,000 visitors a day.

        Analysts are not quite sure whether it will succeed, and Mr. Conrades declined to release revenue figures, but the site can reach to a handful of affiliated warehouses that stock about 5 million auto parts.

        Like any other Web site, the virtual auto-parts store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Based in two large office suites in White Plains, Wrenchead can supply parts for cars and trucks, and even tractors. Many of the parts go back to 1972, though Wrenchead has tracked down parts for cars from the 1960s and '50s.

        “If you don't love your car, this may not exactly be the place for you,” said Mr. Conrades, 32. “But if working on your car is a love, or even a hobby, this may just be the site to visit.”

        Experts say the site's potential could be healthy since, on one hand, Internet commerce is already surging and is projected to soar during the next several years. At the same time, the do-it-yourself auto-parts industry last year reached $32 billion.

        Still, analysts say the market for auto parts on the Internet is unproven.

        First, nonaficionados will continue heading to the local mechanic. Even people who adore tinkering with cars usually will reach to a neighborhood store if they need a repair immediately. And Wrenchead has plenty of powerful competition from other sites, including iAutoparts.com and carparts.com.

        “There's a segment of the population that will buy anything online, and there's no reason auto parts wouldn't sell online, but it's a completely untested market,” said Mike May, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, a market research company in New York.

        Mr. Conrades was raised in Greenwich, Conn., where he lives with his wife, Kristina. He holds a degree in business psychology from Dartmouth.

        He is no novice to the Internet, working in it for the past five years, the period that encompassed most of its growth.

        He started several Internet companies, including a consulting operation that specialized in sales and marketing for Internet companies and a second company that developed Internet technology.

        The idea for Wrenchead came out of discussions Mr. Conrades had with a first cousin, Bryan Murphy. The two had been close for years, with their families spending summers together since they were 5 years old. To Mr. Conrades' Internet background, Mr. Murphy, head of a traditional auto parts warehouse, brought business acumen.

        The two assembled a business plan and landed a sum of venture capital that Mr. Conrades declines to specify. They started Wrenchead a year ago, with Mr. Conrades serving as chief executive, and Mr. Murphy, also 32, chief operating officer.

        The buddy with whom Mr. Conrades rebuilt the Chevrolet Bel Air in high school, Burt Burtis, came in later as manager for vintage, classic and restoration parts.

        To try to appeal to fledgling car enthusiasts, Wrenchead has agreed to begin offering online Chilton's Total Car Care series, a 140-volume collection of car tips that's popular with novice auto enthusiasts.

        To access the series, which is to appear on the site by mid-2000, users will type in details of their car, along with what they want to do, and Wrenchead's program isolates the section of the Chilton series focusing on it. Users will be charged a fee, which has yet to be determined.

        The company also received a boost in August, when CBS Corp. acquired a 22 percent interest for $3 million in cash and $30 million worth of advertising and promotion.

        Wrenchead has 70 employees and is privately held, and Mr. Conrades will say only that it has exceeded its volume projections by three times original estimates.

       



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