Old Parts For New
Fairfield-Based Copart Celebrates 25 Years
By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN/Times-Herald staff writer
Vallejo Times Herald
Copart founder and current CEO Willis Johnson around the time the company was founded. (Courtesy photo)
FAIRFIELD - When Willis Johnson bought Vallejo's BTS auto salvage yard in 1982, he could not have imagined that a quarter-century later, his firm would be the largest of its kind in the world. But it is.
Copart, the world's largest liquidator of insurance-owned vehicles, with more than 130 locations and 2,500 employees, now headquartered in Fairfield, celebrates 25 years in business with an event next month, spokeswoman Marla Pugh said.
The firm has been named to Forbes' magazine's Best Small Companies List for seven consecutive years, and this year to Business Week's Best Small Companies list, Pugh said.
It was Johnson's vision and his willingness to "embrace technology" that helped him turn a small Vallejo business into a $2.4 billion international corporation, company president Jay Adair said. But Johnson's childhood may also have played a role.
Johnson inherited his work ethic from his illiterate, entrepreneurial, dairy owner father, according to a company statement.
Copart, which now sells vehicles to more than 100,000 buyers in 86 counties, began in 1946 as Bob's Towing Service, Adair said.
"It was originally owned by Bob Kukuruza, of Vallejo, who was picking up damaged cars and didn't know what to do them, so he started auctioning them," Adair said. "At the time, Willis Johnson was a buyer, and when Kukuruza retired in 1982, (Johnson) bought it. He changed the name to Copart around 1986."
A former Sacramento-area vehicle dismantler, Willis had formed a cooperative of auto parts sellers that he christened "Copart," and he'd kept the name, Adair said.
Within the first few years after buying the salvage yard, Johnson added sites in several nearby towns, Adair said.
"And then in 1996, he embraced the technology of the Internet, which permitted us to work with buyers worldwide. Before that, it was mostly a local operation. Now it's a global business," he said.
The ability to see the possibilities may be behind the firm's phenomenal success, Adair said.
"Vision is a big part of it," Adair said. "If he didn't have the vision, we'd be a small company today."
Johnson took the company public in 1994, allowing the firm to expand outside of Northern California. And as it grew, its technology improved. Its own computer system - The Copart Auction System - was devised, and in 1998, Copart began allowing buyers to bid for cars online, the statement says. The idea "took off. It tore down the geographical barriers and allowed people from all over the world to buy vehicles from the convenience of their computer," it adds.
Company officials credit a 2004 companywide "cultural revolution" with the firm's success in helping Hurricane Katrina clean-up efforts permitting the processing of tens of thousands of storm-damaged vehicles, according to the statement.
Most recently, Copart's begun making corporate inroads across the pond, Adair said.
"We just expanded into England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland," Adair said. "That's our big push - to expand into Europe. That's the next 25 years."
Johnson, left, with Copart president Jay Adair ourside their Fairfield corporate headquarters in 2007. (Courtesy photo)
E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at RachelZ@thnewsnet.com or call 553-6824.
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