Junk yard owner popularized auto-part catalogs

It all began innocently enough.

A quick phone call was made. A simple advertisement was placed. And, seemingly overnight, an empire was created.

Roy Warshawsky, a gritty, bespectacled business-savvy kid from the south side of Chicago, couldn't have imagined it at the time, but his innocent call to the advertising department of a national magazine turned the family's small scrap-metal yard into an automotive powerhouse.

Warshawsky's timing -- and idea -- couldn't have been better.

The year was 1937 and the 22-year-old Warshawsky had a concept.

There weren't nearly enough automotive aftermarket -- parts and accessories offered by third-party manufacturers -- catalog companies to meet the surging demand of the auto parts business. With his father's company forming the basis for his operation, Warshawsky believed he could sell automotive parts at wholesale prices and began distributing a catalog to Chicago-area gas stations and mechanics under the "Warshawsky & Co." name.

Things were going well ... until the rest of the world found out.

His $60 placement in Popular Mechanics magazine advertised a 25-cent "giant auto-parts catalog."

Who knew the power of the press?

A little bit of marketing turned into a business buzz saw.

After another advertisement at the Chicago World's Fair, Warshawsky's consumer catalog was on everyone's wish list and J.C. Whitney & Co., a small company begun by a Lithuanian immigrant who opened a junk yard to buy old Model T's and sell them for scrap metal, would never be the same.

Warshawsky built his father's small scrap-metal company into one of the largest direct marketers of auto parts and accessories around the world.

In some ways, Warshawsky had the perfect role model for inspiration.

Israel Warshawsky, Roy's father, had seen Henry Ford's Model T cars break down on a regular basis and saw an opportunity for an auto-parts business. In 1915, the year Roy was born, Israel began buying up failed auto manufacturers and adding new parts to his inventory. He bought a piece of property at the corner of State Street and Archer Avenue on Chicago's south side and opened a scrap-metal yard. To welcome more customers, he even added a retail store.

The company grew through the Depression when customers could not afford new cars and by the mid-1930s he had a successful wholesale catalog company in Chicago.

Roy joined his father after graduating from the University of Chicago and proposed a consumer catalog that would be distributed and advertised across the United States.

When Israel died in 1943, leadership of the company passed to Roy. When World War II cut back the supply of civilian goods, the demand for auto parts soared. By 1947, the retail store occupied an entire city block at 1900-1924 S. State St. The Warshawsky Company retail outlet was by then the biggest automotive department store in the world and advertised "everything automotive."

After the war, there was more growth in the catalog business. It broke 100 pages, moved to a 24-hour ordering service and spawned a series of specialty catalogs. Warshawsky developed new strategies to respond to changing buyer tastes and contracted different manufacturers to produce a new series of goods.

By the 1960s, Warshawsky became even more proactive. After noticing the aftermarket industry did not have a strong voice to lobby government on its behalf, he orchestrated the first meeting of the Automotive Parts and Accessories Association. He was elected president and ran the organization from his Warshawsky & Co. offices for years after. Now called the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, the AAIA includes thousands of members worldwide.

Personally, Warshawsky was a private man committed to his business and his passion for cars. He had quite a collection of early-1930s Lincolns and enjoyed driving them around Chicago.

Warshawsky retired in 1991 and passed the business along to other members of the family. Six years later, he was gone, leaving a legacy as the inventor of automotive-catalog sales.

In 2001, Roy Warshawsky was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. The company grew to employ hundreds of staff with 10 different catalogs (totalling 10 million a year) marketed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. Today, the company's Internet store reaches around the globe.

More than 80 years later, Israel and Roy Warshawsky's recycling and used-auto-parts company was the largest direct marketer of aftermarket parts in the world.

One ad. One message. And one empire that shows no sign of slowing.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.