Auto-parts mogul moves online

"I've got more parts than Pep Boys," say Fred Beans, the car-dealership mogul who also runs the nation's largest Ford- and Chevy-made auto parts distribution business (he does the other brands, too) from a former Doylestown, PA factory complex, with 250 workers and dozens of drivers and salespeople and $170 million in yearly sales to dealers and repair shops.

Beans wants to grow the business online -- so anyone can order any part by mail and know what they're getting, reducing the industry's sky-high 15% return rate -- but that' s not as easy as it sounds. Ford, for example, makes 270,000 parts, but only about 5% of them have been imaged to Internet retail standards. How can Beans update parts imaging for all, while keeping profits proprietary?

"Our value is in the inventory. It's like sitting on natural gas or oil, and not knowing how to get it out of the ground," says Beans, who started with a gas station, and now runs 17 dealerships plus Fred Beans Parts. "We need a business partner that can help us define our vision." More here in my column in Sunday's Inquirer