Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Fairfield-based Copart to celebrate 25th anniversary

High bids, top profit

Fairfield-based Copart to celebrate 25th anniversary

By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen/Vallejo Times-Herald

Article Launched: 08/12/2007 09:58:57 AM PDT

When Willis Johnson bought Bob's Tow Service 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 now it is.

The world's largest liquidator of insurance-owned vehicles, Copart is headquartered in Fairfield and has more than 130 locations and 2,500 employees. This month, it celebrates 25 years in business.

The firm has been on Forbes Magazine's Best Small Companies List for seven consecutive years. This year, it made onto Business Week's Best Small Companies list.

It was Johnson's vision and his willingness to embrace technology that turned a small Vallejo business into a $2.4 billion international corporation, said company president Jay Adair. But Johnson's

A potential buyer surveys the engine of a vehicle on the auction lot at Copart in Vallejo. The company specializes in conducting online auctions of automobiles and is headquartered in Fairfield. (Reporter file/Joel Rosenbaum)

childhood may also have played a role.

Johnson inherited his work ethic from his entrepreneurial father, who despite not knowing how to read or write, started and sold several businesses. The company now known as Copart, which sells vehicles to more than 100,000 buyers in 86 counties, originated as Bob's Towing Service in 1946.

"It was originally owned by Bob Kukuruza, of Vallejo, who was picking up damaged cars and didn't know what to do with 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."

A former Sacramento-area vehicle dismantler, Johnson 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."

The ability to see the possibilities ahead may be behind the firm's phenomenal success, Adair said. "Vision is a big part of it. 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. The company devised its own computer system - the Copart Auction System - and in 1998 the company began allowing buyers to bid for cars online.

"The idea took off," according to a company statement. "(It) tore down the geographical barriers and allowed people from all over the world to buy vehicles from the convenience of their computer."

Company officials credit a 2004 company-wide "cultural revolution" with the firm's success in helping Hurricane Katrina cleanup efforts by processing tens of thousands of storm-damaged vehicles, according to the company's statement.

Most recently, Copart began 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."

E-mail Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at RachelZ@thnewsnet.com or call 553-6824.

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