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Stone Wheel keeps rolling despite pandemic impact, keeps staff employed

St. Louis-area locations have been less affected by the coronavirus than Stone Wheel’s Chicago-metro market

St. Louis—Similar to many other regions in the U.S., the pandemic has slowed business at Stone Wheel, a wholesale auto parts distributor servicing auto repair facilities, mostly in the Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee with 18 locations. A new location that recently opened in Maplewood, Mo., at the end of last year, has helped lessen the sales blow, however.

Steve Matz

“Business there took off right out of the gate,” said Steve Matz, who manages sales and administration for eight warehouses in the St. Louis-metro and central Illinois areas. “We had five locations in St. Louis, but a void, right in the center of them all. Maplewood area was our target to provide that area with better service.”

He added that the region has also been less affected by the coronavirus than Chicago’s, which is Stone Wheel’s primary market.

“It has taken our business down considerably, between 30-50 percent among various warehouses in the entire company, though it’s a little less at the St. Louis locations, thanks also to the new Maplewood location.”

Stone Wheel locations in central Illinois have felt the brunt of the coronavirus economic impact more so, he said, possibly because the state implemented its shelter-in-place policy earlier, whereas the state of Missouri instituted its policy just this week. St. Louis began its shelter in place last week.

“You can tell a definite difference from one state to the other,” Matz said.

Keeping staff employed

Despite the drop in business, Stone Wheel has managed to keep all of its employees with cost-cutting measures and “tightening of the belt.” In some cases, employee hours are being reduced below 40 hours, especially if they are willing, Matz said.

“We’re not laying anyone off, but we’re eliminating all overtime and have frozen new hires — if someone leaves, we’ll examine the position to determine if it needs to be filled.”

Drivers are also being load-leveled from warehouse to warehouse. Upper management is in frequent communication to keep a vigilant focus on operations and strategies during the crisis.

“We’ve always run ‘lean and mean,’ but we’re tightening the belt even tighter now because of the business environment. At our Springfield, Ill., warehouse, we decided to not open on Saturdays because the business wasn’t there, and we’ve reduced hours on Saturdays in the St. Louis market.”

“Otherwise, we’re not laying off so we can take advantage of the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program].”

On the frontlines

As with many businesses, Stone Wheel is adhering to all employee rights and recommendations that were established in response to the coronavirus, and recommends employees wear protective gear such as masks and gloves, though it’s had to make some on-the-fly adjustments.

“One of the first customer concerns we had to address was their reluctance to touch our sign-pads for deliveries, which was something I never thought we’d ever encounter. We had to get creative, to verify proof of delivery verification,” Matz said, “adding that customers are now also coming to the vehicle to get their parts. We’re also taking parts out to our will call customers, so they don’t come into the building.”

Matz’s two St. Louis-area sales people, Mike Mueller and Robert Reynolds and service representative, John Faulkner are the boots on the ground. “We get their feedback on how things are,” Matz said, “and that some shops have closed, hopefully only temporarily. A busy shop has been the exception.

“We all need to do our part and follow safe practices. I think many people are starting to realize that this virus spreads without any notice. If we take care, then the better off we’ll all be, as difficult as it can sometimes be.”

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