Onetime Icahn lawyer is the new boss at Pep Boys' parent

Daniel A. Ninivaggi, the new boss at what is now Icahn Automotive Group LLC — operator of the 1,000-plus auto-parts stores, repair garages, and tire warehouses acquired by billionaire investor Carl Icahn in the last couple of years — says he’s looking for new offices in the Philadelphia area to replace the group’s current home in the old Pep Boys headquarters on West Allegheny Avenue.

“I’m looking to expand. We’re going to add people in Philly. I like Philly a lot, and Pep Boys has to be headquartered in the Philadelphia area; that’s where the core team of Pep Boys retail and service people are,” Ninivaggi, a New York native who most recently ran Icahn’s Federal-Mogul Motorparts auto-parts manufacturing group in suburban Detroit, told me.

Daniel Ninivaggi is the new head of Icahn Automotive Group, the unit of billionaire investor Carl Icahn’s business empire that includes Philadelphia-based Pep Boys, the auto parts store, repair garage, and tire warehouse chain. (ICAHN AUTOMOTIVE GROUP)

Ninivaggi, a former corporate lawyer who previously headed Icahn Enterprises, Icahn’s publicly traded holding company, was tapped by him this spring to replace Brent Windom, past chief of Icahn’s smaller, Georgia-based Auto Plus store chain. Windom had been named CEO in charge of both Pep Boys and Auto Plus just 15 months ago.

“I haven’t not worked a day since I took the job” earlier this spring, said Ninivaggi. “With Icahn, you go as fast as humanly possible.” He says he’s been spending half his time in Philadelphia, rallying a workforce now numbering “well over 300,” many of whom have served a series of management teams and reorganizations since the 1990s.

In recent years, he said, Pep Boys had emphasized accessories over auto parts. But with Icahn’s focus on parts production — Federal-Mogul calls itself  “the largest aftermarket parts manufacturer in North America” — plus the combination with Auto Plus’ regional warehouse network, the stores are boosting parts inventories, emphasizing faster availability, and seeking to supply local mechanics’ shops and chains as well as do-it-yourselfers.

He said the company also is seeking to improve customer service and reduce employee turnover, in part by sending more staff to the “Garage Gurus” training centers developed by Federal-Mogul. Besides standardizing and improving skills, the centers offer workers a career ladder, from the service bays, toward garage and store management and franchise ownership. “Last year, we trained 2,500,” Ninivaggi told me.

There are a dozen Garage Guru centers — the nearest are in Baltimore and the Bronx — “and we’re going to put one in Philadelphia, now that we are here,” he said. As a nation, “we have underinvested in vocational schools and skilled trades, and now we have shortages of skilled labor,” along with a lot of underemployed young people who could benefit from career focus.

“It’s good business for us to build this platform,” Ninivaggi said. “And the country needs it.”

Windom, Ninivaggi’s predecessor, was one of several Auto Plus executives Icahn promoted in early 2016, as most of Pep Boys’ top executives were given bonuses and told to go away. That followed Icahn’s $1 billion purchase of Pep Boys and its 800 stores, after he outbid the rival Firestone chain.

Windom is returning to Uni-Select, the Canadian company that sold Auto Plus to Icahn in 2015. The highest-ranking Pep Boys executive who initially survived the Icahn purge, service chief John Holt, has also left. The new service boss is Bill Ihnken, whose company, Just Brakes, was acquired by Pep Boys in January. Just Brakes had 27 stores, mostly in the Atlanta and Dallas areas.

Ninivaggi got to know Icahn while handling bankruptcy and restructuring cases for the corporate law firm Winston & Strawn in the 2000s. Icahn hired Ninivaggi to run Icahn Enterprises in 2010. Since 2014, Ninivaggi had served as co-CEO of Federal-Mogul.

Icahn Enterprises didn’t announce Ninivaggi’s move, Windom’s and Holt’s departures, or the new name for the stores group, but it quoted Ninivaggi in his new position in announcing two recent deals:

• On Friday, Icahn Automotive said it had agreed to buy Precision Auto Care Inc. and its 250 owned or franchised Precision Tune stores, which are concentrated in Georgia and the Carolinas. Precision Tune boss Robert Falconi will stay in charge of the chain, Ninivaggi said in a statement.

• Last month, Icahn Automotive agreed to buy the 12-store Mathis Tire & Auto Service and Direct Tire Distributors, a Goodyear and Michelin dealer in Memphis, and turn them into Pep Boys outlets, with expanded hours and services.